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Forty-Year-Old Arcade Game Reveals Secrets of Robot Path Planning

ศุกร์, 04/29/2016 - 03:00

What’s to be gained from reverse engineering a four-decade-old video game? As it turns out, quite a lot, and as you’ll learn from [Norbert]’s recent talk at the ViennaJS meetup, it’s not just about bringing a classic back to life.

The game in question is Kee Game’s Sprint 2, a monochrome 2D car race that allowed two players to compete head to head. The glorious Harvest Gold and Burnt Orange color scheme just screams 1970s, and it might be hard to see why this game was once a popular quarter-eater. But it was quite engaging for the day, and [Norbert] was interested in reverse engineering it. That he did, using JavaScript to build a faithful browser-based emulation of the game. And he took it further, creating a 3D first-person version of the game.


But where the real work begins is in tearing apart the AI of the computer-controlled cars that hogged the track, and understanding how the vector map behind each race track is used to move the robot cars along smooth paths. [Norbert] covers the concept of vector and gradient fields and the Gauss-Seidel algorithm, then relates all of it to path planning for autonomous vehicles. Pretty impressive stuff for a guy who admits he is neither a professional programmer nor a mathematician.

We’ve covered tons of arcade game ports and recreations before, but this project goes well beyond those, at least in terms of lessons learned.


Filed under: classic hacks

Up-Close and Personal with Laser Cuts

ศุกร์, 04/29/2016 - 00:01

Plenty of materials take the heated edge of a laser beam quite well, but many others don’t. Some release toxic fumes; others catch fire easily. For all the materials that don’t cut well (PVC and FR4, we’re looking at you!) and for those that do (hello, acrylic and Delrin) they’re each reacting to the heat of the laser beam in different ways. Lucky for us, these ways are well-characterized. So let’s take a look at how a laser cutter actually cuts through materials.

But First: Why a Laser?

If we journey outside on a sunny day with a magnifying glass or, better yet, with a nice honking Fresnel lens from an old-school HDTV (thanks Jen!), we can focus the sun’s light down to a point and fry some ant–I mean–burn some leaves. Why not, then, just use a high power light source to burn through our materials? It turns out that there are two main reasons. For one, CO2 lasers emit a 10,600-nanometer wavelength that falls in the IR range. This wavelength just happens to be readily absorbed, rather than reflected, by wood and plastics, making it highly efficient for cutting since most of the light is absorbed as heat, rather than reflected and lost. However, there’s one additional reason why a laser, rather than just a humongous flashlight, is so much more effective at cutting materials.

To get into the nuts and bolts, we’ll need to take a look at some laser optics. First off, keep in mind that our laser is both collimated and of a single wavelength. A high power white-light source is neither of these, but let’s look at one variable at a time.

collimated white light experiencing chromatic aberration (exaggerated depiction)

If we were to shoot a collimated (parallel) white light source through our lens, we still can’t achieve the same power density of a laser, which consists of a single wavelength, and here’s why. In the real world, no optical lenses are perfect, and the consequence of passing white light through an imperfect lens is that individual colors have slightly different focal distances. Laser light, on the other hand, consists of only a single wavelength, which means it wont experience this spectrum splitting issue that white light experiences.

The white light’s blue components focus more closely than it’s red components. The net result? Since we can’t focus all of the input light on a single point, we reduce our overall power-density.

uncollimated white light

Let’s examine the next case: uncollimated white light. Here, we get a similar result as in the first example. Collimated light refers to the fact that the majority of our photons are parallel with each other. Uncollimated white light, like that of a lamp, features light rays that travel in all directions. For the uncollimated light that enters the lens, the angle of incidence determines where it’s actual focal point will be. In other words, each light ray with a different entering angle will have a different distance from the exit of the lens before it reaches the center where the ideal focal point would be.

monochromatic collimated laser light

 

Laser light can be easily collimated, which means the light rays are traveling parallel to each other. Because this is the case, each ray that enters the lens will exit and converge at the same distance, i.e, the lens focal point.

Hence laser light, being both monochromatic and collimated gives it a higher energy density than it’s vanilla white-light contender.

Focal Length

Upon entering the laser head, the laser beam reflects downwards off the final bounce mirror and into the lens, where it’s focused onto our part. From a side view, our photons exit the lens and follow the optical path we’d expect: two cones standing end-to-end. The center of these cones is the focal point where we pack the most power-per-unit-surface-area. This is the point that we want to focus onto our parts to do the actual cutting.

“But wait!” cries the budding optics engineer. “Won’t our parts have a tapered surface finish if we’re focusing our light down to a point?”

In fact, yes! As we can see in the side-view below, the part edge, smooth as it may be, is still tapered as a result of the focal length. The sad truth: while a longer focal length lens can reduce this tapering effect, it can’t remove it altogether. This is the reality of physics that we just can’t circumvent.

Nevertheless, for the dimensions that matter, we can using finishing tools like reamers to bring important features like holes to their proper size.

The Not-So-Many Ways of Punching Through Materials

Dumping a bunch of photons onto a small focused surface area might conjure up wonderful visions of complicated reactions taking place on the surface of our material. In reality, the physics of laser cutting really only falls into two categories: phase change or a chemical reaction. (For a bit more detail, I’ve split phase change into two categories.)

Vaporization

A small number of materials actually convert to gas phase when heated by laser. This list is pretty small, though, but among the list of safe materials are two heavy-hitters: acrylic and acetal homopolymer (Delrin). Vaporizing the material leaves a magnificent surface finish since we’re just changing the phase of the material that the beam hits as we move it along.

You might think, “Solid to Gas? That smells like trouble” and you’d be right! Vaporizing Delrin also releases carbon monoxide, hydrogen fluoride, formaldehyde, and carbonyl fluoride according to the DuPont Delrin MSDS. Vaporizing acrylic also releases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Keep in mind vaporization also releases monomers of both of these materials.

Melting

Better known as “melt-shearing,” most thermoplastics (but not Delrin or acrylic) experience melt-shearing while being cut. Because we’re liquefying the surface of the cut, the surface finish tends to come out slightly worse than the materials that simply vaporize.

Burning

To dress this one up, let’s say that the material “experiences a chemical reaction induced by heat,” but really, we’re just burning it, plain and simple. Thin plywood, by far, is the most user-friendly material in this category since the products are mostly just soot. For all the other materials that fall in this category, though, keep in mind that burning through the material will definitely release a host of products, some which can be deadly. PVC, for one, releases chlorine gas, so that one’s definitely on the no-no list.

The Importance of Air Flow

We see them on pretty much all commercial CO2 laser cutters, so it’s worth asking: “what’s the importance of having the nozzle with air shooting through it?” Preventing dust from entering the lens would seem like a natural explanation, but the air flow actually plays a much more important role. It turns out, that an axial flow of air helps redirect both any potential flames and melted material downward through the groove made in the cut.

Don’t believe me? I decided to do a little investigation with my homebrew 2x_Laser, Nessie. I ran two tests cutting an identical shape out of 0.09375-inch acetal homopolymer (aka: Delrin), one with the compressed airflow on and one without any compressed airflow.

On the left, let’s examine the edges of our cuts. Notice that the surface finish on the edges isn’t as clean as the right cuts that had a coaxial airflow. I attribute this poor surface finish to the melted edges of the cut bubbling over the surface of the part and then re-solidifying. On the right, the air assist blows the flame and particulates downwards, rather than letting them bubble onto the top.

That’s all for now! If you’ve picked up a few details in the dark arts of laser cutting, let us know! We’d love to hear your words of wisdom in the comments.

References:

CO2 Laser Cutting, 2nd Edition. John Powell


Filed under: cnc hacks, Hackaday Columns, laser hacks

Up-Close and Personal with Laser Cuts

ศุกร์, 04/29/2016 - 00:01

Plenty of materials take the heated edge of a laser beam quite well, but many others don’t. Some release toxic fumes; others catch fire easily. For all the materials that don’t cut well (PVC and FR4, we’re looking at you!) and for those that do (hello, acrylic and Delrin) they’re each reacting to the heat of the laser beam in different ways. Lucky for us, these ways are well-characterized. So let’s take a look at how a laser cutter actually cuts through materials.

But First: Why a Laser?

If we journey outside on a sunny day with a magnifying glass or, better yet, with a nice honking Fresnel lens from an old-school HDTV (thanks Jen!), we can focus the sun’s light down to a point and fry some ant–I mean–burn some leaves. Why not, then, just use a high power light source to burn through our materials? It turns out that there are two main reasons. For one, CO2 lasers emit a 10,600-nanometer wavelength that falls in the IR range. This wavelength just happens to be readily absorbed, rather than reflected, by wood and plastics, making it highly efficient for cutting since most of the light is absorbed as heat, rather than reflected and lost. However, there’s one additional reason why a laser, rather than just a humongous flashlight, is so much more effective at cutting materials.

