Liberally Apply Test Points (EE Tip #144)

When I first started designing, I did not understand the need for the scope posts for hardware test points. I could always tack on a wire or, with many through-hole parts, connect my scope right to the chip. But now test points are essential. My eyesight and steady hands are long gone. But it goes way beyond that. Many of the scope points are buried under the chips. And those that are exposed are smaller than grains of sand. Provide yourself access to the critical points.

Thinking about where you’ll want to probe the  software can also be useful. Linux has done a great job by providing hundreds “test points” for the OS. We should learn to do that with our applications. Planning in advance the places you want to test is also a useful exercise in the whole development cycle because early on it forces you to think about testing.—Bob Japenga, CC25, 2013

Test Under Real Conditions (EE Tip #137)

The world’s best engineers have one thing in common: they’re always learning from their mistakes. We asked Niagara College professor and long-time contributor Mark Csele about his biggest engineering-related mistake. He responded with the following interesting insight about testing under real conditions.

Mark Csele's complete portable accelerometer design, which he presented in Circuit Cellar 266.  with the serial download adapter. The adapter is installed only when downloading data to a PC and mates with an eight pin connector on the PCB. The rear of the unit features three powerful rare-earth magnets that enable it to be attached to a vehicle.

Mark Csele’s complete portable accelerometer design, which he presented in Circuit Cellar 266. with the serial download adapter. The adapter is installed only when downloading data to a PC and mates with an eight pin connector on the PCB. The rear of the unit features three powerful
rare-earth magnets that enable it to be attached to a vehicle.

Trusting simulation (or, if you prefer, lack of testing under real conditions). I wrote the firmware for a large three-phase synchronous control system. The code performed amazingly well in the lab, and no matter what stimulus was applied, it always produced correct results. When put into operation in the field (at a very large industrial installation), it failed every 20 minutes or so, producing a massive (and dangerous) step-voltage output! I received a call from a panicked engineer on-site, and after an hour of diagnosis, I asked for a screenshot of the actual power line (which was said to be “noisy,” but we knew this ahead of time) only to be shocked at how noisy. Massive glitches appeared on the line many times larger than the AC peak and crossing zero several times, causing no end of problems. Many hours later (the middle of the morning), the software was fixed with a new algorithm that compensated for such “issues.” This was an incredibly humbling experience: I wasn’t nearly as smart as I had thought, and I really missed the boat on testing. I tested the system under what I thought were realistic conditions, whereas I really should have spent time investigating what the target grid really looked like.—Mark Csele, CC25 (anniversary issue)

Testing Power Supplies (EE Tip #112)

How can you determine the stability of your lab or bench-top supply? You can get a good impression of the stability of a power supply under various conditions by loading the output dynamically. This can be implemented using just a handful of components.

Power supply testing

Power supply testing

Apart from obvious factors such as output voltage and current, noise, hum and output resistance, it is also important that a power supply has a good regulation under varying load conditions. A standard test for this uses a resistor array across the output that can be switched between two values. Manufacturers typically use resistor values that correspond to 10% and 90% of the rated power output of the supply.

The switching frequency between the values is normally several tens of hertz (e.g. 40 Hz). The behavior of the output can then be inspected with an oscilloscope, from which you can deduce how stable the power supply is. At the rising edge of the square wave you will usually find an overshoot, which is caused by the way the regulator functions, the inductance of the internal and external wiring and any output filter.

This dynamic behavior is normally tested at a single frequency, but the designers in the Elektor Lab have tested numerous lab supplies over the years and it seemed interesting to check what happens at higher switching frequencies. The only items required for this are an ordinary signal generator with a square wave output and the circuit shown in Figure 1.Fig1-pwrsupply

You can then take measurements up to several megahertz, which should give you a really good insight for which applications the power supply is suitable. More often than not you will come across a resonance frequency at which the supply no longer remains stable and it’s interesting to note at which frequency that occurs.

The circuit really is very simple. The power MOSFET used in the circuit is a type that is rated at 80 V/75 A and has an on-resistance of only 10 mΩ (VGS = 10 V).

