CC269: Break Through Designer’s Block

Are you experiencing designer’s block? Having a hard time starting a new project? You aren’t alone. After more than 11 months of designing and programming (which invariably involved numerous successes and failures), many engineers are simply spent. But don’t worry. Just like every other year, new projects are just around the corner. Sooner or later you’ll regain your energy and find yourself back in action. Plus, we’re here to give you a boost. The December issue (Circuit Cellar 269) is packed with projects that are sure to inspire your next flurry of innovation.

Turn to page 16 to learn how Dan Karmann built the “EBikeMeter” Atmel ATmega328-P-based bicycle computer. He details the hardware and firmware, as well as the assembly process. The monitoring/logging system can acquire and display data such as Speed/Distance, Power, and Recent Log Files.

The Atmel ATmega328-P-based “EBikeMeter” is mounted on the bike’s handlebar.

Another  interesting project is Joe Pfeiffer’s bell ringer system (p. 26). Although the design is intended for generating sound effects in a theater, you can build a similar system for any number of other uses.

You probably don’t have to be coerced into getting excited about a home control project. Most engineers love them. Check out Scott Weber’s garage door control system (p. 34), which features a MikroElektronika RFid Reader. He built it around a Microchip Technology PIC18F2221.

The reader is connected to a breadboard that reads the data and clock signals. It’s built with two chips—the Microchip 28-pin PIC and the eight-pin DS1487 driver shown above it—to connect it to the network for testing. (Source: S. Weber, CC269)

Once considered a hobby part, Arduino is now implemented in countless innovative ways by professional engineers like Ed Nisley. Read Ed’s article before you start your next Arduino-related project (p. 44). He covers the essential, but often overlooked, topic of the Arduino’s built-in power supply.

A heatsink epoxied atop the linear regulator on this Arduino MEGA board helped reduce the operating temperature to a comfortable level. This is certainly not recommended engineering practice, but it’s an acceptable hack. (Source: E. Nisley, CC269)

Need to extract a signal in a noisy environment? Consider a lock-in amplifier. On page 50, Robert Lacoste describes synchronous detection, which is a useful way to extract a signal.

This month, Bob Japenga continues his series, “Concurrency in Embedded Systems” (p. 58). He covers “the mechanisms to create concurrently in your software through processes and threads.”

On page 64, George Novacek presents the second article in his series, “Product Reliability.” He explains the importance of failure rate data and how to use the information.

Jeff Bachiochi wraps up the issue with a article about using heat to power up electronic devices (p. 68). Fire and a Peltier device can save the day when you need to charge a cell phone!

Set aside time to carefully study the prize-winning projects from the Reneas RL78 Green Energy Challenge (p. 30). Among the noteworthy designs are an electrostatic cleaning robot and a solar energy-harvesting system.

Lastly, I want to take the opportunity to thank Steve Ciarcia for bringing the electrical engineering community 25 years of innovative projects, essential content, and industry insight. Since 1988, he’s devoted himself to the pursuit of EE innovation and publishing excellence, and we’re all better off for it. I encourage you to read Steve’s final “Priority Interrupt” editorial on page 80. I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s no better way to begin the next 25 years of innovation than by taking a moment to understand and celebrate our past. Thanks, Steve.

Onward & Upward: A History of Circuit Cellar

At the end of our conversations, longtime Circuit Cellar columnist Ed Nisley always says, “Onward and upward.” To this day, I’m not quite sure what that means, but it seems like a useful exit line. Of course, leaving a conversation and leaving a career are two completely different things. Both involve some strategy. With a conversation, one expects you’ll talk later and not everything has to be resolved by the conversation’s end. With a career, there is more finality. You want to know you have accomplished some goals, left the world a better place, and placed your legacy in the hands of people who will properly transition it.

An early Ciarcia project

These days, I’m not sure whether to laugh or cringe when I get an e-mail or meet a Circuit Cellar reader who starts a conversation by saying they have been reading my stuff and following me since BYTE magazine. Certainly, I take it as a compliment, but it also means we are both over the proverbial hill. True, the BYTE days and the seeds that generated Circuit Cellar magazine began 35 years ago. That’s a long time for any of us.