To get into the nuts and bolts, we’ll need to take a look at some laser optics. First off, keep in mind that our laser is both collimated and of a single wavelength. A high power white-light source is neither of these, but let’s look at one variable at a time.

collimated white light experiencing chromatic aberration (exaggerated depiction)

If we were to shoot a collimated (parallel) white light source through our lens, we still can’t achieve the same power density of a laser, which consists of a single wavelength, and here’s why. In the real world, no optical lenses are perfect, and the consequence of passing white light through an imperfect lens is that individual colors have slightly different focal distances. Laser light, on the other hand, consists of only a single wavelength, which means it wont experience this spectrum splitting issue that white light experiences.

The white light’s blue components focus more closely than it’s red components. The net result? Since we can’t focus all of the input light on a single point, we reduce our overall power-density.

uncollimated white light

Let’s examine the next case: uncollimated white light. Here, we get a similar result as in the first example. Collimated light refers to the fact that the majority of our photons are parallel with each other. Uncollimated white light, like that of a lamp, features light rays that travel in all directions. For the uncollimated light that enters the lens, the angle of incidence determines where it’s actual focal point will be. In other words, each light ray with a different entering angle will have a different distance from the exit of the lens before it reaches the center where the ideal focal point would be.

monochromatic collimated laser light

 

Laser light can be easily collimated, which means the light rays are traveling parallel to each other. Because this is the case, each ray that enters the lens will exit and converge at the same distance, i.e, the lens focal point.

Hence laser light, being both monochromatic and collimated gives it a higher energy density than it’s vanilla white-light contender.

Focal Length

Upon entering the laser head, the laser beam reflects downwards off the final bounce mirror and into the lens, where it’s focused onto our part. From a side view, our photons exit the lens and follow the optical path we’d expect: two cones standing end-to-end. The center of these cones is the focal point where we pack the most power-per-unit-surface-area. This is the point that we want to focus onto our parts to do the actual cutting.

“But wait!” cries the budding optics engineer. “Won’t our parts have a tapered surface finish if we’re focusing our light down to a point?”

In fact, yes! As we can see in the side-view below, the part edge, smooth as it may be, is still tapered as a result of the focal length. The sad truth: while a longer focal length lens can reduce this tapering effect, it can’t remove it altogether. This is the reality of physics that we just can’t circumvent.

Nevertheless, for the dimensions that matter, we can using finishing tools like reamers to bring important features like holes to their proper size.

The Not-So-Many Ways of Punching Through Materials

Dumping a bunch of photons onto a small focused surface area might conjure up wonderful visions of complicated reactions taking place on the surface of our material. In reality, the physics of laser cutting really only falls into two categories: phase change or a chemical reaction. (For a bit more detail, I’ve split phase change into two categories.)

Vaporization

A small number of materials actually convert to gas phase when heated by laser. This list is pretty small, though, but among the list of safe materials are two heavy-hitters: acrylic and acetal homopolymer (Delrin). Vaporizing the material leaves a magnificent surface finish since we’re just changing the phase of the material that the beam hits as we move it along.

You might think, “Solid to Gas? That smells like trouble” and you’d be right! Vaporizing Delrin also releases carbon monoxide, hydrogen fluoride, formaldehyde, and carbonyl fluoride according to the DuPont Delrin MSDS. Vaporizing acrylic also releases carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Keep in mind vaporization also releases monomers of both of these materials.

Melting

Better known as “melt-shearing,” most thermoplastics (but not Delrin or acrylic) experience melt-shearing while being cut. Because we’re liquefying the surface of the cut, the surface finish tends to come out slightly worse than the materials that simply vaporize.

Burning

To dress this one up, let’s say that the material “experiences a chemical reaction induced by heat,” but really, we’re just burning it, plain and simple. Thin plywood, by far, is the most user-friendly material in this category since the products are mostly just soot. For all the other materials that fall in this category, though, keep in mind that burning through the material will definitely release a host of products, some which can be deadly. PVC, for one, releases chlorine gas, so that one’s definitely on the no-no list.

The Importance of Air Flow

We see them on pretty much all commercial CO2 laser cutters, so it’s worth asking: “what’s the importance of having the nozzle with air shooting through it?” Preventing dust from entering the lens would seem like a natural explanation, but the air flow actually plays a much more important role. It turns out, that an axial flow of air helps redirect both any potential flames and melted material downward through the groove made in the cut.

Don’t believe me? I decided to do a little investigation with my homebrew 2x_Laser, Nessie. I ran two tests cutting an identical shape out of 0.09375-inch acetal homopolymer (aka: Delrin), one with the compressed airflow on and one without any compressed airflow.

On the left, let’s examine the edges of our cuts. Notice that the surface finish on the edges isn’t as clean as the right cuts that had a coaxial airflow. I attribute this poor surface finish to the melted edges of the cut bubbling over the surface of the part and then re-solidifying. On the right, the air assist blows the flame and particulates downwards, rather than letting them bubble onto the top.

That’s all for now! If you’ve picked up a few details in the dark arts of laser cutting, let us know! We’d love to hear your words of wisdom in the comments.

References:

CO2 Laser Cutting, 2nd Edition. John Powell


Filed under: cnc hacks, Hackaday Columns, laser hacks

Robot Beats Piano Tiles

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 22:31

Machines running out of control are one of the staples of comedy. For the classic expression, see Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. So while it starts out merely impressive that [Denver Finn]’s robotic fingers can play an iPad piano video game, it ends up actually hilarious. Check out the linked video to see what we mean.

Details on the bot are scarce, but it’s not all that hard to see how it works. Four large servo motors have conductive-foam pads on the end of sticks that trigger hits on the iPad. Motor drivers and some kind of microprocessor (is that a Teensy?) drive them. An overhead iPhone serves as a camera and must be doing some kind of image processing. [Denver Finn], if you’re out there, we could use some more details on that part.

We suspect, based on the fact that the narrator mentions the phone-camera’s speed, one of their chief marketing gimmicks, that we’re being virally marketed to. (Or maybe we’ve just become too jaded.) That said, it’s still cool.

We’ve seen robots playing video games before, of course, more than a few times. But this one is the first that we can recall that makes use of a machine’s extraordinary dexterity, and that’s pretty cool.

Thanks [MakerBro] for the tip!


Filed under: robots hacks

Robot Beats Piano Tiles

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 22:31

Machines running out of control are one of the staples of comedy. For the classic expression, see Chaplin’s “Modern Times”. So while it starts out merely impressive that [Denver Finn]’s robotic fingers can play an iPad piano video game, it ends up actually hilarious. Check out the linked video to see what we mean.

Details on the bot are scarce, but it’s not all that hard to see how it works. Four large servo motors have conductive-foam pads on the end of sticks that trigger hits on the iPad. Motor drivers and some kind of microprocessor (is that a Teensy?) drive them. An overhead iPhone serves as a camera and must be doing some kind of image processing. [Denver Finn], if you’re out there, we could use some more details on that part.

We suspect, based on the fact that the narrator mentions the phone-camera’s speed, one of their chief marketing gimmicks, that we’re being virally marketed to. (Or maybe we’ve just become too jaded.) That said, it’s still cool.

We’ve seen robots playing video games before, of course, more than a few times. But this one is the first that we can recall that makes use of a machine’s extraordinary dexterity, and that’s pretty cool.

Thanks [MakerBro] for the tip!


Filed under: robots hacks

The MakerBot Obituary

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 21:01

MakerBot is not dead, but it is connected to life support waiting for a merciful soul to pull the plug.

This week, MakerBot announced it would lay off its entire manufacturing force, outsourcing the manufacturing of all MakerBot printers to China. A few weeks ago, Stratasys, MakerBot’s parent company, released their 2015 financial reports, noting MakerBot sales revenues have fallen precipitously. The MakerBot brand is now worth far less than the $400 Million Stratasys spent to acquire it. MakerBot is a dead company walking, and it is very doubtful MakerBot will ever be held in the same regard as the heady days of 2010.

How did this happen? The most common explanation of MakerBot’s fall from grace is that Stratasys gutted the engineering and goodwill of the company after acquiring it. While it is true MakerBot saw its biggest problems after the acquisition from Stratasys, the problems started much earlier.

The History of MakerBot

Today, MakerBot has precisely two reputations. The most generous reputation comes from tech enthusiasts suffering from low information, that sees MakerBot as the Kleenex and Asprin of 3D printing. With more machines coming out on the market, this reputation is fading.

The second reputation is one of a poorly designed 3D printer. This reputation is deserved thanks to the horrible failures of the MakerBot Smart Extruder introduced a few years ago, but also touches on the technology the 3D printers of 2010 were built upon. Anyone who has ever been to a hackerspace has seen a MakerBot printer, but that printer was broken.

