Minimal Blinky Project Makes The Chip The Circuit Board

We’ve got a thing for projects that have no real practical value but instead seek to answer a simple yet fundamental question: I wonder if I can do that? This dead-bug style 555 blinky light is one of those projects, undertaken just to see how small a circuit can be. Pretty small, as it turns out, and we bet it can get even smaller.

[Danko]’s minimal circuit is about as small as possible for the DIP version of the venerable 555 chip. The BOM is stripped to the bone: just the chip, three resistors, a capacitor, and an LED. All the discrete components are SMDs in 0805. The chip’s leads are bent around the package to form connections, and the SMDs bridge those “traces” to complete the circuit. [Danko] shows the build in step-by-step detail in the video below. There’s some fairly fine work here, but we can’t help wondering just how far down the scale this could be pushed. We know someone’s made a smaller blinky using a tiny microcontroller, but we’d love to see this tried with the BGA version of the chip which is only 1.4 mm on a side.

Cheers to [Danko] for trying this out and having some fun with an old chip. He seems to have a bit of a thing for the 555; check out this cute robot sculpture that’s built around the chip.

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Ask Hackaday: How’s That Capacitor Shortage Going?

There is a looming spectre of doom hovering over the world of electronics manufacturing. It’s getting hard to find parts, and the parts you can find are expensive. No, it doesn’t have anything to with the tariffs enacted by the United States against Chinese goods this last summer. This is a problem that doesn’t have an easy scapegoat. This is a problem that strikes at the heart of any economic system. This is the capacitor and resistor shortage.

When we first reported on the possibility of a global shortage of chip capacitors and resistors, things were for the time being, okay. Yes, major manufacturers were saying they were spinning down production lines until it was profitable to start them up again, but there was relief: parts were in stock, and they didn’t cost that much more.

Now, it’s a different story. We’re in the Great Capacitor Shortage of 2018, and we don’t know when it’s going to get any better. Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: How’s That Capacitor Shortage Going?”

Competitive Soldering is Now a Thing

At Hackaday, we’re constantly impressed by the skill and technique that goes into soldering up some homebrew creations. We’re not just talking about hand-soldering 80-pin QFNs without a stencil, either: there are people building charlieplexed LED arrays out of bare copper wire, and using Kynar wire for mechanical stability. There are some very, very talented people out there, and they all work in the medium of wire, heat, and flux.

At this year’s DEF CON, we opened the floodgates to competitive soldering. Along with [Bunny] from Hardware Hacking Village and the many volunteers from the HHV and Soldering Skills Village, dozens competed to solder up a tiny kit full of LEDs and microscopic resistors.

The kit in question was an SMD Challenge Kit put together my MakersBox, and consisted of a small PCB, an SOIC-8 ATtiny, and a LED and resistor for 1206, 0805, 0603, 0402, and 0201 sizes. The contest is done in rounds. Six challengers compete at a time, and everyone is given 35 minutes to complete the kit.

We’ve seen — and participated in — soldering challenges before, and each one has a slightly unique twist to make it that much more interesting. For example, at this summer’s Toorcamp, the soldering challenge was to simply drink a beer before moving to the next size of parts. You would solder the 1206 LED and resistor sober, drink a beer, solder the 0805, drink a beer, and keep plugging away until you get to the 01005 parts. Yes, people were able to do it.

Of course, being DEF CON and all, we were trying to be a bit more formal, and drinking before noon is uncouth. The rules for this Soldering Challenge award points on five categories: the total time taken, if the components are actually soldered down, a ‘functionality’ test, the orientation of the parts, and the quality of the solder joints.

The winners of the soldering challenge, at the Hackaday Breakfast Meetup at DEF CON 26

So, with those rules in place, who won the Soldering Challenge at this year’s DEF CON? Out of a total 25 points, the top scorers are:

  • [True] – 23 pts
  • [Rushan] – 19 pts
  • [Ryan] – 18 pts
  • [Beardbyte] – 18 pts
  • [Casey] – 18 pts
  • [Bob] – 18 pts
  • [Nick] – 18 pts
  • [JEGEVA] – 18 pts

The Soldering Challenge had an incredible turnout, and the entire Soldering Skills Village was packed to the gills with folks eager to pick up an iron. The results were phenomenal!

We’d like to extend a note of thanks to [Bunny], the Hardware Hacking Village, the Soldering Skills Village, and MakersBox for making this happening. It was truly a magical experience, and now that competitive soldering is a thing, we’re going to be doing this a few more times. How do you think this could be improved? Leave a note in the comments.

SMD Soldering Challenge Lands At DEF CON

Strap on the jeweler’s loupe and lay off the caffeine for a few days. You’ll need to be at your peak for the SMD Soldering Challenge at this year’s DEF CON (number 26 for those counting).

It’s exciting to see that a Soldering Skills Village has been added to the conference this year. It will be in the same room as the Hardware Hacking Village. After all, who doesn’t want to solder at a conference? This soldering challenge is a great way to ring in the new village, and will take place in eight heats of six people for a total of 48 contestants. If you want to compete, make sure you get to the village right away and sign up for a slot!

A familiar board is being used for the contest. It’s the SMD Challenge board which MakersBox developed. You can check out the Hackaday.io project page and even order one from their Tindie store if you like. The contest will be scored based on time, completion, functionality, precise orientation, and quality of the joints.

