Prof Gershenfeld Speaks on Fab Labs and all-things Digital

Fab Labs have developed hand-in-hand with the all-too-familiar hackerspaces that we see today. If you’re curious to discover more about their past and future, [Prof Gershenfeld], founder of the Fab Lab, and director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms brings us a fresh perspective on both these fab labs and the digital world we live in.

In a casual one-hour chat on Edge, [Prof Gershenfeld] dives deeply into the concept of digital in our world. We might consider digital to be a binarized signal, an analog waveform discretized into a 0 and 1 from which all of computer architecture is built upon today. Digital doesn’t just exist in the computing sense, however; it’s a concept that has been applied to communication, computation, and, these days: personal fabrication.

[Prof Gershenfeld’s] talk may highlight coming changes in the future, but changes are already happening today. These days, fab labs and hackerspaces serve their communities in a very special way. They take “experts-of-the-field” away from universities and isolated labs, and they scatter them all over the world. With this shift, anyone can walk through their doors and build a solid foundation in fields like embedded programming and computer aided manufacturing by striking a conversation with these local experts. In a nutshell, both spaces found a culture for development of expertise far more accessible to the world community than their university counterparts.

If you can spare the hour, put on some headphones, tune in, and resume your CAD work, PCB layout, or that Arduino library. You may discover that your work is built on a number of digital principles, and that your contributions push the rest farther along the development chain towards building something awesome.

Finally, if you’re interested in taking notes on building your own fab lab, have a look at the inventorylayout, and guidelines at the CBA website.

Hackerspace Happenings: Santa Barbara Hackerspace Moving

Occasionally we get a few tips on our hotline telling us of hackerspace happenings. Either a space is moving, they need some help to install a moat around the space, or there’s a mini-conference of weird and esoteric technology happening sometime soon. The latest such tip is from the Santa Barbara Hackerspace. They’re moving, the new space doesn’t have a leaky roof, and they’re looking for some people to help out.

The new space features necessary hackerspace upgrades like no carpet, 120, 220, and 440 Volt outlets, actual parking, and a non-leaky roof. You can get by with a leaky roof in Santa Barbara, but having a roof that doesn’t have holes in it is always a bonus.

Add this to the space’s existing battery of equipment – everything from laser cutters, bandsaws, and welders to oscilloscopes, an amateur radio station, and a forge and anvil, there’s a lot anyone can do in this space.

How To Make A Hackerspace Passport Stamp

A few years ago, [Mitch Altman] from Noisebridge came up with the idea of a Hackerspace Passport. The idea behind it was not to hinder or monitor travels but to encourage visiting other hackerspaces. These passports can be purchased for just a few dollars or, in true open source fashion, be made with nothing more than a computer printer… the Hackerspace Passport design files are totally free and available here.

So next time you’re visiting a new hackerspace, bring your passport and get it stamped to document the trip…. and that brings us to the point of this post: The Stamp. At around $25, having a custom ink stamp made at an office supply store isn’t that much money, but buying a stamp is not as fun as making one! That is what we are going to do today; make a stamp… or more specifically, several stamps using different techniques. Then we’ll compare the performance of each method.

DESIGN

Since this is Hackaday, we will be making a Hackaday Logo stamp. Back a couple years ago we ran a contest asking folks to make unique things with the Hackaday logo. To make it easy for the entrants, the Hackaday logo was made available in SVG format. We’ll start with that, since it is available, and make a minor change by adding some lettering, as most soon-to-be stamp makers will probably want letters on their stamps too. This is easily done in the FOSS vector graphic editor software: Inkscape.

The stamp size is important. A Hackerspace Passport page has room for 4 stamps up to 41 x 47mm and we’ll try to keep our stamp within those limits.

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FUBAR Labs Gets A New Space

FUBAR Labs in New Jersey is one of the finest and most productive hackerspaces in the US. They have homebrew rocket engines, the eternal gratitude of semiconductor companies, and a broken Makerbot nailed to the wall: everything a hackerspace should have. Now they’re moving to a new space, and they’re looking for a little funding to turn their lab into what it should be.

There have been a lot of cool builds that have come out of FUBAR Labs including a Power Wheels racer, [Rick]’s Minecraft Circuits In Real Life, the now-obviously named Fubarino, a 3D printed balance bot. a gaseous oxygen and ethanol rocket engine.

Their 890 square foot space was already fantastic, but with a new space that’s 2300 square feet, they’ll be able to expand New Jersey’s finest hackerspace into what it should already be.

The guys at FUBAR put up a gallery of pics of the new space. You can check those out here. Next time Hackaday is in Jersey – or when we forget how to pump our own gas, whatever comes first – we’ll do a hackerspace tour of the new space.

