Smart Tweezers are Cunningly Clever
Photo on top is Ideal-Tek ST-5S Smart Tweezers (Image source: Saelig.com)
I must admit that I'm blown away when I think of the test and measurement equipment that's available to electronics engineers these days. I'm not talking about high-end, eye-wateringly expensive tools like multi-channel gigahertz oscilloscopes and logic analyzers that are available primarily for professional engineers working for big companies. Instead, I'm thinking of the sorts of tools that are much more affordable and are of interest to students, hobbyists, and professional engineers alike.
The first piece of test equipment I owned was a simple continuity tester I built when I was about 14 years old. This was a low-cost construction project from an electronics hobbyist magazine. If you placed your two probes on the opposite ends of a conductor like a piece of wire or a copper trace on a circuit board, it buzzed in a way that could either be described as "cheerful" or "annoying" depending on who you were talking to (me or my long-suffering mother).
Of course, I added to my collection of test and measurement tools as the years went by. I can’t imagine being more than a few feet away from a multimeter, for example (I even carry a "travelling multimeter" in my backpack, "just in case").
A couple of years ago, one of my friends introduced me to the small component testers that are available on eBay. At that time, these testers were about $20, which seemed like a really good deal, but I just had a quick Google and found an All-in-1 LCR Component Tester for just $9.99 with free shipping.
My "all-in-one" component tester from a couple of years ago (Image source: Max Maxfield)
Let's start with lead through-hole (LTH) ceramic capacitors, which are one of the banes of my life. Why, Oh why, cannot the manufacturers color code these little rascals like they do their resistor cousins. Attempting to decode the markings on some of today's capacitor packages is like trying to read Martian hieroglyphics.
Happily, my trusty component tester resolves any problems. If I want to know the capacitance value of one of these little scamps, like the blue capacitor shown in the image above, I simply pop it into the zero insertion force (ZIF) socket and press the test button. The tester works out which pins I'm using in the socket, identifies the type of component, measures its characteristics, and presents the results on its display screen.
To be honest, this tester would be worth the money if all it did was test ceramic capacitors, but it does so much more. In addition to evaluating resistors, capacitors, and inductors, the tester also works with diodes, NPN and PNP bipolar junction transistors (BJTs), N-channel and P-channel MOSFETs and JFETs, and thyristors. This is obviously not a lab-grade instrument, but it can be an invaluable addition to anyone's tool chest.
As an aside, I've long thought that replicating this functionality using a microcontroller development platform like an Arduino Uno, for example, would be a fantastic project for someone. It would also provide a great platform to teach newcomers about the characteristics of fundamental components. Even if the system only worked with resistors, capacitors, and inductors, it would still be an incredible training tool. I keep on toying with the idea of doing it myself, but there are so many fun things to do, and so little time to do them all in...
Moving on, there are all sorts of cool tools out there, such as the offerings from Oscium, which support Android, iOS, PC, and MAC, and allow you to transform your smartphone or tablet into an oscilloscope or spectrum analyzer.
One of the problems with modern systems is that things are much more complex than they used to be when I was a lad, not the least that they may boast mixtures of analog and digital functionality and employ various busses and protocols like SPI, I2C, UART, and CAN. In order to address these issues, two devices that I am currently casting a lustful eye on are the Digital Discovery and Analog Discovery 2 modules from Digilent.
Analog Discovery 2 and Digital Discovery (Image source Digilent)
The Analog Discovery 2 is a USB oscilloscope and multi-function instrument that allows you to measure, visualize, generate, record, and control mixed-signal circuits of all kinds. Meanwhile, the Digital Discovery is a combined logic analyzer and pattern generator instrument that allows you to debug, visualize, and simulate digital signals for a wide variety of embedded projects. Both of these little scamps are small enough to fit in your pocket while replacing a bunch of other tools.
Last, but certainly not least, we come to the ST-5S Smart Tweezers from Ideal-Tek, which are what triggered this column in the first place. There are a couple of companies out there for which I have a lot of respect. One is Marlin P. Jones and Associates, which supplies all sorts of low-cost, high-quality parts, gadgets, and gizmos. I cannot tell you how many power supplies of various shapes and sizes I've purchased from these folks.
Another interesting company is Saelig Unique Electronics ("Saelig" is an Old English word meaning "happy, prosperous, blessed"). Amongst many other things, Saelig offers a bunch of test and measurement tools from manufacturers around the world.
Saelig was founded in 1988 by Alan Lowne. In fact, I just received an email from Alan informing me about the availability of the ST-5S Smart Tweezers. These devices are idea for working with teeny-tiny surface-mount devices (SMDs). When you use them to grasp a device, the tweezers automatically detect whether the component is a resistor, capacitor, or inductor, and they select the appropriate measurement range and test frequency for high accuracy readings. The component's type, value, and more detailed analysis, such as Z and ESR, are all presented on the integrated OLED display.
In addition to letting you identify, test, verity, and sort loose components, these smart tweezers can also come in handy for troubleshooting complex PCBs. Of course, RLC values will be modified when the components are mounted on the PCB, but the tweezers can still be very useful with regard to comparing the same component on multiple PCBs.
I didn't even know I wanted a pair of smart tweezers until I saw these little beauties. That's the danger for an engineer, of course, because we can never have too many tools. How about you? Could you be tempted to any of the tools discussed in this column?