Screaming Circuits: Industry

Controlling the Uncontrolled

A nice coincidence. Recently, I wrote a bit about choosing a microcontroller and some issues that crop up when people not used to microcontroller design are tasked with automating systems.

My supposition is that, traditionally, most folks in the industry concentrate on designing and choosing microcontrollers and tool sets from the perspective of an expert in embedded design. However, the new world has a lot of people tasked with microcontroller hardware and software design that are not electronics or software engineers. Mechanical engineers are tasked with integrating electronic controls into their systems. Pure digital engineers are being tasked with adding analog sections into their designs. Hardware engineers are having to learn microcontroller firmware programming. That changes the ground rules.

Last week, I signed into a virtual conference on motor control (I started writing this post as I was listening to the virtual conference, but didn't get around to finishing it until today). I signed in late to start listening to the keynote address by John Hanks, of National Instruments and John was at that moment, discussing this very subject. As he described it, domain experts in such fields as solar, wind, and other areas are being asked to add additional automation into those systems. As domain experts, they may know more about their field than an EE or SE, but they likely have not been trained in the application of hardware, firmware and software development.

Interestingly, this group has a lot in common with the electronics hobbyist community. In both cases, the concepts and the tools are frequently quite new to them. In both cases, the budget for training and tools is frequently pretty minimal. In both cases, we have smart people who many not be trained in our field.

Those of us that create tools and offer services in this industry need to keep this trend in mind if we want to fully serve the new engineering audience.

Duane Benson
See us at ESC next week in booth 827

Let's Get Small

It never stops. Does it? It never stops, but it does seem to accelerate.

Mcro-csp When I fuddled with my first 7400 series logic chip a bazzilion years ago, it was a 0.1" pitch DIP chip. A few years after that, people were buying Macs with 0.1" pitch DIP 68000 processor chips. ten years after that, the new little PIC microcontrollers were largely 0.1" pitch DIP chips, but SOIC and .65mm pitch QFP packages were becoming more and more popular. Then came the 1mm and .8 and .65mm pitch BGAs. 0.5mm pitch BGAs became popular a few years ago as did the 0.5mm pitch QFNs. Last year, we started building the 0.4mm pitch BGA Ti OMAP processor with a 0.5mm pitch memory BGA on top of it in a package on package form factor.

If you spend any time reading about advanced packaging, you know that 0.3mm pitch CSP chips are near. I haven't heard of any passive form factor smaller than the 01005, but I guess that's where embedded passives will likely take hold. It makes my head swim sometimes.

Duane Benson

Who are your tool sets made for?

I've been thinking a lot lately about who's using microcontrollers and why these days. There's a lot at stake with this question. And, not just in terms of which microcontrollers are and will be the most popular. There's an element of the Toyota question in here too.

Traditionally, I suspect that electronics component manufactures, hardware EDA tool vendors and software tool vendors assume that their customers have been trained in EE, CS or similar discipline. I think to a point, that serves the industry well. But change is afoot in our industry. Because of a number of factors - too many to list here - virtually everything is getting some level of electronic control now. Years ago, that would have resulted in the hiring of a lot of electronics and software engineers. But not today.

The tried and true EE, accustomed to designing with logic and letting someone else worry about firmware, is now often tasked with designing in a microcontroller and then producing the firmware as well. Or a mechanical engineer is tasked with the same thing; something he or she never trained for. From what I can see, all sorts of technical folks that don't have programming experience, or any electronics design experience, are now being given that task. Schematic designers are now responsible for the board layout. Pure digital folks are often being required to add in a few RF sections.

What happens if all of the software tools (CAD packages, compilers & tool changes) are designed for well trained experts, but intelligent but untrained, in that field, folks need to use them?

When cars suddenly accelerate, MRI machines over-radiate or satellites fail, it's all good to look for tin whiskers, cosmic rays, manufacturing defects, software bugs and causes of that sort. But, what if the root cause is simply that someone trained and practiced in pure digital design was tasked with the "simple" function of adding in a few analog sensors and a tiny microcontroller. What if that designer had to learn a new discipline, a new tool set and still make budget and a tight deadline?