Five years ago, this second reputation would be completely incorrect. MakerBot was the darling of the Open Source Hardware movement. MakerBot was the poster child of a new economy where anyone could manufacture hardware, at scale, and ship it to thousands of consumers around the world. The future would put a 3D printer in every office, if not on every desktop. MakerBot would sell those printers.

The first MakerBot printer, introduced in 2009 – the Cupcake CNC – was among the first consumer 3D printers available. Compared to printers from just a few years later, the Cupcake wasn’t the best printer, but it was a game changer. Available as a kit for $900, the Cupcake found its way into hackerspaces and garages across the globe. MakerBot released their second printer, the Thing-O-Matic at the first Maker Faire in Queens, NY in 2010. Given the fact that I’ve never seen a working Cupcake, the Thing-O-Matic was a vastly improved printer with a bigger build volume. The Thing-O-Matic was the future of desktop manufacturing. It was the printer [Bre Pettis] brought to The Colbert Report. For a short time, MakerBot was 3D printing, and anyone who wanted a 3D printer for their workshop had exactly two choices: buy a MakerBot kit, or build a RepRap, with printed parts that were probably made on a MakerBot.

In late 2010 and early 2011, MakerBot was at the top of the world. No company could ever catch up, and thanks to the goodwill imbued to MakerBot by their support of the Open Source and Open Hardware movements, MakerBot was held up as a new business model. With MakerBot as the example, you could become rich and famous by building Open Source hardware and building on the contributions of your userbase. Although [Bre Pettis] is not the most eloquent orator, he makes the case for Open Source very clear in a 2012 video:

When we started MakerBot, we knew we were going to be open source hardware. We were inspired by Arduino, and we were open source software nerds. So, we knew the idea if we could make it and share it, we’d get more back from it. And I think this is something we learned as kids, that sharing is good, that if you share something you get more back from it, but we forget this as adults. So, with open source hardware we’re back to that. When you get a MakerBot, you’re not just getting a machine, you’re getting the knowledge of how it works. You’re getting the information about everything that puts it together. So if you want to modify it, or if you just want to learn about it, if you want to hack it, you can do it.

-Bre Pettis

Of course, even as a supporter of Open Source and Open Hardware, there were troubles in the House of MakerBot. [Zach ‘Hoeken’ Smith] and [Adam Mayer], the Woz to [Bre]’s Jobs, were cast out of the company. There was only room for one, and despite a strange affectation, [Bre] became the public face of MakerBot and a supporter of Open Source. MakerBot received $10 Million in VC funding in 2011, and the sky was the limit. With a large, enthusiastic community that was willing to develop improvements for the hardware, no company could match the potential of MakerBot.

Forgetting Open Hardware

Throw money at anything, and the vultures will start circling. MakerBot and the RepRap community had a friendly relationship, with MakerBot making contributions to the most popular 3D printer host software at the time. MakerBot created new tool heads for 3D printers, including a device that would print pastes. These designs were open sourced, and we all became richer. MakerBot’s contributions were held up time and time again as an example that Open Source Hardware could succeed.

In August of 2012, MakerBot’s resolve to democratize 3D printing would be challenged. The TangiBot was released on Kickstarter, and by any measure it was a straight-up clone of the MakerBot Replicator. Because the design files for the MakerBot Replicator were open source, the creator of this Kickstarter could simply send the files off to a contract manufacturer, beating MakerBot with their own design. To be fair, the creator of the TangiBot did improve on the Replicator design, making the PCB FCC compliant and using lock nuts, but by and large, this was a direct clone of the MakerBot Replicator.

MakerBot’s Automated Build Plate. Once available as Open Source Hardware, the Automated Build
Plate has been expunged from MakerBot literature, patented, and apparently forgotten.
[Image Source: MakerBot CC-BY]Although the TangiBot Kickstarter did not succeed, MakerBot took this threat seriously. Even if the creator of the TangiBot ignored the unspoken rules of Open Source hardware, MakerBot thought Open Source was a liability. Previously Open Source designs, like the Automated Build Plate, a device that will remove a print from the bed before starting a new one, were expunged from the MakerBot home page, patented twice, and forgotten.

MakerBot turned their back on Open Source. Only a month after the introduction of the TangiBot, MakerBot announced their newest printer, the Replicator 2, would be closed source.

In June of 2013, MakerBot was purchased by Stratasys for $403 Million. With Stratasys’ earlier acquisition of Objet, it would become the largest manufacturer of 3D printers in the world. [Bre Pettis] would need to put in a few months as CEO of MakerBot and step down in September, 2014. The total take from the founders of MakerBot would be about $100 Million each for [Zach] and [Adam], and about $140 Million for [Bre]. While Stratasys’ purchase of MakerBot is frequently cited as the source of the Open Source frustration, this is not true. MakerBot turned their back on Open Source long before an offer from Stratasys.

The Stratasys Downfall

Before the acquisition by Stratasys, MakerBot sold an impressive 40,550 printers according to the Stratasys yearly report ending on December 31, 2013. According to the 2014 Annual Report put out by Stratasys, 79,906 printers had been sold under the MakerBot brand by the end of 2014. In a single year under Stratasys, MakerBot sold nearly 40,000 printers. A year later, in 2015, MakerBot sold only 18,673 printers, half of their 2014 numbers.

Sales numbers for 2016 are – of course – unavailable, but MakerBot celebrated their 100,000th printer sold on April 4th. From December 31st, 2015 to April 4th, 2016 – three months and four days – MakerBot sold only 1,421 printers, an average of about fifteen per day.

It is irresponsible to suggest MakerBot will only sell five or six thousand printers for all of 2016. Sales of 3D printers are remarkably seasonal, thanks to schools getting grants and back-to-school purchases. Nevertheless, it appears 2016 will be MakerBot’s worst year since 2010 or 2011. The writing is on the wall, and MakerBot will quickly be a footnote in the history of 3D printing. But how did this happen?

Although MakerBot reversed their stance on Open Source Hardware before their acquisition by Stratasys, that alone is not enough to kill a company. What did Stratasys bring to the table? Terrible engineering, ethically questionable practices, and patenting everything they could get their hands on.

The first days of 2014 saw the introduction of the first MakerBots designed under the auspices of Stratasys. These were the 5th generation of MakerBots, in the tradition of all hardware manufacturers at the vanguard of a new technology, three products were offered. The ‘good’ printer, the Replicator Mini, is a no-frills machine with about the same build area as the original MakerBot Cupcake. The ‘better’ model, the updated MakerBot Replicator, showed a tremendous influence from the earlier, 4th generation printers. The ‘best’ model, the Z18, was a monster with more than a cubic foot of build volume. All three printers in the 6th generation featured a Smart Extruder, a proprietary device that squeezes filament through a nozzle.

MakerBot sold the Smart Extruder – a part that should not fail – in packs of three.

By any measure, the Smart Extruder was a terrible design. In every other RepRap-based printer, the extruder is the one part that should never break. Nozzles are consumables, yes, but the Smart Extruder was a complete failure. Estimates for the mean time before failure for the MakerBot Smart Extruder were between 300 and 500 hours. Assuming a single print can take an entire day, the $175 smart extruder would only last for a dozen or so prints.

The complete failure of engineering of the Smart Extruder was the source of a class action suit against Stratasys. Stratasys investors allege the 5th gen MakerBots were rushed into production, generating a bevy of negative feedback, warranty claims, and returns. The lawsuit alleges misleading positive claims about the reliability of MakerBot printers were used to artificially inflate Stratasys’ stock price.

Although the problems with the Smart Extruder are the most tangible, MakerBot failed on several other fronts. The MakerBot storefronts in New York City, Boston, and Greenwich were shuttered in the past twelve months. One of the first actions taken by MakerBot after its purchase by Stratasys was to patent several designs based on designs uploaded to MakerBot’s object repository, Thingiverse. Although the abdication of Open Source failed long before Stratasys took the helm, the new owners certainly didn’t reverse course. MakerBot and Stratasys are now reviled by the entire 3D printing community, not only for continuing the turn on Open Source seen under [Bre]’s leadership, but doubling down under Stratasys.

Where MakerBot Stands Now

2015 was a tough year for MakerBot. In April of 2015, MakerBot laid off 100 of its approximately 500 employees and closed all three of its retail locations in Manhattan, Boston, and Greenwich. Last October, MakerBot laid off another 80 people and shuttered one of its Brooklyn office spaces. This week, MakerBot laid off the remaining manufacturing staff and will begin to outsource manufacturing to China.

Stratasys, and by extension MakerBot, is a publicly traded company. Therefore, financial statements must be released to the public every quarter. The financials and sales figures are in the toilet, but even more damning is the value of the MakerBot brand. Like every aspect of a business, the value of the brand and reputation is tracked as an asset, and is called “goodwill” in company reports. For every quarterly report Stratasys has released after the acquisition of MakerBot, a goodwill impairment charge – a markdown on the value of the MakerBot brand – has been recorded. Including the 2015 yearly report, Stratasys has taken a total goodwill impairment charge of nearly one Billion dollars for MakerBot. Keep in mind Stratasys acquired MakerBot for $403 Million in stock. Stratasys has written off nearly double the value it paid through the failures of the MakerBot brand.