The SOIC ATtiny85 is a snap to place on the board, but things get harder with each step. To successfully complete it you need to solder both a resistor and an LED in 1206, 0805, 0603, 0402, and 0201 packages. Those oh-two-oh-ones are basically grains of sand… good luck with that! We’re really excited that MakersBox rolled some custom Hackaday and Tindie boards (pictured above) for this contest which we’re honored to sponsor. It sounds as if the winners will be announced during Hackaday and Tindie’s traditional Breakfast at DEF CON which is happening at 10:30am on Sunday in the HHV.

We plan to spectate during some of the heats and if you’re at the con you should too! For those participating, here’s our advice. Practice soldering the smallest of parts ahead of time (watch some videos on it at the very least). Bring a multimeter to test the diode polarity because you won’t be able to see the symbols on the smallest parts. You may even consider bringing some custom tools; this surface mount “clamp” comes to mind, you’ll just need a much smaller version.

If you have advice of your own, we’d love to hear it in the comments below!

Monoprice Mini Converted to Pick and Place (Kinda)

Would you believe that you can take a cheap 3D printer and easily convert it into a full function pick and place machine to help assemble your PCBs? No? Well good, because you can’t. A real pick and place needs all kinds of sensors and logic to identify parts, rotate them, make sure everything is aligned, etc, etc. There’s no way you could just bolt all that onto a cheap 3D printer, and let’s not even talk about the lack of closed loop control.

But if you have a very specific use case, namely a PCB that only has a relatively large single part that doesn’t need to be rotated, [Connor Nishijima] might have a solution for you. He bought a $150 USD Monoprice Mini, and with the addition of a few printed parts, was able to build a machine that drastically cuts down the time it takes for him to build his LED boards. Best of all the modification doesn’t involve any permanent changes to the printer, he can just pop off the vacuum attachment when he wants to print something.

Beyond the 3D printed parts (which were made on the printer itself), the only thing you need to make the modification is the vacuum pump. [Connor] is using a hot air station that includes a vacuum pump for picking up SMD components, but he mentions that you’d probably better off just modifying an aquarium pump and using that. A printed holder snaps over the cooling fan of the Monoprice Mini to hold the vacuum pickup tool, and another printed piece holds the strip of LEDs and the PCB. It’s worth noting that the machine has no ability to control the vacuum pump, and doesn’t need to. The pickup tool is so weak that when the LED lands in the solder paste it sticks to the board well enough that the tool can’t lift it back off.

The real genius in this build comes from the manually written G-Code. You load it from the printer’s built in menu system as if it was a normal 3D print, and it instructs the printer to move the vacuum tool over the line of LEDs, pick one up, and drop it in place on the PCB. It then uses a small peg built into the vacuum tool holder to advance the line of LEDs before starting the cycle all over again. Incredibly, it does this whole complex dance 20 times for each PCB without ever having any kind of feedback or alignment check. It only works because [Connor] was willing to go through the trial and error of getting the calibration and G-Code down as close to perfect as can be expected for such a cheap machine.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Monoprice Mini converted into something a bit more impressive than a cheapo 3D printer. Seems that for whatever the machine lacks in the printing department, it more than makes up for in hackability.

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A 3D-Printed Bowl Feeder for Tiny SMD Parts

[Andrzej Laczewski] has something big in mind for small parts, specifically SMD resistors and capacitors. He’s not talking much about that project, but from the prototype 3D-printed bowl feeder he built as part of it, we can guess that it’s going to be a pretty cool automation project.

Bowl feeders are common devices in industrial automation, used to take a big pile of parts like nuts and bolts and present them to a process one at a time, often with some sort of orientation step so that all the parts are the right way around. They accomplish this with a vibratory action through two axes, which [Andrzej] accomplishes with the 3D-printed ABS link arms supporting the bowl. The spring moment of the arms acts to twist the bowl slightly when it’s pulled down by a custom-wound electromagnet, such that the parts land in a slightly different place every time the bowl shifts. For the parts on the shallow ramp spiraling up the inside of the bowl, that means a single-file ride to the top. It’s interesting to see how changing the frequency of the signal sent to the coil impacts the feed; [Andrzej] used a function generator to find the sweet spot before settling on a dedicated circuit. Watch it in action below.

We’re really impressed with the engineering that went into this, even if we wonder what the vibration will do to the SMD components. Still, we can’t wait to see this in a finished project – perhaps it’ll be integrated like this Arduino-fied bowl feeder.

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Review: SMD Tweezer Meter or Tweezer Probes For Your Multimeter?

It’s remarkable how tiny electronics have become. Heaven knows what an old-timer whose experience started with tubes must think, to go from solder tags to SMD in a lifetime is some journey. Even  the generation that started with discrete transistors has lived through an incredible shift. But it’s true, SMD components are tiny, and that presents a challenge aside from the one you’ll face when soldering them. Identifying and measuring the value of a chip component too small to have any writing upon it becomes almost impossible with a pair of standard test probes.

Happily the test equipment manufacturers have risen to the challenge, and produced all sorts of meters designed for SMD work that have a pair of tweezers instead of test prods. When I was looking for one I did my usual thing when it comes to Hackaday reviews. I looked at the budget end of the market, and bought an inexpensive Chinese model for about £16($21). And since I was browsing tweezers I couldn’t resist adding another purchase to my order. I found a pair of tweezer test probes for my multimeter which cost me just over a pound ($1.30) and would provide a useful comparison. For working with SMD components in situ, do you even need the special meter?

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