Illuminating New Take on Magnetic Switches

While there’s something to be said for dead-bug construction, hot glue, and other construction methods that simply get the job done, it’s inspiring to see other builds that are refined and intentional but that still hack together things for purposes other than their original intent. To that end, [Li Zanwen] has designed an interesting new lamp that uses magnets to turn itself on in a way that seems like a magnetic switch of sorts, but not like any we’ve ever seen before.

While the lamp does use a magnetic switch, it’s not a traditional switch at all. There are two magnetic balls on this lamp attached by strings. One hangs from the top of the circular lamp and the other is connected to the bottom. When this magnet is brought close to the hanging magnet, the magnetic force is enough to both levitate the lower magnet, and pull down on a switch that’s hidden inside the lamp which turns it on. The frame of the lamp is unique in itself, as the lights are arranged on the inside of the frame to illuminate the floating magnets.

While we don’t typically feature design hacks, it’s good to see interesting takes on common things. After all, you never know what’s going to inspire your next hackathon robot, or your next parts drawer build. All it takes is one spark of inspiration to get your imagination going!

SKiDL: Script Your Circuits in Python

SKiDL is very, very cool. It’s a bit of Python code that outputs a circuit netlist for KiCAD.

Why is this cool? If you design a PCB in KiCAD, you go through three steps: draw the schematic, assign footprints to the symbolic parts, and then place them. The netlist ties all of these phases together: it’s a list of which parts are connected to which, the output of schematic capture and the input for layout. The ability to generate this programmatically should be useful.

For instance, you could write a filter circuit generator that would take the order, cutoff, and type of filter as inputs, and give you a spec’ed netlist as output. Bam! In your next design, when you need a different filter, you just change a couple of variables. Writing your circuits as code would make arranging the little sub-circuits modular and flexible, like functions in code.

At the very least, it’s an interesting alternative to the mouse, click, drag, click paradigm that currently dominates the schematic capture phase. Just as some of you like OpenSCAD for 3D modelling, some of you will like SKiDL for circuit design.

We’ve become so accustomed to the circuit diagram as the means of thinking about circuits that we’re not sure that we can ever give up the visual representation entirely. Maybe designing with SKiDL will be like sketching out block diagrams, where each block is a bit of Python code that generates a circuit module? Who knows? All we know is that it sounds potentially interesting, and that it’ll certainly be mind-expanding to give it a try.

Give it a shot and leave feedback down in the comments!

A Short Introduction to Staking and Potting

Staking and potting are not often used in the hobby electronics world, not really entering to the common vernacular. However, everyone who’s ever busted out a glue-gun to convince that dang wire that keeps coming loose to stay has done it.

However, as [Sean Thomas] touches on, staking is not necessarily as easy as a dob of hot glue. There is a method to the madness. [Sean] gives some examples in pictures, but also directs people to the excellent NASA standard methods for staking. It’s surprising how many unintuitive caveats there are to the proper technique.

Potting, or covering everything in epoxy forever, is a great way to get a waterproof, unserviceable, and practically mechanically invincible circuit. The big challenge in potting is picking the right material. A soft silicone, for example, might transfer an unexpected force to an unexpected section of the circuit and cause a mechanical failure. A nice hard epoxy may be too insulating and cause a thermal failure. The standard RTV from the big box store has acetic acid that will eat your components.

These two techniques that come in handy when you need them and worth the bit of reading it takes to get familiar. Have you used either in your own workshop? Let us know the application and the material/techniques you have tried in the comments below.

Design and Hacking Drilldown: SuperCon Badge

One can imagine a political or business conference without an interactive badge — but not a hacker conference. Does this make the case for hackers being a special breed of people, always having something creative to show for their work? Yes, I think it does.

Following the Hackaday Belgrade conference in April of this year, we met at the Supplyframe offices to discuss the badge for the Hackaday SuperConference that will happen in Pasadena on 5+6th of November. The Belgrade conference badge (which was fully documented if you’re curious) was surprisingly popular, and I was asked to design the new one as well.

I was prepared to come up with something completely new, but [Mike Szczys] suggested keeping with the same basic concept for the project: “No reason to change anything, we have a badge that works”. To which I responded: “Well, the next one will also work”. But then I realized that “works” does not stand for “being functional”. The key is that it was embraced by visitors who played with it, coded on it, and solved a crypto challenge with it.

The World Doesn’t Have Enough LEDs

led-modules-versus-smdFast forward six months — here are the modifications made to the basic concept. First, the existing LED matrix, which was composed of two compact 8×8 blocks, was replaced by 128 discrete SMD LEDs. It was a much needed change to help scale down the dimensions and clunkiness, but also to avoid another painful experience of trying to purchase and have the matrix displays shipped, which seriously threatened the production of the previous badge.

It’s a long story which I discussed in my Belgrade talk — it turned out we did not manage to get enough common anode (CA) displays from all distributors in the whole world. We had a plan B, which also fizzled, leaving us with the plan C which actually included two “C”s: Common Cathode. We cleaned up all the supplies at five distributors, and managed to get 122 CA red, 340 CC red and 78 CA green displays (enough for only 270 badges) — the entire world supply. After that, you couldn’t get any 38 mm Kingbright’s display for months! The only problem was that there were two different versions of PCBs, one for CA and the other for CC displays, but luckily only one version of software, as it could autodetect the display type.

accelerometer-on-the-boardMotion and Expansion

So, what else was new in the concept? In the Belgrade version, the badge supported an accelerometer module and included an unpopulated footprint in case you decided to install it, but now the badge has the MEMS chip LIS3 as an integral part. There are nine pads (with five I/O ports, driven directly from the MCU) to which you can add a 9-pin expansion connector. There will be a number of these connectors at the Design Lab, so that anyone can expand their badge for their convenience, on the spot.

