Ask Hackaday: How Do You Make A Hotplate?

Greetings fellow nerds. The Internet’s favorite artificial baritone chemist has a problem. His hotplates burn up too fast. He needs your help to fix this problem.

[NurdRage] is famous around these parts for his very in-depth explorations of chemistry including the best ways to etch a PCB, building a thermometer probe with no instructions, and chemical synthesis that shouldn’t be performed by anyone without years of experience in a lab. Over the past few years, he’s had a problem: hotplates suck. The heating element is usually poorly constructed, and right now he has two broken hotplates on his bench. These things aren’t cheap, either: a bare-bones hotplate with a magnetic stirrer runs about $600.

Now, [NurdRage] is asking for help. He’s contacted a few manufacturers in China to get a hundred or so of these hotplate heating elements made. Right now, the cost for a mica and metal foil hotplate is about $30 / piece, with a minimum order quantity of 100. That’s $3,000 that could be better spent on something a bit more interesting than a heating element, and this is where you come in: how do you build the heating element for a hotplate, and do it cheaply?

If you buy a hotplate from the usual lab equipment supplier, you’ll get a few pieces of mica and a thin trace of metal foil. Eventually, the metal foil will oxidize, and the entire hotplate will stop working. Repairs can be done with copper tape, but by the time that repair is needed, the heating element is already on its way out.

The requirements for this heating element include a maximum temperature of around 350 ºC. That’s a fair bit hotter than any PCB-based heat bed from a 3D printer gets, so consider that line of reasoning a dead end. This temperature is also above what most resins, thermoplastics, and composites can handle, which is why these hotplates use mica as an insulator.

Right now, [NurdRage] will probably end up spending $3,000 for a group buy of these heating elements. That’s really not that bad – for the price of five hotplates, he’ll have enough heating elements to last through the rest of his YouTube career. There must be a better way, though, so if you have an idea of how to make a high-temperature heating element the DIY way, leave a note in the comments.

Ask Hackaday: Is The ESP8266 5V Tolerant?

The ESP8266 is the reigning WiFi wonderchip, quickly securing its reputation as the go-to platform for an entire ecosystem of wireless devices. There’s nothing that beats the ESP8266 on a capability vs. price comparison, and this tiny chip is even finding its way into commercial products. It’s also a fantastic device for the hardware tinkerer, leading to thousands of homebrew projects revolving around this tiny magical device.

In every technical document, summary, and description of the ESP8266, the ESP8266 is said to be a 3.3V part. While we’re well into the age of 3.3V logic, there are still an incredible number of boards and hardware that still operate using 5V logic. Over on the stack, [Radomir] is questioning this basic assumption. He’s wondering if the ESP8266 is 5V tolerant after all. If it is, great. We don’t need level converters, and interfacing the ESP to USB TTL serial adapters becomes much easier. Yes, you’ll still need to use a regulator if the rest of your project is running at 5V, but if the pins are 5V tolerant, interfacing the ESP8266 with a variety of hardware becomes very easy.

[Radomir]’s evidence for the possibility of 5V tolerant inputs comes from a slight difference in the official datasheet from Espressif, and the datasheet translated by the community before Espressif realized how many of these chips they were going to sell.

The best evidence of 5V tolerant pins might come from real-world experience — if you can drive a pin with 5V for months on end without it failing, there might be something to this claim. It’s not definitive, though; just because a device will work with 5V input pins for a few months doesn’t mean it won’t fail in the future. So far a few people have spoken up and presented ESPs directly connected to the 5V pin of an Arduino that still work after months of service. If this is evidence of 5V tolerant design or simply luck is another matter entirely.

While the official datasheet from Espressif lists a maximum VIH of 3.3V, maximum specs rarely are true maximums — you can always push a part harder without things flying apart at the seams. Unfortunately, unless we hear something from the engineers at Espressif, we won’t know if the ESP8266 was designed to be 5V tolerant, if it can handle 5V signals reliably, or if 5V signals are a really good way to kill a chip eventually.

Lucky for us — and this brings us to the entire point of an Ask Hackaday column — a few Espressif engineers read Hackaday. They’re welcome to pseudonymously chime in below along with the rest of the peanut gallery. Failing that, the ESP8266 has been decapped; are there any die inspection wizards who can back up a claim of 5V tolerance for the GPIO? We’d also be interested in hearing any ideas for stress testing pin tolerance.

Ask Hackaday: How Hard Is It To Make A Bad Solder Joint?

When you learn to solder, you are warned about the pitfalls of creating a solder joint. Too much solder, too little solder, cold joints, dry joints, failing to “wet” the joint properly, a plethora of terms are explained  if you read one of the many online guides to soldering.

Unsurprisingly it can all seem rather daunting to a novice, especially if they are not used to the dexterity required to manipulate a tool on a very small-scale at a distance. And since the soldering iron likely to be in the hands of a beginner will not be one of the more accomplished models with fine temperature control and a good tip, it’s likely that they will experience most of those pitfalls early on in their soldering career.

