Analog Failures On RF Product Cause Production Surprise

A factory is a machine. It takes a fixed set of inputs – circuit boards, plastic enclosures, optimism – and produces a fixed set of outputs in the form of assembled products. Sometimes it is comprised of real machines (see any recent video of a Tesla assembly line) but more often it’s a mixture of mechanical machines and meaty humans working together. Regardless of the exact balance the factory machine is conceived of by a production engineer and goes through the same design, iteration, polish cycle that the rest of the product does (in this sense product development is somewhat fractal). Last year [Michael Ossmann] had a surprise production problem which is both a chilling tale of a nasty hardware bug and a great reminder of how fragile manufacturing can be. It’s a natural fit for this year’s theme of going to production.

Surprise VCC glitching causing CPU reset

The saga begins with [Michael] receiving an urgent message from the factory that an existing product which had been in production for years was failing at such a high rate that they had stopped the production line. There are few worse notes to get from a factory! The issue was apparently “failure to program” and Great Scott Gadgets immediately requested samples from their manufacturer to debug. What follows is a carefully described and very educational debug session from hell, involving reverse engineering ROMs, probing errant voltage rails, and large sample sizes. [Michael] doesn’t give us a sense for how long it took to isolate but given how minute the root cause was we’d bet that it was a long, long time.

The post stands alone as an exemplar for debugging nasty hardware glitches, but we’d like to call attention to the second root cause buried near the end of the post. What stopped the manufacturer wasn’t the hardware problem so much as a process issue which had been exposed. It turned out the bug had always been reproducible in about 3% of units but the factory had never mentioned it. Why? We’d suspect that [Michael]’s guess is correct. The operators who happened to perform the failing step had discovered a workaround years ago and transparently smoothed the failure over. Then there was a staff change and the new operator started flagging the failure instead of fixing it. Arguably this is what should have been happening the entire time, but in this one tiny corner of the process the manufacturing process had been slightly deviated from. For a little more color check out episode #440.2 of the Amp Hour to hear [Chris Gammell] talk about it with [Michael]. It’s a good reminder that a product is only as reliable as the process that builds it, and that process isn’t always as reliable as it seems.

KiCad And FreeCAD Hack Chat

Join us Wednesday at noon Pacific time for the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat led by Anool Mahidharia!

The inaugural KiCon conference is kicking off this Friday in Chicago, and KiCad aficionados from all over the world are gathering to discuss anything and everything about the cross-platform, open-source electronic design automation platform. As you’d expect, Hackaday will have a presence at the conference, including a meet and greet after party. There’ll also be talks by a couple of our writers, including Anool Mahidharia, who’ll be taking time out of his trip to the States to drop by the Hack Chat with a preview of his talk, entitled “Fast 3D Model Creation with FreeCAD”.

Join us for the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat this week with your questions about KiCad and FreeCAD. If you’ve got some expertise with electronic design tools, make sure you come by and contribute to the discussion too — we’d love to hear your insights. And as always, you can get your questions queued up by leaving a comment on the KiCad and FreeCAD Hack Chat event page and we’ll put them on the list for the Hack Chat discussion.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, April 24, at noon, Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Flip Chips And Sunken Ships: Packaging Trick For Faster, Smaller Semiconductors

You may have heard the phrase “flip-chip” before: it’s a broad term referring to several integrated circuit packaging methods, the common thread being that the semiconductor die is flipped upside down so the active surface is closest to the PCB. As opposed to the more traditional method in which the IC is face-up and connected to the packaging with bond wires, this allows for ultimate packaging efficiency and impressive performance gains. We hear a lot about advances in the integrated circuits themselves, but the packages that carry them and the issues they solve — and sometimes create — get less exposure.

Cutaway view of traditional wire-bond BGA package. Image CC-BY-SA 4.0 @TubeTimeUS

Let’s have a look at why semiconductor manufacturers decided to turn things on their head, and see how radioactive solder and ancient Roman shipwrecks fit in.

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Nixie Power Supply Shows Ins And Out Of Offshore Manufacturing

[Tony] built a high-efficiency power supply for Nixie tube projects. But that’s not what this post is about, really.

As you read through [Tony]’s extremely detailed post on Hackaday.io, you’ll be reading through an object lesson in electronic design that covers the entire process, from the initial concept – a really nice, reliable 170 V power supply for Nixie tubes – right through to getting the board manufactured and setting up a Tindie store to sell them.

