DesignSpark Mechanical

At RS Components and Allied Electronics we love helping you take your ideas from concept to creation. With DesignSpark Mechanical we aim to give every engineer the power to quickly design and change product concepts in 3D without having to learn complex traditional CAD software. In partnership with SpaceClaim we give you the power to start modelling your ideas instantly and have your prototypes 3D-printed the same day!

Make – A Peltier cooled cloud chamber


Cloud chambers are a basic form of particle detector that can be used to detect ionising radiation – invented by Charles Wilson, a Scottish physicist – in the early twentieth century. In this series of posts we will build our own cloud chamber with a combination of off-the-shelf and custom made parts, using a Peltier module for cooling and a Raspberry Pi for temperature monitoring.

This first post will cover the initial design and build, using DesignSpark Mechanical to draw a cooling plate in 3D, before exporting the model and milling it from aluminium. Other custom parts will be laser cut from MDF and acrylic.



Peltier modules are thermoelectric devices that get cool on one side and hot on the other when a voltage is applied, and can be employed for either cooling or heating depending upon the application. They can also be used to create a voltage when there is a heat difference present across the two sides. They make use of the thermoelectric effect, further reading on which can be found on Wikipedia.


We will use a Peltier module to reduce the temperature of the cooling plate in our cloud chamber, with a large fan-cooled heat sink on the opposite side to remove heat from the system.

DS18B20 temperature sensors will be used to monitor the temperature of the system in three locations: the cooling plate, the heat sink and the ambient temperature. These will all be connected to a Raspberry Pi, with the readings displayed on a 16×2 LCD display.


Switches, inputs and outputs to the system will be housed in a custom enclosure, with bright LEDs positioned to illuminate the alcohol vapour trails within the cloud chamber.

Enclosure and heat sink


Whilst useful for housing and protecting the electronic components and wiring, the enclosure will also provide a sturdy base upon which to mount our heat sink and cloud chamber.


Rapid prototyping with a laser cutter allows for the design and construction of enclosures from sheet material at relatively low cost. A set of digital callipers were used to measure the stock parts chosen for our project, providing dimensions for mounting holes and cut-outs.


MDF sheet stock is cheaper than acrylic and useful for testing revisions of a design before committing to more expensive stock material. It can also be cut to make sizing and positioning jigs. The photo above shows a simple jig to aid the marking out of holes to be drilled in the heat sink.


Once centre punched and drilled, these holes were tapped with an M6 thread to accept nylon bolts to secure our Peltier device and cooling plate to the heat sink. Nylon hardware is used rather than steel to minimise heat transfer between the hot and cold sides of the Peltier device.


An 80mm fan will be used to cool the heat sink. Rather than drilling and tapping further mounting holes, double sided adhesive foam was used to attach the two and give some mechanical isolation between the fan and the rest of the assembly. This foam was also used to attach acrylic sides to the heat sink, forcing all of the air moved by the fan over the cooling fins.


With the fan and heat sink mounted to the top plate of the enclosure, the Raspberry Pi and other electronic components were fixed into place as required. A simple power distribution circuit will be soldered up to give 5V to the Pi and 12V to the Peltier device.

Fabricating the cold plate


A cooling plate was modelled in DesignSpark Mechanical. Ideally this plate will be as stiff as possible, so the model was designed to suit the thickest stock we had to hand, a 10mm thick piece of aluminium plate.

Since the cooling plate will be held in position by an acrylic collar, a lip was added to the top surface of the model to ensure a good fit and prevent any lateral movement.

Once the design was completed it was exported as an .stl file, a common 3D model format.


It is not possible to feed a design file directly into a CNC machine, press ‘go’ and wait for your part to be made. There are several steps involved that will differ according to the software and machine used, as detailed in another post. Put simply, the design file needs to be converted into toolpaths and then a series of instructions for the machine to follow, most commonly as G-Code.

A piece of software called CamBam was used to convert the DesignSpark Mechanical model into toolpaths. It is free to try and easy to use, with great documentation and a large community of users. Since the part was going to be machined from a larger sheet, holding tabs were added within CamBam to make sure the part stayed in place after the last cuts were made. This prevents damage to the workpiece and milling machine that could occur if the part came loose.


