Home-Inspired Innovation to Create the Finest Multimeter Probes

Robert Fitzgerald, senior consultant

By: Robert Fitzgerald
Senior Consultant, Signal Processing

6th December 2019

2 minute read

Home » Technology

During the course of my career in Electronics, almost all semiconductor components have become increasingly smaller. Whilst this has brought many benefits in terms of size, performance and power consumption, the task of debugging circuits has become much harder. Long gone are the days when you could attach a friendly IC test clip over a 16 pin DIL IC to probe key signals.

Magnifying the problem

The inexorable march of long sightedness has provided a double-whammy and made this task even harder. Help is at hand thanks to head mount magnifier glasses, which even with an LED only cost around £10.

In-circuit test techniques such as JTAG have helped, but sometimes there’s no substitute for actually debugging your PCB with a multimeter or scope.

If you’re lucky enough to be probing an IC that actually has pins or a QFN package where there is a tiny area of exposed metal to access, the probes that come with most multimeters are usually too broad at the tip to ensure you’re on the pin you want rather than shorting out the adjacent pin and making matters a whole lot worse!

Many well-known suppliers offer test leads with fine tips buts none were quite sharp enough – and they’re not cheap.

Inspiration!

Salvation came from the unlikely source of my wife’s needlework kit. Whilst rummaging through it looking for some elastic I was stabbed by a needle. Upon removing offending item from my finger I realized that being made of metal and sharp enough to draw blood, it was just what I needed for circuit debugging.

Said needle was promptly soldered to a 4mm banana socket with plenty of heatshrink to make the connection sufficiently robust and the net result is shown below:

innovation, creativity, problem solvingProbing a 0.5mm pitch quad flat pack IC is now slightly less precarious.

innovation, creativity, problem solvingThe end can be made even sharper with the aid of a file but beware such probes are very sharp as I found to my initial cost.
As every Engineer knows, it’s the magic smoke that makes all semiconductors work and these probes have helped me keep it on the inside and aided fault finding.

How have you solved problems in unexpected ways?

During the course of my career in Electronics, almost all semiconductor components have become increasingly smaller. Whilst this has brought many benefits in terms of size, performance and power consumption, the task of debugging circuits has become much harder. Long gone are the days when you could attach a friendly IC test clip over a 16 pin DIL IC to probe key signals.

Magnifying the problem

The inexorable march of long sightedness has provided a double-whammy and made this task even harder. Help is at hand thanks to head mount magnifier glasses, which even with an LED only cost around £10.

In-circuit test techniques such as JTAG have helped, but sometimes there’s no substitute for actually debugging your PCB with a multimeter or scope.

If you’re lucky enough to be probing an IC that actually has pins or a QFN package where there is a tiny area of exposed metal to access, the probes that come with most multimeters are usually too broad at the tip to ensure you’re on the pin you want rather than shorting out the adjacent pin and making matters a whole lot worse!
Many well-known suppliers offer test leads with fine tips buts none were quite sharp enough – and they’re not cheap.

Inspiration!

Salvation came from the unlikely source of my wife’s needlework kit. Whilst rummaging through it looking for some elastic I was stabbed by a needle. Upon removing offending item from my finger I realized that being made of metal and sharp enough to draw blood, it was just what I needed for circuit debugging.

Said needle was promptly soldered to a 4mm banana socket with plenty of heatshrink to make the connection sufficiently robust and the net result is shown below:

innovation, creativity, problem solvingProbing a 0.5mm pitch quad flat pack IC is now slightly less precarious.

innovation, creativity, problem solvingThe end can be made even sharper with the aid of a file but beware such probes are very sharp as I found to my initial cost.
As every Engineer knows, it’s the magic smoke that makes all semiconductors work and these probes have helped me keep it on the inside and aided fault finding.

How have you solved problems in unexpected ways?

Early Detection and Treatment of Hearing Loss May Stave off Dementia

By: Nigel Whittle
Head of Medical & Healthcare

29th November 2019

4 minute read

Home » Technology

In a recent landmark study, researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre in New York have demonstrated a clear link between hearing loss and impairment of memory and cognitive skills.[1]

Previous investigations had already indicated a connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, but those studies only examined people already diagnosed with hearing loss, defined as the inability to hear sounds below 25dB. This current study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has taken the investigation a step further.

