Hackaday Dictionary: Mils and Inches and Meters (oh my)

Measuring length is a pain, and it’s all the fault of Imperial measurements. Certain industries have standardized around either Imperial or metric, which means that working on projects across multiple industries generally leads to at least one conversion. For everyone outside the last bastion of Imperial units, here’s a primer on how we do it in crazy-land.

Definitions

The basic unit of length measurement in Imperial units is the inch. twelve inches make up one foot, three feet make up one yard, and 5,280 feet (or 1,760 yards) make up a mile. Easy to remember, right?

Ironically, an inch is defined in metric as 25.4 millimeters. You can do the rest of the math for exact lengths, but in general, three feet is just shy of a meter, and a mile is about a kilometer and a half. Generally in Imperial you’ll see lots of mixed units, like a person’s height is 6’2″ (that’s shorthand for six feet, two inches.) But it’s not consistent, it’s English; the only consistency is that it’s always breaking its own rules. You wouldn’t say three yards, two feet, and six inches; you’d say 11 1/2 feet. If it was three yards, one foot, and six inches, though, you’d say 3 1/2 yards. There’s no good rule for this other than try to use nice fractions as often as you can.

Users of Imperial units love fractions, especially when it comes to parts of an inch or mile. You’ll frequently find drill bits in fractions of an inch, which can be extremely frustrating when you are trying to do math in your head and figure out if a 17/64″ bit is bigger than a 1/4″ bit (hint, yes, it’s 1/64″ bigger).

A socket wrench set in Imperial fractions on the left and metric on the right.
A socket wrench set in Imperial fractions on the left and metric on the right. Metric is so much easier.

If it wasn’t hard enough already, there came the thousandth of an inch. As the machine age was getting better and better, and parts were getting smaller and more precise, there came a need for more accurate measurements than 1/64 inch. Development of appropriate tools for measuring such fine resolution was critical as well. You can call a 1/8″ bit a .125″ bit, and that means 125 thousandths of an inch. People didn’t like to wrap their mouths around that whole word, though, so it was reduced to “thou.” Others used the latin root for thousand, “mil.” To summarize, a mil is the equivalent of a thou, which is one thousandth of an inch. It should not be confused with a millimeter. It takes about 40 mils to make 1 millimeter. Also, the plural of mil is mils, and the plural of thou is thou.

Tools

Outside calipers for measuring the outer dimensionBy Glenn McKechnie (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Outside calipers for measuring the outer dimensionBy Glenn McKechnie (Own work) [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Measuring length is done with a variety of tools, from GPS for long distances, to tape measures for feet/meters, and rulers for inches/centimeters. When it comes to very small measurements, the caliper is the tool of choice. This is the kind of tool that should be in everyone’s toolbox. Initially it started with the inside caliper and outside caliper, which were separate tools used to measure lengths. The Vernier caliper combined the two, added a depth meter and a couple other handy features, and gave machinists an all-around useful tool for measuring. Just like the slide rule, though, as soon as digital options became available, they took over. The digital caliper can usually switch modes between decimal inches, fractional inches, and metric.

Also, while slightly off topic, if you haven’t seen this video on getting the most out of your tape measure, it’s well worth a few minutes.

Uses

Every industry has picked a different convention. Plastic sheets are usually measured in mils for thin stuff and millimeters or fractions of an inch for anything greater than 1/32″. Circuit boards combine units in every way imaginable, sometimes combining mils for trace width and metric for board dimensions, with the thickness of the copper expressed in ounces. (That’s not even a unit of length! It represents the amount of copper in one square foot of area and 1 oz is equivalent to 1.4mil.) Most of the time products designed outside of the U.S. are in metric units, while U.S. products are designed in either. When combining different industries, though, the difference in standards gets really annoying. For example, order 1/8″ plexiglass, and you may get 3mm plexiglass instead. Sure the difference is only .175mm (7 thou), but that difference can cause big problems for pieces that are press fit or when making finger joints on boxes, so it’s important that when sourcing components, you not only verify the unit, but if it’s a normal unit for that industry and it’s not just being rounded.

Often you can tell with what primary unit a product is designed with only a few measurements of a caliper. Find a dimension and see if it’s a nice round number in metric. If it’s not, switch it to imperial, and watch how quickly it snaps to a nice number.

Moving forward

Use metric if you can. The vast majority of the world does it. When you are sending designs overseas for production they will convert to metric (though they are used to working in both). It does take time to get used to it (especially when you are dealing with thou/mils), but your temporary discomfort will turn to relief when your design doesn’t crash into the Mars (or more realistically when you don’t have to pull out the Dremel and blade to get your parts to fit together).

Fail of the Week: Magnetic Flow Measurement Gone Wrong

Physics gives us the basic tools needed to understand the universe, but turning theory into something useful is how engineers make their living. Pushing on that boundary is the subject of this week’s Fail of the Week, wherein we follow the travails of making a working magnetic flowmeter (YouTube, embedded below).

