Inductance in PCB Layout: The Good, the Bad, and the Fugly

When current flows through a conductor it becomes an inductor, when there is an inductor there is an electromagnetic field (EM). This can cause a variety of issues during PCB layout if you don’t plan properly, and sometimes we get burned even when we think we have planned for unwanted inductance and the effects that come with them.

When doing high speed logic we need to be able to deliver sudden changes in current to the devices if we want to have proper switching times and logic levels. Unfortunately inductance is usually not a friend in these circumstances as it resists those sudden changes in current. If the high speed devices are driving capacitive loads, which themselves are resisting changes in voltage, even more instantaneous current is needed.

Simply put, inductors resist a change of current, and can act as a low pass filter when in series with the signal or power supply flow. Inductors do this by storing energy in the flux surrounding the conductor. Alternatively capacitors resist a change in voltage (again by storing energy) and can act as a high pass filter when in series with the signal. This makes them a valuable tool in the fight against unwanted inductance in power supply distribution.

In the video below, and the remainder of this article, I’m going to dive into the concept of inductance and how it affects our design choices when laying out circuit boards.

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Adding Analog Touch To (Nearly) Any Mechanical Keyboard

The new hotness for DIY electronics is mechanical keyboards, and over the past few years we’ve seen some amazing innovations. This one is something different. It adds an analog sensor to nearly any mechanical key switch, does it with a minimal number of parts, and doesn’t require any modification of the switch itself. It’s a reddit thread and imgur post, but the idea is just so good we can overlook the documentation on this one.

The key development behind this type of sensor is realizing that nearly every mechanical keyswitch (Cherry MX, Kalth, Gateron) has a spring in the bottom. A spring is just a coil of wire, and an inductor is just a coil of wire, too. By putting a spiral trace on the PCB of a mechanical keyboard underneath the keyswitch, you can sense the inductance of this spring. This does require a little bit of additional hardware, in this case an LDC1614 inductance to digital converter, but this is an I2C-readable part that can, theoretically, be integrated rather easily with any mechanical keyboard PCB and firmware.

The downside to using the LDC1614 is that sampling is somewhat time-limited, with four channels or individual keys being polled at 500 Hz. This isn’t a problem if the use-case is adding analog to your WASD keys, but it may become a problem for an entire keyboard. Additionally, the LDC1614 is a slightly expensive part, at about $2 USD in quantity 1000. A fully analog keyboard using this technique is going to be pricey.

Right now, the proof-of-concept for this analog mechanical keyswitch is just a 0.1 mm flexible PCB that is shoehorned inbetween a Cherry MX red and a (normal) mechanical keyboard PCB. The next step in the development will be a 2×4 keypad with analog sensors, and opening up the hardware and firmware examples up under a GPL license.

Line Following Robot Without The Lines

Line-following robots are a great intro to robotics in general, since the materials and skills needed to build a good one aren’t too advanced. It turns out that line-following robots are more than just a learning tool, too. They’re pretty useful in industry, but most of them don’t follow visible marked lines. Some, like this inductive guided robot from [Randall] make use of wires to determine their paths.

Some of the benefits of inductive guidance over physical lines are that the wires can be hidden in floors, so if something like an automated forklift is using them at a warehouse there will be less trip hazard and less maintenance of the guides. They also support multiple paths, so no complicated track switching has to take place. [Randall]’s robot is a small demonstration of a larger system he built as a technician for an autonomous guided vehicle system. His video goes into the details of how they work, more of their advantages and disadvantages, and a few other things.

While inductive guided robots have been used for decades now, they’re starting to be replaced by robots with local positioning systems and computer vision. We’ve recently seen robots that are built to utilize these forms of navigation as well.

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Putting a Poor Man’s Vector Analyzer Through Its Paces

If anything about electronics approaches the level of black magic, it’s antenna theory. Entire books dedicated to the subject often merely scratch the surface, and unless you’re a pro with all the expensive test gear needed to visualize what’s happening, the chances are pretty good that your antenna game is more practical than theoretical. Not that there’s anything wrong with that — hams and other RF enthusiasts have been getting by with antennas that work without really understanding why for generations.

But we’re living in the future, and the tools to properly analyze antenna designs are actually now within the means of almost everyone. [Andreas Spiess] recently reviewed one such instrument, the N1201SA vector impedance analyzer, available from the usual overseas sources for less than $150. [Andreas]’s review does not seem to be sponsored, so it seems like we’re getting his unvarnished opinion; spoiler alert, he loves it. And with good reason; while not a full vector network analyzer (VNA) that will blow a multi-thousand dollar hole in your wallet, this instrument looks like an incredible addition to your test suite. The tested unit works from 137 MHz to 2.4 GHz, so it covers the VHF and UHF ham bands as well as LoRa, WiFi, cell, ISM, and more. But of course, [Andreas] doesn’t just review the unit, he also gives us a healthy dose of theory in his approachable style.

[The guy with the Swiss accent] has been doing a lot of great work these days, covering everything from how not to forget your chores to reverse engineering an IoT Geiger counter. Check out his channel — almost everything he does is worth a watch.

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Design a Coil for a Specific Inductance

YouTuber [RimstarOrg], AKA Hackaday’s own [Steven Dufresne], shows how to make a DIY inductor for a specific inductance. This is obviously a great skill to learn as sometimes your design may call for a very accurate inductance that may be otherwise hard to find.

Making your own inductor may seem daunting. You will have to answer a few questions such as: “what type of core will I use?”, “how many turns does my coil need?”, or “how do I calculate these parameters to create the specific inductance I desire?”. [RimstarOrg] goes through all of this, and even has a handy inductance calculator on his website to make it easier for you. He also provides all the formulae needed to calculate the inductance in the video below.

Using a DIY AM Radio receiver, he demonstrates in a visual way how to tune an AM Radio with a wiper on his home-built coil. Changing the inductance with a wiper changes the frequency of the radio: this is a variable inductor,

This video is great for understanding the foundations of inductors. While you may just go to a supplier and buy yours, it’s always great to know how to build your own when you can’t find a supplier, or just can’t wait.

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Yet Another Inductance Measuring Scheme

How do you measure the value of an unknown inductor? If you have an LCR bridge or meter, you are probably going to use that. If not, there are many different techniques you can use. All of them rely on the same thing my Algebra teacher Mr. Harder used to say back in the 1970’s: you have to use what you know to get what you don’t know.

[Ronald Dekker] must think the same way. He took a 50-ohm signal generator and a scope. He puts the signal output to about 20kHz and adjusts for 1V peak-to-peak on the scope. Then he puts the unknown inductor across the signal and adjusts the frequency (and only the frequency) for an output of 1/2 volt peak-to-peak.

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The Beginnings of an LCR Meter

LCR Meter

The inductor is an often forgotten passive electrical elements used to design analog circuitry. [Charles’s] latest proof of concept demonstrates how to measure inductance with an oscilloscope, with the hopes of making a PIC based LCR meter.

It is not that often one needs to measure inductance, but inductors are used in switching regulators, motor circuits, wireless designs, analog audio circuitry, and many other types of projects. The principles of measuring inductance can be used to test inductors that you have made yourself, and you can even use this knowledge to measure capacitance.

[Charles] originally saw a great guide on how to measure impedance by [Alan], and decided to run with the idea. Why spend over $200 on an LCR meter when you can just build one? That’s the spirit! Be sure to watch [Alan’s] and [Charles’s] videos after the break. What kind of test equipment have you built in order to save money?

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