A team led by hearing specialist Justin Golub MD studied data from 6,451 adults with an average age of 59 who took hearing and cognitive tests. They found that for every 10dB increase in the lower limit of hearing, there was a significant decrease in cognitive ability. Moreover, the largest decrease occurred in those whose hearing was just starting to become impaired – just 10dB off normal hearing capability, when hearing is still considered normal.

This is significant as age-related hearing loss affects about two-thirds of the elderly over 70, while only 14% of American adults with hearing loss wear a hearing aid.

“Most people with hearing loss believe they can go about their lives just fine without treatment and maybe some can,” says Golub. “But hearing loss is not benign. It has been linked to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline and dementia. Hearing loss should be treated. This study suggests the earlier, the better.”

The current study could not prove that hearing loss caused cognitive impairment and it is possible that declines in both hearing and cognitive performance are related to common ageing-related processes. But the study’s design suggests a causal link: “It’s possible that people who don’t hear well tend to socialise less. Over many years this could have a negative impact on cognition.” Golub said that if that were the case, preventing or treating hearing loss could reduce the incidence of dementia.

Plextek Technology

Plextek has developed innovative hearing analysis technology that can reliably detect early signs of hearing loss well before a person becomes aware of the symptoms. It has been designed for integration within standard everyday consumer headphones and has been described as a potential ‘game-changer’ in the prevention of tinnitus and hearing loss.

“This clinical study indicates the importance of early detection of hearing loss, allowing remedial action to be taken in a timely manner. The data strongly validates our approach to hearing loss and we are excited about the impact that our technology could have on the rising incidence of dementia”, said Dr Nigel Whittle, Head of Medical & Healthcare.

If you would like to chat further to our medical team, please email hello@Plextek.com to set up a call.

 


[1]‘Association of Subclinical Hearing Loss With Cognitive Performance’, Golub, JS; Brickman, AM; Ciarleglio, AJ; et al. JAMA Otolaryngol. Head Neck Surg. November 14, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaoto.2019.3375

In a recent landmark study, researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Centre in New York have demonstrated a clear link between hearing loss and impairment of memory and cognitive skills.[1]

Previous investigations had already indicated a connection between hearing loss and cognitive decline, but those studies only examined people already diagnosed with hearing loss, defined as the inability to hear sounds below 25dB. This current study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, has taken the investigation a step further.

A team led by hearing specialist Justin Golub MD studied data from 6,451 adults with an average age of 59 who took hearing and cognitive tests. They found that for every 10dB increase in the lower limit of hearing, there was a significant decrease in cognitive ability. Moreover, the largest decrease occurred in those whose hearing was just starting to become impaired – just 10dB off normal hearing capability, when hearing is still considered normal.

This is significant as age-related hearing loss affects about two-thirds of the elderly over 70, while only 14% of American adults with hearing loss wear a hearing aid.

“Most people with hearing loss believe they can go about their lives just fine without treatment and maybe some can,” says Golub. “But hearing loss is not benign. It has been linked to social isolation, depression, cognitive decline and dementia. Hearing loss should be treated. This study suggests the earlier, the better.”

The current study could not prove that hearing loss caused cognitive impairment and it is possible that declines in both hearing and cognitive performance are related to common ageing-related processes. But the study’s design suggests a causal link: “It’s possible that people who don’t hear well tend to socialise less. Over many years this could have a negative impact on cognition.” Golub said that if that were the case, preventing or treating hearing loss could reduce the incidence of dementia.

Plextek Technology

Plextek has developed innovative hearing analysis technology that can reliably detect early signs of hearing loss well before a person becomes aware of the symptoms. It has been designed for integration within standard everyday consumer headphones and has been described as a potential ‘game-changer’ in the prevention of tinnitus and hearing loss.

“This clinical study indicates the importance of early detection of hearing loss, allowing remedial action to be taken in a timely manner. The data strongly validates our approach to hearing loss and we are excited about the impact that our technology could have on the rising incidence of dementia”, said Dr Nigel Whittle, Head of Medical & Healthcare.

If you would like to chat further to our medical team, please email hello@Plextek.com to set up a call.

