The Last VCR

The news that the supposed last maker of VCRs, Funai Electric, will cease production on the video medium at the end of this month took me back to this blog item I wrote in 2009.

That’s when I retired my previous VCR, a Hitachi VT 2000A workshorse that served me well for 21 (!) years.

They say otherwise, but I’m still convinced that my first college roommates invited me to live with them because I was the only one they knew who had one. Happily, the friendship has outlasted the machines.

So sayonara to one of my favorite technologies!

P.S. I still have a few blank cassettes, if you know anyone who is looking.

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‘Mike Buetow Humor’

When the reader titles their email “Subject: Mike Buetow humor,” you know I’m opening that one first.

Reader TE writes:

Just going through the July 2016 issue when I came across two (well, three really) very interesting announcements.

On page 14 is a small blurb in the first column: “Canadian mining firm First Majestic Silver says a surge in smartphones and tablets is creating a silver shortage that could send prices up 775%.” Now go over to page 15, first column and you will see not one, but two different articles, one on smartphone sales slowing by 2.6% and the second that tablet shipments will decline by 9.6 % this year.

These opposing announcements seem to be right up your alley regarding the irony of our industry, and even perhaps our times. Both can’t be true, so now I am wondering if either is. It’s a big lol from my corner.

Well played, TE: I loved the note, and your observation absolutely appeals to my sense of irony!

I can possibly account for why both could be true. The silver market, like any commodity or precious metal index, changes daily and can be highly speculative. If you look at the Metals Index chart on pg. 15, the Handy and Harman Silver index jumped 15% between Apr. 4 and May 9 this year, then fell 6% by the end of May.

Second, smartphone growth appears to be declining in terms of its rate, but still rising overall. So growth this year will be 3% instead of 11%. I wouldn’t call that a “surge,” but who knows what goes through the minds of those good persons at First Majestic Silver. Also, overall handheld phones shipments are actually growing — probably in the high single digits this year. And it’s also possible that silver speculators are guessing there will be a spike in the second half because of new models that will overcome the lackluster first half sales.

As for the tablets, well, I don’t have a good rationale for that one. We have two in my house and both are used as expensive coasters.

All that said, I highly doubt the silver price will “surge” (or even grow) 775%. At least not because of electronics demand, anyway. After all, election years do play funny tricks on things.

But that’s a column for another day.

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What Route Do You Take?

There are a lot of polar opposites in the “what is my philosophy” world: Mac vs. PC, on shore vs. off shore manufacturing, Ford vs. Chevy, Atmel vs. Microchip (well, maybe not that one so much any more), auto router vs. hand route…. Yes, I’m specifically avoiding political opposites.

DB 1Routing is what I’m really interested in today. The conventional debate is hand vs. auto route. CAD companies spend a lot of time and money on autorouters, but there’s definitely a line of thought that says it’s not ready for prime time yet. This shirt designed by Chris Gammel, on Teespring pretty much says it all.

But, it’s more complex than that. Most auto-routes end up requiring some hand work, either to finish routes that can’t be found automatically, or to clean up a few less than efficient choices. There are differing techniques for complete hand-routing as well.

I often find myself looking at a layout project a bit like a chess game. I don’t just start at one end of the board and work my way to the other side. I tend to focus on specific parts or critical requirements first, like signal paths that need to be short, or sections with more critical grounding requirements. (The image above isn’t mine. It’s from the Beagleboard.)

When it gets to the mass, I tend to try and think ahead, projecting moves out, as though it were a chess game. When I’m looking for the best route for signal path A, I try and think ahead to how it will impact B, D, D… as far ahead as I can go.

I’m not sure if doing it this way is easier, of if it would be better to just start routing and then re-route as I run into roadblacks. What about you? How do you approach a complex layout?

Duane Benson
Holy cow. I Googled “Trust no one” to get some ideas for my signature
Never do that. It’s going to take a week to shake off all the negativity

blog.screamingcircuits.com

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Eagle’s New Nest

It’s been almost a month since Autodesk acquired Cadsoft, and more importantly, its Eagle line of CAD tools, from distributor Premier Farnell. Yet there’s been nary a peep from Autodesk on how it plans to adopt or implement its new toys.

Autodesk, of course, is a developer of 3D design software for a variety of uses, including engineering. The companies had an existing relationship leading up to the sale. Newark element14, a Premier Farnell subsidiary, has been distributing Autodesk’s MCAD tools since last year.

I understand why CAD tools appeal to distys: they represent an opportunity to lock in customers by leveraging the designer’s favorite tool to act as a conduit to ordering parts. And Premier Farnell wasn’t alone in this regard. Mentor and Digi-Key teamed up in late 2014 to offer a simplified flow of schematic and layout tools. (While that arrangement still exists, there’s been precious little news about it since its launch.)

