Test PCBs on a Bed of Nails

While it might be tempting to start soldering a circuit together once the design looks good on paper, experience tells us that it’s still good to test it out on a breadboard first to make sure everything works properly. That might be where the process ends for one-off projects, but for large production runs you’re going to need to test all the PCBs after they’re built, too. While you would use a breadboard for prototyping, the platform you’re going to need for quality control is called a “bed of nails“.

This project comes to us by way of [Thom] who has been doing a large production run of circuits meant to drive nixie tubes. After the each board is completed, they are laid on top of a number of pins arranged to mate to various points on the PCB. Without needing to use alligator clamps or anything else labor-intensive to test, this simple jig with all the test points built-in means that each board can be laid on the bed and tested to ensure it works properly. The test bed looks like a bed of nails as well, hence the name.

There are other ways of testing PCBs after production, too, but if your board doesn’t involve any type of processing they might be hard to implement. Nixie tubes are mostly in the “analog” realm so this test setup works well for [Thom]’s needs.

Pocket High Voltage Generator Becomes Great Test Tool

[The LED Artist] often found a need for a relatively high voltage (100 to 200 Volt) but low current DC power supply, and it turns out that a small HV generator that uses a single AA cell only took about an hour to make. The device ended up being a pretty handy tool for testing things like LED filaments (which have a forward voltage of over 60 V), or even neon and nixie tubes.

The device’s low current means that nixie and neon elements won’t light up very brightly, but they will light up enough to verify function and operation. [The LED Artist] reports that touching the output terminals of the generator only causes a slight tingling sensation.

Open-circuit voltage generated from a single AA cell is about 200 V, but that voltage drops rapidly under any kind of load. Even regular LEDs can be safely lit with the circuit, with less than a milliamp being supplied at the two to three volts at which most regular LEDs operate.

[The LED Artist] fit the device into a two-AA battery holder, with a single AA cell on one side and the circuit in the other, and says it’s one of the more useful tools they’ve ever made. LED filaments are fairly common nowadays, but if they intrigue you, don’t forget that [Mike Harrison] covered everything you need to know about experimenting with them.

This Nixie Device is Useless, But Pretty

Nixie clocks, they’re a bit of a cliché, aren’t they? But still, they’re pretty to look at.

[Marcin Saj] has completely got our number, and with his Useless Nixie Device has stripped away any pretence of functionality from his Nixie  and concentrated solely on the looking pretty part. It’s a box that steps through the display on any Nixie tube through the use of a set of pluggable socket modules, and it’s encased in an extremely attractive lase-cut acrylic enclosure. Internally it’s an extremely simple device, with a trusty 555 oscillator clocking a 4518 counter that in turn feeds 74141 driver. There is a MAX1771 boost converter in there too to create some high voltage for the tubes.

So it’s a pretty device and you can plug almost any Nixie into it given the right adapter. We guess it might be useful if you have a warehouse full of Nixies to test, but beyond that it’s a pretty desk toy. Still, it’s nice to see a Nixie project that’s not just another clock.

Hand-Forged Cases Make Nixie Clocks into Works of Art

Both “Nixie” and “Steampunk” are getting a bit overused. It’s hard to count the number of clock projects we’ve seen recently that combine the two, and normally we’d be loath to feature yet another variation on that theme without a good reason. This is a good reason.

The single-digit Nixie clocks that [Claes Vahlberg] built are, simply put, works of art. There’s a small version of the clock, featuring a single IN-16 Nixie, and a larger version that uses a Dalibor Farny custom Nixie, a work of art in its own right. Each clock has features like time and date, temperature and barometric pressure, and even days remaining in the current lunar cycle. The cases for the clocks, though, are the real treat. Hand forged from steel, they remind us of steam whistles on top of a boiler.

[Claes] doesn’t have many details on the build process — we’ve been in contact and he says he’s working on documentation — but it doesn’t matter. As if all that weren’t enough, the clocks are controlled by a remote, which has its own IN-16 tube and is motion controlled. The last bit is a nice touch since there are no buttons to distract from the smooth lines of the hammered metal case.

We gush, but we think this one really shines. That’s not to take anything away from previous Nixie-steampunk mashups, like this single-digit clock or this solar power meter. But these clocks are a step beyond.

Continue reading “Hand-Forged Cases Make Nixie Clocks into Works of Art”

Better Ways To Drive Nixie Tubes

Ah, Nixie tubes. You’re not cool unless you have a few Nixie tubes sitting around, and you’re not awesome unless you’ve built your own Nixie tube clock. That’s what [Thomas] is doing for his entry into the Hackaday Prize, and he’s come up with a very low-cost way of doing it.