As your soldering skills increase, you get the knack of making a good joint. Applying just the right amount of heat and supplying just enough solder becomes second nature, and though you still mess up from time to time you learn to spot your errors and how to rework and fix them. Your progression through the art becomes a series of plateaux, as you achieve each new task whose tiny size or complexity you previously thought rendered it impossible. Did you too recoil in horror before your first 0.1″ DIP IC, only to find it had been surprisingly easy once you’d completed it?

A few weeks ago we posted a Hackaday Fail of the Week, revolving around a soldering iron failure and confirmation bias leading to a lengthy reworking session when the real culprit was a missing set of jumpers. Mildly embarrassing and something over which a veil is best drawn, but its comments raised some interesting questions about bad solder joints. In the FoTW case I was worried I’d overheated the joints causing them to go bad, evaporating the flux and oxidising the solder. This was disputed by some commenters, but left me with some curiosity over bad solder joints. We all know roughly how solder joints go wrong, but how much of what we know is heresay? Perhaps it is time for a thorough investigation of what makes a good solder joint, and the best way to understand that would surely be to look at what makes a bad one.

Continue reading “Ask Hackaday: How Hard Is It To Make A Bad Solder Joint?”

Ask Hackaday: Material Databases

With more and more previously industrial processes coming online in the home shop, people are finding that getting the information that was previously provided by the manufacturer of a hundred thousand dollar machine for their three hundred dollar Shenzen special is not easy.

Some early work from UFID shows how even different Slic3rs can change the expected material properties of a filament.
Some early work from UFID shows how even different Slic3rs can change the expected material properties of a filament.

A common example is this, a hacker purchased themselves a brand new 3D printer off amazon for a price too good to be true. After a week of tinkering with it, a small fire, and a few replacement parts later, they get it to work. After they’ve burned through, perhaps literally, the few hundred grams of filament that came with the printer at the setting recommended by the manufacturer, they do a small blanket order of the different filaments out there. Now comes the trouble, each printer is a little different and each filament has different properties. Most people find that the second spool of filament they feed into their printer doesn’t work at all. What’s the quickest way to get the right temperature, cooling, and feed settings for your printer configuration?

This isn’t a problem for the expensive machines. Epilog, a manufacturer of laser cutters, provides a grid of settings for each material you’re likely to cut, tuned to the different properties of each model of laser cutter they sell. Same goes for the expensive industrial 3D printers, each (very expensive) spool of material has the setting sitting in a chip in the casing. When the spool is slotted in the machine, it reads the settings and adjusts accordingly. All the work of tuning was done in a lab somewhere and the print is, theoretically, guaranteed.

Your Oshpark order would get delayed, your lulzbot support case would be dropped, teensies would ship late, and the Amp Hour would just be the EEVBlog Podcast if this bar burnt down, but it was a great event!
Your Oshpark order would get delayed, your Lulzbot support case would be dropped, Teensies would ship late, and the Amp Hour would just be the EEVBlog Podcast if this bar burnt down, but it was a great event!

While we were at the Bay Area Makerfaire 2016, we had a chance to talk to [Gauthier de Valensart] and buy him a beer at the Hackaday Meet-up. [Gauthier] is from Belgium where he is the founder of a start-up with one of those fancy new TLDs: The goal of is to create a database of 3D printer materials and link that up with a user’s 3D printer settings. The eventual goal being, much like the industrial printers, a user would be able to simply scan a barcode, or wave the spool over an RFID reader to input the needed settings into his slicing software or printer.

This sounded familiar to me, not the least because I had started work on it as an extension for when that was a larger focus in my life. In fact, I remember, while I was kicking the idea around to people at MRRF, that they kept telling me someone else was working on a similar project. I wanted to introduce [Gauthier] to the person who was working on the project back then. Since I was at a bar full of people in the industry, I sort of helplessly rotated in my spot trying to find someone who might remember. I spied [whosawhatsis], a common attendee of MRRF, and asked him. Okay, that was easy, [whosawhatsis] informed us that is was his project… introduction complete. Goes to show you what a good networking event buying a bunch of nerds beer can be.

They got a pretty okay logo while they were at it.
They got a pretty okay logo while they were at it.

The project was called, “Universal Filament Identification System,” and it proposed to, “… eliminate the guess-work,” by, “…developing a method for tagging, tracking, and identifying filament for 3d printing in machine-readable formats…” The project appears to be mostly dead now and its domain is a placeholder. I think it suffered from the standard open source feature creep, but the idea is sound.

Which gets us to the questions. There are a lot of difficulties with creating such a system. The first being the data collection. Who should be responsible for measuring the filaments, the materials for laser cutting, or any other process that needs tuned settings? The ideal track, of course, would be for the manufacturers to hold themselves accountable and report on the settings for their filaments. However, many filament manufacturers rely on the ignorance of users to sell dodgy products, it’s only in the interest of a few top-quality ones to do so. If the users do so, then how will the information provided be vetted? You definitely don’t want someone’s ignorance about a faulty thermistor to encourage you to run PLA at 280C.

