Don’t Trust Connectors, Solder, or Wires (EE Tip #138)

Engineer Robert Lacoste is one of our go-to resources for engineering tips and tricks. When we asked him for a few bits of general engineering advice, he responded with a list of more than 20 invaluable electrical engineering-related insights. One our team’s favorite “Lacoste tips” is this: don’t trust connectors, solder, or wires. Read on to learn more.

One of my colleagues used to say that 90% of design problems are linked either to power supplies or to connector-related issues. It’s often the case. Never trust a wire or a connector. If you don’t understand what’s going on, use your ohmmeter to check if the connections are as planned. (Do this even if you are sure they are.) A connector might have a broken pin, a wire might have an internal cut, a solder joint might be dry and not conductive, or you might simply have a faulty wiring scheme. (See the nearby photo.)

Using the wrong pinout for a connector is a common error, especially on RS-232 ports where it’s approximately 50% probable that you’ll have the wrong RX/TX mapping. Swapping the rows of a connector (as you see here) is also quite common.

Using the wrong pinout for a connector is a common error, especially on RS-232 ports where it’s approximately 50% probable that you’ll have the wrong RX/TX mapping. Swapping the rows of a connector (as you see here) is also quite common.

Another common error is to spend time on a nonworking prototype only to discover after a few hours that the prototype was working like a charm but the test cable was faulty. This should not be a surprise: test cables are used and stressed daily, so they’re bound to be damaged over time. This can be even more problematic with RF cables, which might seem perfect when checked with an ohmmeter but have degraded RF performance. As a general rule, if you find that a test cable shows signs of fatigue (e.g., it exhibits intermittent problems), just toss it out and buy a new one!—Robert Lacoste, CC25, 2013

 

Desoldering Components (EE Tip #118)

Every engineer and technician sooner or later faces the challenge of having to desolder a component. Sometimes the component can be a large transformer with 10 pins or a power chip with many connections, and desoldering tools are typically around the $1,000 mark and above.

Chip Quik is a solder-based alloy that stays molten for up to 30 seconds and makes desoldering any component very easy. The only drawback is that the cost of a 2´ length of Chip Quik is around $20. But a little experience can make this go a long way. Having some Chip Quik lying around in the workshop is reassuring for when that urgent job comes in.

Editor’s Note: This EE Tip was written by Fergus Dixon of Sydney, Australia. Dixon, who has written two articles and an essay for Circuit Cellar, runs Electronic System Design, a website set up to promote easy to use and inexpensive development kits. Click here to read his essay “The Future of Open-Source Hardware for Medical Devices.”

Metcal Launches New MX-500

MetcalThe latest version of Metcal’s MX-500 soldering and rework system features ground fault interrupt and universal power supply in a new housing. The system is compatible with existing MX-500 products, including MX upgrade kits, tip-cartridges, and accessories.

Built on Metcal’s SmartHeat technology, the new MX-500 retains switchable dual port, 40-W operation. The system provides responsive and highly controlled heating and delivers the exact energy needed to ensure a precise and reliable solder connection.

Contact Metcal for pricing.

Metcal
www.metcal.com

Prototyping for Engineers (EE Tip #111)

Prototyping is an essential part of engineering. Whether you’re working on a complicated embedded system or a simple blinking LED project, building a prototype can save you a lot of time, money, and hassle in the long run. You can choose one of three basic styles of prototyping: solderless breadboard, perfboard, and manufactured PCB. Your project goals, your schedule, and your circuit’s complexity are variables that will influence your choice. (I am not including styles like flying leads and wire-wrapping.)PrototypeTable

Table 1 details the pros and cons associated with each of the three prototyping options. Imagine a nifty circuit caught your eye and you want to explore it. If it’s a simple circuit, you can use the solderless breadboard (“white blob”) approach. White blobs come in a variety of sizes and patterns. By “pattern” I mean the number of the solderless connectors and their layout. Each connector is a group (usually five) of tie points placed on 0.1″ centers. Photo 1 shows how these small strips are typically arranged beneath the surface.Prototype p1-4

Following the schematic, you use the tie points to connect up to five components’ leads together. Each tie point is a tiny metal pincer that grips (almost) any lead plugged into it. You can use small wires to connect multiple tie points together or to connect larger external parts (see Photo 2).

If you want something a bit more permanent, you might choose to use the perfboard (“Swiss cheese”) approach. Like the solderless breadboards, perfboards are available in many sizes and patterns; however, I prefer the one-hole/ pad variety (see Photo 3). You can often find perfboards from enclosure manufacturers that are sized to fit the enclosures (see Photo 4).

There is nothing worse than wiring a prototype PCB and finding there isn’t enough room for all your parts. So, it pays to draw a part layout before you get started just to make sure everything fits. While I’m at it, I’ll add my 2¢ about schematic and layout programs.

The staff at Circuit Cellar uses CadSoft EAGLE design software for drawing schematics. (A free version is available for limited size boards.) I use the software for creating PCB layouts, drawing schematics, and popping parts onto PCB layouts using the proper board dimensions. Then I can use the drawing for a prototype using perfboard.