Once satisfied with the toolpath created within CamBam, it was exported as G-Code. Though one can get a good idea of the toolpath in the visualisation window in software like CamBam, using another piece of software to simulate the exported G-Code can highlight any errors you may have missed.

Simulation can save material, milling bits and time, making it worth the extra effort before running G-Code on your machine. Another free-to-try software was used, CutViewer Mill, shown in the screenshot above.


Happy with the simulation of the G-Code, we were ready to commence milling. The photo above shows the workpiece clamped to the bed. Before the main G-Code was loaded and run, a separate file was loaded to face mill the surface of the material.

Face milling is a process whereby a small amount of material is removed from the workpiece, removing any imperfections and leaving a smooth, flat finish. Once the workpiece was faced, it was flipped over and clamped back to the bed with the faced surface down.

The main G-Code was then run and the cooling plate milled as shown in the video above. The holding tabs kept the plate in place, meaning that some hand finishing was required to remove the part and these tabs. Though the finish looks bumpy or patterned it is in fact quite smooth to the touch.

We now had a cooling plate with a smooth, flat top and bottom as well as a lip around the edge. It was washed and degreased before being painted with satin black paint. This will reduce reflections and provide contrast to view alcohol vapour trails when the cloud chamber is operational.

Next steps


Once the paint was dry the plate could be put together with the rest of the cooling parts. Thermal paste will be used between the faces of the Peltier module, the heat sink and the cooling plate to ensure optimum thermal transfer between each component. However as there are still some parts to add, including the chamber itself, the paste was not used right away. Instead the parts were put together in a dry run to check the fit.


In the next post we will add the final mechanical parts before covering the wiring and electronics. Operation of the cloud chamber will be explained in more detail, the Pi configured and tests carried out to see how well it all works!

Design-Five reasons to get into 3D printing

3D design and printing have hit the mainstream, where you can explore your ideas as quickly as you can think of them…

Realisation of an Idea

3D printing brings your ideas to life, from your initial concept to creation in a short space of time, without the frustration. If you have ever tried to submit an idea to manufacturers or to bring an idea to market yourself, getting a prototype made using traditional techniques and possibly third parties can be expensive and time-consuming.

A basic 3D printer could create a good enough model to demonstrate concepts and ideas to manufacturers, and help improve those ideas before building a more expensive prototype. Saving you time and money in the process. Of course, if your dream is to design a unique chess set for yourself, you can tinker to your hearts content to find your ideal design, the concept is the same, make that idea a reality, easily.


Make it don’t buy it

It’s no stretch of the imagination that creating your own household products using an inexpensive 3D printer and software such as DesignSpark Mechanical for things like a coat hook, a toilet roll holder, shower head or smartphone case, could save a few pounds a year, and it could be a bit more fun than wandering around a crowded store.


These very same principles are being adopted by many industries today and prove invaluable to facilities in remote areas who are in need of quick replacement parts to restore functionality to equipment for example. The ability to print you own components for repair or conceptual design is breaking down traditional barriers and opening the doors to faster innovation.

Recently a ratchet wrench was 3D printed on the International Space Station as part of their plans to travel to Mars, opening up greater possibilities in space travel. Even food has even been 3D printed and consumed, a concept I currently find rather unappetising!


Bring it back to life

If you have a broken device of some kind, be that at home or in an industrial scenario, often, replacement parts can be difficult to find, and expensive to buy. Sometimes the part you need is no longer available if the item is old or of a unique design, 3D printing could solve that problem. If it’s something simple like the plastic casing for a PCB, print yourself a new one, with a 3D printer and DesignSpark software it’s easy.

There are people who use 3D printing to create items for vintage vehicle restoration, which can mean the use of an expensive printer, but can prove to be a lot cheaper than sourcing engineers to recreate vintage parts. Some enterprising companies have even 3D printed cars!


Individually yours

You could make yourself a pair of shoes, entirely unique to you. A personalised spectacle frame, Christmas decorations, false fingernails, a new briefcase, or as mentioned above a car (which might be challenging!) Try it out, see what you can make for yourself!


These concepts and ideas are already available, either by commercial enterprises today, or by yourself, if you purchased a 3D printer and obtained design software like DesignSpark Mechanical with the 3D add on modules, and used some artistic flair.