 


[1]‘Association of Subclinical Hearing Loss With Cognitive Performance’, Golub, JS; Brickman, AM; Ciarleglio, AJ; et al. JAMA Otolaryngol. Head Neck Surg. November 14, 2019. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamaoto.2019.3375

Baking and engineering

How Baking Is Valuable for Engineering Projects

By: Beate Muller
Project Engineer

7th November 2019

4 minute read

Home » Technology

Being an engineer by trade and a baker by night (or rather weekend) the colleagues here at Plextek are happy to find some kind of bake in the office most Mondays. From layer cakes to chocolates and macarons, biscuits to croissants and choux buns, I really try to make the best of my baking skills each weekend. While this helped me climb the social ladder within the office pretty quickly, with everyone raving about the latest creation, I am sure the principles I use while baking can also translate to the engineering world.

I love to challenge myself so my baking normally consists of several different parts. As an easy example, think of a layer cake with several layers of baked sponge, with layers of filling and decorations on top.

Prepare

At first, it is important to define the specifications and clarify what the final outcome will be, ie: a delicious cake and what the work requirements are to get there (bake layers, make the filling, make decorations, assemble).

Next, it is important to define both the project plan and budget. For the project plan, it is necessary to analyse the work requirements and determine which ones can be done simultaneously and where they need to be completed successively. The filling can be made while the cake layers are baking in the oven, but on the other hand, the assembly of the cake can only start when all other parts are completed.

Making the budget involves checking the resources needed for each part of this project (the ingredients and tools) and checking how much of it is already available.

Meet

At the start of the project, a kick-off meeting brings all team members together and clarifies the vision for the job. While I don’t bake in a team, it is still necessary to have some kind of kick-off. This means getting all the ingredients ready and reading the recipe so that I am aware of what I am about to do.

Meetings are also important during the course of a project so that progress can be reported back to the project manager and to determine if both the budget and plan are still up to date. During the baking project, it will be necessary to read the recipe again to make sure all steps are executed correctly and to be clear about the tasks ahead.

Work Methodically

The execution of an engineering project depends on the methodical and precise work the engineers are doing. Baking is a science, therefore working precisely is very important in that case as well. It is crucial that the ingredients are at the right temperature and that they are added in the right order.

Adapt

During the project, complications can emerge that were not planned for. It is important to be flexible to be able to cope in these situations and find a workaround or change the schedule to continue working towards the desired outcome. If the filling for the cake doesn’t set well at room temperature it will be necessary to put the cake in the fridge for a while. The schedule will need to be adjusted in this case.

Enjoy the result

After a successful project, it is important to enjoy the results and celebrate the achievements. After all, who doesn’t love cake?

Even if the project doesn’t go as planned, it is important to learn lessons from it. One time I wanted to make a cake with a lot of colourful sprinkles in it but the sprinkles lost their colour and I ended up with a green cake! Now I know to purchase a different brand of sprinkles and not to handle the dough too much after adding the sprinkles.

Challenge yourself

After you have enjoyed the rewards of this project it is important to get excited for the next one coming up. There are always exciting things to bake and to engineer and I can’t wait for both of them!

Being an engineer by trade and a baker by night (or rather weekend) the colleagues here at Plextek are happy to find some kind of bake in the office most Mondays. From layer cakes to chocolates and macarons, biscuits to croissants and choux buns, I really try to make the best of my baking skills each weekend. While this helped me climb the social ladder within the office pretty quickly, with everyone raving about the latest creation, I am sure the principles I use while baking can also translate to the engineering world.

I love to challenge myself so my baking normally consists of several different parts. As an easy example, think of a layer cake with several layers of baked sponge, with layers of filling and decorations on top.

Prepare

At first, it is important to define the specifications and clarify what the final outcome will be, ie: a delicious cake and what the work requirements are to get there (bake layers, make the filling, make decorations, assemble).

Next, it is important to define both the project plan and budget. For the project plan, it is necessary to analyse the work requirements and determine which ones can be done simultaneously and where they need to be completed successively. The filling can be made while the cake layers are baking in the oven, but on the other hand, the assembly of the cake can only start when all other parts are completed.