For the high voltage supply of this build, [Thomas] is turning to one of the standard circuits based on the MC34063 that’s simple enough and good enough to make everything work. There are really no surprises with the power supply here. This is all a project about turning on different digits inside the Nixie, though, and for that [Thomas] spun his own board capable of driving a pair of IN-1 Nixies with a single ATMega8.

These two-Nixie boards are daisy chained together through a UART connection, where each board passes digits down the line. For example, the first board receives, 12, 30, and 59, displays 59, and passes 12 and 30 down to the next boards. The second board then displays 30 and passes 12 to the last board.

Of course, if you’ve designed a Nixie driver, the next thing to do is to build a clock. [Thomas] had the rather clever idea of making an enclosure for this clock out of concrete, using a 3D printed interior mold. Everything seemed to be going well until it was time to pull the interior mold out, and a few light taps resulted in some fairly large cracks. That’s disappointing, but with a slight redesign and some more fibers in the concrete mix, this is going to turn out to be a weighty win.

A Surprisingly Practical Numitron Watch

Regular Hackaday readers are surely familiar with Nixie tubes: the fantastically retro cold cathode display devices that hackers have worked into all manner of devices (especially timepieces) to give them an infusion of glowing faux nostalgia. But unfortunately, Nixie displays are fairly fragile and can be tricky to drive due to their high voltage requirements. For those who might want to work with something more forgiving, a possible alternative is the Numitron that uses incandescent filaments for each segment.

There hasn’t been a lot of prior-art that utilizes Numitrons, but that might be changing, given how fantastic this wristwatch created by [Dycus] looks. With a multi-day battery life, daylight readability, and relatively straightforward construction, the Filawatch is likely to end up being something of a reference design for future Numitron watches.

[Dycus] has gone through three revisions of the Filawatch so far, with probably at least one more on the way. The current version is powered by a ATmega328 microcontroller with dual 16-bit LED drivers to control the filaments in the KW-104S Numitron display modules. He’s also included an accelerometer to determine when the wearer is looking at the display, and even a light sensor to control the brightness of the display depending on the ambient light level.

If there’s a downside to Numitron displays, it’s their monstrous energy consumption. Just like in the incandescent light bulbs most of us have been ditching for LED, it takes a lot of juice to get that filament glowing. [Dycus] reports the display draws as much as 350 mA while on, but by lighting it up for only five seconds at a time it can be checked around 150 times before the watch needs to be recharged.

Its been a few years since we’ve seen a Numitron watch, and it’s interesting to see how the state of the art has advanced.

[via /r/electronics]

Nuclear Synchroscope Gets New Life

The Synchroscope is an interesting power plant instrument which doubles up as two devices in one. If the generator frequency is not matched with the grid frequency, the rotation direction of the synchroscope pointer indicates if the frequency (generator speed) needs to be increased or decreased. When it stops rotating, the pointer angle indicates the phase difference between the generator and the grid. When [badjer1] [Chris Muncy] got his hands on an old synchroscope which had seen better days at a nuclear power plant control room, he decided to use it as the enclosure for a long-pending plan to build a Nixie Tube project. The result — an Arduino Nixie Clock and Weather Station — is a retro-modern looking instrument which indicates time, temperature, pressure and humidity and the synchroscope pointer now indicates atmospheric pressure.

Rather than replicating existing designs, he decided to build his project from scratch, learning new techniques and tricks while improving his design as he progressed. [badjer1] is a Fortran old-timer, so kudos to him for taking a plunge into the Arduino ecosystem. Other than the funky enclosure, most of the electronics are assembled from off-the-shelf modules. The synchroscope was not large enough to accommodate the electronics, so [badjer1] had to split it into two halves, and add a clear acrylic box in the middle to house it all. He stuck in a few LEDs inside the enclosure for added visual effect. Probably his biggest challenge, other than the mechanical assembly, was making sure he got the cutouts for the Nixie tubes on the display panel right. One wrong move and he would have ended up with a piece of aluminum junk and a missing face panel.

Being new to Arduino, he was careful with breaking up his code into manageable chunks, and peppering it with lots of comments, for his own, and everyone else’s, benefit. The electronics and hardware assembly are also equally well detailed, should anyone else want to attempt to replicate his build. There is still room for improvement, especially with the sensor mounting, but for now, [badjer1] seems pretty happy with the result. Check out the demo video after the break.

Thanks for the tip, [Chris Muncy].

Continue reading “Nuclear Synchroscope Gets New Life”