The Gerber Behind Gerber Files

When we create a printed circuit board, the chances are these days that we’ll export it through our CAD package’s CAM tool, and send the resulting files to an inexpensive PCB fabrication house. A marvel of the modern age, bringing together computerised manufacturing, the Internet, and globalised trade to do something that would have been impossible only a few years ago without significant expenditure.

Those files we send off to China or wherever our boards are produced are called Gerber files. It’s a word that has become part of the currency of our art, “I’ll send them the Gerbers” trips off the tongue without our considering the word’s origin.

This morning we’re indebted to [drudrudru] for sending us a link to an EDN article that lifts the lid on who Gerber files are named for. [H. Joseph Gerber] was a prolific inventor whose work laid the ground for the CNC machines that provide us as hackers and makers with so many of the tools we take for granted. Just think: without his work we might not have our CNC routers, 3D printers, vinyl cutters and much more, and as for PCBs, we’d still be fiddling about with crêpe paper tape and acetate.

An Austrian Holocaust survivor who escaped to the USA in 1940, [Gerber] began his business with an elastic variable scale for performing numerical conversions that he patented while still an engineering student. The story goes that he used the elastic cord from his pyjamas to create the prototype. This was followed by an ever-more-sophisticated range of drafting, plotting, and digitizing tools, which led naturally into the then-emerging CNC field. It is probably safe to say that in the succeeding decades there has not been an area of manufacturing that has not been touched by his work.

So take a look at the article, read [Gerber]’s company history page, his Wikipedia page, raise a toast to the memory of a great engineer, and never, ever, spell “Gerber file” with a lower-case G.

Cardboard And Paperclip CNC Plotter Destined For Self-Replication

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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A Polymer Concrete DIY CNC With No Perceptible Budget In Sight

The Jargon File describes a wizard as someone who groks something to a very high degree, or the kind of person that builds a polymer concrete CNC machine with a pneumatic tool changing spindle that they designed by themselves.  It makes you think that maybe Tony Stark COULD build it in a cave with scraps.

It’s a five part video series showing snippets of the build process. The last video gives an overview of the design of the machine. It is all very much in German, so if you speak German and we got anything wrong about the machine or missed anything cool, please fill us in down in the comments.

The machine starts with a 1500 kg polymer concrete pour with some steel stock embedded in it. It is then machined within an inch mm of its life as shown by practically zero deviation over its length when measured against a granite block. The wizard then goes on to make his own spindle, get castings made, and more. We liked his flowery kitchen hotplate, which he used to heat the bearings for an interference fit. It added a certain amount of style.

Unfortunately the videos don’t show the machine running, but we assume this sort of person is happily building arc reactors, power suits, and fighting crime. They probably don’t have time to film “CNC Bearbeitungszentrum im Eigenbau Teil 5”. Videos after the break.

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Fourier Machine Mimics Michelson Original in Plywood

It’s funny how creation and understanding interact. Sometimes the urge to create something comes from a new-found deep understanding of a concept, and sometimes the act of creation leads to that understanding. And sometimes creation and understanding are linked together in such a way as to lead in an entirely new direction, which is the story behind this plywood recreation of the Michelson Fourier analysis machine.

For those not familiar with this piece of computing history, it’s worth watching the videos in our article covering [Bill “The Engineer Guy” Hammack]’s discussion of this amazing early 20th-century analog computer. Those videos were shown to [nopvelthuizen] in a math class he took at the outset of degree work in physics education. The beauty of the sinusoids being created by the cam-operated rocker arms and summed to display the output waveforms captured his imagination and lead to an eight-channel copy of the 20-channel original.

Working with plywood and a CNC router, [nopvelthuizen]’s creation is faithful to the original if a bit limited by the smaller number of sinusoids that can be summed. A laser cutter or 3D printer would have allowed for a longer gear train, but we think the replica is great the way it is. What’s more, the real winners are [nopvelthuizen]’s eventual physics students, who will probably look with some awe at their teacher’s skills and enthusiasm.

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Machines That Build Other Machines

When the RepRap project was founded in 2005, it promised something spectacular: a machine that could build copies of itself. RepRaps were supposed to be somewhere between a grey goo and a device that could lift billions of people out of poverty by giving them self-sufficiency and the tools to make their lives better.

While the RepRap project was hugely successful in creating an open source ecosystem around 3D printers, a decade of development hasn’t produced a machine that can truly build itself. Either way, it’s usually easier and cheaper to buy a 3D printer than to build your own.

[castvee8]’s entry into the 2016 Hackaday Prize does just what the RepRap project promised ten years ago. It’s all about building machines with the ability to reproduce, creating an ecosystem of machines to build household goods. The best part? You can 3D print most of the machines. It’s the RepRap project, but for mills, lathes, microscopes, and routers. It’s an entire shop produced entirely in a 3D printer.

The idea of creating a machine shop from the most basic building materials has been around for a while. At the turn of the last century, concrete lathes and mills bootstrapped industrial economies. Decades later, [David J. Gingery] created a series of books on building a machine shop starting with a charcoal foundry. The idea of building a shop using scrap and the most minimal tools is very old, but this idea hasn’t been updated to the era where anyone can buy a 3D printer for a few hundred dollars.

So far, [castvee8] has a few homemade machine tools on the workbench, including a lathe, a tiny mill easily capable of fabricating a few circuit boards, and a little drill press. They’re all machines that can be used to make other useful items, and all allow anyone to create the devices they need.

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White Oak Illuminated Bluetooth Speaker

Besides being common tools available to most hackers and makers out there, 3D printing, CNC machines, and cheap Chinese electronics have one more things in common: they were all used by [Nick] to build a bluetooth speaker system that has some interesting LED effects built into the case.

This is fresh on the heels of another hack that used similar construction methods to build a “magic” wood lamp. [Nick] takes it a step further, though. His case is precisely machined in white oak and stuffed with the latest China has to offer: a bank of lithium-ion batteries, a DC-DC converter to power the amplifier, and a Bluetooth module. After some sanding, the speakers look professional alongside the blue light features hiding behind the polycarbonate rings.

Of course you’ll want to visit the project site for all the details of how [Nick] built his speaker case. He does admit, however, that the electronics are fairly inefficient and need a little work. All in all though, it’s a very refined set of speakers that’ll look great on a bookshelf or on a beach, workshop bench, or anyplace else that you could take them.

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Add Fiber-optic Control to Your CNC

CNC machines can be very noisy, and we’re not talking about the kind of noise problem that you can solve with earplugs. With all those stepper motors and drivers, potentially running at high-speed, electrical noise can often get to the point where it interferes with your control signals. This is especially true if your controller is separated from the machine by long cable runs.

But electrical noise won’t interfere with light beams! [Musti] and his fellow hackers at IRNAS decided to use commodity TOSLINK cables and transmitter / receiver gear to make a cheap and hackable fiber-optic setup. The basic idea is just to bridge between the controller board and the motor drivers with optical fiber. To make this happen, a couple of signals need to be transmitted: pulse and direction. They’ve set the system up so that it can be chained as well. Serializing the data, Manchester encoding it for transmission, and decoding it on reception is handled by CPLDs for speed and reliability.

The team has been working on this project for a while now. If you’d like some more background you can check out their original design ideas. Design files from this released version are up on GitHub. A proposed improvement is to incorporate bi-directional communications. Bi-directional comms would allow data like limit-switch status to be communicated back from the machine to the controller over fiber.

This optical interface is in service of an open-source plasma cutter design, which is pretty cool in itself. And if the IRNAS group sounds familiar to you, that may be because we recently ran a story on their ambitious gigabit ethernet-over-lightbeam project.