Making the budget involves checking the resources needed for each part of this project (the ingredients and tools) and checking how much of it is already available.

Meet

At the start of the project, a kick-off meeting brings all team members together and clarifies the vision for the job. While I don’t bake in a team, it is still necessary to have some kind of kick-off. This means getting all the ingredients ready and reading the recipe so that I am aware of what I am about to do.

Meetings are also important during the course of a project so that progress can be reported back to the project manager and to determine if both the budget and plan are still up to date. During the baking project, it will be necessary to read the recipe again to make sure all steps are executed correctly and to be clear about the tasks ahead.

Work Methodically

The execution of an engineering project depends on the methodical and precise work the engineers are doing. Baking is a science, therefore working precisely is very important in that case as well. It is crucial that the ingredients are at the right temperature and that they are added in the right order.

Adapt

During the project, complications can emerge that were not planned for. It is important to be flexible to be able to cope in these situations and find a workaround or change the schedule to continue working towards the desired outcome. If the filling for the cake doesn’t set well at room temperature it will be necessary to put the cake in the fridge for a while. The schedule will need to be adjusted in this case.

Enjoy the result

After a successful project, it is important to enjoy the results and celebrate the achievements. After all, who doesn’t love cake?

Even if the project doesn’t go as planned, it is important to learn lessons from it. One time I wanted to make a cake with a lot of colourful sprinkles in it but the sprinkles lost their colour and I ended up with a green cake! Now I know to purchase a different brand of sprinkles and not to handle the dough too much after adding the sprinkles.

Challenge yourself

After you have enjoyed the rewards of this project it is important to get excited for the next one coming up. There are always exciting things to bake and to engineer and I can’t wait for both of them!

Further Reading

Railway Revolution

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

5th November 2019

3 minute read

Home » Technology

If you view the railway network as still lodged in the Victorian era, you should think again. A revolution in rail travel is in progress. Ever-increasing road congestion and worsening global warming are pushing more traffic onto the rail network and will continue to do so. Rail travel is an inherently efficient method of moving both people and goods in an environmentally sustainable manner.

We can build more routes, but the existing rail network needs to move more people and more goods every day. This means running more trains, more frequently and more sustainably.

But to push more trains onto the track, train spacing must be greatly reduced. This requires a revolution in train management, abolishing fixed track sections and creating new systems for detecting the precise location of trains, automated control across the network, highly sophisticated scheduling and more robust safety systems.

Building a sustainable network

Further improvements to sustainability will see the removal of diesel traction, replaced by further track electrification and battery or hydrogen fuel cell-powered trains. Rolling stock will also use advanced materials to reduce weight, regenerative braking to conserve power and more intelligent power control. Routing slow goods traffic in between passenger trains is difficult and inefficient and will be done at night when currently, routes are often closed for manual inspection.

Happily, manual inspection will become a thing of the past as track and rolling stock monitoring is performed by automated and robotic systems. Track, overheads and rolling stock will be fitted with extensive sensing for continuous monitoring and diagnostics. Further sensors built into track and overheads will monitor rolling stock while conversely, sensors built into rolling stock will monitor track and overheads, at full train operating speeds. Robotic trains and autonomous drones operating beyond-line-of-sight will conduct automated surveys. Sophisticated data exploitation techniques will process and examine all this data to look for trends in wear and defects, predicting potential failure before it happens and improving network up-time.

All about the passenger

All the above will benefit the passenger experience, through improved punctuality, better reliability and more frequent services. But this is only a start. Better management of passenger flows at busy stations will direct travellers to the most appropriate train carriage. Improved security screening techniques will keep people safe without impeding the flow, while accurate real-time passenger information will make travel decisions easier to make.

This revolution demands a strong culture of innovation to drive radical changes in train operating practice. It also requires the very best of current technology, including advanced sensing, ubiquitous communications, powerful but trustworthy data processing and enhanced autonomy.

If you need to be sure you are building the very best of current technology into your products and systems, do give us a call. We’d love to talk about how we can help you create the railway revolution.

If you view the railway network as still lodged in the Victorian era, you should think again. A revolution in rail travel is in progress. Ever-increasing road congestion and worsening global warming are pushing more traffic onto the rail network and will continue to do so. Rail travel is an inherently efficient method of moving both people and goods in an environmentally sustainable manner.