Maybe twenty years in digital design didn't prepare that designer for the quirkiness that goes with analog signals from sensors, or for the challenges involved in writing a small, but bullet proof SPI interface code. Maybe the designer is well used to determining spring strength and durability but now has to design a small electronic circuit to replace that spring. What does that do to quality and reliability? Food for thought.

Duane Benson
Thought is hungry today


Screaming Circuits is seeing more and more components in short supply or on allocation these days. A while back, we took a survey of our customers and found that on average, an engineer would spend about 16 hours sourcing parts for a prototype design.

Schottky top My question is has that changed? There are a few chip companies with a lot of parts in short supply, but what I hear the most about is the passive components. If you've designed a very specific power or radio chip, for example, I can see how a twelve week lead time can be a very big issue. But if it's just a 47pf, 6volt cap, a resistor or diode, is it really that difficult to find a sub quickly?

How much of an issue is parts availability today - really? Is it something that has a lot of visibility and little impact? Or is it something where the visibility and the impact are both pretty big? How much of a hassle and time sink is it for you now?

Duane Benson
I'll trade you a pair of .022 for one .047

Full Circle - Total Quality Management

A thought occurred to me over the weekend as I was pursuing through some of my recent posts and comments.

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, Total Quality Management with such phrases as "Cross-functional team" was all the rage. Essentially, what that meant was that when time to start developing a product, folks from throughout the process would meet; marketing, sales, engineering, mechanical, purchasing, manufacturing, shipping and any other functional groups would send representatives to the product team. That team would meet throughout the development process to ensure that the product was designable, buildable and sellable. It worked.

But... What happens when three quarters of the process is outsourced to three or four different organizations throughout the world? Unless you are very diligent, that quality process breaks down. Then when you remove some of the experts (such as layout specialists), the process can breakdown further. That's where we are now. Perhaps we need to go back in time again and figure out how to get everyone talking and passing data back and forth again.

Duane Benson
Yes - I successfully resisted the temptation to say "we need to go back to the future..."

8 bit vs. 32 bit Microcontrollers

There's a lot of talk these days about the new generation of 32-bit microcontrollers and the demise of the 8-bit controller. I'm a big fan of the Beagleboard and mbed boards (ARM Cortex A8 and ARM Cortex M3). And the Cortex M0 processor looks to be a very promising low-end 32-bit ARM. By the looks of it, ARM could end up ruling the below-X86 world soon.

SP16-1_layout But, one consideration to the 8 vs. 32 discussion that I haven't heard much about is the start-up effort required and the barriers to entry for non-experts. The new ARM Cortex-M processors look to be a great move toward addressing the low-cost and low-power end of the microcontroller market, but they don't really address the buildability issue and the category-entry issue.

At Screaming Circuits, we run into quite a few designs in industries that are just now beginning to automate. In many of these cases, mechanical engineers, not software or electrical engineers, are tasked with putting the brains into the product. These mech folks have to learn, design, layout, build and code. The PIC and Atmel processors, with their thru-hole or big SMT packages, easy 5V power, low clock-speeds and huge base of community support make an impossible job possible for the new entrants into the embedded world. If a thru-hole part with a 20MHz clock can do the job, novice designers can greatly increase their chances for a successful design than if they have to deal with fine pitch parts and 100MHZ clocks.

In a perfect world, this wouldn't be a concern, but as it is, a lot of companies need these parts that are easy to implement for a new designer. M0's may be priced in the sub-$1.00 range, but piece price is not the only component of "cost".