The output of the supply is continuously loaded by R2, which has a value such that 1/10th of the maximum output current flows through it (R2 = Vmax/0.1/max). The value of R1 is chosen such that 8/10th of the maximum current flows through it (R1 = Vmax/0.8/max). Together this makes 0.9/max when the MOSFET conducts. You should round the calculated values to the nearest E12 value and make sure that the resistors are able to dissipate the heat generated (using forced cooling, if required).

At larger output currents the MOSFET should also be provided with a small heatsink. The gate of the FET is connected to ground via two 100-Ω resistors, providing a neat 50-Ω impedance to the output of the signal generator. The output voltage of the signal generator should be set to a level between 5 V and 10 V, and you’re ready to test. Start with a low switching frequency and slowly increase it, whilst keeping an eye on the square wave on the oscilloscope. And then keep increasing the frequency… Who knows what surprises you may come across? Bear in mind though that the editorial team can’t be held responsible for any damage that may occur to the tested power supply. Use this circuit at your own risk!

— Harry Baggen and Ton Giesberts (Elektor, February 210)

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Electrical Engineering Tools & Preparation (CC 25th Anniversary Issue Preview)

Electrical engineering is frequently about solving problems. Success requires a smart plan of action and the proper tools. But as all designers know, getting started can be difficult. We’re here to help.

You don’t have to procrastinate or spend a fortune on tools to start building your own electronic circuits. As engineer/columnist Jeff Bachiochi has proved countless times during the past 25 years,  there are hardware and software tools that fit any budget. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers some handy tips on building a tool set for successful electrical engineering. Bachiochi writes:

In this essay, I’ll cover the “build” portion of the design process. For instance, I’ll detail various tips for prototyping, circuit wiring, enclosure preparation, and more. I’ll also describe several of the most useful parts and tools (e.g., protoboards, scopes, and design software) for working on successful electronic design projects. When you’re finished with this essay, you’ll be well on your way to completing a successful electronic design project.

The Prototyping Process

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.)

Prototyping Tools

The building phase of a design might include wiring up your circuit design and altering an enclosure to provide access to any I/O on the PCB. Let’s begin with some tools that you will need for circuit prototyping.

The nearby photo shows a variety of small tools that I use when wiring a perfboard or assembling a manufactured PCB. The needle-nose pliers/cutter is the most useful.

These are my smallest hand tools. With them I can poke, pinch, bend, cut, smooth, clean, and trim parts, boards, and enclosures. I can use the set of special driver tips to open almost any product that uses security screws.

Don’t skimp on this; a good pair will last many years. …

Once everything seems to be in order, you can fill up the sockets. You might need to provide some stimulus if you are building something like a filter. A small waveform generator is great for this. There are even a few hand probes that will provide outputs that can stimulate your circuitry. An oscilloscope might be the first “big ticket” item in which you invest. There are some inexpensive digital scope front ends that use an app running on a PC for display and control, but I suggest a basic analog scope (20 MHz) if you can swing it (starting at less than $500).

If the circuit doesn’t perform the expected task, you should give the wiring job a quick once over. Look to see if something is missing, such as an unconnected or misconnected wire. If you don’t find something obvious, perform a complete continuity check of all the components and their connections using an ohmmeter.

I use a few different meters. One has a transistor checker. Another has a high-current probe. For years I used a small battery-powered hand drill before purchasing the Dremel and drill press. The tweezers are actually an SMT parts measurer. Many are unmarked and impossible to identify without using this device (and the magnifier).

It usually will be a stupid mistake. To do a complete troubleshooting job, you’ll need to know how the circuit is supposed to work. Without that knowledge, you can’t be expected to know where to look and what to look for.

Make a Label

You’ll likely want to label your design… Once printed, you can protect a label by carefully covering it with a single strip of packing tape.

The label for this project came straight off a printer. Using circuit-mount parts made assembling the design a breeze.

A more expensive alternative is to use a laminating machine that puts your label between two thin plastic sheets. There are a number of ways to attach your label to an enclosure. Double-sided tape and spray adhesive (available at craft stores) are viable options.”

Ready to start innovating? There’s no time like now to begin your adventure.

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for Bachiochi’s complete essay.