We can build more routes, but the existing rail network needs to move more people and more goods every day. This means running more trains, more frequently and more sustainably.

But to push more trains onto the track, train spacing must be greatly reduced. This requires a revolution in train management, abolishing fixed track sections and creating new systems for detecting the precise location of trains, automated control across the network, highly sophisticated scheduling and more robust safety systems.

Building a sustainable network

Further improvements to sustainability will see the removal of diesel traction, replaced by further track electrification and battery or hydrogen fuel cell-powered trains. Rolling stock will also use advanced materials to reduce weight, regenerative braking to conserve power and more intelligent power control. Routing slow goods traffic in between passenger trains is difficult and inefficient and will be done at night when currently, routes are often closed for manual inspection.

Happily, manual inspection will become a thing of the past as track and rolling stock monitoring is performed by automated and robotic systems. Track, overheads and rolling stock will be fitted with extensive sensing for continuous monitoring and diagnostics. Further sensors built into track and overheads will monitor rolling stock while conversely, sensors built into rolling stock will monitor track and overheads, at full train operating speeds. Robotic trains and autonomous drones operating beyond-line-of-sight will conduct automated surveys. Sophisticated data exploitation techniques will process and examine all this data to look for trends in wear and defects, predicting potential failure before it happens and improving network up-time.

All about the passenger

All the above will benefit the passenger experience, through improved punctuality, better reliability and more frequent services. But this is only a start. Better management of passenger flows at busy stations will direct travellers to the most appropriate train carriage. Improved security screening techniques will keep people safe without impeding the flow, while accurate real-time passenger information will make travel decisions easier to make.

This revolution demands a strong culture of innovation to drive radical changes in train operating practice. It also requires the very best of current technology, including advanced sensing, ubiquitous communications, powerful but trustworthy data processing and enhanced autonomy.

If you need to be sure you are building the very best of current technology into your products and systems, do give us a call. We’d love to talk about how we can help you create the railway revolution.

Plextek’s Annual Make-a-thon

Thomas Rouse - Senior Consultant, Medical & Healthcare

By: Thomas Rouse
Lead Consultant

24th October 2019

4 minute read

Home » Technology

Thomas Rouse explains what a make-a-thon is and why it’s important for innovation.

What is a Make-a-thon? Well for us it’s a more constructive version of a hackathon, both literally and metaphorically. Plextek’s annual Make-a-thon is a chance for graduates through to senior consultants to work in teams to make amazing creations in a day. Why is this important? As a company grows, activities like Make-a-thons can test our normal working practices, help us to focus on the essentials, evaluate what it means to be innovative and just have fun with our colleagues using lots of cool tools.

The Results:

Team Green UI (Richard Emmerson, Steve Fitz, Ben Skinner and Ivan Saunders) have developed a novel user interface that can tell users the weather using a visual dome display that mechanically points to different weather states: rain, snow, mist, fog, sun, day, night – also a lot more energy efficient than displaying on a screen. Interesting to see what you can do away from traditional display technology using energy-efficient methods.

Team Infant Suffocation ( Polly Britton, Daniel Tomlinson, Alan Cucknell, Edson Silva) have developed a proof of concept for new parents with infants. Monitoring the fluctuation of the infant’s chest (using a soft flexible strap) while breathing, the device would alert the parent if the infant’s breathing became irregular. Measuring the voltage across an electrically conductive material to monitor the breathing, the material’s resistance would change according to the pressure created by the force of an inhale/exhale. A low cost, low power solution that democratises baby safety.

Engineers

Team Posture Detection (Ehsan Abedi, Thomas Childs, Bhavin Patel, Gifty Mbroh) looked at developing a proof of concept that could take readings across a number of different points across the back to detect and alert the user to incorrect posture. A novel use of accelerometers that looks to address the health issues of bad posture, either from sitting or standing, for prolonged periods of time.

Team Microfluidics (Kieran Bhuiyan, Frederick Saunders, Poppy Oldroyd) aimed to demonstrate whether low-cost microfluidic systems can be made using rapid prototyping. A microfluidic channel was made in acrylic and various concentrations of saltwater were supplied to these channels. Measuring the rate of flow demonstrated that geometrically consistent channels could be made using rapid prototyping. The results of which proved that solutions with a higher salinity did indeed have a higher viscosity.

