Automated Parts Counter Helps Build a Small Business

We love to see projects undertaken for the pure joy of building something new, but to be honest those builds are a dime a dozen around here. So when we see a great build that also aims to enhance productivity and push an entrepreneurial effort along, like this automated small parts counter, we sit up and take notice.

The necessity that birthed this invention is [Ryan Bates’] business of building DIY arcade game kits. The mini consoles seen in the video below are pretty slick, but kitting the nuts, bolts, spacers, and other bits together to ship out orders was an exercise in tedium. Sure, parts counting scales are a thing, but that’s hardly a walk-away solution. So with the help of some laser-cut gears and a couple of steppers, [Ryan] built a pretty capable little parts counter.

The interchangeable feed gears have holes sized to move specific parts up from a hopper to a chute. A photointerrupter counts the parts as they fall into plastic cups on an 8-position carousel, ready for bagging. [Ryan] also has a manual counter for wire crimp connectors that’s just begging to be automated, and we can see plenty of ways to leverage both solutions as he builds out his kitting system.

While we’ve seen more than a few candy sorting machines lately, it’s great to see someone building hardware to streamline the move from hobby to business like this. We’re looking forward to seeing where [Ryan] takes this from here.

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Anti-Entropy Machine Satiates M&M OCD

College engineering projects are great, because they afford budding engineers the opportunity to build interesting things without the need for financial motivation. Usually, some basic requirements are established, but students are free to get creative and build something that appeals to them personally. For our readers, mechatronics courses are ripe for these kinds of projects, as the field combines electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and programming.

[Ethan Crane] is in just such a course, and had a final project due with only one real requirement: it had to use a PICAXE. Obviously, this gave [Ethan] quite a bit of freedom to build something unique, and what he came up with is an “Anti-Entropy Machine” designed to sort M&M candies by color. The electronics are as simple as [Ethan] could make them (a good philosophy for an engineering student to adhere to). There is an IR sensor to determine if a candy is in the hopper, an RGB sensor to determine its color, and servos to position the delivery chute based on color and operate the hopper.

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Sort Faster with FPGAs

Sorting. It’s a classic problem that’s been studied for decades, and it’s a great first step towards “thinking algorithmically.” Over the years, a handful of sorting algorithms have emerged, each characterizable by it’s asymptotic order, a measure of how much longer an algorithm takes as the problem size gets bigger. While all sorting algorithms take longer to complete the more elements that must be sorted, some are slower than others.

For a sorter like bubble sort, the time grows quadradically longer for a linear increase in the number of inputs; it’s of order O(N²).With a faster sorter like merge-sort, which is O(N*log(N)), the time required grows far less quickly as the problem size gets bigger. Since sorting is a bit old-hat among many folks here, and since O(N*log(N)) seems to be the generally-accepted baseline for top speed with a single core, I thought I’d pop the question: can we go faster?

In short — yes, we can! In fact, I’ll claim that we can sort in linear time, i.e a running time of O(N). There’s a catch, though: to achieve linear time, we’ll need to build some custom hardware to help us out. In this post, I’ll unfold the problem of sorting in parallel, and then I”ll take us through a linear-time solution that we can synthesize at home on an FPGA.

Need to cut to the chase? Check out the full solution implemented in SystemVerilog on GitHub. I’ve wrapped it inside an SPI communication layer so that we can play with it using an everyday microcontroller.

To understand how it works, join us as we embark on an adventure in designing algorithms for hardware. If you’re used to thinking of programming in a stepwise fashion for a CPU, it’s time to get out your thinking cap!

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Automatically Sorting Beads by Color


[Tomas] wanted to try building something mechanical with electronic control, and ended up with this sorter that organizes beads into one of two containers based on color. He built most of the structure from popular interlocking plastic bricks, then added a stepper motor salvaged from an old scanner and two plastic discs.

The two discs sit on top of each other. The bottom one is stationary and has two holes drilled in it, with a container sitting below each hole. The top disc has a smaller, bead-sized hole and rotates from its starting position—where it collects one bead—to a camera for analysis. After the camera determines the color of the bead, the disc rotates again to position itself over one of the two sorting holes in the disc below, and the bead falls into the awaiting container. The device is controlled by the MSP430 microcontroller on a FITKit (translated), which is the development platform of choice for [Tomas’s] school.

[Tomas] originally attempted to determine the color of beads by using 3 different color LEDs and a light-dependent resistor, but switched to using a webcam and a Java program to capture images and calculating average hues. You can find more details and the source code on his site, but first see the short video below.

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Skittles sorting machine sorts Skittles, keeps the band happy

In 1982, Van Halen had the biggest stage show around. Their rider – a document going over the requirements for the show – reflects this. In the middle of the requirements for the lighting and sound rigs, Van Halen placed a rather odd request; one (1) bowl of M&M, (ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES). The theory being if the request for no brown M&Ms wasn’t followed, the lighting and sound rigs probably weren’t up to spec either.

It’s not M&Ms this time (they wouldn’t fit in the machine), but [egenriether] came up with a seriously clever solution for sorting Skittles by color. Why? We have no idea, other than, ‘just because.’

The build details are a little scant, but we know [egenriether] used a BASIC Stamp 2 for the electronics portion of the build. To sort the Skittles by color, a TAOS RGB color sensor reads the red, green, and blue values for each Skittle and actuates a servo that guides each piece of candy into its respective bowl.

It’s a very, very cool, if completely useless build. Still, we’re thinking it could be put to use if [egenriether] is ever backstage setting up before the band arrives.

Videos after the break. Thanks [Andrew] for sending this one in.

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Amazing quad pick and place system tirelessly sorts your Legos


[Chris] is quite the devoted tinkerer. He recently wrote in to share what can only be described as a labor of love. His Quad Delta Robot system has been in the works for about six years now, split into periods of research, building, more research, and rebuilding until arriving at its current form.

The system is made up of four Lego NXT robots which are tasked with sorting Lego cubes by color as they come down a pair of conveyer belts. The robots were built to mimic commercially available pick and place robots which can be found on assembly lines all over the world.

Each robot operates independently, receiving signals via a light sensor which tells the robot where the next brick is located, as well as what color it is. This data is sent by the main NXT unit, which uses a lights sensor to determine brick color and position, relaying the information to the other bots via flashing LEDs. All of the robots receive the same signal, but much like NIC cards ignore frames not destined for their MAC, the bots ignore messages that are not addressed to them.

The machine is truly amazing to watch – it’s clear that all of [Chris’] research and planning has paid off. You have to check out the video embedded below to truly appreciate all of the work that went into this system. Also, be sure to swing by his site for a far more in-depth look at how the machines work, it is definitely worth the time.

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