E14 Op Ed: A uC course for Everyone

Have you ever heard Hardware people swearing up and down that a failure cannot be a problem with the board?  What about hearing that after listening to the software folk extolling the virtues of their code while explaining how that very same failure cannot be a software issue?  Human nature can be a funny thing that affects all of us.
Maybe if more CEs and EEs took a microcontroller course, there would be more understanding and maybe even some humility among engineers…

….How can we prevent this unproductive riff raff?  It might help to have anyone involved in electronics (either the hardware or software side) take at least one course in microcontroller design to show the connections (and problems) that occur between hardware and software.   Any piece of circuitry will eventually need to be controlled or communicate with software, and software usually involves the real world at some point.  The most remarkable A/D circuit is useless if the communication bus that the digital signal must pass over does not have the required bandwidth.  Similarly, a beautiful chunk of code written to control an RGB LED matrix won’t work if the hardware isn’t designed to supply the required amount of power.  A course that forces the engineer to face problems on both sides can be humbling; for example a hardware engineer might spend hours troubleshooting his or her code only to find that the motor was connected to the wrong power rail…..

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Education, Engineering Life, Management | Leave a comment

Chevy Keyless Entry Remote Failure & Repair

I currently drive a 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt which is a remarkable automobile in the most fundamental sense: providing reasonable transportation for a reasonable cost.  She currently has ~102k miles and going strong.  Although this last year I’ve had both of my keyless entry systems fail.  Since I’m the only one who usually drives the car, the solution was to switch the broken one out for the working one.  However the second keyless entry remote FOB failed last week, leaving me with only the key to access my car.  It’s a particularly big hassle since the alarm goes off when the door is unlocked and opened with only the key.  Ugh.

As with any failure, the first step is to understand the problem.  This involved cracking both broken units open to determine what might be the issue.  I was hoping for a dead battery, but no dice.  Each unit had a different, more significant problem:

Unit 1: Broken Solder Joint on the Batter Holder

The first unit had a bad solder join on the battery holder.  I love these problems.  2 minutes of soldering and I’ve repaired something that would cost well over $100 to replace, not to mention a trip to the dealer.  Yet another reason that anyone who owns anything electronic should have access to at least a cheap soldering iron :).

Bad Solder Joint

Unit 2: Worn out Carbon Pill Switch Actuator

After the first unit was repaired, I was hoping that the second unit had the same problem.  But when exploring it, I found that the trunk button worked great; it was the lock and unlock buttons that would not operate :(.  To test the silicone rubber keypad, I opened the unit and used the end of a flat head screwdriver to short the two exposed PCB traces, activating the switch.

This worked beautifully, suggesting that the carbon pill on the silicone button had worn out and is no longer conductive.  I measured the resistance of the carbon pill for the failing buttons and compared it against those of the working trunk button.  Sure enough, the working function had a resistance near 1Mohm, while the broken switch couldn’t get a decent reading.

To solve the problem, I brought out my conductive epoxy that I picked up years ago from the online surplus supplier, Electronics Goldmine.  As with most surplus stock, they don’t sell it any more.  But I’m pretty sure it’s simply normal glue with carbon dust mixed in.  After dabbing a little bit of glue on the carbon pill and allowing it to dry, I tested the switch and it worked great!  After pressing the refurbished switch many times, there was no dust or residue left on the PCB traces suggesting that it could work for a long time.  Although with these budget hobby solutions, there’s no telling how long it’ll last.

Carbon Pill Repair

And there you have it!  Two different reasons a keyless entry system could fail, and how to fix it.  All for less time and way less money than replacing them.  The same steps should also work for any carbon pill switch.  Most TV remotes, garage keypads, calculators, and test equipment all use this type of switch.


Posted in Engineering Life, Fixin', Projects | Leave a comment

E14 Article: EAGLE Autorouter Exploration

AutoRoutedAnyone who is getting into PCB design will automatically be intrigued by the autorouter. It would make sense to the outside observer that an algorithm would be able to process millions of iterations of routings that finds the best balance of short traces, few vias, and well-organized traces. Similar to cracking a random password – it is only a question of time before the ‘correct’ layout is found….

Head to Element14’s ‘knode’ to read the rest of my article that describes how to get started with EAGLE’s autorouter!

Posted in Design Logic, Designs, Projects | Leave a comment

E14 News: Time of the Hardware Startup

Has anyone else noticed that there are more and more hardware startups being formed, and becoming successful? I’ve seen a significant change in the focus at many of the events I’ve attended in 2013 and am excited for what is on the way! My recent Element14 article shares exactly what I mean:

…..Given all of the challenges above, why the migration from hardware aversion to hardware appreciation, especially among sources of capital such as VC firms?  First, the feedback loop is getting shorter and shorter. Falling prices of decent rapid prototyping tools like 3D printing, PCB fab and assembly, and the rise of hardware development boards like those sold by chip manufacturers, adafruit, and sparkfun a startup can get a prototype working at very little cost.  Early prototypes can be designed for hackability, making hardware revisions a simple use of common tools such as wire, soldering irons, a drills, and a hobby knife.  Further speeding hardware development is the significant growth in digital hardware such as microcontrollers and FPGAs.  As digital chips swallow up more hardware functions, the development is shifted to into the realm of being able to change a design with a firmware update.  Finally, the uncertainty of market demand when preparing for manufacturing can be mitigated with preorders enabled by crowdfunding.  Fast following customers will still have to wait for the second production run, but manufacturing planning for early adopters gain the benefit of matching supply to demand on the first run……

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Management, Projects | Leave a comment

E14: Suggestions for Applying To College

CWRU libraryBeing a part of the BlueStamp Engineering program gives me the opportunity to share advice with high school students looking for a technical career path.  I’ve been asked multiple times about what the best method is to apply for college.  And while I’m just an engineer, I thought I’d write an article highlighting what I usually say.  I also think that students find my approach based on candid truth to be refreshing, shifting the focus from ‘how can I get in?’ to ‘how can I get the best education possible for me?’

