The Electronica trade show in Munich is so big that it only takes place once every two years. Every manufacturer, distributor, and maker of anything electronic is there. To get a feel for the scale of things, Electronica is spread out over twelve large exhibition halls and is served by two separate subway stations, one on either end. You wouldn’t think there would be so many inductor manufacturers in the world, but you’d be wrong.
It’s a hardware geek’s paradise, even if it is aimed more at facilitating industry contacts than at serving the humble hacker. But it’s great to see what is out there, quiz reps of all our favorite chip manufacturers about what they’ve got going on, and just generally wander around. You might not get to play with the multi-gigahertz scopes on a day-to-day basis, but you can get hands-on with them at Electronica. And as cool as it is to talk directly to the representatives of our mega-manufacturers, it’s maybe more fun to check up on the creative fringe of companies that you’ve never heard of before, but who nonetheless have great ideas.
Tag-Connect is one of those simple ideas that perfectly scratches an itch that we personally have all the time: temporarily hooking up programming or debugging pins to a PCB. It’s basically a cross between a full programming pin-jig and a connector: a few alignment pins pass through holes in the board, and that serves to perfectly align pogo pins with their targets. The trick is that this makes a nearly zero-cost programming header — a few holes and some copper pads — that aligns as easily as a full pin-header or test jig. The coolest connectors of theirs have little grippers that hold them on to the board while it’s on the bench.[Neil Sherman] himself was there, and seemed a little surprised that I would tell him straight up that I loved his idea enough that I’ve experimented with ripping it off at home, but was reassured when I mentioned it was on home-made PCBs for personal use. You’ll find his connector footprints everywhere if you start looking: on development boards from TI, Microchip, and others.
We also ran into some folks from BotFactory. We’ve actually covered their all-in-one PCB machine before, but it was fun to see it in the flesh. It lays down conductive ink and solder paste, and then has a pick-and-place head that can populate the fresh traces and a heated bed that can reflow solder the parts into place. In principle, it’s a complete PCB fabrication machine. And the machine is almost self-replicating: the production PCBs are outsourced, but they use its pick-and-place and soldering functionality in their own manufacturing chain which ends up being cheaper than getting it done out of house. Cool.
While looking through the prototyping boards at the Digilent booth, we ran into [Antti Lukats], a Hackaday Prize finalist and all-around good guy to know when it comes to FPGAs. In his black box of tricks was an insane multi-core Zynq board with 14 DC/DC converters and 13 LDOs to support all of its power domains.
We also chatted about the state of open-source FPGA toolchains, having only Icestorm for the one for the Lattice Ice40 chips. He suggested that we were close to getting an open-source flow for some unspecified Xilinx FPGAs, which would be a huge coup. [Clifford], if you’re out there and want to send us a tip, you have our email address.
40 Layer PCB
Custom PCB board house Cibel from France got us with their display: a PCB was about a centimeter thick. We walked up to it and pulled out our camera, and their rep answered our question before we could even ask it: 40 layers. They make high-density test boards for the IC manufacturing industry, and they need that many layers to make what is essentially a desktop-sized breakout board.
Aside from Cibel, there was an entire exhibition hall of PCB manufacturers showing off their wares, competing to have the highest resolution, print on the strangest substrates, and cut out the most intricate outlines. We don’t have to hide our secret shame here on Hackaday: it was beautiful!
We had no idea that there were automated laser soldering machines that work by dispensing a glob of solder paste onto a pin and then hitting it with an IR laser hard enough to melt that one joint. But we got to see one in action. This would also be a neat DIY’able device, because it’s basically just a 3D printer chassis with a paste dispenser and a high-wattage IR diode laser strapped on where you’d find the hot end.
It could do about one joint per second, and the main advantage is that it only heats up that one specific joint so that other temperature-sensitive parts on the board are unaffected. The representative said it was used in the automotive sector, but we want one for home. We couldn’t get a good photo, because everything was happening inside an opaque box, which is good practice with high-wattage lasers.
Robotics and Automation
There was a lot of amazing automation in the testing pavilion, but the surest sign that the robots have taken over was watching the Sawyer robot do its thing. If you followed the Baxter robot’s development, it promised to be a human-compatible, light-industrial robot that could be quickly trained to automate simple repetitive tasks. The Sawyer is a one-armed Baxter, but with an extra degree of freedom in that one arm. It’s a compliant robot — there are springs between the motors and the hard parts of the arms — and you can watch it bobble ever so slightly as it moves.
The point of the springs, and the rest of the robot, is that it can feel when it hits unexpected resistance, like when it bumps you or when you grab its arm. In the latter case, it stops and waits for you to manipulate it around and teach it a new motion. It has cameras, knobs, and more software smarts that make retraining the bot look very easy indeed. We don’t drive a Ferrari, but if we were even tempted to do so, we’d buy three of these robot arms instead.
We took many photos. Here are the ones that we’re showing in public. If you’re ever in Germany during an even-numbered November, you owe it to yourself to come on down to Electronica. Drop us a line and we’ll hang out!
Banner and thumbnail images courtesy Electronica 2016