MakerBot is a dead company walking. Yes, the newest version of the Smart Extruder is more reliable, with most extruders printing successfully after 1200 hours. Thingiverse, a MakerBot property, is still the most popular object sharing repository on the Internet, but others including YouMagine are making inroads. What does the future hold for MakerBot? It will linger on as Stratasys division of consumer 3D printers, but it’s extremely doubtful MakerBot will ever be held in as high a regard as in the heady days of 2010 and 2011.


Filed under: 3d Printer hacks, Business, Featured, news

The MakerBot Obituary

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 21:01

MakerBot is not dead, but it is connected to life support waiting for a merciful soul to pull the plug.

This week, MakerBot announced it would lay off its entire manufacturing force, outsourcing the manufacturing of all MakerBot printers to China. A few weeks ago, Stratasys, MakerBot’s parent company, released their 2015 financial reports, noting MakerBot sales revenues have fallen precipitously. The MakerBot brand is now worth far less than the $400 Million Stratasys spent to acquire it. MakerBot is a dead company walking, and it is very doubtful MakerBot will ever be held in the same regard as the heady days of 2010.

How did this happen? The most common explanation of MakerBot’s fall from grace is that Stratasys gutted the engineering and goodwill of the company after acquiring it. While it is true MakerBot saw its biggest problems after the acquisition from Stratasys, the problems started much earlier.

The History of MakerBot

Today, MakerBot has precisely two reputations. The most generous reputation comes from tech enthusiasts suffering from low information, that sees MakerBot as the Kleenex and Asprin of 3D printing. With more machines coming out on the market, this reputation is fading.

The second reputation is one of a poorly designed 3D printer. This reputation is deserved thanks to the horrible failures of the MakerBot Smart Extruder introduced a few years ago, but also touches on the technology the 3D printers of 2010 were built upon. Anyone who has ever been to a hackerspace has seen a MakerBot printer, but that printer was broken.

Five years ago, this second reputation would be completely incorrect. MakerBot was the darling of the Open Source Hardware movement. MakerBot was the poster child of a new economy where anyone could manufacture hardware, at scale, and ship it to thousands of consumers around the world. The future would put a 3D printer in every office, if not on every desktop. MakerBot would sell those printers.

The first MakerBot printer, introduced in 2009 – the Cupcake CNC – was among the first consumer 3D printers available. Compared to printers from just a few years later, the Cupcake wasn’t the best printer, but it was a game changer. Available as a kit for $900, the Cupcake found its way into hackerspaces and garages across the globe. MakerBot released their second printer, the Thing-O-Matic at the first Maker Faire in Queens, NY in 2010. Given the fact that I’ve never seen a working Cupcake, the Thing-O-Matic was a vastly improved printer with a bigger build volume. The Thing-O-Matic was the future of desktop manufacturing. It was the printer [Bre Pettis] brought to The Colbert Report. For a short time, MakerBot was 3D printing, and anyone who wanted a 3D printer for their workshop had exactly two choices: buy a MakerBot kit, or build a RepRap, with printed parts that were probably made on a MakerBot.

In late 2010 and early 2011, MakerBot was at the top of the world. No company could ever catch up, and thanks to the goodwill imbued to MakerBot by their support of the Open Source and Open Hardware movements, MakerBot was held up as a new business model. With MakerBot as the example, you could become rich and famous by building Open Source hardware and building on the contributions of your userbase. Although [Bre Pettis] is not the most eloquent orator, he makes the case for Open Source very clear in a 2012 video:

When we started MakerBot, we knew we were going to be open source hardware. We were inspired by Arduino, and we were open source software nerds. So, we knew the idea if we could make it and share it, we’d get more back from it. And I think this is something we learned as kids, that sharing is good, that if you share something you get more back from it, but we forget this as adults. So, with open source hardware we’re back to that. When you get a MakerBot, you’re not just getting a machine, you’re getting the knowledge of how it works. You’re getting the information about everything that puts it together. So if you want to modify it, or if you just want to learn about it, if you want to hack it, you can do it.

-Bre Pettis

Of course, even as a supporter of Open Source and Open Hardware, there were troubles in the House of MakerBot. [Zach ‘Hoeken’ Smith] and [Adam Mayer], the Woz to [Bre]’s Jobs, were cast out of the company. There was only room for one, and despite a strange affectation, [Bre] became the public face of MakerBot and a supporter of Open Source. MakerBot received $10 Million in VC funding in 2011, and the sky was the limit. With a large, enthusiastic community that was willing to develop improvements for the hardware, no company could match the potential of MakerBot.

Forgetting Open Hardware

Throw money at anything, and the vultures will start circling. MakerBot and the RepRap community had a friendly relationship, with MakerBot making contributions to the most popular 3D printer host software at the time. MakerBot created new tool heads for 3D printers, including a device that would print pastes. These designs were open sourced, and we all became richer. MakerBot’s contributions were held up time and time again as an example that Open Source Hardware could succeed.

In August of 2012, MakerBot’s resolve to democratize 3D printing would be challenged. The TangiBot was released on Kickstarter, and by any measure it was a straight-up clone of the MakerBot Replicator. Because the design files for the MakerBot Replicator were open source, the creator of this Kickstarter could simply send the files off to a contract manufacturer, beating MakerBot with their own design. To be fair, the creator of the TangiBot did improve on the Replicator design, making the PCB FCC compliant and using lock nuts, but by and large, this was a direct clone of the MakerBot Replicator.

MakerBot’s Automated Build Plate. Once available as Open Source Hardware, the Automated Build
Plate has been expunged from MakerBot literature, patented, and apparently forgotten.
[Image Source: MakerBot CC-BY]Although the TangiBot Kickstarter did not succeed, MakerBot took this threat seriously. Even if the creator of the TangiBot ignored the unspoken rules of Open Source hardware, MakerBot thought Open Source was a liability. Previously Open Source designs, like the Automated Build Plate, a device that will remove a print from the bed before starting a new one, were expunged from the MakerBot home page, patented twice, and forgotten.

MakerBot turned their back on Open Source. Only a month after the introduction of the TangiBot, MakerBot announced their newest printer, the Replicator 2, would be closed source.

In June of 2013, MakerBot was purchased by Stratasys for $403 Million. With Stratasys’ earlier acquisition of Objet, it would become the largest manufacturer of 3D printers in the world. [Bre Pettis] would need to put in a few months as CEO of MakerBot and step down in September, 2014. The total take from the founders of MakerBot would be about $100 Million each for [Zach] and [Adam], and about $140 Million for [Bre]. While Stratasys’ purchase of MakerBot is frequently cited as the source of the Open Source frustration, this is not true. MakerBot turned their back on Open Source long before an offer from Stratasys.

The Stratasys Downfall

Before the acquisition by Stratasys, MakerBot sold an impressive 40,550 printers according to the Stratasys yearly report ending on December 31, 2013. According to the 2014 Annual Report put out by Statasys, 79,906 printers had been sold under the MakerBot brand by the end of 2014. In a single year under Stratasys, MakerBot sold nearly 40,000 printers. A year later, in 2015, MakerBot sold only 18,673 printers, half of their 2014 numbers.

Sales numbers for 2016 are – of course – unavailable, but MakerBot celebrated their 100,000th printer sold on April 4th. From December 31st, 2015 to April 4th, 2016 – three months and four days – MakerBot sold only 1,421 printers, an average of about fifteen per day.

It is irresponsible to suggest MakerBot will only sell five or six thousand printers for all of 2016. Sales of 3D printers are remarkably seasonal, thanks to schools getting grants and back-to-school purchases. Nevertheless, it appears 2016 will be MakerBot’s worst year since 2010 or 2011. The writing is on the wall, and MakerBot will quickly be a footnote in the history of 3D printing. But how did this happen?

Although MakerBot reversed their stance on Open Source Hardware before their acquisition by Stratasys, that alone is not enough to kill a company. What did Stratasys bring to the table? Terrible engineering, ethically questionable practices, and patenting everything they could get their hands on.

The first days of 2014 saw the introduction of the first MakerBots designed under the auspices of Stratasys. These were the 5th generation of MakerBots, in the tradition of all hardware manufacturers at the vanguard of a new technology, three products were offered. The ‘good’ printer, the Replicator Mini, is a no-frills machine with about the same build area as the original MakerBot Cupcake. The ‘better’ model, the updated MakerBot Replicator, showed a tremendous influence from the earlier, 4th generation printers. The ‘best’ model, the Z18, was a monster with more than a cubic foot of build volume. All three printers in the 6th generation featured a Smart Extruder, a proprietary device that squeezes filament through a nozzle.