Theory suggests that measuring fluid flow should be simple. After all, sticking a magnetic paddle wheel into a fluid stream and counting pulses with a reed switch or Hall sensor is pretty straightforward, right? In this case, though, [Grady] of Practical Engineering starts out with a much more complicated flow measurement modality – electromagnetic detection. He does a great job of explaining Faraday’s Law of Induction and how a fluid can be the conductor that moves through a magnetic field and has a measurable current induced in it. The current should be proportional to the velocity of the fluid, so it should be a snap to whip up a homebrew magnetic flowmeter, right? Nope – despite valiant effort, [Grady] was never able to get a usable signal out of the noise in his system. 

The theory is sound, his test rig looks workable, and he’s got some pretty decent instrumentation. So where did [Grady] go wrong? Could he clean up the signal with a better instrumentation amp? What would happen if he changed the process fluid to something more conductive, like salt water? By his own admission, electrical engineering is not his strong suit – he’s a civil engineer by trade. Think you can clean up that signal? Let us know in the comments section. 

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Crowdfunding: A Wireless Oscilloscope

One of the most ingenious developments in test and measuring tools over the last few years is the Mooshimeter. That’s a wireless, two-channel multimeter that can measure voltage and current simultaneously. If you’ve ever wanted to look at the voltage drop and power output on a souped up electrified go-kart, the Mooshimeter is the tool for you.

A cheap, wireless multimeter was only the fevered dream of a madman a decade ago. We didn’t have smartphones with Bluetooth back then, so any remote display would cost much more than the multimeter itself. Now this test and measurement over Bluetooth is bleeding over into the rest of the electronics workbench with the Aeroscope,  a wireless Bluetooth oscilloscope.

[Alexander] and [Jonathan], the devs for the Aeroscope got the idea for this device while debugging a mobile robot. The robot would work on the bench, but in the field the problem would reappear. The idea for a wireless troubleshooting tool was born out of necessity.

The specs for the Aeroscope are about equal to the quite capable ‘My First Oscilloscope’ Rigol DS1052E. Analog bandwidth is 100MHz, sample rate is 500 Msamples/second, and the memory depth is 10k points. Resolution per division is 20mV to 10V, and the Aeroscope “Deluxe Package” that includes a few leads, tip, clip, USB cable, and case is about the same price as the Rigol 1052E. The difference, of course, is that the Aeroscope is a single channel, and wireless. That’s fairly impressive for two guys who aren’t a team of Rigol engineers.

As is the case with all Bluetooth test and measurement devices, the proof is in the app. Right now, the Aeroscope only supports iOS 9 devices, but according to the crowdfunding campaign, Android support is coming. Since the device is Open Source, you can always bang something out in Python if you really need to.

While this is a crowdfunding campaign, it’s hosted on Crowd Supply. Crowd Supply isn’t Indiegogo or Kickstarter; there are people at Crowd Supply vetting projects. The campaign still has a month to go, but the first few pledges are putting the Aeroscope right on track to a successful campaign.

Zero Parts-Count Temperature Sensor

Quick: What’s the forward voltage drop on a conducting diode? If you answered something like 0.6 to 0.7 V, you get a passing grade, but you’re going to have to read on. If you answered V_F = \frac{T-T_0}{k} where T0 and k are device-specific constants to be determined experimentally, you get a gold Jolly Wrencher.

vsd%2C+n-01[Jakub] earned his Wrencher, and then some. Because not only did he use the above equation to make a temperature sensor, he did so with a diode that you might have even forgotten that you have on hand — the one inside the silicon of a MOSFET — the intrinsic body diode.

[Jakub]’s main project is an Arduino-controlled electronic load that he calls the MightWatt, and a beefy power MOSFET is used as the variable resistance element. When it’s pulling 20 or 30 A, it gets hot. How hot exactly is hard to measure without a temperature sensor, and the best possible temperature sensor would be one that was built into the MOSFET’s die itself.

There’s a bunch of detail in his write-up about how he switches the load in and out to measure the forward drop, and how he calibrates the whole thing. It’s technical, but give it a read, it’s good stuff. This is a great trick to have up your sleeve.

And if you’re in the mood for more stupid diode tricks, we recommend using them as solar cells or just stringing a bunch of them together to make a thermal camera.

Up Your CAD Game with Good Reference Photos

I’ve taken lots of reference photos for various projects. The first time, I remember suffering a lot and having to redo a model a few times before I got a picture that worked. Just like measuring parts badly, refining your reference photo skills will save you a lot of time and effort when trying to reproduce objects in CAD. Once you have a model of an object, it’s easy to design mating parts, to reproduce the original, or even for milling the original for precise alterations.

