Here's a collection of tips and tricks based on 38 years' experience in the electronics trenches.
I originally wrote this blog for the late, lamented Microcontroller Central. I have updated it with some of the comments and suggestions that it garnered there, along with a few more of my own. Everybody has a favorite idea for making life at work easier. Some of these tips and tricks are handed from old-timers to the younguns. As part of my personal campaign to preserve information, I proudly present the following helpful hints. Some of these ideas are not my own, in which case I have added the name of the person who imparted the technique to me.
Hint No. 1
When I want a cable pair (with no impedance limitations) for a DC power connection or a short communications link, I twist my own using a cordless drill. Simply cut the wire pair (or triplet) to length. Insert one set of ends into the drill chuck, and tighten the chuck, as illustrated below.
The unruly wires are inserted into the drill chuck, and the chuck is tightened. (Click here for a larger image.)
Hold on to the other set of ends, and start the drill. Stop when you have the cable twisted to your desired appearance.
A neat twisted cable. (Click here for a larger image.)
This is so common in my work that I have insisted on having my own drill, so I know the batteries are charged when I need them. If you have any choice in the matter, get a drill with a removable battery, and buy a second battery. (Thank you, Frank Malherbe.)
Hint No. 2
My desk is often a huge jumble of equipment and pieces of electronics, all interconnected. Getting an oscilloscope probe to a particular spot can prove difficult. My answer was to mount my scope on a VDU support arm. This way, it's out of the way until needed. I can then pull it to a convenient spot, connect the probes, and adjust the knobs -- all away from the action on the bench top.
My aging but trusty HP scope mounted on a VDU arm.
(Click here for a larger image.)
With the advent of LCD screens, the VDU support arms are more difficult to find nowadays, but they don't need to be quite as sturdy, since modern scopes have shrunken in size and weight. This idea made a surprising reappearance recently in Martin Rowe's column Engineering Data & the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Hint No. 3
It doesn't happen often for microcontroller engineers, but sometimes you need to wind some wire around a toroid. This can be quite frustrating as you try to thread the wire through the hole and extract it on the other side. The solution is to create a bobbin out of plastic or plywood (similar to the figure below) and size it fit through the toroid.
Possible bobbin configuration.
First, you wind the length of wire on to the bobbin. Then you simply thread the bobbin through the toroid, unspooling as you go. (Thank you, Ernesto Gradin.)
Hint No. 4
When I am testing a product, most times I do not have a full system for many practical reasons. This means I have to simulate the real world with switches, potentiometers, and a variety of other doodads. I often need to mount these devices for easy user access. For this, I use a type of material called White Foam PVC.
A simple test aid for a project. Often, with only a few minor modifications, this will become the test jig for production. (Click here for a larger image.)
We buy this as a sheet and cut it to size with a sharp utility knife. It is very easy to make cutouts (also using a knife) or to drill holes.
With the judicious use of a heat shrink gun (or paint heat stripper), it is possible to bend the sheet into a more convenient shape.
(Click here for a larger image.)
The result is rigid enough to screw into a wooden base. It doesn't win any prizes for beauty, but it is quick and easy to work. (Thank you, Ernesto Gradin.)
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