[Tony] saw the need for a solid, well-made high-voltage supply, so it delved into data sheets and found a design that would work – as he points out, no need to reinvent the wheel. He built and tested a prototype, made a few tweaks, then took PCBWay up on their offer to stuff 10 boards for a mere $88. There were some gotchas to work around, but he got enough units to test before deciding to ramp up to production.

Things got interesting there; ordering full reels of parts like flyback transformers turned out to be really important and not that easy, and the ongoing trade war between China and the US resulted in unexpected cost increases. But FedEx snafus notwithstanding, the process of getting a 200-unit production run built and shipped seemed remarkably easy. [Tony] even details his pricing and marketing strategy for the boards, which are available on Tindie and eBay.

We learned a ton from this project, not least being how hard it is for the little guy to make a buck in this space. And still, [Tony]’s excellent documentation makes the process seem approachable enough to be attractive, if only we had a decent idea for a widget.

Hacker Abroad: Massive Conference Brings Big News Of Hackaday Prize China

My first full day in China was spent at Electronica, an absolutely massive conference showcasing companies involved in electronics manufacturing and distribution. It’s difficult to comprehend how large this event is, filling multiple halls at the New International Expo Center in Shanghai.

I’ve seen the equipment used for PCB assembly many times before. But at this show you get to see another level below that, machines that build components and other items needed to build products quickly and with great automation. There was also big news today as the 2019 Hackaday Prize China was launched. Join me after the break for a look at this equipment, and more about this new development for the Hackaday Prize.

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Forbes Says The Raspberry Pi Is Big Business

Not that it’s something the average Hackaday reader is unaware of, but the Raspberry Pi is a rather popular device. While we don’t have hard numbers to back it up (extra credit for anyone who wishes to crunch the numbers), it certainly seems a day doesn’t go by that there isn’t a Raspberry Pi story on the front page. But given that a small, cheap, relatively powerful, Linux computer was something the hacking community had dreamed of for years, it’s hardly surprising.

But how popular is the Raspberry Pi among people who don’t necessarily spend their free time reading weird black-background websites? Well, according to a recent article in Forbes, the Pi has been spotted putting in an honest days work all over the world. From factories to garbage trucks, everyone’s favorite Linux computer has come a long a way from its humble beginnings. How does it feel knowing a $35 computer has a longer resume than you do?

Unfortunately, the Forbes article doesn’t have the sort of deep technical details we’re used to around these parts. The fact that the article opens by describing the Raspberry Pi as a “stripped-down circuit board covered with metal pins and squares” should tell you all you need to know about the overlap between Forbes and Hackaday readers, but we think author [Parmy Olson] still tells an story interesting regardless.

So where has the Pi been seen punching a clock? At Sony, for a start. The consumer electronics giant has been installing Pis in several of their factories to monitor various pieces of equipment. They record everything from temperature to vibration and send that to a centralized server using an in-house developed protocol. Some of the Pis are even equipped with cameras which feed into computer vision systems to keep an eye out for anything unusual.

[Parmy] also describes how the Raspberry Pi is being used in Africa to monitor the level of trash inside of garbage bins and automatically dispatch a truck to come pick it up for collection. In Europe, they’re being used to monitor the health of fueling stations for hydrogen powered vehicles. All over the world, businesses are realizing they can build their own monitoring systems for as little as 1/10th the cost of turn-key systems; with managers occasionally paying for the diminutive Linux computers out of their own pocket.

The impact the Pi has had on the hardware world is difficult to overstate. It’s redefined the status quo for single board computers, and with the platform continuing to evolve, there’s no sign its incredible journey is slowing down anytime soon.

[Thanks to Itay for the tip.]

Down The Rabbit Hole Of Electronics Manufacturing

If you want to build hundreds of a thing (and let’s face it, you do) now is a magical time to do it. Scale manufacturing has never been more accessible to the hardware hacker, but that doesn’t mean it’s turn-key with no question marks along the way. The path is there, but it’s not well marked and is only now becoming well-traveled. The great news is that yes, you can get hundreds of a thing manufactured, and Kerry Scharfglass proves that it’s a viable process for the lone-wolf electronics designer. He’s shared tips and tricks of the manufacturing process in a prefect level of detail during his talk at the 2018 Hackaday Superconference.

Kerry is the person behind the Dragonfly badge that was sold at DEF CON over the last two years. Yes, this is #badgelife, but it’s also a mechanism for him to test the waters for launching his own medium-run electronics business. And let’s face it, badge making can be a business. Kerry treats it as such in his talk.

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