Hackaday Prize Worldwide: Workbench Projects Bengaluru

Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) is a town full of awesome hackers. So when Workbench Projects, a local maker space there, asked if I’d like to come down and talk about the Hackaday Prize, I immediately set things in motion. We decided to arrange a “Bring-a-Hack” event, asking local makers to turn up with their hacks and give a talk or drop by and discuss ideas that matter. To reach out to a larger audience, we also partnered with IoT-BLR, a pretty large group of IoT enthusiasts in Bengaluru. 10,000 Startups (NASSCOM for Startups) helped ensure that all the hackers were well fed with sandwiches and cookies while Paper Boat chipped in with a cooler full of beverages.  A freak hail storm meant that we had to delay the start a bit. But that turned into a blessing of sorts, as it allowed those already at the space to check out the hacks that had been set up at demo tables and generally network with each other.

almost 100 Hackers turned up
almost 100 Hackers turned up

[Anupama], who set up Workbench Projects with [Pavan], set the ball rolling by telling us about how it all started off a year ago. She and [Pavan] had ideas buzzing in their heads, but no means to prototype them. “You can either continue cribbing about the lack of maker spaces, or jump right in and start one on your own”.

We then had [Pavan] tell us about the various “studios” that they have set up. He was also excited to announce their addition to the world-wide MIT FabLab network. Their space is located right under the escalator that goes to the Halasuru Metro Station. The use of that space, which would other wise have been wasted and empty, itself is brilliant.

I stepped up and talked about the Hackaday Prize and our call to makers this year to “Build something that matters”. I showed off last years winners, this years prizes and gave out other details asking the assembled hackers to jump in and submit their hacks to the Hackaday Prize. Next up we had [Nihal], who founded IoT-BLR and talked to us about their projects, events and initiatives. IoT-BLR is the 3rd largest IoT-focused Meetup community in the world.

With that done, we opened up the floor for the assembled hackers to come forth and talk about their hacks. First up was [Anmol Agrawal] who showed off his earthquake early warning system which was prototyped using Littlebits, PubNub and Ruby.

I was glad that at short notice, my friend [Mohammed Khasim], who works at Linnaro, agreed to drop by to talk about and show off the modular phone being developed by Google as part of Project Ara.

Intelligent cane for blind

The all-girls team of [Kruti], [Chitra] and [Archana] showed off their intelligent cane for the blind. Five ultrasonic ping sensors, one light sensor and a camera are all hooked up to a Raspberry Pi running off a battery pack. The cane communicates with a paired smart phone and the app provides audio cues. There’s also a pager motor for haptic feedback.

[Rahul] and his team showed up with what looked like the Iron-Man Arc Reactor on a T-shirt. It turned out to be an HID device that could be used to send key presses back to a paired computer. Their next iteration was less flashy and unobtrusive. They are now working on using this to provide safety for school kids by allowing them to send alerts in case of an emergency.

 

Drone demo, for collision avoidance

[Chetan] and his team from EdgeVerve showed off the work they are doing with putting various sensors on drones – CO2, temperature, humidity, multi-spectral camera –  to enable them to be used for some real world applications. They have also integrated collision avoidance using cheap ultrasonic sensors and a ballistic parachute which deploys during an emergency.

The IoT-BLR connected cars project team talked about their project to tap into on-board diagnostics on vehicles and use the various sensor data to control pollution.

Kumar Abhishek's BeagleLogic

[Kumar Abhishek] came down just in time to show us his BeagleLogic. I had written about this project on the blog earlier, and it was nice to be able to see it in action.

There were some more projects up for display. [Osho Bajpai] had a demo of his “Smart Driving alert system”  which detects if driver is falling sleep and wakes him up. [Sanju Mathew] demo’ed his prosthetic arm while [Supreet Joshi] showed off his “Smart Robotic Arm”  which replicates the movements of a human arm using a smart glove. On display was also a remote controlled skate board driven by a BLDC motor controlled via the ESC. It was also interesting to see a bunch of school kids wheel in their chopper-inspired bicycle which is still work in progress. Those kids are learning a lot in the process such as ergonomics and welding. [Abdul] showed off a couple of devices he is working on to help harness tidal energy from coastal areas. The team from WiSense showed off some network connected environmental sensors. One measures soil moisture and temperature and transmits data  via text message over GSM. This is aimed for use by Farmers and alerts them to water their farms at the right time. Another sensor worked as a tank level detector and controlled flow rate to prevent over flow.

By this time, it was quite late in the evening, so folks spent the next hour looking up the various projects, talking and getting selfies taken using the OpenSelfie photobooth that I had set up. [Rishi Bhatnagar] from Workbench Projects, who set the whole event in motion, managed to archive the evening’s proceedings and you can watch the (long) video after the break.

Here’s another photo album from the event.

