Keeping Time with a Spring Powered Integrated Circuit

Watch aficionados have a certain lust for mechanical watches. These old school designs rely on a spring that’s wound up to store energy. The movement, an intricate set of gears and other mechanical bits, ensures that the hands on the watch face rotates at the right speed. They can be considered major feats of mechanical engineering, with hundreds of pieces in an enclosure that fits on the wrist. They’re quite cheap, and you have to pay a lot for accuracy.

Quartz watches are what you usually see nowadays. They use a quartz crystal oscillator, usually running at 32.768 kHz. These watches are powered by batteries, and beat out their mechanical counterparts for accuracy. They’re also extremely cheap.

Back in 1977, a watchmaker at Seiko set off to make a mechanical watch regulated by a quartz crystal. This watch would be the best of both words. It did not become a reality until 1997, when Seiko launched the Spring Drive Movement.

A Blog To Watch goes through the design and history of the Spring Drive movement. Essentially, it uses a super low power integrated circuit, which consumes only 25 nanowatts. This IC receives power from the wound up spring, and controls an electromagnetic brake which allows the movement to be timed precisely. The writeup gives a full explanation of how the watch works, then goes through the 30 year progression from idea to product.

Once you’ve wrapped your head around that particularly awesome piece of engineering, you might want to jump into the details that make those quartz crystal resonators so useful.

[Thanks to John K. for the tip!]

Wooden Puzzle Book Will Twist and Dazzle Your Brain

In what might be one of the coolest applications of laser cutting, joinery, puzzles, writing, and bookbinding, [Brady Whitney] has created the Codex Silenda — a literal puzzle book of magnificent proportions.

[Whitney] had originally conceived the idea of the Codex for his senior thesis research project at Iowa State University, and the result is something for almost everyone. On each of the Codex’s five pages lies a mechanical puzzle that must be solved to progress to the next, while an accompanying text weaves a story as you do so. These intricate pages were designed in SolidWorks and painstakingly assembled from laser cut wood. Breaking the fourth wall of storytelling by engaging the reader directly in uncovering the book’s mysteries is a unique feat, and it looks gorgeous to boot.

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The Little Things I Didn’t Know About Small DC Motors

We’ve all taken apart a small toy and pulled out one of those little can motors. “With this! I can do anything!” we proclaim as we hold it aloft. Ten minutes later, after we’ve made it spin a few times, it goes into the drawer never to be seen again.

It’s all their fault

It always seems like they are in everything but getting them to function usefully in a project is a fool’s errand. What the heck are they for? Where do people learn the black magic needed to make them function? It’s easy enough to pull out the specification sheet for them. Most of them are made by or are made to imitate motors from the Mabuchi Motor Corporation of Japan. That company alone is responsible for over 1.5 billion tiny motors a year.

More than Just the Specs

In the specs, you’ll find things like running speed, voltage, stall current, and stall torque. But they offer anything but a convincing application guide, or a basic set of assumptions an engineer should make before using one. This is by no means a complete list, and a skip over the electrics nearly completely as that aspect of DC motors in unreasonably well documented.

The paint mixers high running speed and infrequent use make it a decent candidate for hooking directly to the motor.
The paint mixers high running speed and infrequent use make it a decent candidate for hooking directly to the motor.

The first thing to note is that they really aren’t meant to drive anything directly. They are meant to be isolated from the actual driving by a gear train. This is for a lot of reasons. The first is that they typically spin very fast, 6,000 – 15,000 rpm is not atypical for even the tiniest motor. So even though the datasheet may throw out something impressive like it being a 3 watt motor, it’s not exactly true. Rather, it’s 3 N*m/s per 15,000 rotations per minute motor. Or a mere 1.2 milliwatt per rotation, which is an odd sort of unit that I’m just using for demonstration, but it gives you the feeling that there’s not a ton of “oomph” available. However, if you start to combine lots of rotations together using a gear train, you can start to get some real power out of it, even with the friction losses.

The only consumer items I can think of that regularly break this rule are very cheap children’s toys, which aren’t designed to last long anyway, and those powered erasers and coffee stirrers. Both of these are taking for granted that their torque needs are low and their speed needs are high, or that the motor burning out is no real loss for the world (at least in the short term).

This is because the motors derate nearly instantly. Most of these motors are hundreds of loops of very thin enameled wire wrapped around some silicon steel plates spot welded or otherwise coerced together. This means that even a small heat event of a few milliseconds could be enough to burn through the 10 micrometer thick coating insulating the coils from each other. Practically speaking, if you stall a little motor a few times in a row you might as well throw it away, because there’s no guessing what its actual performance rating is anymore. Likewise, consistently difficult start-ups, over voltage, over current, and other abuse can quickly ruin the motor. Because the energy it produces is meant to spread over lots of rotations, the motor is simply not designed (nor could it be reasonably built) to produce it all in one dramatic push.

Making Contact

Pololu has the clearest picture of the different kind of brushes inside these small motors.
Pololu has the clearest picture of the different kind of brushes inside these small motors.

This brings me to another small note about these tiny motors. Most of them don’t have the carbon brushes one begins to expect from the more powerful motors. Mostly they have a strip of copper that’s been stamped to have a few fingers pressing against the commutator. There’s lots of pros to these metal contacts and it’s not all cost cutting, but unless you have managed to read “Electrical Contacts” by Ragnar Holm and actually understood it, they’re hard to explain. There’s all sorts of magic. For example, just forming the right kind of oxide film on the surface of the commutator is a battle all on its own.