When you read the 25th Anniversary issue, you’ll find my article describing the history of how this all started. I’d like to say I had a grand plan from the very beginning, but my career path had a far simpler strategy: To create a product that would be in demand for a long time, to stay under the radar (away from lawyers and competitive vultures), and find good people with similar beliefs who would help me accomplish these goals.

I’d like to say I intuitively knew what to do as a boss, but remember, I was trained as an engineer, not an MBA. A wise person once told me there were two ways to learn things in life: through trial and error or through someone telling you. I just took to heart a business article I read in college and religiously applied it to my career path. It said the majority of small businesses fail for one of four reasons: Too little business, too much business, insufficient capital, or no plan for succession. Since I wasn’t having much fun in corporate America back then (five jobs in five years), succeeding in business had more of a “do or die” imperative than the average job.

Let me warn any budding entrepreneurs that these four events test your gambling tactics more than your business acumen. In my case, Ciarcia’s Circuit Cellar was the product 30 years ago, along with the supporting manufacturing company. It grew quickly and afforded certain luxuries (e.g., Porsches, BMWs, Ferraris, etc.) typically necessary in our culture to designate achievement. Too little business was not an issue.

The “too much business” event happened right after the introduction of the IBM PC. Circuit Cellar was the third company in the country to market an IBM PC clone. I thought it was a good idea. Everybody who couldn’t get a real IBM PC started banging on our door for an MPX-16. We got $1 million in orders in just a few weeks! What was I supposed to do? Certainly not what 99% of you would have done—I stopped taking orders!

Remember, I didn’t want to work for anybody and I don’t like doing “reports.” Delivering thousands of PCs might have made us into another Apple, but it also meant using lots of outside money, no more BYTE magazine, and no more fun monthly projects. It really meant venture capitalists and lawyers, ugh. Was it the right decision? You decide. Circuit Cellar is still here, and every early PC clone maker from back then is gone.

In 1988 we started Circuit Cellar magazine. While our money came from manufacturing projects and kits, we knew the real product was Circuit Cellar itself. It was time to launch the magazine as a unique product. Back in 1988, it typically cost about $2 million for a big publisher to start a magazine like Circuit Cellar. We pulled that off without any other sources.

Finally, there comes the toughest decision for any entrepreneur—when to hang it up. I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure about this one. It’s not because I planned to hang in until the bitter end. It was because I didn’t immediately see any company that would appreciate Circuit Cellar enough to properly continue it. Over the years, the four major U.S. technical trade publishers had sniffed around Circuit Cellar with acquisition in mind. I never got a good feeling about them, and I’m sure they knew I wasn’t going to be a happy indentured servant in any deal they proposed.

Why it takes a European publisher to appreciate an American magazine and its readers, I’ll never know. From day one, I felt Elektor would treat Circuit Cellar properly. It’s been three years since that transition, and I feel I made the correct decision. The collective benefits of being part of a larger publishing company will prolong Circuit Cellar’s existence and enable it to expand into new markets I was too complacent to tackle. The loyal Circuit Cellar employees deserve a career path beyond my short-term ambitions, and now they have it.

As for me, I plan on spending time stringing more wires for my HCS and I’m ecstatic about having zero responsibilities anymore. I’m around if needed, but plan on taking a four-wheel drive out to the beach to find me. So, until then, I’ll just close with “onward and upward,” and see where that takes me.

Pi-Face: A New Raspberry Pi Accessory

Ready for the Pi-Face Digital? What’s that? you ask.

Pi-Face at Electronica 2012 (Source:

Pi Interface Digital, or Pi-Face Digital, is a Raspberry Pi accessory board Premier Farnell will begin distributing in early 2013. You can plug it into a Raspberry Pi and start designing immediately. Plus, you can connect sensors to Pi-Face Digital for a variety of purposes, such as temperature- or pressure-monitoring applications.

The following useful information is posted at the University of Manchester’s School of Computer Science site.

Pi-Face Digital is the first of a range of interfaces to allow the Raspberry Pi to control and manipulate the real world. It allows the Raspberry Pi to read switches connected to it – a door sensor or pressure pad perhaps, a microswitch or reed switch, or a hand held button. With appropriate easy to write code, the Raspberry Pi then drives outputs, powering motors, actuator, LEDs, light bulbs or anything you can imagine to respond to the inputs… The hardware provides an easy and consistent programming interface, in Scratch (as shown running on a Raspberry Pi in the photograph) and Python with good observability to promote easy development, and reduce technology barriers.

