Workbench Wonders

Manuel Rabade

Issue 76, November 2023

We just love your workbench, Manuel. Please tell our readers a little about yourself.

My name is Manuel Rabade, I'm 39 years old, and I'm from Mexico City. Ever since I was a child, I've had a strong passion for computers and electronics and was fortunate enough to learn computer programming and electronics back in the 90s. Also I've been an enthusiast of open-source software for over 20 years.

Discovering the maker movement was a delightful revelation for me. It embodies the same community-driven energy as open-source software but now applied to hardware and various other fields like arts and education.

I pursued a degree in Computer Engineering and currently I am an Engineering Manager at a micro-mobility startup in Mexico City where I have the privilege of applying my knowledge and expertise in both software and hardware.

We notice both RPi and Arduino on your workbench. Do you have a preferred microcontroller and why?

The Raspberry Pi has a special place in my heart because it was the first single-board computer available for the general public that could easily run Linux, and I instantly fell in love with it when it came out. Check out that bench picture, you can spot at least three RPis. The Raspberry Pi Foundation's efforts to promote GNU/Linux for education and affordable solutions are simply amazing.

Now, onto Arduino... hats off to the Arduino team. They've had a big impact on making technology accessible to artists, creators, and educators with their software and hardware platform. Even though they have more advanced products now, I've always had a soft spot for the Arduino Pro Mini. Working with 8-bit microcontrollers means you're getting really close to the hardware. Plus, its small form factor makes it great for prototyping on breadboards or perforated circuit boards. By the way, can you spot the three Arduino Pro Mini boards in this picture?

Also, I appreciate the versatility and compactness of the Seeed Studio XIAO development boards. These diminutive boards offer a diverse range of microcontroller options, allowing me to select the one that best suits each project without compromising on efficiency or performance.

We see a few builds on your desk. Can you provide a short description of each build?

On the far left, you'll find a prototype of a receiver for the Mexican earthquake alert system. It utilizes a SAME tuner to capture the government's radio signal and an Arduino Pro Mini to interpret the messages received, triggering a buzzer if an earthquake warning is detected. You can explore more details about this project on this GitHub page: https://github.com/manuel-rabade/sismo_alerta

Below the screen with three prominent LEDs, there's a Pomodoro timer constructed using an Arduino Pro Mini. You can access the documentation for this project here: https://github.com/manuel-rabade/pomodoro_arduino

In the center you'll spot a prototype of a telemetry device for vending machines. I developed this device as a contractor for a startup. It employs an Arduino Pro Mini for low-level communication protocols with the vending machines. Simultaneously, a Raspberry Pi handles the high-level business logic and communicates with a remote API. This invention, in conjunction with a cloud-based software platform, was granted the following patent: https://patents.google.com/patent/US20170076264

On the far right, there's a Raspberry Pi paired with an external hard drive. This used to serve as my NAS and Torrent box, and you can find documentation for this setup here, though it's now obsolete: https://github.com/manuel-rabade/rpi_torrentbox

Receiver for the Mexican earthquake alert system
Pomodoro timer

That’s an impressive list. We could look at featuring those in the future. What would be your favourite piece of test gear?

The good ol' serial console and multimeter are invaluable tools. An oscilloscope is useful but, to be honest, it's not something I frequently require. I'm eager to delve deeper into more advanced testing equipment, such as ICSP or JTAG debuggers.

Of course, we mustn't forget that you have the option to create your own custom testing equipment. Moreover, there are excellent DIY solutions available, such as the Pirate Bus, which I've found to be incredibly useful in several of my projects.

What maker tools can't you live without?

I enjoy prototyping with wire wrap on perforated PCBs, so having a reliable soldering station and precise wire cutters is essential. I use a WES51 soldering station equipped with a screwdriver tip for this purpose.

On the other hand, it's equally important to maintain a well-organized and comfortable workspace. In the picture of my workbench, you can spot a headlamp that provides excellent lighting conditions and a sturdy desk suitable for extended work sessions. Although not shown in the image, I also have a fume extractor and an ergonomic chair – both crucial for safeguarding my health.

How do you stay organised?

I maintain my organization by storing items in small plastic boxes or repurposed food containers, organized by project.

Over time, I've accumulated a substantial collection of parts, components, materials, and equipment. To streamline and declutter my workspace, I've adopted a practice of giving away items I haven't used in several years to fellow makers in the community, free of charge. This not only helps me maintain a more manageable workspace but also allows me to support and connect with other makers in our community, fostering a collaborative spirit while making room for new supplies and projects.

We admire how makers are always willing to share their time, code and hardware. Which of our past projects are most proud of?

Sismo Alerta, the receiver for the Mexican earthquake alert system, holds the top spot as the most starred repository on my GitHub profile. I take immense pride in its open-source nature.

Due to modifications made by the Mexico City government to the SAME standard, conventional receivers can't operate effectively in Mexico. I know that some companies making earthquake alert receivers for the Mexican market have used my design as a basis and incorporated software derived from it into their products.

We’re sure you’re chuffed that other companies have leveraged some of your software. Tell us a maker hack you do that our readers should know?

Always ensure the use of cables with the appropriate gauge for power supplies. I once encountered an issue in a project where a Raspberry Pi was experiencing random reboots.

This project involved a custom-made commutated power supply designed and built by me. While I lacked expertise in power supply design, my initial assumption was that there might have been an error in my design or assembly.

However, it turned out that the jumper wires connecting the power supply to the Raspberry Pi were quite thin resulting in unreliable power delivery. Once I replaced these jumper wires with ones of proper gauge, everything worked flawlessly.

Great advice. Those leads can be rather thin depending on where you buy them from. Where can our readers learn more about you or to see other projects you make?

My GitHub profile (https://github.com/manuel-rabade) and social networks like X (https://twitter.com/manuelrabade) or Mastodon (https://mstdn.mx/@manuelrabade).

Great. Looking closely at your workbench pic, you have a great book collection. Do you prefer learning from books instead of online?

I primarily engage in online learning, reserving my physical books mainly for leisure reading. However, there are a few technical books that I treasure in physical format, as they have had a profound impact on my learning journey. One such example is the Engineer's Mini-Notebooks by Forrest M. Mims. Not only are these books visually captivating with their hand-written content, but they are also highly instructive. They played a significant role in helping me grasp the engineering basics and sparked my curiosity to learn more.

Anything our maker audience should know that we haven't covered?

I took this photo of my workspace about 9 years ago, and that setup remained in use until a couple of years ago. While my current workspace looks quite different, I've stuck to the same working setup.

I've started many maker projects but didn't finish some because I lost focus. Here are some tips I've found handy for dealing with that:

  • Carve out dedicated time for your personal projects, make a plan with achievable goals.
  • Don't worry too much about small details, and be flexible.
  • Adjust your plan as you go along, and enjoy the process.
  • It's better to finish something, even if it's not perfect, than to leave it incomplete.
  • Try to focus on one project at a time, be patient, and constant because people often underestimate how long things take.

It's better to finish something, even if it's not perfect, than to leave it incomplete.

Manuel Rabade

Manuel Rabade

Engineering Manager, Mexico City