Signature Analyzer Uses NXP MCU

Scope-Free Tester

Doing a signature analysis of a signal used to require an oscilloscope to display your results. In this article, Brian details how to build a free-standing tester using mostly just the internal peripherals of an NXP Arm microcontroller. He describes how the tester operates and how he implemented it.

By Brian Millier

When I was a teenager starting out in electronics, I longed to have as much test equipment as possible. At that stage in life, I couldn’t afford much beyond a multimeter. I remember seeing plans for a component tester in an electronics magazine. There weren’t many hobby electronics magazines back in the ‘60s, so it was probably Popular Electronics. This tester would provide a “signature” of most passive/active components by placing a small AC voltage across the component and measuring the resulting current. My memory of the circuit is hazy after all these years, but it was trivial: a 6.3 V filament transformer, a current sensing resistor and a few other passive components. However, the catch was that it required an oscilloscope to display the resulting voltage vs. current plot—in other words, the component’s signature. By the time I bought an oscilloscope about 10 years later, I had completely forgotten about this testing concept.

Today, test instruments are available that include a dedicated graphics display, instead of relying on an oscilloscope for display purposes. Having worked with Arm microcontrollers over the last few years,
I realized that I could implement such a free-standing tester using, in large part, just the internal MCU peripherals.

In this article I’ll describe how the tester operates, and how I implemented it using a Teensy 3.5 development module (containing an NXP MK64FX512VMD12 MCU) and featuring a FT800-based intelligent 4.3″ TFT touch-screen display.

Basic Theory of Operation

To obtain a signature of a given component, you need to place a variable voltage across it and measure the resulting current through it, at each voltage level. In many cases, the component’s normal operating mode will include both positive and negative voltages across it, so the tester must provide an AC voltage source. For most testing purposes you would use a sine wave voltage source because most AC calculations are done using sine waves. The value of this AC voltage source must be adjustable. I decided on six ranges between 0.5 V peak-peak and 20 V peak-peak. For measuring the voltage across the component, I used an instrumentation amplifier with three hardware gain ranges—plus three additional ranges based upon scaling in software.

To monitor current, it’s easiest to measure the voltage across a small value resistor placed in the ground return path, and then convert that to current using Ohm’s Law. Here too you need a range of current measurements. I chose to provide three hardware ranges—plus four additional ranges based on software scaling—between 1 mA and 100 mA.

You can’t just place an AC voltage of any given value across a component, and hope that the component will be able to handle that current without damage. You must place a resistor in series with the component to limit the current flow. That resistor may need to vary in value over several decades, depending on the component being tested. In my tester, I provide a switchable resistor bank with values covering a 1,000:1 range in decade steps.

Figure 1 is a block diagram of the basic tester circuitry. The user interface, touch-screen display and SD card data storage are not shown here. The MK64FX512VMD12 MCU’s 12-bit DAC A provides a sine wave signal that varies between 0 and 1.2 V over the full AC cycle. The programmable attenuator is an SPI pot device with 12-bit resolution. C1 is a decoupling capacitor, which shifts the (attenuated) unipolar DAC A output signal into a bipolar AC signal. This AC signal is amplified by a factor of 21 by an LM675 power amplifier IC. DAC B, along with some passive components, provide a software-adjustable offset voltage adjustment. The LM675 amplifier is needed to provide enough drive current to handle the higher current ranges—up to 100 mA.

FIGURE 1
This is a block diagram of the AC signal generation and Voltage/Current monitoring circuit.

Both the voltage and current are monitored using Texas Instruments (TI)instrumentation amplifier ICs. These contain input protection circuitry good to ±40 V. The various gains needed for both amplifiers are set by 1% resistors, which are switched by miniature reed relays. The instrumentation amplifier output voltages, representing voltage and current through the component under test, are fed to the two 16-bit ADCs present in the NXP MK64FX512VMD12 Arm MCU. The sine wave signal generated by the MCU can be set for frequencies of 20, 50 ,60, 100, 200 or 400 Hz.

Signature Analysis

The basic premise of signature analysis is that you obtain a signature of a component that is of questionable condition, and then compare it with a known-good component of the same value. Alternately, you can do the same comparison on a specific circuit node on two identical circuit boards/assemblies.. …

Read the full article in the August 337 issue of Circuit Cellar

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