Measuring Parts Badly for Accurate Reverse Engineering

Previous headquarters of Useful Thing Inc.
Previous headquarters of Useful Thing Inc. They made the best widget you could buy in the 80s.

Like most hackers, I’ve run into a part that looks like it might do what I want, but the only documentation came from a company so thoroughly defunct their corporate office is now a nail salon and a Subway.

So, as any hacker who’s wandered through a discount store with a spare twenty, at one point I bought a Chinese caliper. Sure it measures wrong when the battery is low, the temperature has changed, if I’ve held it in my hand too long, the moon is out, etc. but it was only twenty dollars. Either way, how do I get accurate measurements out of it? Well, half-wizardry and telling yourself educated lies.

There are two golden rules to getting accurate measurements by telling lies. It may be obvious to some, but it took me quite a bit of suffering to arrive at them.

  1. Engineers are lazy. So lazy. Most things are going to be even numbers, common fractions, and if possible standard sizes. If sheets and screws come in 2 and 3mm then you bet you’re going to see a lot of 2mm and 3mm features. Also, even though the metric world is supposedly pure, you’re still going to see more 0.25 (1/4) mm measurements than you are .333333 (1/3) mm measurements. Because some small fractions are easier to think about than decimals.
  2. Your eyes lie. If it matters, measure it to be sure.

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Materials to Know: Medium Density Fiberboard

MDF is the cheapest and flattest wood you can buy at local hardware stores. It’s uniform in thickness, and easy to work with. It’s no wonder that it shows up in a lot of projects. MDF stands for Medium Density Fiberboard. It’s made by pressing materials together along with some steam, typically wood, fibers and glue. This bonds the fibers very tightly. Sometimes MDF is constructed much like plywood. Thinner layers of MDF will be made. Then those layers will be laminated together under glue and steam.The laminated MDF is not as good as the monolithic kind. It tends to tear and break out along the layers, but it’s hard to tell which kind you will get.

Proper way to attatch a fastener to MDF.
Proper way to attatch a fastener to MDF.

MDF is great, but it has a few properties to watch for. First, MDF is very weak in bending and tension. It has a Modulus of Elasticity that’s about half of plywood. Due to its structure, short interlocking fibers bound together by glue and pressure, it doesn’t take a lot to cause a crack, and then, quickly, a break. If you’d like to test this, take a sheet of MDF, cut it with a knife, flip it over, and hit the sheet right behind your cut. Chances are the MDF will split surprisingly easily right at that point.

Because of the way MDF is constructed, fasteners tend to pull out of it easily. This means that you must always make sure a fastener that sees dynamic loads (say a bearing mount) goes through the MDF to the other side into a washer and bolt. MDF also tends to compress locally after a time, so even with a washer and bolt it is possible that you will see some ovaling of the holes. If you’re going to use screws, make sure they don’t experience a lot of force, also choose ones with very large threads instead of a finer pitch. Lastly, always use a pilot hole in MDF. Any particle board can split in alarming ways. For example, if you just drive a screw into MDF, it may appear to go well at first. Then it will suddenly jump back against you. This happened because the screw is compressing the fibers in front of it, causing an upward force. The only thing pressing against that force is the top layer of laminate contacting the threads. The screw then jumps out, tearing the top layer of particle board apart.

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E-paper Tide Clock Easy to Mistake for Art Print On The Wall

[Stephen B.] kickstarted a MicroPython board. When he got it, he was pleasantly surprised to find that it worked great. His jaded soul balmed with a good experience, he found himself armed with a tool in search of a project. Then he remembered something that had stuck with him, which was a tide clock.

He lives 70 miles from the sea, but his stepmother had a birthday coming up. She went swimming daily, so he had his excuse to build. Unlike his inspiration project, a bunch of seven segment LEDs would not be received well by a technically disinclined stepmother with a well decorated home. So, instead of those, he went with an epaper display. It looks great.

He wanted to use the Kindle display to save money, but the weird power levels needed scared him off. He spent a bit more on a module, but it was probably worth it in time savings. Micropython board, an RTC, a battery, and e-paper display in hand, he had everything needed to build the clock but aesthetics.