But distribution and software development are too very different animals. Neither one is easy, and they require different skill sets and strategies. I’m not surprised, then, that Premier Farnell decided to cut bait.

The deal from Autodesk’s perspective is infinitely more intriguing. It’s a $2.5 billion software company that has built its name on easy-to-use 3D modeling tools. It says its goal is to “provide the world’s most innovative, and engaging design software and services … to digitally visualize, simulate, and analyze projects.”

Will Eagle go the way of Ohio Design Automation, which was purchased by PTC in 2004, and whose flagship electronic design verification product InterComm is now rolled up into PTC’s Creo flow?

I don’t think so. As the MCAD/ECAD link grows tighter, Autodesk almost assuredly will be looking to leverage Eagle with its extensive customer base. Eagle’s cost structure may change: Premier Farnell knocked the higher-end commercial version prices down quite a bit. But when Autodesk breaks its silence on Eagle, I think it will be in a big way.

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Building Boards for the Intel Edison

I’ve recently spent some time getting familiar with the Intel Edison. The Edison has a dual-core 500MHZ Intel Atom processor, with built-in Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. It comes with 1GB of RAM, 4GB of eMMC internal storage, and a USB 2.0 OTG controller. It doesn’t bring any of the connectors (power or signal) out in a usable form. Rather, it’s designed to be plugged onto another board through a 70-pin high density connector from Hirose.

I designed a small board with I2C (both 5V and 3V connectors) and a micro-SD card slot. My board still doesn’t have the power or console connectors. For that, I’m using a base board from Sparkfun.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Step one of the assembly process, is, of course, to design and layout the board. Using the Sparkfun open source designs as a jumping off point, I ended up with the nice, compact layout (1.2″ x 1.75″) shown below in Figure 2.

Figure 2

Figure 2

After getting the files ready and placing a turnkey order on our website, I followed the board through with my camera. Here it is after offline setup, with the parts ready for robot pick-and-place:

Figure 3

Figure 3

In one of our Mydata My500 solder paste printers:

Figure 4

Figure 4

On the pick-and-place machine, with solder paste, but before any components are placed:

Figure 5

Figure 5

The parts plate in the machine:

Figure 6

Figure 6

 

With most of the components placed:

Figure 7

Figure 7

Through the reflow oven, prior to final inspection:

Figure 8

Figure 8

The final product, top view:

Figure 9

Figure 9

I abbreviated the process a bit, but those are the major process steps along the way.

Duane Benson
Happy birthday (month) Nikola Tesla

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Microbial Nanowires

Biologists at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst have genetically modified bacteria to produce tiny conductive wires that may one day be used in electronics.

biowire2

Courtesy UMass Amherst

If we extrapolate this, does it mean that job-seekers won’t just have China and robots to compete with, but bugs, too?

 

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Where to Put Panel Tabs

Many small quantity PCBs are ordered individually cut. They come to us as a set of unconnected boards. For small quantities of reasonable size boards, it makes the most sense to order them this way. However, for really small boards, and larger quantities (50 or more), purchasing boards in a panel (also called an array) is more appropriate. It reduces errors and assembly time.

There are a few additional factors to consider with panelized boards.

  • First, don’t try to create a panel in your CAD software. Just lay it out as a single board and have the fabricator put it in a panel. You’ll get the most efficient use of PCB space that way, and the fabricator will create the files in the format that the assembly shop (Screaming Circuits) needs.
  • Avoid family panels. A family panel is when several different boards are put onto the same panel. The boards in family panels often repeat reference designators, which causes problems at assembly. See this blog article on how to properly assign reference designators on a family panel.
  • If you have overhanging parts, like the increasingly common micro USB connector, make sure that the panel tabs aren’t placed near the overhanging them.

This blog article gives some background on the connectors.

Some components, such as the connector in the link above, have protrusions that will keep them from laying flat on a panel tab. In all cases, even without the protrusions, the operation of separating the panels with a component on the tab can weaken the component solder joints, or even pop it off the board completely.

How not to do it:

Figure 1

Figure 1

Instead, make sure that the tabs don’t end up under your overhanging component. Have the tab moved like this:

Figure 2

Figure 2

You can put this instruction in the document layer of your CAD file, or in a separate document covering fab instructions. In the CAD image below, the overhanging component has a keepout area. The document layer has instructions to keep panel tabs out of the area.

Figure 3

Figure 3

If in doubt, don’t hesitate to contact us or Sunstone Circuits directly to ensure that your instructions are clearly communicated.