I believe that colleges want to accept students who are trying to benefit directly from the ability gained from the institutions’ classes, facilities, and faculty.  These are the students who will turn into some of the most remarkable people in their field, completing the mission that most colleges share of providing meaningful education. They are less excited about people who are trying to go to college because it is the next step, or because they feel that they need any ‘ol degree just to get a job.  It is easiest to educate students who are excited, motivated, and will turn a college education into a lifetime of success, while those just looking for a degree are likely to come out unaffected, unimpressed, and/or disillusioned with the college experience.

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Education | Leave a comment

E14 Post: Learn The Art Of Giving An Interview

When people think of interviews, they often think of searching for a job.  But for every interview there are two sides of the table.  Giving an interview is one of the best things a young employee can do to learn more valuable skills, understand their company, and reflect on themselves.  My most recent Element14 article extolls why it’s such a great experience for everyone involved!

….Why is interviewing such an important skill to gain for one to attain early?  Simply put, those who will join your team will likely have daily interactions with you and can make or break your time at work.  After all, these are the people that will be next to you during the late nights that ensue as project deadlines approach.  Do you really want to put in extra hours for a month straight with a person that isn’t very good at their job or doesn’t get along with the team?  Interviewing others is also a great way to meditate on your own growth.  We recognize ourselves in others, so judging a fellow engineer on their resume, experience, and interview can be quite telling.  Do you exhibit the same strengths that you admire in the candidate?  Are you currently making the same mistakes that are now biting the candidate in their job search?  What did others say about the candidate that could also be said about you?….

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Education, Engineering Life, Management | Leave a comment

Resources for Early EAGLE Users

While teaching BlueStamp Engineering, I have several students ask me how they can get up and running with EAGLE.  And although EAGLE is created for getting users into the PCB game, it still has a significant learning curve.

So I wrote an article on Element14’s EAGLE page to give new users a view of what I have used over the years as I learned EAGLE…

Any schematic capture and layout CAD package will have a learning curve, which can leave a new user searching for resources that will help get the job done. CadSoft’s EAGLE schematic and layout editors are widely acclaimed as an easy way to get into PCB design, through no small effort on the part of the designers.  However there are many resources beyond the widely ignored F1 help hotkey embedded in the program (yes, those still exist).

To start, many attribute EAGLE’s success to their remarkable community…….

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Designs, Education | Leave a comment

Cypress PsoC4 Pioneer Kit: Further Blurring The Line Between Analog and Digital

Pioneer Board


I recently got my hands on a Cypress Pioneer Kit powered by a PSoC4 4200 microcontroller. A neat $25 prototyping/tinkering board, to be sure.  But before I start building a project with it, I simply had to check the programmable analog specs!  See what I found by reading my latest Element14 Article:

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Designs, Projects | Leave a comment

Using ‘ownCloud’ on Raspberry Pi to Take Back Control of Data


Last month I lost what could have been a beautiful night laying out a PCB while at a secluded cottage because Google Drive didn’t sync a couple of my board files.  I switched to Microsoft Skydrive for my cloud-based storage since Windows Mesh worked so well for me over the years before it was discontinued.  At the same time, I also created my ownCloud data storage server by using my Raspberry Pi and an external 2TB drive.  I think the future will have most technically-apt people hosting their own data as cost goes down and privacy concerns go up.  Here’s to hoping that I can eventually transition all service-based services to my own servers soon.  Below is a link to an article I wrote on Element14 detailing the build — check it out!

Read The Full Article Here!

Posted in Designs, Engineering Life, Projects | Leave a comment

EntConnect: A Conference For Those Who Make Things Happen

Entconnect Logo

Last month I attended the EntConnect Conference to give it some coverage from Element14.  I like entrepreneurship/engineering, and they had a bunch of fun events like Skiing at Vail which really drew me in.  I wasn’t sure what to expect, with an attendee list of ~30 people how much of a conference could it be?  When I interviewed the conference organizer, John Gaudio, he said that the best way to describe what goes on is serendipity.  Looking back his description was accurate, however I had no idea what he meant at the time.

By attending I found that I had a chance to walk into a group of entrepreneurs who have been getting together every year for the past 20 to discuss their goals, companies, lessons, successes, and failures.  They have known each other for a long time, and the honesty that each presenter offered was amazing.  People giving hard numbers about their acquisitions, business deals, and company acquisitions presented a level of detail that I would never expect.  The simple honest nature of their responses made for some of the best lessons I’ve ever had in the business world.    Here’s an excerpt from my Element14 article:

The trouble with the mass-produced approach is the shallow nature of the connections made. A casual relationship is perfect for a sales person who only needs to have one meeting per year to get the order right.  Normal conferences are remarkable at connecting people who are in a specific industry.  Suppliers meet clients, new technology is unveiled, and an expo is setup as a trading floor for business cards.  Keynote speakers often deliver whitewashed talks scrubbed of anything that could be seen as embarrassing or harmful, at the expense offering the whole truth.

But if a business person wants to make an actual connection where real stories are shared honestly, an entirely different approach is required.  A forum where trust can be established over hours and days, with the same people returning year after year to tell their raw stories and set the candid tone.

EntConnect does exactly that.  It is made of a group of engineers and entrepreneurs who have been getting together for the past 20 years bound not only by their interest in entrepreneurship, technology, and building their companies, but also their friendships.

Read the Full Article Here!

Posted in Engineering Life | Leave a comment