Want it? Make it…

The best thing about 3D printing is that it can free you from the boundaries of what has already been manufactured. When you own a 3D printer, you can make anything you want, within the limits of the printer model you have of course! Want a custom made case for your smartphone? Print it, a new glasses case; make it. At the higher end there’s printing a replacement valve cover for your car’s engine, creating jewellery or even electronic components for PCBs.

3D printing has been used in medical procedures, using body scans to sculpt replacement joints, and recreate organs to allow doctors to examine the body parts without complicated surgery.

The only real limits are your imagination and of course your budget, and as time progresses, and the technology improves further and becomes even more readily available and cheaper, so do the possibilities, want it? Make it!

How wearable electronics is rapidly evolving

Making electronic systems wearable is an increasingly popular design option. Advances in process technology and wireless protocols have enabled wearable electronics to be integrated into a wide range of form factors for many different applications, and this is just the start for the technology.

Two key factors have come together to enable this tremendous development. Firstly, the recent advances in process technology deliver lower power consumption and higher computing performance, allowing designers to trade off functionality and battery life. Secondly, a new generation of wireless protocols is able to provide standardised low power links from wearable systems to a smartphone. This avoids the need for a dedicated terminal in order to use the technology, and opens up wearable electronics to billions of smartphone users.


This move has not been lost on the world’s largest semiconductor maker, nor on world’s largest microprocessor ecosystem. Intel’s Edison platform is now bringing x86-based software to the wearable market, while hundreds of chipmakers are integrating processors with the 32bit ARM architecture into low power wearable designs.

The Bluetooth low energy (BLE) specification, now called Bluetooth Smart, starts with version 4.0 and builds on previous versions to allow a Bluetooth node to be both a peripheral and a controller, making it easier to set up reliable connections. Bluetooth Smart is also optimised for wearable applications with a short range and reduced data rate that greatly extends the battery life in the node. This means that the wearable system can communicate easily with a smartphone as both a controller and as a link to the Internet. This has led to a wide range of fitness tracers, smart watches and other wearable devices for monitoring health, from babies to adults. Sensors and controllers are also being integrated into gloves and other items of clothing to improve productivity at work.

But wearable technology is extending even further. Cameras are being integrated with transmission system in shirts worn by football players or even in wearable mini-drones that can take off from your shoulder in new ways of connecting people.

There are several platforms available for developing wearable systems, from ultra-low power 16bit controllers to the latest high performance 32bit systems.


Intel’s Edison board provides a dual-core, dual-threaded 500MHz Intel Atom CPU and 100MHz Intel Quark microcontroller with 1GB of low power DDR3 memory, 4GB of flash memory as well as WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. With 40 configurable 1.8V GPIO lines and breakout boards to other platforms such as Arduino, the board can be used to develop a wide range of wearable applications using Yocto Linux v1.6 and a real time operating system.

The Intel Edison board combines a microcontroller and microprocessor for sophisticated wearable designs and Internet of Things Applications.


The 50mm diameter LilyPad Arduino is based around Atmel’s ATMega32u4 microcontroller and designed specifically for wearables and e-textiles as it can be sewn to fabric and similarly mounted power supplies, sensors and actuators with conductive thread. It has nine digital IO pins – four that can be used as PWM outputs and four as analogue inputs – as well as an 8MHz resonator, a micro USB connection, a JST connector for a 3.7V lightweight lithium polymer battery and a reset button. The built-in USB connection allows the board to appear as a mouse and keyboard, providing an easy way to send data back and forth.

The LilyPad Arduino board is designed to be sewn into clothing


For smart watch designs, Texas Instruments has developed a Bluetooth smart watch development system called Chronos. This combines the ez430 16bit microcontroller core in a single chip with wireless connections in the 868MHz unlicensed band for the EU and 915MHz band for the US. This allows the smart watch design to act as a central hub for nearby wireless sensors such as pedometers and heart rate monitors. It also integrates a 96-segment LCD display with a pressure sensor and three-axis accelerometer to allow developers to design their own innovative motion sensitive control algorithms.

Microcontrollers such as the EFM32LG Leopard Gecko from Silicon Labs have been designed for ultra-low power consumption, switching off parts of the chip when not in use and powering them up quickly when needed, and so are being designed into wearable designs. This family of devices combines a 32bit ARM Cortex-M3 core with a wide range of peripherals that can be mapped directly to the needs of the design and so provide the optimum balance of performance and power consumption.