Duane Benson
"Apple II forever"

Mysteries of Engineering

I (and many, many of us, presumably) have been reading more about all of the Toyota woes and the to-date unanswerable questions. Still, so much of the material written about the issues seems to be coming from the untrained. Certainly, human behavior suggests that some of these problems could be the result of operator error. But, I'm not an expert in human behavior, so I can't really say. And, certainly, problems do crop up in complex machinery, like cars. I don't know if that supposition falls within my area of expertise, but a few decades of operating motor vehicles gives me some personal empirical data on that one.

The area that does bother me the most is probably those that speculate that since the problem hasn't been found, it doesn't exist. This is an area where I can claim some level of expertise as well as plenty of personal empirical data.

It is possible to spend uncountable hours testing various possible conditions and still never uncover the one scenario that will cause a systems failure in the hands of the general public. Many years ago, I worked for a company that designed, built and sold projectors. In that day, these were big things with short-life, very hot, incandescent lamps. We thought that we had done a very through job of testing under various conditions and had been selling the product for a little while when reports started filing in of bulbs exploding. It wasn't just a simple break. The bulbs were exploding with such force that the bulb area was filled with a fine grained, razor sharp glass dust. Nasty.

ExplosionDuring a weekend burn in session with a couple dozen projectors, including some returned from the field, the engineer monitoring the process thought he heard a gunshot and dove to the floor. It wasn't a gunshot, but it was the first clue in a long investigative process that did end up finding the problem. It seemed that if a bulb was too deeply seated in the socket by a couple of millimeters, the reflection of the filament in the mirror would exactly line up with the actual filament, causing it to melt and arc. The arc would run in one direction, down the filament leg to the base and stop.

One filament leg had a few coils of small diameter tungsten wire wrapped around it. The other leg did not. Depending on the orientation of the supposedly non-polar bulb, the arc would either run down the leg with no coil or the leg with the coil.

If the arc ran down the leg without the coil, nothing happened other then the bulb needed to be replaced. If it ran down the leg with the coil, that small amount of additional vaporized tungsten increased the internal pressure sufficiently to explode the quartz bulb in a very catastrophic manner. Okay, now that's weird and obscure. Technically, you could call it operator error. If the customer had just inserted the replacement bulb the exact same way we inserted the bulbs during production, the problem would never have happened. But, realistically, it was a design flaw that set the customers up for a failure.

Duane Benson
Duck and cover

Thermal Mass Follow Up

RoHS has been with the electronics manufacturing world for quite a while now but there is still a lot of issues and uncertainty associated with it. As I wrote not long ago, even parts that are supposedly compliant can in some cases not cut it.

Taylor asked in the comments section of that post: "Have you noticed any pattern in capacitor manufacturersClose caps 3 exhibiting this problem? How can make sure to spec a capacitor that is more robust?"

Close caps 1 I can't say that I've seen a real consistent pattern with components from different manufacturers here. It's a case where the design engineer may have to compare the exact thermal specs from different components' data sheets and throw in a good measure of intuition and judgment as well.

In some cases, you might be able to replace a couple of capacitors with a single of a larger value, but in general, if you need multiples, combining them won't do. There are certainly good reasons to parallel up capacitors. You may need a few of different values to cover different frequencies. You may have a clearance issue and not have enough height for a taller cap. Or you may need to keep the ESR (Effective Series Resistance) down. Whatever the reason, if you need a number of caps close together, and they are big SMT electrolytics, you could be setting yourself up for this problem.

Close caps 2 Image A illustrates the issue found in that earlier post. The thermal mass of all of those big metal can caps can slow the solder melt. The most vulnerable pads are the two inside pads for C3 and C4. Keep the heat up long enough to fully melt the solder on all pads and you may destroy the caps, or other components.

You could just spread the two rows apart a bit like in illustration B. This might be enough to allow all pads to solder well or, if nothing else, it would give you enough room to touch up with a soldering iron.

Probably the most common solution though is to take the approach used in illustration C. Just put all the caps in a row so none of the pads are vulnerable.

If you need a compact layout like A, you'll just need to spend some extra time with datasheets to find a specific cap with a bit of extra RoHS temperature margin. Look at the maximum solder temp, the maximum dwell time and the profile curve if available. Don't forget to check your other components too to make sure that the extra reflow time wont harm them either.