MakerBot sold the Smart Extruder – a part that should not fail – in packs of three.

By any measure, the Smart Extruder was a terrible design. In every other RepRap-based printer, the extruder is the one part that should never break. Nozzles are consumables, yes, but the Smart Extruder was a complete failure. Estimates for the mean time before failure for the MakerBot Smart Extruder were between 300 and 500 hours. Assuming a single print can take an entire day, the $175 smart extruder would only last for a dozen or so prints.

The complete failure of engineering of the Smart Extruder was the source of a class action suit against Stratasys. Stratasys investors allege the 5th gen MakerBots were rushed into production, generating a bevy of negative feedback, warranty claims, and returns. The lawsuit alleges misleading positive claims about the reliability of MakerBot printers were used to artificially inflate Stratasys’ stock price.

Although the problems with the Smart Extruder are the most tangible, MakerBot failed on several other fronts. The MakerBot storefronts in New York City, Boston, and Greenwich were shuttered in the past twelve months. One of the first actions taken by MakerBot after its purchase by Stratasys was to patent several designs based on designs uploaded to MakerBot’s object repository, Thingiverse. Although the abdication of Open Source failed long before Stratasys took the helm, the new owners certainly didn’t reverse course. MakerBot and Stratasys are now reviled by the entire 3D printing community, not only for continuing the turn on Open Source seen under [Bre]’s leadership, but doubling down under Stratasys.

Where MakerBot Stands Now

2015 was a tough year for MakerBot. In April of 2015, MakerBot laid off 100 of its approximately 500 employees and closed all three of its retail locations in Manhattan, Boston, and Greenwich. Last October, MakerBot laid off another 80 people and shuttered one of its Brooklyn office spaces. This week, MakerBot laid off the remaining manufacturing staff and will begin to outsource manufacturing to China.

Stratasys, and by extension MakerBot, is a publicly traded company. Therefore, financial statements must be released to the public every quarter. The financials and sales figures are in the toilet, but even more damning is the value of the MakerBot brand. Like every aspect of a business, the value of the brand and reputation is tracked as an asset, and is called “goodwill” in company reports. For every quarterly report Stratasys has released after the acquisition of MakerBot, a goodwill impairment charge – a markdown on the value of the MakerBot brand – has been recorded. Including the 2015 yearly report, Stratasys has taken a total goodwill impairment charge of nearly one Billion dollars for MakerBot. Keep in mind Stratasys acquired MakerBot for $403 Million in stock. Stratasys has written off nearly double the value it paid through the failures of the MakerBot brand.

MakerBot is a dead company walking. Yes, the newest version of the Smart Extruder is more reliable, with most extruders printing successfully after 1200 hours. Thingiverse, a MakerBot property, is still the most popular object sharing repository on the Internet, but others including YouMagine are making inroads. What does the future hold for MakerBot? It will linger on as Stratasys division of consumer 3D printers, but it’s extremely doubtful MakerBot will ever be held in as high a regard as in the heady days of 2010 and 2011.


Filed under: 3d Printer hacks, Business, Featured, news

Autograph: A String Art Printer

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 18:01

“String Art” is the name of the art form that transforms thousands of nails and just as many feet of thread into unique masterpieces. Some artists have developed techniques to create photorealistic string art works, but until now, there was no way around the tedious and time-consuming manufacturing process. Depending on the size, it can take months to complete a single piece by hand.

The threading process as shown in this video(c) Laarco 2016.

Now, you might think, wouldn’t it be great to build a sophisticated “nail and thread”-machine that takes care of the whole assembly process, from placing the nails on the board to winding the string around the nails? The people behind Laarco, a design studio in London, UK, did exactly that. Their project “Autograph” is effectively a large scale “printer” for string art, capable of satisfying the increasing demand for this form of image reproduction.

While they are not shy to show their amazing results, mostly string-art-converted photographs of celebrities, we will probably not get a full documentation on the hardware and software behind Autograph. After all, it took them four years of development to build this fully automated machine, and they are about to turn their string boss-ness into a strong business: You can now buy their unique string art pieces starting at $1,100.

String path and height visualization – (c) Laarco 2016

Too expensive? Well, you can still build your own: The brain of the machine is a Raspberry Pi which sends commands to an Arduino Mega equipped with a 3D printer shield. The gantry design looks very similar to a popular low-cost CNC-mill, however, they added a custom tool head to position and uncoil the thread while keeping it under tension.

In preparation of an assembly pass, the nail positions are derived from Voronoi diagrams, an unknown mechanism then picks and places the nails into pre-drilled holes. During the threading run, the height of the tool head increases as the process progresses to avoid collisions with previous string segments.

We’ve seen drawing-bots, polar graphs and robotic artists in various forms in the past, but it’s probably safe to say that this is the first string art machine ever built. That said, enjoy the video:


Filed under: cnc hacks, Raspberry Pi

Threadless Ballscrew for 3D Printer

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 15:01

[2n2r5] posted up a mechanism that we’d never seen before — a threadless ballscrew that turns rotational into linear motion with no backlash. It works by pressing the edge of three bearings fairly hard up against a smooth rod, at an angle. The bearings actually squeeze the rod a little bit, making a temporary indentation in the surface that works just like a screw thread would. As the bearings roll on, the rod bounces back to its original shape. Watch it in action in the video below.

The two benefits of these pseudo-threads is that they fit tightly so there’s no backlash, and they give when too much force is applied, rather than jamming. Eliminating backlash is awesome for a 3D printer, but it’s not obvious how a thread that gives under excessive load is a plus, unless you’ve crashed your printhead into the bed of the printer. Generally speaking, 3D printers don’t subject their screw drives to all that much force, making this an interesting option.

A professional version of the same mechanical idea uses special bearings with a ridge in the center, and tips them side to side to change the contact angle, and thus speed of travel (per rotation of the shaft). It’s even got a provision for flipping the bearings over, causing the tram to move in the opposite direction. Pretty cool.

[2n2r5]’s Thingiverse project is from a few years ago, but until we got sent the tip (thanks [Keith O]!), we’d never seen this mechanism before. Have any of you tried it out? Results?


Filed under: 3d Printer hacks

Cardboard And Paperclip CNC Plotter Destined For Self-Replication

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 12:00

Last November, after [HomoFaciens]’ garbage-can CNC build, we laid down the gauntlet – build a working CNC from cardboard and paperclips. And now, not only does OP deliver with a working CNC plotter, he also plans to develop it into a self-replicating machine.

To be honest, we made the challenge with tongue firmly planted in cheek. After all, how could corrugated cardboard ever make a sufficiently stiff structure for the frame of a CNC machine? [HomoFaciens] worked around this by using the much less compliant chipboard – probably closest to what we’d call matboard here in the States. His templates for the machine are extremely well thought-out; the main frame is a torsion box design, and the ways and slides are intricate affairs. Non-cardboard parts include threaded rod for the lead screws, servos modified for continuous rotation, an Arduino, and the aforementioned paperclips, which find use in the user interface, limit switches, and in the extremely clever encoders for each axis. The video below shows highlights of the build and the results.

True, the machine can only move a pen about, and the precision is nothing to brag about. But it works, and it’s perfectly capable of teaching all the basics of CNC builds to a beginner, which is a key design goal. And it’s well-positioned to move to the next level and become a machine that can replicate itself. We’ll be watching this one very closely.

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Filed under: cnc hacks, The Hackaday Prize

Slim and Classy Word Clock Shows the Weather Too

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 09:00

Word clocks are a neat twist on traditional timepiece user interfaces. Spelling out the time with words and phrases rather than numerals fancies up a clock nicely. And if you add the current weather and forecast to the display, you get this attractive and handy word-based time and weather display.

For this clock, one of the many custom builds on [GMG]’s site that betray a certain passion for unusual timepieces, an 8×32 array of Neopixels lives behind a laser-cut sheet of steam-bent birch plywood. Each pixel is masked by either an alphanumeric character or an icon representing weather conditions. An ESP8266 fetches time and weather data and drives the display serially, controlling the color of each cell and building up the display. The video below shows the clock doing its thing.

Sure, we’ve featured plenty of word clocks before, even some with weather display, but we like the slim and understated design of this build. We’re particularly impressed by the lengths [GMG] took in packing as much capability into the 256-pixel display as possible, like the way “today” and “tomorrow” overlap. And if you’ve got an eye for detail, you might spot what gets displayed when it’s over 80° and 80% relative humidity.


Filed under: clock hacks

Smart Mirror Reflects Hacker

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 06:00

Did [TobiasWeis] build a mirror that’s better at reflecting his image? No, he did not. Did he build a mirror that’s better at reflecting himself? We think so. In addition to these philosophical enhancements, the build itself is really nice.