Duane Benson
Wood paneling as a wall covering is really out of style

http://blog.screamingcircuits.com/

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Mel Breaks Loose

A fond farewell to Mel Parrish, who retired this week from STI Electronics.

I’ve known Mel (below, right) for more than 20 years, back to my days at IPC and his at the EMPF in Indianapolis. Through his stints at the Air Force, US Navy (China Lake), and finally STI, Mel has been a constant at the solder and training standards and certification programs. He’s also been one of those rare preternaturally even-keeled fellows you could rely on for technical advice, or a good story, or just some thoughtful wisdom.

Mel_Parrish

STI president and CEO Dave Raby (above, left) said that while he’s happy for Mel, he has been “a vital part of our organization for many years and will be missed.”

I think the industry would agree in spades.

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Hacked Off

It’s been just over three years since the US government indicted a former hacker at a major defense contractor for, ironically, spilling reams of classified information for all the world to see.

In doing so Edward Snowden irreversibly opened the eyes of the public to both the capacity of the US to plumb the world’s communication channels and the sheer volume of information it was collecting (or may still be collecting) on a routine basis.

But it also begged the question of why aren’t government networks more secure. Certainly there are hacks and attacks taking place at a near-constant frequency. Why are these channels still hooked up to the world at large? Would not the world’s respective defense departments be better served if they operated on secure, private networks that weren’t, for example, routed on common platforms? Put another way, isn’t the cost of being digitally pick-pocketed far greater than the nuisance of having to work on multiple systems?

Setting up systems as such wouldn’t prevent a rogue operator like Snowden from successfully spilling the beans, but it would create a far superior barrier from the reach of foreign hands than is currently in place.

In light of all the IP and security concerns so prevalent today, one would think we’d be wise to no only close the barn doors before the horse is pilfered, but also move the barn away from the farm once and for all.

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PCs, Tablets, and Mobile Phones are not Dying (and Will Continue to Present Voiding Challenges)

Folks,

Looks like Patty and Rob are on another adventure.  Let’s look in ….

Patty had been driving the same 2001 Saab station wagon since college. It had been a great car, but, with almost 200,000 miles on it and its outdated safety features, perhaps it was time for a change. Both her and Rob’s parents had been bugging them about getting a new, safer vehicle for a while. Finally, for her birthday, both sets of parents chipped in to give her a significant down payment on a new car.  They even suggested which specific car she should get. It was a car with one of the best safety records, not an insignificant concern for doting grandparents.  The manufacturer has a goal of no deaths in its automobiles by 2020.

As Patty and Rob went shopping, they were overwhelmed by the features that 2016 autos have. Detections of cars in the “blind spot,” warnings when the car leaves the lane, warnings and prevention from backing in to something, reading the speed limit signs, pairing to smartphones, the internet, and on and on.

“Patty, these aren’t cars; they are computers that you can drive,” Rob commented.

“Actually this car has 13 computers,” the salesperson chuckled.

“What is the soonest we can take the car home?” Rob asked, expecting it to be 3 or 4 days.

“You can take it home in an hour,” the salesperson affirmed.

In an hour, Patty and Rob were driving home in their new car, amazed at its capabilities as a “computer on wheels.”

“Rob, look at this. As we pass the speed limit sign, the speed limit is shown on the speedometer,” Patty exclaimed in amazement.

They stopped in their driveway and played with the car’s features for 30 minutes, streaming music from their smartphones, connecting to the internet, and changing many modes on the dashboard display.  It was more fun than their first time playing with a tablet.

lasky1

Figure 1.  Patty and Rob’s new car has 13 computers

Two days later, it was Monday and Patty, Rob, and Pete had been asked to see the Professor for a brainstorming session.  Recently, as Patty’s career had skyrocketed, she had been working with the Professor less and less.  The trio agreed to meet in Patty’s office so they could head over to the Professor’s office together.

“Hey, this is just like old times!” Pete exclaimed.

“I agree,” added Patty, “I miss some of the adventures we used to have.”

The professor welcomed them in.

“I hope all of you had a chance to review the material on the many links that I sent you,” the Professor began.

They all murmured that they had.

They reason I asked you to come is that I am going to be interviewed on national television, The topic is, ‘The Death of PC, Tablets, and Smartphones.’ I thought you all might be able to help me prepare.

They all though in unison, “Us help the Professor prepare?!”

“What are your thoughts on the ‘Death of the PC,’” the Professor asked his humble mentees.

“One of the links you sent has shows PC sales declining,” Rob said.

Lasky2Figure 2. PC sales peaked around 2011 and have been declining since then.

“But, do you think it portends the end of PCs?” the Professor asked.

“This is something I have thought about ever since you sent us the links.  I think the ‘death of the PC’ people are missing some key points,” Pete replied.