Future trends

Wearable technology has only just started to scratch the surface of potential applications. The Bluetooth Special Interest group is extending Bluetooth Smart to include a mesh protocol. This would allow devices around the body to easily connect up, creating an ultra low power personal area network (PAN) that can be easily controlled by a smartphone.

Advances in manufacturing technology are also promising to add new capabilities to wearable systems. Flexible, printed electronic substrates are reducing the weight of the systems and making them easier to embed in clothing. This can create a network of sensors and controllers all across the body that provide a wide range of new capabilities.


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How I Transformed My Life with Home Automation

Posted by Jon_TE_Connectivity on


I’m Jonathan Catchpole an engineer working for TE Connectivity’s (TE) Intelligent Buildings group. I recently changed roles and moved into a more strategic position focusing on home automation. I already owned a few switchable socket adaptors controlled by an RF remote. The remote meant that I didn’t need to move from the sofa to turn on the lights. Lazy you may say, but this also saved me money by isolating switch mode power supplies from the mains. As I further explored this field, my knowledge of home automation grew and so did the appeal to my gadget obsessed mind.


There has been a lot of talk in the press about the internet of things (IoT). For the home automation sector, IoT can be described as a collection of devices that are used to control features of the home. These devices are connected to the cloud, typically via a router, allowing the user to control these devices from a mobile device.

titleThe first device I got my hands on was an IoT enabled smart thermostat which provided better control over my heating and remote accessibility. Coming home to a warm house after a winter trip to Denmark in January was definitely an added bonus. For this home automation example, I had selected Hive, not the most attractive thermostat on the market, but was the only one available in the UK at the time. More importantly, however, it gave me the control over my central heating that fitted my lifestyle. My home was warm when I wanted it to be and I wasn’t burning energy when it was empty.

 This added heating control has saved me £120 a year on my fuel bill.

titleAt this point, I became addicted and I spent that money saved on further customising my RF remote controlled power outlets to an IoT version which included a motion sensor. For this, I purchased the Belkin Wemo Switch and Insight Switch. They are large, but their white plastic bodies are fairly unobtrusive in a room. Now, when I walk into my home after dark with my arms full, the lights switch on automatically. When I am out of the country, the cloud controlled system turns the lights on and off at different times, giving the impression someone is in the house. I complimented this system with a motorised curtain rail, building the control system myself, but still utilising the IoT power outlets. Now, the downstairs curtains open before I walk down the stairs, greeting me every morning with sunlight.

IoT does have its downside because where I live the broadband connection isn’t great. Even though the Wemo devices are connected to my LAN by Wifi when my mobile is connected to the same LAN, all the control is done through the cloud. So switching on lights isn’t always as quick as I’d like and if I lose the internet, I lose control of my home and I’m left sitting in the dark.

titleThis problem is being solved with an influx of home hubs onto the market. One of the more interesting ones is from a German company called Qivicon. With home hubs, all the intelligence and control is in the hardware and not in the cloud; so even without internet connection you still have full control of your home. I’ve never used this hardware, but the reason why I say it is interesting is because of the brands that work with it. These include not only Netatmo, Osram, Philips, Samsung, but also T Mobile, Miele, Sonos and EnBW.With such a wide range of partners, it’s never been easier to have a fully connected home.

What I am getting at here is home automation completely transforms and revitalises your home environment. Whether that is saving you money on your energy bills, improving the efficiency of mundane tasks, implementing rudimental home security or just improving the wellness of a room, there is a home automation product to help.  Additionally, the home automation market is expanding exponentially as more and more people see the need for greater customization and interactivity with their home environment.

In conjunction with the rising number of home automation products, there are a number of market enablers, such as IoT and big data, that are giving those start-up companies new opportunities for innovation.