The display is a Samsung LCD panel with its inconvenient plastic husk torn away and replaced with a new frame made of wood. We like the use of quickly made 3D printed brackets to hold the wood at a perfect 90 degrees while drilling the holes for the butt joints. Some time with glue, band clamps, and a few layers of paint and the frame was ready. He tried the DIY route for the two-way mirror, but decided to just order a glass one after some difficulty with bubbles and scratches.

A smart mirror needs an interface, but unless you own stock in Windex (glass cleaner), it is nice to have a way to keep it from turning into an OCD sufferer’s worst nightmare. This is, oddly, the first justification for the Leap Motion controller we can really buy into. Now, using the mirror does not involve touching the screen. [Tobias] initially thought to use a Raspberry Pi, but instead opted for a mini-computer that had been banging around a closet for a year or two. It had way more go power, and wouldn’t require him to hack drivers for the Leap Motion on the ARM version of Linux.

After that is was coding and installing modules. He goes into a bit of detail about it as well as his future plans. Our favorite is programming the mirror to show a scary face if you say “bloody mary” three times in a row.


Filed under: home hacks

Wooden Antikythera Mechanism is Geared for Greatness

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 03:00

[Dave] builds custom wooden orreries, which are mechanical models of the solar system. It’s no surprise then that he’s interested in the Antikythera Mechanism—a small geared device discovered off the coast of the Greece in 1900 that is believed to be the first analog computer and one of the oldest known geared systems, built partly to predict the positions of celestial bodies in the solar system as it was understood in ancient Greece.

[Dave] decided to build a wooden version of the Antikythera Mechanism as a proof of concept that it can be done in wood rather than the brass of the original. He also sought to incorporate all the modern theories of the device’s gear train. The entire system is made out of 6mm birch plywood that [Dave] cut by hand on a scroll saw. That’s right — no CNC or lasers here. This has as much to do with replicating the craftsmanship of the original as it does with practicality. Besides, the pitch of the gear teeth is too small to be effectively cut with a laser.

There are no motors, either. The gears are centrally connected to nested brass tubing and the mechanism is actuated with a hand crank. The six pages of forum discussion are worth combing through just to see the pictures of [Dave]’s progress and all of those meticulously hand-cut gears.

It took [Dave] the better part of two years to complete this work of art, and you can see it in motion after the break. With the first version complete, he has begun Mk. II which will feature all of the spiral dials and pointers of the original. If you’re interested in exploring the Antikythera Mechanism further, here is Hackaday’s own in-depth look at it.

Planetary unit:

First run:


Filed under: classic hacks, misc hacks

The Open Source Hacker’s Laptop

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 01:30

[Tsvetan Usunov] has been Mr. Olimex for about twenty five years now, and since then, he’s been through a lot of laptops. Remember when power connectors were soldered directly to the motherboard? [Tsvetan] does, and he’s fixed his share of laptops. Sometimes, fixing a laptop doesn’t make any sense; vendors usually make laptops that are hard to repair, and things just inexplicably break. Every year, a few of [Tsvetan]’s laptops die, and the batteries of the rest lose capacity among other wear and tear. Despite some amazing progress from the major manufacturers, laptops are still throwaway devices.

Since [Tsvetan] makes ARM boards, boards with the ~duino suffix, and other electronic paraphernalia, it’s only natural that he would think about building his own laptop. It’s something he’s been working on for a while, but [Tsvetan] shared his progress on an Open Source, hacker’s laptop at the Hackaday | Belgrade conference.

As with any project, the first step is a good googling. By typing ‘Do It Yourself Laptop’ into the Mother Brain, you get back a list of projects that are ugly and certainly not as convenient as even the largest MacBook Pro. This build from 2007 features a Mini-ITX motherboard, with all the heat and power commensurate with this odd hardware choice. You could go old school, but again this is a project to build a usable laptop. Turning to the world of Raspberry Pis, these laptops are chunky, and this one is made out of a Little Caesars box.

To be fair, not all DIY, Open Source laptops are underpowered or covered in Crazy Bread crumbs. [Bunnie]’s Novena laptop is a work of electronic art, very capable, and a laptop that could conceivably make sense as a daily driver. The Novena isn’t exactly a convenient laptop, though: it’s rather chunky, the display is on the outside, and it doesn’t have the grace of a MacBook Air or Thinkpad Carbon X1.

[Tsvetan]’s laptop combines all of these features, is lightweight, has a battery big enough to run all day, is elegant, stylish, and above all, open source. It’s a laptop that will be modular, easy to repair and upgrade, and has spare parts that are cheap.

To that end, [Tsvetan] spent four months building a powerful ARM board based on a 64-bit Allwinner chip. There’s HDMI, USB, output for an LCD, and this was made in KiCad, making the schematics and board files completely open source.

There’s more to it than just an ARM single board computer running Linux to this laptop. Thanks to the recent advances of an Open Source Toolchain for the Lattice iCE40 FPGA, [Tsvetan] is thinking about making this open source laptop a true hacker’s tool, with a logic analyzer, DSO, and DDFS generator.

What’s the future of [Tsvetan]’s open source laptop? He should – hopefully – have a prototype running at TuxCon, held in Plovdiv, Bulgaria in early July. There’s still a lot of work to do, but so far [Tsvetan] has contracted a plastics manufacturer for the case, found a nice eDP panel, small camera, speakers, a battery that will last at least six hours, and has a keyboard and touchpad working.

Building a laptop from scratch is among the hardest electronic manufacturing challenges we can imagine. It’s a true full-stack development job, with skillsets ranging from writing custom drivers for Linux to the intricacies of injection molding. With any luck, [Tsvetan] and Olimex will have some kits ready by this September. That’s an amazingly fast development time, and wouldn’t be possible without putting all the design files up on the Internet from the start, allowing other enthusiasts to contribute to the creation of an Open Source laptop.


Filed under: cons, Hackaday Columns, laptops hacks

Searching for USB Power Supplies that Won’t Explode

พฤ, 04/28/2016 - 00:00

USB power supplies are super cheap and omnipresent. They are the Tribble of my household. But they’re not all created equal, and some of them may even be dangerous. I had to source USB power supplies for a product, and it wasn’t easy. But the upside is that I got to tear them all apart and check out their designs.

In order to be legitimate, it’s nice (but not legally required) for a power supply to have UL approval. Some retailers and offices and building managers require it, and some insurance companies may not pay claims if it turns out the damage was caused by a non-UL-approved device.  UL approval is not an easy process, though, and it is time consuming and expensive. The good news is that if you are developing a low voltage DC product, you can pair it with a UL approved power supply and you’re good to go without any further testing necessary.

If you are going for FCC approval and are having unintentional emissions testing done (which is more likely than UL as it’s a legal requirement for products that meet certain qualifications), the testing has to be done on the whole solution, so the power supply must be included in the testing, too.

Sourcing cheap electronics in large quantities usually ends up in China, and specifically Alibaba. First, we started with a how-low-can-you-go solution. This wasn’t even a power adapter; it was a power “adapteP”, and the whole batch was mis-printed. Quality control could not be a high priority. After cutting it open, it wasn’t terrible, and it had all the necessary parts. It was surprising how much of it was through-hole, which indicates that the assembly was done mostly by people. That happens when factories are cheaper, hire inexpensive labor, don’t invest in technology, and don’t care as much about quality.

There are certain things you should look for in a power supply to determine the level of risk:

  • Isolation Distance – This is how much space there is between the primary (AC) and secondary (DC 5V) sides. UL requires a few millimeters, and often you’ll see two separate PCBs. On many single-PCB solutions you’ll see a white line meander across the board to distinguish between the two. The smaller this separation, the closer your USB power is to AC line voltage, and if the gap is bridged somehow, you’re in for a world of hurt.
  • Fuse – if there is a short, a lot of current starts flowing, components heat up, and things get dangerous. A thermal cut-off (TCO) fuse (also known as a resettable fuse or a PTC) is a component that breaks the circuit when it gets too hot, like a circuit chaperon. When it cools off, the TCO resets and you can plug the device back in with no harm done. Without the fuse, the supply heats up and current keeps flowing until a component fries, sometimes explosively.
  • Connectors – You don’t want bare leads hanging out in space where they could move and touch something. You don’t want the USB port to be soldered only by its four pins. You don’t want the power pins to be loose.
  • Decent Label – “Adaptep”? Yes, to someone who uses a different alphabet the “P” and R are very similar characters. But still. Also, fake certifications abound. Look for the difference between the CE (China Export) and the CE (Conformité Européenne) labels. And the UL Logo should have a number. So should an FCC label.

So this first adapter? Isolation distance was fine because it was two separate boards, but there was no fuse and no protective tape between components. The connectors were all secure, but the label didn’t make any promises. As for performance, output at 5.34V under my product’s load meant it was a little outside of USB spec (5.25V limit), but not dangerous. On the scope it was ringing with a peak at 5.5 V at 4 kHz.