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Hackaday Tours Northrop: Space Telescopes and Jet Planes

I was invited to tour the Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems campus in Los Angeles this spring and it was fantastic! The Northrop Grumman lists themselves as “a leading global security company” but the project that stole my heart is their work on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) for NASA. On the one hand, I don’t see how it could possibly be pulled off as the telescope seems to cram every hard engineering challenge you can think of into one project. On the other hand, Northrop (plus NASA and all of their subcontractors) has been doing tough stuff for a very long time.

How Do You Tour Northrop Grumman?

This opportunity fell in my lap since [Tony Long] is a Hackaday reader and an engineer at Northrop. He’s the founder of their FabLab (which I’ll talk about a bit later) and was so bold as to send an email asking if one of the crew would like to stop by. Yes Please!

I was already headed out to the Supplyframe offices (Hackaday’s parent company) in Pasadena. [Tony] offered to pick me up at LAX and away we went to Redondo Beach, California for an afternoon adventure.

James Webb Space Telescope: Everything Hard About Engineering

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST)

I had heard of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) but had never looked closely at the particulars of the project. Above you can see a scale model which Northrop built. I didn’t actually see this on my tour. It travels to different places, taking two semi trucks, with a dozen people spending four days to set it up each time. And that’s a not-real, relegated to the surface of the planet, item. What is it going to take to put the real one into space?

It’s not just going into space. It’s going to the second Lagrangian point. This is past the moon, about 1.5 million kilometers from the earth. If this thing breaks we can’t go out there and fix it. There’s a lot of pressure for success.

The main problem facing this satellite is heat. It will use a mirror array to harvest infrared radiation from very distant astronomical bodies. For this to happen it needs to have a very good optical array to gather infrared light and focus it on a collector, and it must be isolated from the heat of the sun, earth, and moon.

There is an array of 18 hexagonal mirrors which reflect the infrared onto a collecting mirror and in turn to the sensors. These mirrors are not made by Northrop, but they did have a prototype on display and it was incredible! Each mirror is made by Ball Aerospace out of beryllium. The concave surface is coated in gold for reflectivity and an actuator mounted on the back of each mirror can flex the surface to adjust the concavity and thereby the focal length. This is in addition to the ability to adjust the roll and pitch of each segment.

In the Northrop high bay they were working on the mounting system for these mirrors. It showed much more progress than the two images seen above. This is the central mount structure for the optics. The width of this structure is dictated by the size of the rocket which will launch it into space. When I saw it, folding wings had been added to either side of this main structure to host a dual-row of mirrors which are folded back into the telescopes during its storage position. The black material itself is a composite manufactured by Northrop. The cross-section they showed as an example was not much thicker than your fingernail but obviously quite rigid in the cast pipe shape.

You can see an animation of the unfolding process which was playing in the high-bay viewing room during the tour. Note the five-layer heat shield that needs to automatically unfold without snagging. This reminds me of [Ed van Cise’s] recollection of solar panel unfolding issues on the ISS. It’s a tough problem and it looks like much time has been spend making sure this design learns from past issues. That animation doesn’t show too many details about the mirror mechanics. I found video demonstrating how the mechanical part of the mirrors work to be quite interesting.

Learning more about what goes into the James Webb Space Telescope project is worth a lot of your time. I’m not joking about this including everything hard about engineering. The challenges involved in meeting the specification of this telescope are jaw-dropping and I’m certain the people working on the project across many different companies will make this happen.

Hackerspace Driving Corporate Culture

fablab-wide-shot

It was nice that [Tony] and his colleague [Adam] came right out and told me they reached out to Hackaday because they want to get the message out that Northrop is rejuvenating their corporate culture. They’re in the process of hiring thousands of engineers and part of this process is making the job fit with the lifestyle that these engineers want.

One big move in this direction is the formation of their FabLab. [Tony] is an engineer but 50% of his workload is tending to the FabLab. This is basically a hackerspace open to any of the roughly 20k employees at this particular location. Northrop fabricates amazing things, and when equipment is no longer used, the FabLab gets dibs on it. Imagine the possibilities!

unexploded-armament-removalPart of this initiative is to get more engineers learning about the fabrication process. [Tony] used the example of researching by fabricating a simple proof-of-concept in the FabLab. This is an avenue to that buzzword: fail-fast. Before getting your department on board with what might be a costly and time-consuming project you can test out some of the parts which are a little hazy in your mind.

The device seen here is the product of a challenge that one of the groups participated in last year. They had about six months to develop a robot which can clear unexploded armaments. It was hanging out in one part of the hackerspace and is a great build. You can just make out a blue sphere hiding in the underbody. That’s a huge jamming gripper powered by the black and yellow shop-vac perched atop the chassis. The robot is remote controlled, with wireless GoPro cameras mounted all around and underneath. Of course the thing wouldn’t be complete without a giant silver air-horn. Safety first!

