This Nixie Device is Useless, But Pretty

Nixie clocks, they’re a bit of a cliché, aren’t they? But still, they’re pretty to look at.

[Marcin Saj] has completely got our number, and with his Useless Nixie Device has stripped away any pretence of functionality from his Nixie  and concentrated solely on the looking pretty part. It’s a box that steps through the display on any Nixie tube through the use of a set of pluggable socket modules, and it’s encased in an extremely attractive lase-cut acrylic enclosure. Internally it’s an extremely simple device, with a trusty 555 oscillator clocking a 4518 counter that in turn feeds 74141 driver. There is a MAX1771 boost converter in there too to create some high voltage for the tubes.

So it’s a pretty device and you can plug almost any Nixie into it given the right adapter. We guess it might be useful if you have a warehouse full of Nixies to test, but beyond that it’s a pretty desk toy. Still, it’s nice to see a Nixie project that’s not just another clock.

Putting M5Stack on LoRa and the Things Network

LoRa is the new hotness in low-power, long-range communications. Wanting to let the packets fly, [Xose] was faced with a frequecny problem and ended up developing a Europe-friendly LoRa module for the M5Stack system. The hardware is aimed at getting onto The Things Network, a LoRa based network that provides connectivity for IoT devices. While there was an existing M5Stack module for LoRa, it only supported 433 MHz. Since [Xose] is in Europe, an 868 MHz or 915 MHz radio was needed. To solve this, a custom board was built to connect the HopeRF RFM69 series of modules to the M5Stack.

If you haven’t heard of it before, the M5Stack platform is a stackable development board platform. Like Arduino, you can add functionality by stacking PCBs using a standard header. Unlike Arduino, M5Stack fits in a case nicely and is designed for building devices with user interfaces. For $35, you get an ESP32 based system with WiFi, Bluetooth, a color LCD, battery, buttons, a speaker, and IO connectors.

With the hardware in place, [Xose] 3D printed a custom case to hold the board and added it to the stack. The firmware acts as a monitor for The Things Network, showing live coverage. The final product looks very clean for a prototype, maintaining the finished look of M5Stack.

The firmware, board design, and case design files for the project are all available on Github.

Walk It Off, Healing Robots

For many of us, our first robots, or technical projects, were flimsy ordeals built with cardboard, duct tape, and high hopes. Most of us grow past that scene, and we learn to work supplies which require more than a pair of kitchen scissors. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and Iowa State University have made a material which goes beyond durable, it can heal itself when wounded. To a small robot, a standard hole puncher is a dire assailant, but the little guy in the video after the break keeps hopping around despite a couple of new piercings.

The researcher’s goal is to integrate this substance into bio-inspired robots which may come to harm in the field. Fish-like robots could keep swimming after a brush with a bit of coral or a curious predator. Robot snakes could keep slithering after a fall or a gravel road.

Of course, robotic simulacrums are not the only ones who can benefit from healing circuitry. Satellites are prey to punctures from errant space debris.

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Gesture Control without Fancy Sensors, Just Pots and Weights

[Dennis] aims to make robotic control a more intuitive affair by ditching joysticks and buttons, and using wireless gesture controls in their place. What’s curious is that there isn’t an accelerometer or gyro anywhere to be seen in his Palm Power! project.

The gesture sensing consists not of a fancy IMU, but of two potentiometers (one for each axis) with offset weights attached to the shafts. When the hand tilts, the weights turn the shafts of the pots, and the resulting readings are turned into motion commands and sent over Bluetooth. The design certainly has a what-you-see-is-what-you-get aspect to it, and as a whole it works much like an inverted, weighted joystick hanging from one’s palm.

It’s an economical way to play with the idea of motion sensing, and when it comes to prototyping, being able to test a concept while keeping costs to a minimum is a good skill to have.

Turn a Cheap 3D Printer Into a Cheap Laser Cutter

We know it’s hard to hear it, but the days of you being a hotshot at the local Hackerspace because you’ve got a 3D printer at home are long gone. While they’re still one of the most persnickety pieces of gear on the hacker’s bench, they’re certainly not the rarest anymore. Some of these printers are so cheap now they’re almost impulse buys. Like it or not, few people outside of your grandmother are going to be impressed when you tell them you’ve got a personal 3D printer anymore; and we wouldn’t be surprised if even granny picked up a Monoprice Mini during the last open box sale.

But while 3D printer ownership isn’t the pinnacle of geek cred it once was, at least there’s a silver lining: cheap motion platforms we can hack on. [Dani Eichhorn] writes in to tell us about how he added a laser to his $200 USD Tevo Tarantula 3D printer, greatly expanding the machine’s capabilities without breaking the bank. The information in his write-up is pretty broadly applicable to most common 3D printer designs, so even if you don’t have a Tarantula it shouldn’t be too hard to adapt the concept.

The laser is a 2.5 W 445 nm module which is very popular with low-cost laser cutter setups. It’s a fully self-contained air cooled unit that just needs a source of 12 V to fire up. That makes it particularly well suited to retrofitting, as you don’t need to shoehorn in any extra support electronics. [Dani] simply connected it to the existing power wires for the part cooling fan he added to the Tarantula previously.

You may want to check the specs for your 3D printer’s control board before attaching such a high current device to the fan connector. Best case it just overloads the board’s regulator and shuts down, worst case the magic smoke might escape. A wise precaution here might be to put a MOSFET between the board’s fan output the and the laser, but we won’t tell you how to live your life. As far as laser safety, this device should probably work inside an opaque box, or behind closed doors.