With such a large selection of suppliers to choose from, I believe that it is important to have the right components giving your design the form and function to make it stand out. TE has a large range of products for this market and I’d like to take you through how they can be used to empower your home automation.

titleLighting is an important part of the wellness of the home environment and with lighting moving towards exclusively LED fixtures we see an increase of high-inrush currents coming from the drivers capacitive load. The RT1 inrush and inrush power relays have been designed with advanced contact technology, enabling them to switch inrushes of up to 165A and making it ideal for building controllers and smart power outlets.  These outlets and controllers power the lamps and lighting that turn your home into a warm and bright environment.

titleNow for the smart thermostat, it is not about switching power, but rather, visual design. With the increase of home automation, the term ‘Wall Acne’ is coming to the forefront. There are too many large devices hanging off our walls and the days of the square white thermostat are numbered. Like I said I have Hive, which has just been updated with a new version of their thermostat module. This new version was designed by the designer of Jambox and so, it looks great but overall I prefer the simple elegant design of the German based Tado. In the 21st century, sleek and low profile designs are becoming increasingly desirable. With their low form factors, TE’s IM and PE relays can help meet these needs.

titleSmart thermostats are entering the world of “Big Data” by collecting information on how we use our homes. This new wave of thermostats detects not only temperature but also occupancy and humidity. Occupancy is traditionally done with a PIR sensor, but would anyone really say that solution is good enough? Even in ideal situations, PIR sensors don’t give the level of control needed; I’ve often sat in my office frantically waving my arms at the sensor to get the lights to turn back on. So, a PIR sensor detects movement only, not occupancy. A possible solution would be to use a thermopile instead of a PIR sensor.

In its simplest state, a thermopile is a number of thermal couples connected in series, packaged with a thermistor as a reference. Therefore it can detect temperature differentials in a room and can be used to detect a person, whether they are in motion or not.

titleTemperature and humidity measurement in the same package is a common way to save space, but why not add functionality by adding pressure in the same chip with TE’s PTH? This product has ultra-low power consumption and is ideal for battery powered products while still being available in a SMD package.

With the increasing number of wireless nodes in a home, battery life has become a very important design consideration; no one wants to spend their life changing batteries. Energy harvesting has been used in wireless switches and in door and window sensors. TE’s Piezo film elements generate a small amount of energy that can be used to send a wireless signal back to a central hub. The Piezo film provides the power for the unit, thus eliminating the need for batteries. TE’s Piezo film has a level of sensitivity that can be used to detect vibration which is an innovative and discrete way to detect motion in the home.

titleAs home automation products are typically retrofitted into the home, they are always wireless. During setup, they have to be mated to a central hub or router. Our FSM range of tact switches are an ideal way to trigger the hardware. The FSM range has surface mount, low profile, 6x6mm and 4.5×2.5mm package size versions. This range provides engineers with the flexibility to design attractive outer housing for their home automation products. An example of this product in use would be the Amazon Dash Button, which is a very creative way of getting us to shop. The unit is basically a tactile switch with wifi radio. You position it close to a consumable item, like the coffee you drink and as soon as you run out. Simply press the button and an order is sent direct to amazon.  Now unfortunately, the product is not available in Europe but one can only hope.

titleIn the home automation market, most devices are quite large, contributing to the ‘Wall Acne’ effect.  There hasn’t been a drive to make these devises more compact; however, a provider of cloud services requested a smart power outlet be manufactured at half the original size. This poses a difficult question: How can we meet all the functionality requirements while staying within the physical limitations? TE can help solve these issues with our interconnect devices. First up is our range of board to board connectors: The 0.4mm stacking connector is low profile, doubled row connector with a variety positions available. If you need a larger pitch device, then our standard AMPMODU pin headers and sockets are available in a 2.54mm pitch and multiple position options. To reduce the component count, you could consider using our Compressive Board to Board connector. These are one sided connectors that use spring contacts to connect to pads on an adjoining PCB, while conducting 2amps. 2 to 10 positions are available.

titleDisplays are often used as the human machine interface (HMI), which have fine pitch flexible circuits that then need to be connected to a PCB. TE’s FPC has pitches from 0.25mm to 1.25mm with a variety of positions available. Depending on your assembly process, you will want to select either the low force insertion (LIF) or the zero force insertion (ZIF) version. Wires are not often used in home automation products except when connecting batteries or when a simple wire antenna is being used. In that case, a wire to board connection is needed. The Micro SLP or the AMPSLIM connector would be ideal, providing a mated height of only 1.4mm. Making wire connections this way allows cable assemblies to be produced separately and the mating part of the connector can be reflow soldered to the PCB. This enables the operator to quickly and simply snap the mating parts together rather than soldering wires to the PCB, thus saving both time and money in the manufacturing process.