It’s a weird trade off. You can make the motor cheaper with the metal contacts, for one. Metal contacts also have much lower friction than carbon or graphite brushes. They’re quieter, and they also transfer less current, which may seem like a bad thing, but if you have a stalled motor with hairlike strands transferring the pixies around the last thing you’d want to do is transfer as much current as possible through them. However, a paper thin sheet of copper is not going to last very long either.

So it comes down to this, at least as I understand it: if bursts of very fast, low energy, high efficiency motion is all that’s required of the motor over its operational life then the metal strip brushes are perfect. If you need to run the motor for a long stretches at a time and noise isn’t an issue then the carbon brush version will work, just don’t stall it. It will cost a little bit more.

Take Care of Your Tiny Motors

Here is one of these can motors being restrained properly. Only torque on the case itself is restrained. The motor is otherwise free to move.
Here is one of these motors being restrained properly. Only torque on the case is restrained. The motor is otherwise free to move.

To touch one other small mechanical consideration. They are not designed to take any axial load at all, or really even any radial load either. Most of them have a plastic or aluminum bronze bushing, press-fit into a simple stamped steel body. So if you design a gearbox for one of these be sure to put as little force as possible on the bearing surfaces. If you’ve ever taken apart a small toy you’ve likely noticed that the motor can slide back and forth a bit in its mounting. This is why.

Lastly, because most of these motors are just not intended to run anywhere near their written maximum specifications it is best to assume that their specifications are a well intentioned but complete lie. Most designs work with the bottom 25% of the max number written on the spreadsheet. Running the motor anywhere near the top is usually guaranteed to brick it over time.

These are useful and ubiquitous motors, but unlike their more powerful cousins they have their own set of challenges to work with. However, considering you can buy them by the pound for cheaper than candy, there’s a good reason to get familiar with them.

Furuta Style Inverted Pendulum Is King of Geek Desk Ornaments

Newton’s Cradle is thought of as the most elegant of executive desk toys. But that 20th-century dinosaur just got run off the road as [Ben Katz]’s Furuta pendulum streaks past in the fast lane, flipping the bird and heralding a new king of desk adornments.

This Furata pendulum has wonderfully smooth movement. You can watch it go through its dance in the video after the break. Obviously you agree that this is the desk objet d’art for the modern titan of industry (geek). Just don’t stop at watching it in action. The best part is the build log that [Ben] put together — this project has a little bit of everything!

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Giant-Scale Physical Pong

At first, we thought we were having deja vu, but then we saw this video embedded below. [Thijs Eerens] is a creative technologist (dare we say, a “hacker”?) who builds giant-scale games for a living. For the Lowlands festival in the Netherlands, he contributed to the build of a huge Pong game that looks as big as a cinema screen.

The paddles appear to be controlled by pulling ropes, and the “ball” is driven around on a system of wires and stepper motors. Code running in the background tracks the player paddles, drives the ball, and keeps score. From the video, there seem to be sound effects involved. It looks like a lot of fun.

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Walnut Windfall Winds up in Custom Keyboard

When a neighbor decided to cut down a walnut tree, [voluhar] decided to make something of the wood. The result was this custom keyboard that combines wood and metal in a lovely and functional package.

Walnut is a wood with a rich heritage in consumer electronics. Back in the early days of TV, huge console sets were built into solid walnut cabinets and proudly displayed along with the other fine furnishings in a home. [voluhar]’s keyboard captures a little of that spirit while retaining all the functionality you’d expect. From the custom PCB to the engraved aluminum key caps, it looks like every part was machined with a CNC router. The keyboard sports satisfyingly clicky Cherry MX switches, and a few cleverly positioned LEDs provide subtle feedback on the state of the locking keys. As for the imperfections in the walnut case, we think it just adds to the charm and warmth of the finished product, which would look great on any desktop.

Wood has appeared in a couple of custom keyboards that we’ve featured before, like this all-wood version. But if you want the retro look without the wood, you could always try a keyboard built out of a typewriter.

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Scratch-Fabricated Plastic Gobbling Shredder Brings Recycling Home

[Jason Knight], an intern at FabLab RUC, has worked hard for 9 months to make a sheet plastics shredder for HDPE and LDPE from things like plastic bags, bubble wrap and air cushion packaging with the goal of recycling the shredded plastic. Why shred these things? When broken down to smaller pieces they can be melted in a consumer grade oven (like where you cook your frozen pizzas) then molded into new objects or extruded into 3D printing filament.

We especially like his big homemade 1.1 inch (30mm) thick wooden gears, for transferring the rotation from the motor to the cutting shafts while giving a step up in torque. As you can see in the video below, the gears definitely add an extra look of power to the machine.

The blades are the shape you most often see in shredders, gear-like disks side-by-side with teeth cut from them that pull the plastic in while shredding it (in contrast to this lower-throughput experimental DIY shredder made with two steel pipes). [Jason’s] multiple teeth are a bit of work to fabricate — not only were all the teeth milled from sheet metal but they then had to be individually sanded to remove burrs from the edges. It was worth it, as this has no problem chewing waste plastics to pieces.

Shredders can be dangerous machines for wandering fingers so [Jason] added a few safety features. Those include a drawer that you open to insert your plastic into the shredding area and a guard that completely surrounds the gears. And both features include transparent plastic areas so that you can still watch the impressive working parts in action.

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