Hackaday Prize Entry: PCBs On Demand with Etchr

The ambitious etchr – the PCB Printer is just a concept at the moment, but it’s not often we see someone trying to tackle desktop PCB production in a new way. Creator [Jonathan Beri] is keenly aware that when it comes to creating electronics, the bottleneck for most workflows is the PCB itself. Services like OSH Park make professionally fabricated PCBs accessible at a low cost, but part of the bargain is that turnaround times are often measured in weeks.

[Jonathan]’s concept for etchr is a small system that automates not only etching a copper-clad board with all the attendant flooding and draining of chemicals, but applying a solder mask and silkscreen layer labeling as well. The only thing left to do would be to drill any required holes.

The idea behind etchr is to first take a copper-clad board with photoresistive film or spray applied to it, and fix it into a frame. A UV projector takes care of putting the traces pattern onto the board (and also handles a UV-curable solder mask in a later step) and the deep frame doubles as a receptacle for any chemical treatments such as the etching and cleaning. It’s an ambitious project, but the processes behind each step are well-understood and bringing them all together in a single machine is an intriguing approach.

Desktop production of PCBs can be done in a few ways, including etching via the toner transfer method (whose results our own Elliot Williams clearly explained how to take from good to great). An alternative is to mill the PCBs out directly, a job a tool like the Othermill is designed specifically to do. It’s interesting to see an approach that includes applying a solder mask.

Hackaday Prize Entry: Automated Wildlife Recognition

Trail and wildlife cameras are commonly available nowadays, but the Wild Eye project aims to go beyond simply taking digital snapshots of critters. [Brenda Armour] uses a Raspberry Pi to not only take photos of wildlife who wander into the camera’s field of view, but to also automatically identify and categorize the animals seen using a visual recognition API from IBM via the Node-RED infrastructure. The result is a system that captures an image when motion is detected, sends the image to the visual recognition API, and attempts to identify any wildlife based on the returned data.

The visual recognition isn’t flawless, but a recent proof of concept shows promising results with crows, a cat, and a dog having been successfully identified. Perhaps when the project is ready to move deeper into the woods, elements from these solar-powered networked birdhouses (which also use the Raspberry Pi) could help cut some cords.

Ancient Robot Creates Modern Art

They say that there’s more to a Jackson Pollock painting than randomly scattering paint on a canvas, and the auction value of his work seems to verify that claim. If you want to create some more conventional artwork, however, but are missing the artistic muse that inspired Pollock, maybe you can put your creative energies to work building a robot that will create the art for you.

[Dane Kouttron] was able to get his hands on an old SCARA robotic arm, and was recently inspired to create a paintbrush-weilding robot with it for the 2nd Annual Robot Art competition. Getting one of these ancient (circa 1983) robots working again is no easy task though. [Dane] used LinuxCNC to help reverse engineer the robot’s controls and had to build a lot of supporting hardware to get the extremely heavy robot to work properly. The entire process took around two months, and everything from color selection to paint refill to the actual painting itself is completely automated.

Be sure to check out the video after the break to see the robot in action. The writeup goes into great detail about the robot, and includes everything from reverse engineering the encoders to auto-cleaning a paintbrush. If you don’t have a SCARA robot arm in your parts drawer, though, there are lots of other options to explore for robot-created artwork.

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Automate the Freight: Drones Across the Sea

When you think about which of the many technological advances of the 20th century had the most impact on the global economy, which one would you rank as the most important? Would it be the space program, which gave rise to advances in everything from communications satellites to advanced composite materials? Or would it be the related aerospace industry, which stitched the world together so tightly that you can be almost anywhere on the planet within 24 hours? Or perhaps it’s the Internet, the global platform for buying almost anything from almost anyone.

Those are all important, but for the most economically impactful technology of the 20th century, I’d posit that the lowly shipping container and the containerized cargo industry that grew around it win, hands down.

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Desktop Factory Teaches PLC Programming

How to train young engineers in industrial automation is a thorny issue. Most factories have big things that can do a lot of damage and cost tons of money if the newbie causes a crash. Solution: shrink the factory down to desktop size and let them practice on that.

Luckily for [Vadim], there’s an off-the-shelf solution for miniaturizing factory automation: FischerTechnik industrial training models. The models have motors, conveyors, pneumatic cylinders, and sensors galore, but the controller is not exactly the industry standard programmable logic controller (PLC). [Vadim] set out to remedy this by building an interface between the FischerTechnik models and a Siemens PLC. He went through a couple of revisions of his board, including one using rivets from the sewing store to interface with the FischerTechnic connectors. Eventually, he settled on more robust connectors and came up with a board that lets students delve into PLC programming without killing anyone. The video below shows it going through its paces; we can only imagine where playing with these kits as a kid would have led us.

As great as [Vadim]’s system is for training engineers, we can also see it helpful in getting kids interested in a career in industrial automation. We recently covered a similar effort to show kids big science using LEGO Mindstorms. Both of these can help get STEM kids to see the wider world of technical careers and perhaps steer them into automation. After all, the people who make the robots are probably going to be the last ones obsoleted, right?

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LEGO Liquid Handler and Big Biology

A career as a lab biologist can take many forms, but the general public seems to see it as a lone, lab-coated researcher sitting at a bench, setting up a series of in vitro experiments by hand in small tubes or streaking out a little yeast on an agar plate. That’s not inaccurate at all – all of us lab rats have done time with a manual pipettor while trying to keep track of which tube in the ice bucket gets which solution. It’s tedious stuff.

But because biology experiments generally scale well, and because more data often leads to better conclusions, life science processes can quickly grow beyond what can be handled manually. I’ve seen this time and again in my 25 years in science, from my crude grad school attempts to miniaturize my assays and automate data collection to the multi-million dollar robotic systems I built in my career in the pharmaceutical industry. Biology can get pretty big in a hurry. Continue reading “LEGO Liquid Handler and Big Biology”

WiFi Power Bar!

Ever wanted to access a file or run some program on your computer while away from home, but the darned thing is turned off? Finding themselves occasionally working away from home and not wanting to leave their computer on for extended periods, [robotmaker]’s solution was to hack into existence a WiFi-controlled power bar!

esp8266-powerbar-thumbInside the junction box, an eight-channel relay is connected to an ESP8266 module. The module uses MQTT to communicate with Home Assistant and is powered by a partially dismembered USB AC adapter — wrapped in kapon tape for safe-keeping. The entire bar is wired through a 10A fuse, while also using a fire resistant 4-gang electrical box. Once the outlets were wired in, closing it up finished up the power bar.

[robotmaker] controls the outlets via a cheap smartphone — running HADashboard — mounted to a wall with a 3D printed support. Don’t worry — they’ve set up the system to wait for the PCs to power down before cutting power, and the are also configured to boot up when the relay turns on.

The best part — the power bar only cost $25.

[via /r/homeautomation]