It will cost approximately €20 to €30. You can register at element14.

Want to see Pi-Face in action? Check it out on! is an Elektor International Media publication.

Microcontroller-Based Markov Music Box

Check out the spectrogram for two FM notes produced by FM modulation. Red indicates higher energy at a given time and frequency.

Cornell University senior lecturer Bruce Land had two reasons for developing an Atmel AVR micrcontroller-based music box. One, he wanted to present synthesis/sequencing algorithms to his students. And two, he wanted the challenge of creating an interactive music box. Interactive audio is becoming an increasingly popular topic among engineers and designers, as we recently reported.

Land writes:

Traditional music boxes play one or two tunes very well, but are not very interactive. Put differently, they have a high quality of synthesis, but a fixed-pattern note sequencer and fixed tonal quality. I wanted to build a device which would play an interesting music-like note sequence, which constantly changed and evolved, with settable timbre, tempo, and beat… To synthesize nice sounding musical notes you need to control spectral content of the note, the rise time (attack), fall time (decay), and the change in spectral content during attack and decay.  Also it is nice to have at least two independent musical voices. And all of this has to be done using the modest arithmetic capability of an 8-bit microcontroller.

Land’s students subsequently used the music box for other projects, such as an auto-composing piano, as shown in the following video.

In early 2013 Circuit Cellar will run Land’s in-depth article on the Markov music box project. Stay tuned for more information.

Principles of Embedded System Design (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

You have an idea an idea for an innovative microcontroller-based design? Once you start start soldering and wiring, you might want to keep an eye on Bob Japenga’s checklist of essential embedded system design principle. His complete list will appear in Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, which will be available in early 2013. But since many of you will be attempting to complete projects before January 1, we’re giving you a sneak peek.

Japenga writes:

We all know that old adage: “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, where do you find the time to do it right the second?” But this is the nature of developing robust embedded systems. There are literally thousands of little decisions that we make even in the simplest of projects. How can we minimize repeating mistakes?

So my goal in this article is twofold: to celebrate with Circuit Cellar 25 years of great service to us engineers and to hammer home some of those principles that we so often forget. I will divide the essentials into four categories: general essentials, essentials that exist because things (i.e., us and our designs) fail, essentials about testing, and essentials about memory use.

General Essentials

KISS & No Simpler“Keep it simple stupid (KISS).” How often do I need to hear this? I like the saying about KISS that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein but was actually Roger Session’s paraphrase: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I am counting these as our first and second essentials.  Keep it simple is number one and no simpler is the second. I find this an immense challenge. When we are faced with schedule deadlines and tight budgets, it is costly to make a design simple. Some people have a gift at taking a problem and abstracting an elegant and simple solution. I remember giving a design specification to one of my employees a number of years ago when I worked for an aerospace company. After several days he came back with over 20 pages of algorithms and charts defining how the specification should be met in software. I wasn’t smart enough to know why it was too complex, but my gut feeling was: “This is too complex. Make it simpler.” Later, I turned it over to another young man who returned with an elegant two-page algorithm that worked perfectly.

How do we do that? “As simple as possible” can get us in trouble if we make it too simple. For example, just recently we were designing a multi-drop serial interface to be incorporated into a medical device. A strong case could be made for the simplicity of using a single-ended interface. But experience tells us that a differential interface will be more robust in the face of defibrillators and all the various noisy electronic instruments it will to play with. Which meets the KISS principle? The same tough decision comes when you’re trying to decide whether to go with a two-wire or a four-wire interface. Two wires has less cabling, but it’s more complex in the interface and forces single-duplex operation. Again, which meets the principle?

Sometimes the trade-off can come down to what you already have in the house. If you have well-debugged libraries for handling the two-wire 485 protocols, the reduced number of wires reduces the overall system complexity even though the software will in fact be more complex.

Sometimes when dealing with algorithm development, the KISS principle can also present ambiguous alternatives. At times, a straightforward linear programming approach can be many times more lines of code and more complex than an elegant algorithm. But the elegant algorithm may be obscure, difficult to maintain, or take too long to come up with. Therein lies the challenge to Keep It Simple Stupid but No Simpler.