Luckily a local frame shop entertained him by letting him pick up frames until he could find one that fit. He put a nice shoreline print together, installed the devices into the frame, and ended up with a really good looking clock. Sure it only tells time four times a day, but that’s enough if you live a life by the sea.

Ask Hackaday: Open Fire Suppression and Safety Standards

We posted about a 3D printer fire a while back. An attendee of the Midwest RepRap Fest had left his printer alone only to find its immolated remains on his return. In the spirit of open source, naturally, he shared his experience with the rest of us. It occurred to me that hackers are never powerless and there are active things to be done and avenues to explore.

An animation of a commercial fires suppression system, fire trace's, operation.
An animation of a commercial fires suppression system, fire trace’s, operation. Firetrace‘s website has more.

There are really fantastic commercial fire extinguishing systems out there. One implementation, which is commonly deployed in cabinets and machining centers, is a plastic tube pressurized with an extinguishing agent by a connected tank. When a fire breaks out the tube melts at the hottest locations, automatically spraying the area with a suppressant. Variations of this involve a metal nozzle filled with a wax or plastic blended to melt at a certain temperature, much like the overhead fire sprinklers.

This system is also used inside engine compartments with success. For example, this item on amazon, is nothing but a pressurized plastic tube with a gauge on one end. Since the inside of an engine compartment can be treated as an enclosed space, very little fire suppressant is needed to extinguish an unexpected flame. It is important to note that this system works in a high temperature environment like an engine compartment, which bodes well for enclosed build envelopes on 3D printers.

BlazeCut Automatic Fire Suppression System 6' TV200FA, Automotive Extinguisher
BlazeCut Automatic Fire Suppression System 6′ TV200FA, Automotive Extinguisher Installed under Car Hood.

Another option is to construct a suppressant mine. A Japanese and a Thai company have both come out with a throwable fire extinguisher. In the Japanese device, the outside of the extinguisher is a breakable glass vial which shatters upon impact; releasing the agent. The Thai device looks like a volley ball, and releases the agent upon the application of heat. This device seems like a better candidate for 3D printing or home projects. Imagine a small rectangular pack with adhesive on one side that sits near the possible fire points of the printer, such as under the bed or above the nozzle. In the event of a fire, the casing will melt and the system will automatically deploy a spray of extinguishing agent.

Most of the chemicals used in these constructions are benign and readily available. High pressure tubing and waxes can all be purchased and the desired melt points can be aligned with their datasheets by need. Plastic sheets are not hard to procure. These offer a nice solution due to their entirely passive nature. They don’t need power to operate and rely entirely on the properties of the materials they are constructed out of.

There are other options in active systems. Hackaday readers suggested things such as flame sensors for adding automatic cut-offs in case of a fire. Thermal fuses can also be considered in some cases. There are other tricks too, which are less kosher but will work nonetheless. For example, placing a critical wire, fuse, or component in the likely path of a fire so that it is destroyed first, stopping the operation of the device quickly. These avenues should be explored. At minimum there should be at least one project that uses a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino to tweet that fire suppression failed and the house is on fire.

The Thai invention is a volleyball that melts upon contact with flame and releases a pressurized extinguishing agent.

Some of the big questions to ask are on the legal and ethical side. If someone started selling kits for a DIY fire suppression system and a fire ends up destroying someone’s property despite the device, who is responsible? Is it even safe to post instructions? What if a kit prematurely sets off and injures someone. I imagine a big part of the cost of these professional systems is some sort of liability insurance and certification. Still, putting a six hundred dollar fire suppression system on a six hundred dollar printer seems silly, and something is better than nothing.

Lastly, the comments directed a ton of flak towards the certification systems. There should be no reason that open source projects can’t produce their own specification for safety. An open source specification without an agency naturally couldn’t provide a legal defense against property damage, but a thought-out test program would provide piece of mind. For example, in the case of 3D printers, one could have a set of basic fail-safe tests. One example would be bringing the printer up to temperature and rapidly disconnecting the thermistor, does the printer erupt into fire? No? Good, it meets the spec. I wouldn’t mind knowing that the latest version of Marlin was tested on the popular boards and still met the community specification for fire safety.