Of course, sourcing this supply for a second batch proved tricky, and we wanted the USB plug to come out the side instead of the front so it would have a thinner profile against a wall. Additionally, we needed UL approval for a client. Our second attempt was surprisingly successful. This adapter had UL certification, with a number to look up. Note that just having a number isn’t enough; many companies will just put someone else’s number on their product and assume nobody will bother to check. So when you do look it up, and find a different manufacturer, a different enclosure, and it looks more like a refrigerator than a USB power supply, don’t be too surprised. But no, this particular one was great! The label had a company name on it, model number and specs, and certifications that could be verified. Let’s tear it open!

Sweet sweet silicon meat inside an ABS shell! Components wrapped in protective tape, two PCBs for isolation, and even a special injection-molded plastic piece to add additional protection. Components are labeled, and what’s this, an IC to control the oscillation instead of a feedback winding on the transformer? Fancy! It’s pretty clear that this power supply is good, and I’d trust this one.

Comparing this one to the others, there were so many noticeable little details that are important and clearly thought-out. Take, for example, the connection between the prongs and the PCB. On the previous board, it was made with wires soldered by hand. Solid, but time consuming and prone to failure or quality issues. This adapter has metal contacts that snap into the case very solidly so that the prongs cannot get loose. The connection to the PCB is via the springiness of the metal, but notice that the PCB has pads specifically designed to maximize the surface area of that connection. On the next PCB you’ll see no such effort.

Some components were covered in shrink tube, tape, or non-conductive grey adhesive. The assembly was tight with no room for components to shake loose or accidentally touch. And the output was perfect. 4.9 Volts with nary a ripple.

But this is China, and component sourcing problems are a thing, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when these supplies were no longer available. In retrospect, maybe these were unsold overstock, or possibly QC rejects. That would explain why they were only slightly more expensive than the others. And so we moved on to another supplier; one that could pad-print our logo on top.

At first glance these power supplies appeared identical. But close inspection reveals slight differences in the style around the USB and the raised ridges on the underside. The label was completely different, and gone was the number next to the UL logo. There was no company name on the supply either, and the company we purchased from turned out to be a reseller and not the OEM. Also, why was the output 4.7-5V, and why did my scope say 5.5V (but surprisingly stable)?

Inside was a completely different beast. Using a single PCB, the creep distance was about a millimeter. You can see the white line meandering through the bottom of the PCB that shows the high and low sides. The USB port wasn’t soldered to the PCB except by the four signal/power pins (see the bottom side lower left and the hanging USB connection pins), and there was a capacitor with really long uncovered leads and the positive side dangerously close to the USB shell. There was almost no protective tape, no shrink tube on the leads, and no protection in case of a short.

 

In the end, I wouldn’t trust the two non-UL supplies with anything worth more than a few bucks, and certainly not my cell phone. I’d have really big reservations about reselling them to customers who don’t know the difference. The UL-approved one was great, but the other two are only good for powering low-current-draw devices that are not sensitive to voltage. Also, finding a reliable supplier in China is HARD.

Check out a much more thorough analysis of this and pretty much every USB power supply cube by [Ken Shirriff]. It’s surprising how little has changed in four years with these supplies, and his analysis goes into how the circuits behind these supplies work, identifying each component and its purpose.

We also covered a Sparkfun teardown of some power supplies with similar conclusions, and a Fail of the Week in which a faulty USB power adapter was the likely cause of a fire.


Filed under: Featured, hardware

The Incredible Success of World Create Day

พุธ, 04/27/2016 - 23:01

When people come together, great things happen. Last weekend, the Hackaday Community all over the world self organized and came together in 64 cities for World Create Day. It was a coalescence of people who want to make a difference in life, and don’t want to do it alone. Thank you to everyone who participated, to those who organized their own local event, and to everyone who joined in online. Let’s take a look at some of what went on.

Nigeria’s power grid is not reliable and waiting around isn’t going to make the problem any better. The gathering in Lagos spent World Create Day talking about ways to overcome power grid problems and improve access to electricity for everyone.

Cape Town, South Africa had a huge turnout! They had speakers, lightning talks, project presentations, and broke into smaller groups to brainstorm ideas.

The Perth meetup talked about ways to administer donations to the homeless. The idea behind this is that people no longer carry a lot of cash. They envision an NFC-based system that will let you use your phone to scan a tag for a person in need or a charity organization. The donated money can be redeemed at food markets, for health care, and the like.

Over in Adelaide they had a full-blown hackathon. Above you can see one of the breakout groups being interviewed about their creation. Among the builds that came out of this are the Internet of Trash, City-wide Water Leakage monitoring, and Local Area Notice Screens.

The Nagpur, India meetup was held at MakerWorks and had attendees from 15 to 50 years of age. They even had a team member video conference in for the brainstorming.

Over in Bangalore, Workbench Projects hosted a World Create Day meetup. As part of the event, lightning talks were given to discuss the ideas being worked on. Above you can see [Akshath Indusekhar] talking about his project to control carbon dioxide emissions from vehicles.

Here are three of the meetups that were hosted in the US. Austin, Texas had quite a turnout which made for a day of meeting new people and talking about what the future will bring. I actually spoke about the Hackaday Prize via video conference for the San Jose, California Meetup. I know some of these jokers and they greeted me with my favorite Hackaday comment “not a hack” as you can see above. And there was a day of fun in Pasadena, California as the vibrant Hackaday community there brainstormed technology solutions and gave lightning talks.

In Munich, Germany, the meetup took to the ocean. They were working on new ideas for undersea exploration. The Oratava Hackerspace in the Canary Islands of Spain checked in on World Create day. In addition to tossing around some ideas they were showing off the stickers we sent them.

At the Oxford Hackspace in the UK they took a very democratic route to working as a team. Above you can see their notes from discussing preliminary ideas for dealing with mosquitoes, cognitive dementia, transaction protection for vulnerable people, the digital nanny, and using blockchain for the food commodity market. After a vote, they spent the rest of the afternoon working on cognitive dementia issues.

We heard from the meetup in Mexico City that they had eleven people take part and the atmosphere was different from what they’re used to. It sounds like a lot of the hackathons in the area are competitive and that can dampen collaboration. Their World Create Day was marked with open sharing of ideas and a strong feeling of community that resulted in some ideas for remote notifications for refilling gas tanks before they run dry.

Elsewhere in Mexico there was a meetup in Tangamandapio that broke into groups and then presented at the end of the event. We even heard from a group in Managua, Nicaragua who started off their day getting inspired by watching the videos of finalists from the last two years of the Hackaday Prize

See all the Tweets that came in by using the #WorldCreateDay hashtag. If you have pictures from your own meetup, we still want to see them so please post using that hashtag! We have also collected some of them together.

Getting together in person pollinates ideas and spreads happiness. It has tangible value beyond a text message, a Tweet, or even a video call because the things said in between meaningful conversations often trigger the next interesting topic. We’re excited that so many of you jumped at the opportunity to gather for an afternoon of fun and we can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Filed under: cons, The Hackaday Prize

Engineering Meets Craftsmanship in this Guitar Fretting Jig

พุธ, 04/27/2016 - 22:00

Cutting the slots in a guitar’s neck for the frets requires special tooling, and [Gord]’s contribution to his friend’s recent dive into lutherie was this lovingly engineered and crafted fret mitering jig. We’d love to have a friend like [Gord].

We’ve covered a number of [Gord]’s builds before, and craftsmanship is the first thing that comes to mind whether the project is a man-cave clock or artisanal soaps. For this build, he stepped up the quality a notch – after all, if you’re going to build something you could buy for less than $200, you might as well make it a thing to behold.

There’s plenty to feast the eyes on here – an oak bed with custom logo, the aluminum jig body with brass accents, and the precision bearings that guide the pricey backsaw. Functionality abounds too – everything is adjustable, from the depth of cut to the width of the saw blade. There’s even a place to store the adjustment tool.

The result? Well, let’s just say that [Gord] and his friend [Fabrizio] are kindred spirits in the craftsmanship department. And [Fab]’s not a bad axeman either, as the video below shows.


Filed under: musical hacks, tool hacks

Evolving our Ideas to Build Something That Matters

พุธ, 04/27/2016 - 21:01

When Jeffrey Brian “JB” Straubel built his first electric car in 2000, a modified 1984 Porsche 944, powered by two beefy DC motors, he did it mostly for fun and out of his own curiosity for power electronics. At that time, “EV” was already a hype among tinkerers and makers, but Straubel certainly pushed the concept to the limit. He designed his own charger, motor controller, and cooling system, capable of an estimated 288 kW (368 hp) peak power output. 20 lead-acid batteries were connected in series to power the 240 V drive train. With a 30-40 mile range the build was not only road capable but also set a world record for EV drag racing.