The final option is to have real prototypes manufactured. This is where the CAD software becomes a necessity. If you’ve already done a layout for your hand-wired prototype, most of the work is already done (sans routing). Some engineers will hand-wire a project first to test its performance. Others will go straight to manufactured prototypes. Many prototype PCB manufacturers offer a bare-bones special—without any solder masking or silkscreen—that can save you a few dollars. However, prices have become pretty competitive. (You can get a few copies of your design manufactured for around $100.)

There are two alternatives to having a PCB house manufacture your PCBs: do-it-yourself (DIY) and routing. If you choose DIY approach, you’ll have to work with ferric chloride (or another acid) to remove unwanted copper (see Photo 5). You’ll be able to produce some PCBs quickly, but it will likely be messy (and dangerous).Prototype p5-6

Routing involves using an x-y-z table to route between copper traces to isolate them from one another (see Photo 6). You’ll need access to an x-y-z table, which can be expensive.—CC25, Jeff Bachiochi, “Electrical Engineering: Tricks and Tools for Project Success,” 2013.

This piece originally appeared in CC25 2013

3-D Printing with Liquid Metals

by Collin Ladd and Michael Dickey

Our research group at North Carolina State University has been studying new ways to use simple processes to print liquid metals into 3-D shapes at room temperature. 3-D printing is gaining popularity because of the ability to quickly go from concept to reality to design, replicate, or create objects. For example, it is now possible to draw an object on a computer or scan a physical object into software and have a highly detailed replica within a few hours.

3-D printing with liquid metals: a line of dollsMost 3-D printers currently pattern plastics, but printing metal objects is of particular interest because of metal’s physical strength and electrical conductivity. Because of the difficulty involved with metal printing, it is considered one of the “frontiers” of 3-D printing.
There are several approaches for 3-D printing of metals, but they all have limitations, including high temperatures (making it harder to co-print with other materials) and prohibitively expensive equipment. The most popular approach to printing metals is to use lasers or electron beams to sinter fine metal powders together at elevated temperatures, one layer at a time, to form solid metal parts.

Our approach uses a simple method to enable direct printing of liquid metals at room temperature. We print liquid metal alloys primarily composed of gallium. These alloys have metallic conductivity and a viscosity similar to water. Unlike mercury, gallium is not considered toxic nor does it evaporate. We extrude this metal from a nozzle to create droplets that can be stacked to form 3-D structures. Normally, two droplets of liquid (e.g., water) merge together into a single drop if stacked on each other. However, these metal droplets do not succumb to surface-tension effects because the metal rapidly forms a solid oxide “skin” on its surface that mechanically stabilizes the printed structures. This skin also makes it possible to extrude wires or metal fibers.

This printing process is important for two reasons. First, it enables the printing of metallic structures at room temperature using a process that is compatible with other printed materials (e.g., plastics). Second, it results in metal structures that can be used for flexible and stretchable electronics.

 

Stretchable electronics are motivated by the new applications that emerge by building electronic functionality on deformable substrates. It may enable new wearable sensors and textiles that deform naturally with the human body, or even an elastic array of embedded sensors that could serve as a substitute for skin on a prosthetic or robot-controlled fingertip. Unlike the bendable polyimide-based circuits commonly seen on a ribbon cable or inside a digital camera, stretchable electronics require more mechanical robustness, which may involve the ability to deform like a rubber band. However, a stretchable device need not be 100% elastic. Solid components embedded in a substrate (e.g., silicone) can be incorporated into a stretchable device if the connections between them can adequately deform.

Using our approach, we can direct print freestanding wire bonds or circuit traces to directly connect components—without etching or solder—at room temperature. Encasing these structures in polymer enables these interconnects to be stretched tenfold without losing electrical conductivity. Liquid metal wires also have been shown to be self-healing, even after being completely severed. Our group has demonstrated several applications of the liquid metal in soft, stretchable components including deformable antennas, soft-memory devices, ultra-stretchable wires, and soft optical components.

Although our approach is promising, there are some notable limitations. Gallium alloys are expensive and the price is expected to rise due to gallium’s expanding industrial use. Nevertheless, it is possible to print microscale structures without using much volume, which helps keep the cost down per component. Liquid metal structures must also be encased in a polymer substrate because they are not strong enough to stand by themselves for rugged applications.

Our current work is focused on optimizing this process and exploring new material possibilities for 3-D printing. We hope advancements will enable users to print new embedded electronic components that were previously challenging or impossible to construct using a 3-D printer.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com)  is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Collin Ladd (claddc4@gmail.com) is pursuing a career in medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, SC. Since 2009, he has been the primary researcher for the 3-D printed liquid metals project at The Dickey Group, which is headed by Michael Dickey. Collin’s interests include circuit board design and robotics. He has been an avid electronics hobbyist since high school.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.

Michael Dickey (mddickey@ncsu.edu) is an associate professor at the North Carolina State University Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. His research includes studying soft materials, thin films and interfaces, and unconventional nanofabrication techniques. His research group’s projects include stretchable electronics, patterning gels, and self-folding sheets.