“Such as?” the Professor encouraged.

“When I was a teenage we got an IBM PC XT. It had a 10MB hard drive. We replaced it in three years,” Pete began.

“Why did you replace it?” Patty asked.

“It didn’t have enough memory or processor speed for the new games.  The new PC had a 200MB hard drive. We kept that one for about 3 more years and the cycle repeated,” Pete answered.

“And what about today?” the Professor asked.

“My parents have a six-year-old computer. They recently complained they needed to upgrade it because the audio plug is worn out, some keys on the keyboard are intermittent, and it doesn’t have enough USB ports. No problem with the memory; it has 6GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive,” Pete answered.

“So, it did not run out of memory or computer speed?” the Professor asked.

Patty interrupted, “I remember the Professor and I talking about ‘the constancy of memory metrics’. The argument was that a photo is about 1MB, a song 5MB and a movie about 5,000MB.  These metrics are approximately constant. Initially, the size of these metrics overwhelmed early computers, but now these memory metrics are small compared to the capability of current technology. The impact was that early computers had to be changed often, because people wanted to store more photos, songs, etc., but now, with computers having 1TB of memory, getting a new computer for this reason is not so compelling.”

“Maybe with the exception of some new video games, but admittedly this is a small part of the market,” Rob added.

“Well, is the PC market dying then?” the Professor prompted.

“No way!” Pete jumped in. All of us use our PCs for hours each day.  Am I the only one longing for my PC when I answer an email from my smartphone?” Pete asked.

They all chuckled.

“So, it seems that we are concluding that, today, the performance requirements for PCs, mostly laptops, have leveled off and upgrades are needed less frequently. These upgrades are often driven by mechanical failures such as connectors and keyboards, not necessarily the need for more memory or faster processor speed.  It is natural then to expect sales of PCs to level off and even go down some as, in addition to these points, the market has reached saturation.  Everyone who needs a PC has one,” the Professor summed up.

“Yeah, and the 238.5 million sold last year is not really small potatoes,” Rob added.

“What about tablets? Are they going away?” the Professor asked with a mischievous smile.

“Again, the data show a downward trend, but I’m not a believer that they are going away either,” Pete commented.

Lasky3

Figure 3.  Tablet sales are declining.

“I think a similar thing is happening here,” Patty mused. “Tablets are so powerful that there just isn’t an incentive to purchase one frequently. We have an iPad II that we bought in 2011 that we still use, although it doesn’t run some of the newer games.”

“And they sure are popular with our boys. We have to limit the time they spend on them,” Rob added.

“What about people using large smartphones instead of tablets?” Patty asked.

“That has definitely cut into tablet sales. Some of the new smartphones are so big that they are almost comical.  They are as big as some of the mini tablets,” Pete opined.

“Professor, I thought one of the links you sent was fascinating: 4.6 billion mobile phone users in a world of 7.3 billion people!” Rob exclaimed.

“I have a friend who works in humanitarian engineering in third world countries. He tells me that people in some places he visits, will go without food to have a cellphone. In the past, communicating with relatives 60 miles away was a one week commitment of time, because of the primitive transportation. Now, they can do it instantly,” the Professor shared.

“What about the fact that there are as many mobile phones as people on the earth,” Pete exclaimed.

“I guess some people have more than one,” Rob suggested.

“So are mobile phones dying?” the Professor asked.

“I think it is the same argument. When I was starting out at ACME, I had a mobile phone that could take photos, but the quality was really poor. By 2010 the photo quality was good, today it is excellent. I hardly ever take a camera with me, my smartphone photos are excellent,” Patty said.

“So, I’m guessing you don’t need to get a new smartphone as often because the technology has now stabilized, and improvements are only incremental?” the Professor asked.

“Precisely,” Patty responded.

“I think we agree; PCs, tablets, and mobile phones are here to stay, but their sales will be flat or slightly down due to market saturation and technology maturity.”

“Here, here,” Pete chuckled.

“Where do you see electronics growing?” the Professor asked.

Patty and Rob then shared their exciting experience in buying a new car and all of the electronics it has.

Pete then chimed in, “Don’t forget the internet of things (IoT).  I think this is the future of electronics growth, but it is not one device.  The number of devices is innumerable – and growing! And I think it will help electronics grow even faster than in the past.”

They discussed IoT for quite a while and then Rob had a thought.

“Bottom terminated components and especially QFNs will be with us for a long time as they are in all of these devices.  So the work we did for Mike Madigan on voiding should have a lasting impact,” Rob posited.

“Patty, you need to do something about Rob. He’s becoming too serious,” Pete teased.

Everyone laughed at that and got up to leave after what they all felt was a fruitful meeting.

Best wishes,

Ron

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