The “Electric Porsche 944” – by JB Straubel

The project was never meant to change the world, but with Tesla Motors, which Straubel co-founded only a few years later, the old Porsche 944 may have mattered way more than originally intended. The explosive growth between 2000 and 2010 in the laptop computer market has brought forth performance and affordable energy storage technology and made it available to other applications, such as traction batteries. However, why did energy storage have to take the detour through a bazillion laptop computers until it arrived at electro mobility?

 

You certainly won’t find that grail of engineering by just trying hard. Rather than feverishly hunting down the next big thing or that fix for the world’s big problems, we sometimes need to remind ourselves that even a small improvement, a new approach or just a fun build may be just the right ‘next step’. We may eventually build all the things and solve all the problems, but looking at the past, we tend to not do so by force. We are much better at evolving our ideas continuously over time. And each step on the way still matters. Let’s dig a bit deeper into this concept and see where it takes us.

Variation And Innovation Giraffe feeding high up on an acacia, by Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In nature, the pioneer of building things that matter, there is a strong preference for variation over innovation when it comes to novelties. Modern Evolutionary Synthesis describes, that any change in the blueprints of a species must happen gradually. For any new feature to prevail, the smallest possible manifestation of it must prove itself beneficial, so that it can be naturally selected. It may then continuously develop into a more pronounced form. For example, in the evolutionary development of the giraffe, even a marginally longer neck brought the benefit of browsing in a slightly less competitive layer of vegetation, thus, a continuous lengthening of the neck and legs could follow. Leaps, and in that sense, innovations, are still possible within one generation, but unless environmental changes require them, natural selection is unlikely to give innovations any preference. In nature, innovations are extremely rare, and often reflect a series of rather dramatic changes in environmental conditions. Innovations are still key to many evolutionary developments, such as human language and culture, but occur inherently chaotic.

To apply this idea to the case of our traction battery, before 2003 electro mobility would have required leaps in both battery technology and manufacturing, and given the fact that mobility itself was not a problem, there was not much pressure for such a leap to happen – or to be funded. Compromises, such as smaller cars or short-range vehicles, appeared to be rather quirky and were discontinued soon. Laptops and other portable devices, however, rewarded even small, gradual improvements with the instant and real benefit of a slightly longer battery runtime.

To make use of this evolutionary concept for our task to build “something that matters”, we could identify and go for novelties, even innovations, that can grow through gradual changes themselves or benefit from gradual changes in other fields. This smallest useful increment can be a powerful lever for larger matters. Some entrepreneurs may call this the “MVP approach” or the “minimum viable product”, and it can be extremely useful if you’re not equipped with a nation’s defense budget to fund your technological quantum leaps.

The Ruby Laser Theodore Maiman’s ruby laser – by Daderot

In 1958, the idea of the laser was all the rage. Nobody really knew what it was good for, but physicists who had seen the blaster rifle in Forbidden Planet may have found it was just cool. Following the groundwork of a paper on laser theory by Arthur L. Schawlow and Charles H. Townes, many labs tried to build lasers at that time. However, nobody could inject enough energy into a laser medium to start the desired chain reaction called lasing. Some even said it was impossible and known artificial light sources simply were too inefficient.

Physicist Theodore Maiman had just the right idea: Instead of using lamps, he realized that the short but intense light pulse of a photo camera flash would fix the efficiency problem, all he had to do was buy a suitable flash unit. He built the world’s first laser from a helical xenon flash tube, a synthetic ruby rod, two mirrors and a reflective metal tube enclosure in 1960. The hack worked and inspired other laboratories to rework their approaches, but for years, nobody had a use for the ingenious device. At that time, tattoos had not even become mainstream, so no kids needed theirs removed. After the first lasers showed up in 1960, the invention idled for 14 years until the first bar code scanner made use of it.

Being Ahead Of Your Time

In 1958, all required ingredients for building a laser were not only available, they had become cheap: Powerful xenon flashes had been used for years in photography. The synthesis of flawless, artificial ruby, which itself had come a long way through 80 years of research, had reached a phase of mass production. When Schawlow and Townes published their work, it revealed a strong potential differential between what’s doable and what has already been done – to those who could see it.

If you are a polymath, seeking to build “the next big thing”, you may look for similar potential differentials. They have become rarer in the information age, but they still tend to build up between different technological fields or industries. Just like Maiman was aware of the flash, you may find a solution to another unsolved problem, too.

Still, because in practice the laser was way ahead of its time, only a few laboratories were willing to fund laser research. Labs and physicists, who decided to join the competition to be the first may have shared a certain enthusiasm for doing “what can be done”. Of course, being the first is prestigious, and you have to decide how much that matters to you.

Recombining and Rethinking, Repeating

Over at Hackaday.io, you can see people building anything from flying lawnmowers to deep learning smart homes. No, you can’t challenge Hackadayers easily, and still, the Hackaday Prize seeks to do exactly that with a simple task: Build Something that Matters. Of course, it’s not really a task, you might say, it’s neither specific nor can it’s fulfillment be measured. It is, however, a beautiful challenge, and accepting it may add meaning to any project out there beyond specifications or requirements.

The examples above are only snapshots taken from more or less recent hardware builds that may have mattered positively in a global and historical context, chosen purely to inspire you. Yet, they were variations and recombinations of mostly existing hardware and existing ideas. They also show how far you can get with your own two hands and the determination to pursue a project. It is important to realize that most of the actual development, this hard portion that really matters, happens along the way. Great visions and innovations are always part of the big picture, but they don’t control the pace, and they don’t add meaning. In that sense, something starts to matter as soon as you start pursuing it. How to build something that matters? Just start building.


Filed under: Featured, how-to, slider

The Immersive, VR, Internet of Things Unicycle

พุธ, 04/27/2016 - 18:01

Want something that you’ll try for fifteen minutes before realizing it’s extremely stupid and has limited utility before throwing it in the back of a closet to eventually sell at a yard sale? No, it’s not the Internet of Things, but good guess. I’m speaking, of course, about unicycles.

[retro.moe] is a unicycle and Commodore 64 enthusiast, and being the enterprising hacker he is, decided to combine his two interests. This led to the creation of the Uni-Joysti-Cle, the world’s first unicycle controller for the Commodore 64, and the first video game to use this truly immersive, better-than-an-Oculus unicycle controller.

The build began with the creation of Uni Games, the unicycle-enabled video game for the Commodore 64. This game was coded purely in 6502 assembly and features realistic physics, cutting edge graphics, and two game modes. It’s available on [retro.moe]’s site for the C64 and C128 jin PAL and NTSC formats.

Every game needs a controller, and for this [retro.moe] turned to his smartphone. A simple Android app with a few buttons to send up, down, left, and right commands to an ESP8266 chip attached to the C64’s joystick connector.

While a smartphone transmitting controller commands may seem like a vastly over-engineered joystick, there’s at least one thing a smartphone can do that a joystick cannot: poll an accelerometer. When the joystick senses movement, it transmits movement commands to the video game. Strap this phone to the pedal of a unicycle, and it’s the world’s first unicycle controller for a video game. Brilliant, and [retro.moe] can ride that thing pretty well, too.

Thanks [nfk] for sending this one in.


Filed under: classic hacks, transportation hacks

Autonomous Electro-musical Devices

พุธ, 04/27/2016 - 15:01

Circuit-bending is tons of fun. The basic idea is that you take parts of any old electronic device, say a cheap toy keyboard, and probe all around with wires and resistors, disturbing its normal functioning and hoping to get something cool. And then you make art or music or whatever out of it. But that’s a lot of work. What you really need is a circuit-bending robot!

Or at least that’s what [Gijs Gieskes] needed, when he took apart a horrible Casio SA-5 and grafted on enough automatic glitching circuitry to turn it into a self-playing musical sculpture. It’s random, but somehow it’s musical. It’s great stuff. Check out the video below to see what we mean.

We also love the way the autonomous glitching circuit is just laid over the top of the original circuitboard. It looks like some parasite out of Aliens. But with blinking LEDs.

There were no details on the website, so we wrote [Gijs] and asked.

There is a 40106 used for oscillators, these oscillators trigger keys on the keyboard, then after a while one oscillator starts short circuiting the crystal, making the keyboard crash. Then it usually gets stuck in some random sequence or loop. Then after a while it cuts the power of the keyboard for a short moment making it reset and start over.

As for a circuit diagram:

Its kind of “prototype and then glue it on” and just keep adding functions till it works in a nice way. Like composing.

A man after our own hearts! In fact, the basic circuit elements he’s talking about were the basis of our Logic Noise series. If you’re interested, check it out. We like software (and firmware) as much as the next coder, but there’s something to be said for experimenting around with the physical. And we’re looking forward to seeing more instruments added to the “perma-patch” section of [Gijs] site.


Filed under: musical hacks