Everyday, innovative products are being created for automating the home and everyday, these products need equally innovative components.  I hope that I have been able to show you TE’s wide portfolio of electronic components that compliment and enable these new, emerging technologies.  I am extremely excited to see where this market will go as it will surely be limited only by our imagination.


The evolution of energy harvesting technology

The ability to harvest energy from the environment is increasingly opening up design opportunities in the Internet of Things and wearable technology

Harvesting energy from the environment to power sensors and electronics has been a ‘holy grail’ for system developers for many years. With the emergence of the Internet of Things and the Smart Home, being able to place sensors and actuators anywhere without having to worry about power and data links provides dramatically more flexibility.

While battery-backed wireless sensor nodes have been able to do this already, harvesting solar, thermal or even vibrational or RF energy extends the time the node can operate without having to change the battery. In systems with thousands of nodes this is a vital requirement, and good design of the energy harvesting power system can extend or even eliminate the battery replacement cycle and save considerable amounts of operating expenses.

titleSeveral factors have come together in the last few years to make energy harvesting a viable prospect. The march of Moore’s Law and semiconductor process technology has seen the power requirements of sensors, microcontrollers and wireless transceivers plummet. The latest devices such as the Leopard Gecko microcontrollers from Silicon Labs or the STM320 transceivers from EnOcean have been designed to have power requirements in the microamp range and still deliver the processing performance and data links that are needed for the Smart Home. This allows solar panels to deliver sufficient power from indoor lighting, for example.

Image – Silicon Labs’ Leopard Gecko used in a low energy fitness tracker

The efficiency of the energy harvesting sources has also improved. The latest solar panels are seeing efficiencies up in the 15 to 20% range, allowing either for more power for local processing or more power-hungry sensors, or for smaller cells for less obtrusive wireless nodes with development kits such as those from Silicon Labs.

titleHarvesting energy from temperature differences has also improved over the years. This is particularly useful for sensors and actuators at heating elements such as radiators, linking to the latest smart thermostats such as Nest. As thin film deposition process technology has become more affordable, this is being used to build energy harvesting engines that use the Peltier Effect. These are now able to use a temperature difference of a few degrees to power temperature sensors and actuators.

Image – Silicon Labs’ energy harvesting reference kit

Another factor that has improved the adoption of energy harvesting technologies is the improvement in power management devices. Energy harvesting provides a mixture of very low levels of energy and large bursts, and many traditional power management chips cannot cope with this. A new generation of power management chips can handle the low currents and wide ranges of the energy input, as well as manage the battery sub-system.

Improving standards and interoperability for ultra-low power wireless links is also helping the adoption and development of energy harvesting. The EnOcean Alliance now has over 350 companies supplying all kinds of energy harvesting equipment. This ranges from kinetic sources for switches that use a piezo electric crystal to generate a flash of power to send a signal, to solar powered proximity and occupation sensors and thermally powered heating and window controllers. The savings from installing such self-powered systems is recouped in a matter of months by reducing energy bills, and the data that is collected can be analysed in the cloud to further optimise the operation of buildings both large and small. For the EnOcean Alliance, this is enabled by a very low power wireless protocol that links all the different devices and has been released as an open standard.

EnOcean Alliance energy harvesting applications

There are also other alliances and industry groups, particularly in building automation, that are taking advantage of energy harvesting technologies and ensuring that products from different manufacturers are interoperable. Open protocol groups such as Thread and Alljoyn are also aiming to provide an open environment so that smart devices, many of which will use energy harvesting, can connect easily and securely.

Energy harvesting is also getting more personal. As wearable systems such as smart watches become more popular, so there is increasing development for personal area network (PANs) around the body. These can generate power from the heat or the movement of the body, using those piezoelectric crystals in shoes or even in clothing to generate power. Researchers have shown that metallic fibres can be woven into cloth that generates power as the person moves around. This can then be used for sensors around the body, to recharge personal electronics such as watches and phones, or even to power LEDs that are sewn into the clothing to change its colour or spell out messages.

By reducing or eliminating the need to charge batteries, energy harvesting technologies are opening up new areas of design. From smart sensors and actuators that can be placed anywhere, to power from walking or clothing, there are opportunities for developers to provide power and intelligence in new places.