I’m adding some parts onto a cheap food dehydrator from the local import store. I’m not certain if my project will succeed, but it’s a good project to talk about taking reference photos. The object is white, indistinct, and awkward, which makes it a difficult object to take a good photo for reference use in a CAD program. I looked around for a decent tutorial on the subject, and only found one. Maybe my Google-fu wasn’t the best that day. Either way, It was mostly for taking good orthogonal shots, and not how to optimize the picture to get dimensions out of it later.

There are a few things to note when taking a reference photo. The first is the distortion and the setup of your equipment to combat it. The second is including reference scales and surfaces to assist in producing a final model from which geometry and dimensions can be accurately taken. The last is post-processing the picture to try to fight the distortion, and also to prepare it for use in cad and modeling software.

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Sciencing DVD-RW Laser Diodes

If you’ve played around with laser diodes that you’ve scavenged from old equipment, you know that it can be a hit-or-miss proposition. (And if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?) Besides the real risk of killing the diode on extraction by either overheating it or zapping it with static electricity, there’s always the question of how much current to put into the thing.

[DeepSOIC] decided to answer the latter question — with science! — for a DVD-burner laser that he’s got. His apparatus is both low-tech and absolutely brilliant, and it looks like he’s getting good data. So let’s have a peek.

Laser Detector on 3D Printer Scrap
Laser Detector on 3D Printer Scrap

First up is the detector, which is nothing more than a photodiode, 100k ohm load resistor, and a big capacitor for a power supply. We’d use a coin-cell battery, but given how low the discharge currents are, the cap makes a great rechargeable alternative. The output of the photo diode goes straight into the scope probe.

He then points the photodiode at the laser spot (on a keyboard?) and pulses the laser by charging up a capacitor and discharging it through the laser and a resistor to limit total current. The instantaneous current through the laser diode is also measured on the scope. Plotting both the current drawn and the measured brightness from the photodiode gives him an L/I curve — “lumens” versus current.

laser_curve

Look on the curve for where it stops being a straight line, slightly before the wiggles set in. That’s about the maximum continuous operating current. It’s good practice to de-rate that to 90% just to be on the safe side. Here it looks like the maximum current is 280 mA, so you probably shouldn’t run above 250 mA for a long time. If the diode’s body gets hot, heatsink it.

If you want to know everything about lasers in general, and diode lasers in particular, you can’t beat Sam’s Laser FAQ. We love [DeepSOIC]’s testing rig, though, and would love to see the schematic of his test driver. We’ve used “Sam’s Laser Diode Test Supply 1” for years, and we love it, but a pulsed laser tester would be a cool addition to the lab.

What to do with your junk DVD-ROM laser? Use the other leftover parts to make a CNC engraver? But we don’t need to tell you what to do with lasers. Just don’t look into the beam with your remaining good eye!

3D Printer Tool: Set Your Extruder Steps With Ease

My printer has other issues that i'm still tuning out, but the warping in PLA and excessive surface roughness has all the signs of over extrusion.
My printer has other issues that I’m still tuning out, but the warping in PLA and excessive surface roughness has all the signs of over extrusion.

I have an old Prusa i2 that, like an old car, has been getting some major part replacements lately after many many hours of service. Recently both the extruder and the extruder motor died. The extruder died of brass fill filament sintering to the inside of the nozzle (always flush your extruder of exotic filaments). The motor died at the wires of constant flexing. Regardless, I replaced the motors and found myself with an issue; the new motor and hotend (junk motor from the junk bin, and an E3D v6, which is fantastic) worked way better and was pushing out too much filament.

The hotend, driver gear, extruder mechanics, back pressure, motor, and plastic type all work together to set how much plastic you can push through the nozzle at once. Even the speed at which the plastic is going through the nozzle can change how much friction that plastic experiences. Most of these effects are somewhat negligible. The printer does, however, have a sort of baseline steps per mm of plastic you can set.

The goal is to have a steps per mm that is exactly matched to how much plastic the printer pushes out. If you say 10mm, 10mm of filament should be eaten by the extruder. This setting is the “steps per mm” in the firmware configuration. This number should be close to perfect. Once it is, you can tune it by setting the “extrusion multiplier” setting in most slicers when you switch materials, or have environmental differences to compensate for.

This little guy lets you tune the steps per mm exactly.
This little guy lets you tune the steps per mm exactly.

The problem comes in measuring the filament that is extruded. Filament comes off a spool and is pulled through an imprecisely held nozzle in an imprecisely made extruder assembly. On top of all that, the filament twists and curves. This makes it difficult to hold against a ruler or caliper and get a trustworthy measurement.

I have come up with a little measuring device you can make with some brass tubing, sandpaper, a saw (or pipe cutter), a pencil torch, solder, and some calipers. To start with, find two pieces of tubing. The first’s ID must fit closely with the filament size you use. The second tube must allow the inside tubing to slide inside of it closely. A close fit is essential.

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