Team Autism EEG (Tom Rouse, Josip Rožman, Glenn Wilkinson, Elliot Langran) have developed a proof of concept system using real-time neurofeedback and a traffic light wristband. The idea is to assist autistic children in identifying emotions, as many have difficulty with this. Brainwaves measured using low-cost EEG sensors and a Raspberry Pi running a Multilayer perceptron (MLP) determined whether Elliot was calm or stressed and gave near-instant feedback. The model had been trained on the day especially for him, based on two 5 minute measurements while he was experiencing different emotions. The device can, therefore, be personalised to both the individual and the concepts they would like to understand.

This year’s make-a-thon was run our Summer student Poppy and myself. Many thanks Poppy!

As you can see, giving a short timeframe can focus the mind to create amazing solutions that otherwise could take longer. Lean working can create innovation where you least expect it!

If you have any questions about any of the projects and would like to know more about any of our projects in the make-a-thon, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!

Thomas Rouse explains what a make-a-thon is and why it’s important for innovation.

What is a Make-a-thon? Well for us it’s a more constructive version of a hackathon, both literally and metaphorically. Plextek’s annual Make-a-thon is a chance for graduates through to senior consultants to work in teams to make amazing creations in a day. Why is this important? As a company grows, activities like Make-a-thons can test our normal working practices, help us to focus on the essentials, evaluate what it means to be innovative and just have fun with our colleagues using lots of cool tools.

The Results:

Team Green UI (Richard Emmerson, Steve Fitz, Ben Skinner and Ivan Saunders) have developed a novel user interface that can tell users the weather using a visual dome display that mechanically points to different weather states: rain, snow, mist, fog, sun, day, night – also a lot more energy efficient than displaying on a screen. Interesting to see what you can do away from traditional display technology using energy-efficient methods.

Team Infant Suffocation ( Polly Britton, Daniel Tomlinson, Alan Cucknell, Edson Silva) have developed a proof of concept for new parents with infants. Monitoring the fluctuation of the infant’s chest (using a soft flexible strap) while breathing, the device would alert the parent if the infant’s breathing became irregular. Measuring the voltage across an electrically conductive material to monitor the breathing, the material’s resistance would change according to the pressure created by the force of an inhale/exhale. A low cost, low power solution that democratises baby safety.

Team Posture Detection (Ehsan Abedi, Thomas Childs, Bhavin Patel, Gifty Mbroh) looked at developing a proof of concept that could take readings across a number of different points across the back to detect and alert the user to incorrect posture. A novel use of accelerometers that looks to address the health issues of bad posture, either from sitting or standing, for prolonged periods of time.

Team Microfluidics (Kieran Bhuiyan, Frederick Saunders, Poppy Oldroyd) aimed to demonstrate whether low-cost microfluidic systems can be made using rapid prototyping. A microfluidic channel was made in acrylic and various concentrations of saltwater were supplied to these channels. Measuring the rate of flow demonstrated that geometrically consistent channels could be made using rapid prototyping. The results of which proved that solutions with a higher salinity did indeed have a higher viscosity.

Team Autism EEG (Tom Rouse, Josip Rožman, Glenn Wilkinson, Elliot Langran) have developed a proof of concept system using real-time neurofeedback and a traffic light wristband. The idea is to assist autistic children in identifying emotions, as many have difficulty with this. Brainwaves measured using low-cost EEG sensors and a Raspberry Pi running a Multilayer perceptron (MLP) determined whether Elliot was calm or stressed and gave near-instant feedback. The model had been trained on the day especially for him, based on two 5 minute measurements while he was experiencing different emotions. The device can, therefore, be personalised to both the individual and the concepts they would like to understand.

This year’s make-a-thon was run our Summer student Poppy and myself. Many thanks Poppy!

As you can see, giving a short timeframe can focus the mind to create amazing solutions that otherwise could take longer. Lean working can create innovation where you least expect it!

If you have any questions about any of the projects and would like to know more about any of our projects in the make-a-thon, do get in touch – I’d love to hear from you!