It will be interesting to see if the FabLab can build the kind of grass-roots community often associated with standalone hackerspaces. You can get a glimpse at the grand opening of the space in this video. We don’t quite remember seeing a hackerspace marketed in this manner. But if that’s what it takes to get the company on board it’s well worth it. A huge space, amazing tools, and no monthly membership fee make for a sweet deal. Oh, and the name FabLab apparently came from their mascot, the Fabulous Labrador, who can be seen in the clip wearing a string of pearls.

F/18 Assembly Plant

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We wrapped up the day by touring the F/A 18 E/F Super Hornet assembly line. This is a huge plant. I don’t know how to better describe the sheer size of the assembly line than saying it took no less than twenty minutes to walk back to the parking lot at the end of this tour.

00036301Northrop Grumman serves as the principal subcontractor for Boeing on this project, so the end of the line isn’t quite a fully assembled airplane. But the fuselage — less cockpit, nose, wings, and engines — is still a formidable sight. I’ve never been this close to a fighter jet before and the size is impressive. Equally impressive is the building housing the line, which was build in 1942 and is still wood-framed to this day. They have huge engineered columns which have since been reinforced with steel. But that fact makes it no-less impressive.

The top concern during assembly is FOD, or Foreign Object Detection. These vehicles are exposed to huge forces and vibrations that will shake anything that’s not supposed to be there loose, and that can mean horrible damage to an expensive machine or much worse. Some of the things I found really interesting were the systems in place to make sure no part goes missing. All components come in cases that have an individual cutout area for each. Tools are scanned to each employee, if broken or worn out there are vending machines throughout the plant keeping track of them through a computerized system.

As part of the tour we walked through the composites plant next door. There are massive autoclaves for curing the resins. These are like a pipe sitting on its side with hemispherical doors on each end. I’m a poor judge of time and distance but I’d estimate these to be 18 feet in diameter and at least 35 feet long. Traditional composite fabrication — a worker laying down sheets of carbon-fiber on a mold — were under way. But the room next door housed a robot that looked like it was born in The Matrix. The spider-like head works next to a turning mandrel fitted with the form of the piece being fabricated. It lays out about seven strands of carbon fiber, building up a part that has no seams whatsoever. After curing the resin the mold is removed manually, piece by piece, from the inside of the part. To me the parts being built looked like air intake channels approximately 15 feet long and maybe 5 feet in diameter, although they were winding and not exactly cylindrical in shape. I wasn’t able to get very many details about them, but I was told these parts are for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. This is another subcontract Northrop Grumman has for Lockheed Martin.

Conclusion

Thank you to [Tony Long] and [Adam Gross] for spending to give Hackaday this tour. I had the impression that I was living an episode of one of my favorite programs How It’s Made, and that was awesome! Northrop Grumman has an educational outreach program so if you’re associated with a school in the area set up a tour of the JWST!

[Tony] ducked out with me for dinner; some excellent tacos — a quest I’ve been on during each visit to LA. He joined me afterward on a trip to Null Space Labs for their open night. They had moved since the last time I was there and if you’re in town you should check it out.

Attributes:

One thing I should mention is that I was not able to take any photographs on the premises. My story above is original but all the photos are stock or provided by Northrop at my request.

Main Post Image via JWST Flickr

Front Mirror via YouTube thumb.

Extended Reflection Mirror via YouTube video.

“Easy Bake” Vacuformer

One of our favorite things about Hackerspaces is people tend to spend a lot of time building tools, or repairing/upgrading older ones. This is a case of the former. The vacuum former.

[Adam] wrote in to tell us about this vacuum forming machine which he and few other members built for FizzPOP, a hackerspace in Birmingham, England. The device is used to suck hot sagging plastic around a mold. This is accomplished in two parts, the vacuum table and the heating mechanism to put the sheet of plastic into that sagging state.

vacuum-forming-signThe vacuum part of these tools has been easy to DIY for a long time. Pegboard makes for a very good table surface, with some type of vacuum motor (usually a shopvac or two) in an enclosure below the surface. This design adheres to that common formula.

On the other hand, the heating mechanism is more difficult to solve. The plastic is unwieldy and fragile when hot so a frame is very common. Following the example of commercially available models, the FizzPOP crew built a frame that slides along four vertical rails (envision table legs) extending above the vacuum surface. These legs also hold up the heating element. Often this is a nichrome wire array, but not this time. They went with an array of 70 halogen bulbs in a 10×7 orientation. A PCB was milled for each, with a system of bus-bars connecting them all. The trial run showed that the intensity of the bulbs made hotspots directly below each. But a bit more testing helped them solve the issue by keeping the frame further from the array in the heating phase.

The team’s 13-seconds of fame are found after the break. A black sheet of High-Impact Polystyrene (HIPS) is formed around a compilation of tools spelling out the name of the hackerspace.

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