Once the laser is hanging off the fan port of your printer’s controller, you can turn it on with the normal GCode commands for fan control, M106 and M107 (to turn it on and off, respectively). You can even control the laser’s power level by adding an argument to the “on” command like: M106 S30.

Then you just need to mount the laser, and it’s more or less business as usual. Controlling a laser engraver/cutter isn’t really that different from controlling a 3D printer, so [Dani] is still using OctoPrint to command the machine; the trick is giving it a “3D model” that’s just a 2D image with no Z changes to worry about. We’ve seen the process for doing that in Inkscape previously.

With this laser module going for as little as $60 USD (assuming you’ve got a 3D printer or two laying around to do the conversion on), this is a pretty cheap way to get into the subtractive manufacturing game. Next stop from there is getting one of those K40’s everyone’s talking about.

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Maker Faire NY: Cocoa Press Chocolate Printer

If you haven’t figured it out by now, the hype over desktop filament printers is pretty much over. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t new avenues worth exploring that use the basic FDM printer technology. If anything, the low cost and high availability of 3D printer parts and kits makes it easier to branch off into new territory. For example, experimenting with other materials which lend themselves to being “printed” layer by layer like a thermoplastic. Materials such as cement, clay, or even chocolate.

[Evan Weinstein] brought his Cocoa Press printer to the 2018 World Maker Faire in New York, and we have to say it’s a pretty impressive piece of engineering. Hackers have been known to throw a syringe-based paste extruder onto a regular 3D printer and try their luck with squirting out an edible object from time to time, but the Cocoa Press is truly a purpose built culinary machine.

Outwardly it features the plywood case and vaguely Makerbot-looking layout that we’ve seen plenty of times before in DIY 3D printers. It even uses the same RAMPS controller running Marlin that powers your average homebrew printer. But beyond these surface similarities, the Cocoa Press has a number of purpose-built components that make it uniquely qualified to handle the challenges of building with molten chocolate.

For one, beyond the nozzle and the walls of the syringe, nothing physically comes into contact with the chocolate to be printed; keeping the mess and chance of contamination to a minimum. The leadscrew actuated plunger used in common paste extruders is removed in favor of a purely air powered system: a compressor pumps up a small reservoir tank with filtered and dried air, and the Marlin commands which would normally rotate the extruder stepper motor are intercepted and used to trigger an air valve. These bursts of pressurized air fill the empty area above the chocolate and force it out of the 0.8 mm nozzle.

In a normal 3D printer, the “melt zone” is tiny, which allows for the heater itself to be relatively small. But that won’t work here; the entire chocolate load has to be liquefied. It’s a bit like having to keep a whole roll of PLA melted during the entire print. Accordingly, the heater on the Cocoa Press is huge, and [Evan] even has a couple spare heaters loaded up with chocolate syringes next to the printer so he can keep them warm until they’re ready to get loaded up.

Of course, getting your working material hot in a 3D printer is only half the battle, you also need to rapidly cool it back down if you want it to hold its shape as new layers are placed on top of it. A normal 3D printer can generally get away with a little fan hanging next to the nozzle, but [Evan] found the chocolate needed a bit of a chill to really solidify.

So he came up with a cooling system that makes use of water-cooled Peltier units. The cold side of the Peltier array is inside a box through which air is forced, which makes its way through an insulated hose up to the extruder, where a centrifugal fan and 3D printed manifold direct it towards the just-printed chocolate. He reports this system works well under normal circumstances, but unusually high ambient temperatures can overwhelm the cooler.

While “the man” prevented show goers from actually eating any of the machine’s creations (to give out food in New York, you must first register with the city), they certainly looked fantastic, and we’re interested in seeing where the project goes from here.

These 3D Printed Supports Can Take Hard Use, Thanks to Resin Filling

Liquid two-part resins that cure into a solid are normally used for casting, and [Cuddleburrito] also found them useful to add strength and rigidity to 3D printed pillar supports. In this case, the supports are a frame for some arcade-style buttons, which must stand up to a lot of forceful mashing. Casting the part entirely out of a tough resin would require a mold, and it turns out that filling a 3D print with resin gets comparable benefits while making it easy to embed fastener hardware, if done right.

Cap design shows how the nut will be encased and the cap anchored even if the pillar is slightly underfilled with resin. The screw can be backed out after the resin cures.

Filling the inside of an object with some kind of epoxy or resin to reinforce it isn’t a new idea, but [Cuddleburrito] learned how a few small design considerations can lead to less messy and more successful results. The first is that resin can be poured with screws in place without any worry of trapping the screws in the resin, if done correctly. As long as only the threads of the screw are in the resin, they can be backed out after the resin has cured. Embedding nuts into the resin to act as fasteners becomes a much easier task when one can simply pour resin with both nut and screw in place, and remove the screw afterwards. A thin layer of a lubricant on the threads to act as a release may help, but [Cuddleburrito] didn’t seem to need any.

The second thing learned was that, for a pillar that needs a cap and embedded nut on both ends, it can be tricky to fill the object’s void with the perfect amount of required resin before capping it off. On [Cuddleburrito]’s first attempt, he underfilled and there wasn’t enough resin to capture the nut on the top lid of the pillar he was making. The way around this was to offset the nut on a riser, and design in either a witness hole or an overflow relief. A small drain hole or a safe area for runoff allows for filling things right up without an uncontrolled mess in the case of overfilling.

Something worth keeping in mind when experimenting in this area is that in general the faster a resin cures, the more it heats up in the process. It may be tempting to use something like 5 minute epoxy in a pinch, but the heat released from any nontrivial amount of it risks deforming a thin-walled 3D print in the process. For cases where resin would be overkill and the fasteners are small, don’t forget we covered the best ways to add fasteners directly to 3D printed parts.