Define the Problem/Create Clear SpecsHaving a clear set of specs is essential to every part of a design. We all know this and we always belly ache about how we don’t have perfect specifications. But get with it. You won’t always have perfect specs from your customer. But it is essential that you make them as good as possible. And in writing. If your customer is willing, keep pushing back and keep writing it down and refining it as you go.

I’ve found that essential for every phase of a project. Whether it is hardware or software, writing out the spec (on the schematic or in the code) is a wonderful act of discipline. Write out the spec for the module. Write out the spec for the algorithm. Write out the spec for the circuit. Writing it out forces you to think it through. End the belly-aching about the lack of good specs. Start creating them.

Don’t Skimp on the ToolsTools are our life blood. If you are a manager and your designers don’t have the best tools, you are wasting your money on their salaries. That said, we are not talking about buying tools you don’t use, tools that don’t pay for themselves, or tools that you can rent more cost effectively. Last week we were discussing a problem where one of our cell modem designs exceeded the limit for the second harmonic in spurious emissions. In talking over the problem with the test lab, I discovered that they had a tool that they brought inside the anechoic chamber that could tell the cell modem to transmit on such and such a frequency at maximum power. Naively, I asked, “Shouldn’t we have such a tool?” Someone responded: “Yes, but they cost almost a million dollars.” Oh. But we found we could rent one for $1,000 a day. So, I am not talking about being unwise with our money.

Many years ago while at the aerospace company, I was recommending an HP64000 system that appeared to be a very powerful tool for our software development team. I wrote up the proposal and presented it to the vice president of engineering. His question has haunted me ever since. “Would you buy it if it were your money?” I said then, and continue to say now, “Get the best tools that will allow you to do the job as quickly as possible. If a 200-man-hour job can be done for 100 hours with a $10,000 instrument, is it worth it. Absolutely.”

Read the DocumentationLast year we had a problem that showed up only after we started making the product in 1,000-piece runs. The problem was that some builds of the system took a very long time to power up. We had built about 10 prototypes, tested the design over thousands of power ups, and it tested just fine (thanks to POC-IT). Then the 1,000-piece run uncovered about a half-dozen units that had variable power-up times—ranging from a few seconds to more than an hour! Replacing the watchdog chip that controlled the RESET line to an ARM9 processor fixed the problem. But why did these half dozen fail? Many hours into the analysis we discovered that the RESET line out of the watchdog chip on the failed units would pulse but stay low for long periods of time. A shot of cold air instantly caused the chip to release the RESET. Was it a faulty chip lot? Nope. Upon a closer read of the documentation, we found that you cannot have a pull-up resister on the RESET line. For years we always had pull-ups on RESET lines. We’d missed that in the documentation.

Like it or not, we have to pour over the documentation of the chips and software library calls we use. We have to digest the content carefully. We cannot rely on what is intuitive.

Finally, and this is much more necessary than in years past, we have to pour over the errata sheets. And we need to do it before we commit the design. A number of years ago, a customer designed a major new product line around an Atmel ARM9. This ARM9 had the capability of directly addressing NOR memory up to 128 MB.  Except for the fact that the errata said that due to a bug it could only address 16 MB.  Ouch! Later we had problems with the I2C bus in the same chip. At times, the bus would lock up and nothing except a power cycle would unlock it. Enter the errata. Under some unmentioned conditions the I2C state machine can lock up. Ouch! In this case, we were able to use a bit-bang algorithm rather than the built-in I2C—but obviously at the cost of money, scheduling, and real time.

If You Can’t Explain it to Mom, It Ain’t ClearThat’s another way to say: “Assume no one reads the user manual.” I recently read a blog post about the City of Boston’s electronic parking meters ( Truly, one wonders who reviewed that user interface. If you want to make robust embedded systems with a user interface, they need to have intuitive interfaces, or you may be surprised at what the user comes up with. This takes time and effort, but it’s well worth it. Try it out on the uninitiated. Engineers are the worst kind of people for testing user interfaces. Try it on kids. My business partner’s one-year-old son found the first bug in our first product.

Be sure to get your hands on the upcoming anniversary issue to learn about the reset of the principles. He covers “Things Fail Essentials,” “Testing Essentials,” “Memory Management Essentials,” and more. Consider using it to create your own design principles checklist that you can keep at your workbench.