As far as I can tell, there’s been very little work in open sourcing safety systems or in providing a testing framework for ensuring open hardware meets basic safety conditions. Many of you have experience with these systems. Some of you have gone through the entirely un-enjoyable process of getting a UL certification. What does Hackaday think?

Strandmaus, Small R/C Strandbeest

[Jeremy Cook] has been playing around with strandbeests for a while, but never had one that walked until he put a motor on it and made it R/C controlled.

These remote controlled strandbeests can’t be too heavy or they have trouble moving. He didn’t want to get too complicated, either. [Jeremy] decided his first idea – hacking a cheap R/C car – wouldn’t work. The motors and AA batteries in these cars are just too heavy. Then he realized he had a broken quadcopter lying around. The motors were all burnt out, but the battery, controller, and driver board still works. On a hunch, he hooked up beefier motors to the front and left rotor control, and found that it worked just fine.

The rest of the work was just coupling it to the mechanism. The mechanism is made of wood and metal tubes. [Jeremy] found that the strandmaus had a tendency to fall down. He figures that’s why the original strandbeests had so many legs.

For his next iteration he wants to try to make it more stable, but for now he’s just having fun seeing his little legged contraption scoot around the floor. Video after the break.

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Continuing The Dialog: “It’s Time Software People and Mechanical People Had a Talk”

A while back I wrote a piece titled, “It’s Time the Software People and Mechanical People Sat Down and Had a Talk“. It was mostly a reaction to what I believe to be a growing problem in the hacker community. Bad mechanical designs get passed on by what is essentially digital word of mouth. A sort of mythology grows around these bad designs, and they start to separate from science. Rather than combat this, people tend to defend them much like one would defend a favorite band or a painting. This comes out of various ignorance, which were covered in more detail in the original article.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments, which reaffirmed why I like writing for Hackaday so much. You guys seriously rock. After reading through the comments and thinking about it, some of my views have changed. Some have stayed the same.

It has nothing to do with software guys.

being-wrong-quoteI definitely made a cognitive error. I think a lot of people who get into hardware hacking from the hobby world have a beginning in software. It makes sense, they’re already reading blogs like this one. Maybe they buy an Arduino and start messing around. It’s not long before they buy a 3D printer, and then naturally want to contribute back.

Since a larger portion of amateur mechanical designers come from software, it would make sense that when I had a bad interaction with someone over a design critique, they would be end up coming at it from a software perspective. So with a sample size too small, that didn’t fully take into account my positive interactions along with the negative ones, I made a false generalization. Sorry. When I sat down to think about it, I could easily have written an article titled, “It’s time the amateur mechanical designers and the professionals had a talk.” with the same point at the end.

Though, the part about hardware costs still applies.

I started out rather aggressively by stating that software people don’t understand the cost of physical things. I would, change that to: “anyone who hasn’t designed a physical product from napkin to market doesn’t understand the cost of things.”

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Colorful Fan and LED Controller for 3D Printer

[Dave] just couldn’t take the ambient noise from his Lulzbot Mini anymore, so he built a fancy fan controller for it.

He measured some points on the printer’s Rambo controller board to see what actually got hot during a print. The hottest components were the motor drivers, so he taped a thermistor to them. He also placed one in the printer’s power supply. He replaced the main fan with a low noise model from Noctua (which have the most insanely fancy packaging you could imagine for a computer fan). The software on an Arduino Nano now idles the fan at an inaudible 650RPM, if an unacceptable temperature increase is detected, it increases the fan speed for a period, keeping everything nice and quietly cool.

The graphics display was added because, “why not?” A classic reason. The graphics runs on a hacked version of Adafruit’s library. It took him quite a while to get the graphics coded, but they add that extra bit of high-tech flair to keep the cool factor of the 3d printer up before they become as ubiquitous as toasters in the home. The code, fritzing board layout, 3D models, and a full build log is available at his site.