The Visual Design

The biggest change was in the visual design. What we came up with ended up being a fair bit smaller, lighter, with a more convenient shape, and less than half the thickness of the previous one. After we had scrapped quite a few ideas during the development process (including stylized skull, frog, etc), we were left with a couple of options which you can see on the image below. The wireframe drawing on the left hand side is the Belgrade badge, shown here for a size comparison. At this point the locale and date of the conference weren’t yet definitive, which is why you see San Francisco written on the images.


Design number 4 prevailed, so the PCB layout could begin. I don’t like autorouted PCBs, so I was in for quite a rough time trying to solve the routing manually having only 2 layers on the board at my disposal.

Routing a Compact LED Matrix

The LED matrix is so dense that there was virtually no room on the LED layer, so most of the tracks on the component layer had to be routed as if it was a single layer PCB. To make matters worse, the LED layer is routed as a matrix, with a bunch of horizontal and vertical tracks, otherwise a good reason to use a 4-layer PCB. To stay inside the budget, everything had to be placed on 2 layers, and that’s why the final result seems so confusing at the populated area between batteries:

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Fail of the Week: Power Wheels Racing Series

[ITMAN496] and his local HAM radio group entered the Power Wheels Racing Series with great intentions, a feeling of unlimited power, and the universal spirit of procrastination all hackers share.

It wasn’t the first time his group had worked together on something a little different, such as a robot that can deploy an antenna by climbing poles. However, this one had a time limit and they ended up trying to fit it all in the week before the race.

They had a pretty good design. [ITMAN496] had modeled the entire frame in SketchUp and even did physics simulations to get the steering just right. However, the best laid plans of mice and men often don’t fully take into account just how hard it is to get the motor drivers they bought working.

In the end, what they really needed was time to test. The setscrews couldn’t hold the motor on the shaft, the electronics needed debugging, and one of the belts was too long. The design was solid, but without time to percussively maintain the last bugs out of the system, it just wasn’t going to run.

[ITMAN496] is taking this lesson properly; he’s already planning for next year’s run, but this time he’ll have time to test. We must commend him — the build under these time constraints was still impressive. Even more so that he took the time to document everything while it was happening, and to share the story of shortfall after the fact. We’re always on the hunt for documented fails (the best way to really learn something).

Fitness Tracker Teardown is a Lesson In Design for Manufacture

If the trends are anything to go on, after the success of Fitbit we are nearing a sort of fitness tracker singularity. Soon there will be more fitness trackers on wrists and ankles then there will be stars in the sky. We will have entire generations who will grow up not knowing what life is like without the ever-present hug of a heart monitor strapped across their chest. Until then though, we can learn a bit of design for manufacture from this excellent teardown of a watch shaped fitness tracker.

This tracker has a nice round e-paper screen, which could be a welcome part in a project if they start washing up on the shores of eBay. The rest of the watch is a basic Bluetooth low energy module and the accessory electronics wrapped in a squishy plastic casing.

There’s a lot of nice engineering inside the watch. As far as the electronics go, it’s very low power. On top of that is plenty of clever cost optimization; from a swath of test points to reduce quality issues in the hands of consumers to the clever stamped and formed battery tabs which touch the CR2032 that powers it.

The teardown covers more details: the switch, what may be hiding behind the epoxy globs, the plastics, and more. One thing that may be of interest to those that have been following Jenny’s excellent series is the BOM cost of the device. All in all a very educational read.

“Starry Night” Dress Shines on the Experience of Multiple Builds

[Dave Hrynkiw] wrote up some practical and useful detail around embedding electronics into clothing. It centers around his daughter’s “Starry Night” high school graduation dress, which is the culmination of a lot of experimentation in finding the best way to do things. His daughter accented the dress with LEDs to produce a twinkling starfield effect, and a laser-cut RGB pendant to match.

While [Dave] is the president of Solarbotics and pitches some products in the process of writing it all up, the post is full of genuinely useful tips that were all learned though practical use and experimentation. Imagine how awesome it must be growing up a child of a “local technology-hacking company” founder — akin to growing up as Willy Wonka’s progeny.

What advice does [Dave] have for making electronics an awesome part of garments? For example, the fact that regular hookup wire isn’t very well suited to embedding into clothing due to the need for high flexibility. There is also the concept of sequestering electronics into a separate Technology Layer — a must for anything that will be used more than once. The idea is to “build your technology so it can be isolated from the fashion aspect as much as possible. It makes building and maintenance of both the fashion and technology aspects much simpler.”

Slapping some LEDs and a battery pack into clothing might do the trick if all you care about is some bling, but if you want something that actually highlights and complements clothing while also being able to stand up to repeated use, this is a great read. A simple lighting effect that complements a design isn’t difficult, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel or make the same mistakes others have encountered. Video is embedded below.

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