Duane Benson

Toyota is as Toyota does

Everyone else seems to be writing about Toyota sudden acceleration problems, so I should probably do that too.

Or should I? Personally, I have absolutely no solid information about what's going on with Toyota cars. There's an awful lot written, much of if by people that also don't have any real information on the subject. Here's what I do know though:

  • Some people (some with actual knowledge and some without) are speculating that electronics might have something to do with the problems.

That's about all I know relative to the specific concerns. On the soft side, I do know that people tend to pick on the big guy. Funny how none of this was big news until Toyota became the #1 car maker in the world. Coincidence? Maybe. Maybe not. I also know that in any system there are gobs of places where LED via-in-padissues can lead to failures. Of course, to counter that, I know that good, well thought out design - both in the hardware and the software, can produce a quality product that will keep working. In summary, I really don'tSilk on pad know anything about the Toyota issues.

However, any time some sort of actual or potential technical problem makes big news, it's not a bad idea for those that design and build things to take a step back and evaluate our design practices. I've got software in my past, so I'd have to suggest a good solid code review, if you don't already do one, but today, I'm talking about hardware so I'll sample just a few things to double check.

  • Those pesky land patterns: Does the land pattern fit the part? Will the copper area and stencil opening allow for a good solid IPC-passing solder joint? It's so common (as you well know if you read here regularly) to re use or create new CAD part foot prints. Make sure the foot print, stencil, mask and silk layers fit properly.
  • Vias in pads: Plug them and plate over them when using small parts. If the solder surface is big enough, like with a power component, you might be able to just cap them, but don't leave the vias open. In some cases, you may be able to leave very tiny vias open on thermal pads, but it's best never to.
  • Thermal mass: This is important both for operation and for assembly. If you've got components that sink and/or generate lots of heat, make sure there is enough air flow to cool them during operation and make sure that the assembly house can build it. Put a couple of high thermal mass parts too close together and an otherwise perfect PCB assembly may end up with some cold solder joints or damaged components that later come back to bite you or your customers.

There are lot's of other things to check out too, but those three are just some of the more common traps to keep tabs on.

Duane Benson
I don't have a Toy Yoda. If I did, I'd sell in on eBay.

Is Geek Cool?

When I was young, "Geek" was not cool. Neither was "Nerd". Working on cars was cool as was logging and shooting Bambi's uncles with high powered rifles, at least where I came from things were that way. On the other hand, every little town had a Radio Shack where you could buy tubes, transistors, ICs and other assorted electronic components. You don't see that so much anymore. Grocery stores sold publications like Byte Magazine, 101 Electronics Projects and Radio Electronics. Those magazines were about building things. People who read and wrote those and others like them created an industry in their garages, basements and bedrooms. They started a new Industrial Revolution.

Still, back then, tech folks were more likely thought of as mad monks and strange people like Eddie Deezen as "Mr Potato head" (Malvin) in the 1983 movie War Games. You didn't want to be one. I like to think that attitudes have changed over the years, and I think the signs are there.

The FIRST Lego league with its robotics tournaments has created a legitimate "sports like" atmosphere for geek-types in school. 50,000 plus Arduinos being sold shows that the electronics hobbyist world is moving again like it did in the 80's. The maker and bender communities illustrated by Hackaday, Makezine and supported by companies like Adafruit and SparkFun show that creating with chips is as alive as it was in the late 70's and 80's. TV shows like Mythbusters, Jimmy Neutron and Prototype This have glorified the geek.

And why do we care? Because the more engineers we build out of the masses, the better we can design and build our economy. The more mainstream and acceptably technology is, the more educators will work to encourage and foster the environment and attitudes that allowed Apple, Dell, Google and SparkFun to thrive. We need that. We need robotics competitions to be as socially acceptable as football games.

Duane Benson
The rooms were so much colder then