More and more difficulties arise. How should the information be transferred, etc. What properties should even be recorded? UFID was going as far as to use a color sensor to keep track of colors between batches from 3D printer manufacturers. In the end it’s about creating standards in a standard-less industry by using crowdsourcing. Either way, take a look at what [Gauthier]’s doing (and send him some feedback), read the backlogs of UFID, think about how annoying it was to get the right settings for a laser cutter the last time you used one, and let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Ask Hackaday: Is PLA Biodegradable?

The most popular plastic for 3D printers is PLA – polylactic acid – a plastic that’s either derived from corn starch, inedible plant detritus, or sugar cane, depending where in the world it was manufactured. Being derived from natural materials, PLA is marketed as being biodegradable. You don’t need to worry about low-poly Pokemon and other plastic trinkets filling landfills when you’re printing with PLA, all these plastic baubles will return to the Earth from whence it came.

3D printers have been around for a few years now, and now objects printed in PLA have been around the sun a few times. A few of these objects have been completely forgotten. How’s that claim of being biodegradable holding up? The results are mixed, and as always, more data is needed.

A few weeks ago, [LazyGecko] found one of his first experiments in 3D printing. In 2012, he was experimenting with tie dying PLA prints by putting his prints in a jar filled with water and blue dye. This jar was then placed in the back of his cupboard and quickly forgotten. 3.5 years later, [LazyGecko] remembered his experiment. Absolutely nothing happened, save for a little bit of blue dye turning the print a pastel baby blue. The print looks and feels exactly like the day it came off the printer.

[LazyGecko]’s blog post was noticed by [Bill Waters], and he has one datum that points to PLA being biodegradable. In 2015, [Bill] printed a filter basket for his fish tank. The first filter basket worked well, but made a small design change a week later, printed out another, and put the first print in storage. He now has two nearly identical prints, one in constant use in a biologically interesting environment, the other sitting on a shelf for a year.

[Bill]’s inadvertent experiment is very close to the best possible experimental design to make the case for PLA biodegradability. The 3D printed filter basket in constant use for a year suffered significant breakdown, and the honeycomb walls are starting to crumble. The ‘inert’ printed filter basket looks like it just came off the build plate.

If that’s not confusing enough, [Bill] also has another print that has spent a year in a fish tank. This end cap for a filter spray bar didn’t see any degradation, despite being underwater in a biologically active environment. The environment is a little different from a filter basket, though; an aquarium filter is designed to break down organics.

To answer the question, ‘is PLA biodegradable,’ the most accurate answer is, ‘maybe’. Three data points in uncontrolled environments isn’t enough to draw any conclusions. There are, undoubtedly, more forgotten 3D prints out there, and more data to back up the claim of PLA being biodegradable.

This is where you come in. Do you have some forgotten prints out there? Your input is needed, the fruits of your labors are evidence, your prints might be decaying and we want to know about it below.

An Interview With The CEO Of MakerBot

A few days ago, we posed a question to the Hackaday community. If you could ask the CEO of MakerBot a question, what would it be?

It’s an interesting proposition; there is no company serving the maker community – and those of us who refuse to call ourselves part of the maker community – more hated than MakerBot. They’ve patented ideas uploaded to Thingiverse. They’ve turned their back on the open hardware community they grew out of, They’re undercutting their own resellers, and by all accounts, they don’t know how to make a working extruder. MakerBot was the company that would show the world Open Hardware could be successful, but turned into a company that seemed to reject Open Hardware and Open Source more than any other.

Needless to say, the readers of Hackaday responded. Not with actual questions for the MakerBot CEO, mind you, but oh how you responded. This effort by MakerBot was likened to the hail Mary thrown by Radio Shack  a few years ago. We know how that turned out.

Nevertheless, questions were collected, The MakerBot CEO was interviewed by Lady Ada, and a summary compiled. You can check that interview, originally posted on the Adafruit blog, below.

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Ask Hackaday: What Can Save RadioShack?

The news for RadioShack is not good. The retail chain that we hackers hold near and dear to our hearts is in financial trouble, and could go under next year.  With just 64 million in cash on hand, it literally does not have enough capital to close the 1,100 stores it planned to in March of this year.

On May 27th, 2011, we asked you what RadioShack could do to cater to our community. They listened. Most of their retail stores now carry an assortment of Arduino shields, the under appreciated Parallax (why?), and even El Wire. Thanks to you. You made this happen.

Today, we are asking you again. But not for what RadioShack can do better. We’re asking what they can do to survive. To live. It makes no sense for RadioShack to compete in the brutal cell phone/tablet market, and makes every bit of sense for them take advantage of the rapidly growing hacker/builder/maker what-ever-you-want-to-call-us community. Let’s face it. We’re everywhere and our numbers are growing. From 3D printers to drones, the evidence is undeniable.

With 5,000 retail stores across the USA, they are in a perfect position to change their business model to a hacker friendly one. Imagine a RadioShack down the road  that stocked PICs, ARMs, Atmels, stepper motors, drivers, sensors, filament….like a Sparkfun retail store. Imagine the ability to just drive a few miles and buy whatever you needed. Would you pay a premium? Would you pay a little extra to have it now? I bet you would.

Now it’s time to speak up. Let your voices be heard. Let’s get the attention of the RadioShack board. You’ve done it before. It’s time to do it again. Hackers unite!