A Tour Through The Archetypical Asian Factory

Overseas factories can be sort of a mythical topic. News articles remind us that Flex (née Flextronics) employs nearly 200 thousand employees worldwide or that Foxconn is up to nearly a million. It must take an Apple-level of insider knowledge and capital to organize such a behemoth workforce, certainly something well past the level of cottage hardware manufacturing. And the manufacturing floor itself must be a temple to bead blasted aluminum and 20 axis robotic arms gleefully tossing products together. Right?

Well… the reality is a little different. The special sauce turns out to be people who are well trained for the task at hand and it doesn’t require a $1,000,000,000,000 market cap to get there.

[Adam leeb] was recently overseas to help out with the production ramp for one of his products and took a set of fantastic videos that walk us through an archetypical asian factory.

The Room

I’ve been to several factories and for me the weirdest part of the archetype is the soul crushing windowless conference room which is where every tour begins. Check out this one on the left. If you ever find yourself in a factory you will also find a room like this. It will have weird snacks and bottles of water and a shiny wood-esque table. It will be your home for many, many more hours than you ever dreamed. It’s actually possible there’s just one conference room in the universe and in the slice of spacetime where you visit it happens to be in your factory.

Ok, less metaphysics. It’s amazing to watch the myriad steps and people involved in taking one product from zero to retail-ready. [adam] gives us a well narrated overview of the steps to go from a single bare board to the fully assembled product. From The Conference Room he travels to The Floor and walks us through rows of operators performing their various tasks. If you’ve been reading for a while you will recognize the pick and place machines, the ovens, and the pogo pin test fixtures. But it’s a treat to go beyond that to see the physical product that houses the boards come together as well.

Check out [adam]’s videos after the break. The first deals with the assembly and test of his product, and the second covers the assembly of the circuit boards inside which is broadly referred to as SMT. Watching the second video you may notice the funny (and typical) contrast between the extremely automated SMT process and everything else.

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Unicycle Given A Hand Crafted Gear Box

Being able to coast on a bicycle is a feature that is often taken for granted. The use of a freewheel was an improvement made early in the bicycle’s history, for obvious reasons. This also unlocked the ability to build bikes with multiple gears, allowing higher speeds to be easily reached. On a unicycle, however, there’s no chain and the pedals are permanently fixed to the wheel’s axle, meaning that there is (usually) no freewheel and no gearing. [johnybondo] wanted to get some more speed out of his unicycle, though, and realized he could do this with his own homemade internal geared hub for his unicycle.

The internal hub gear was machined and welded by hand as a one-off prototype. There are commercial offerings, but at $1700 it’s almost best to fund your own machine shop. It uses a planet gearset which is more compact than a standard gear, allowing it to fit in the axle. Once all the machining was done, it was time to assemble all of the gears into the hub, lace it to the wheel with spokes, and start pedaling away. Since it was so successful, he plans to build another and lace it to a larger wheel which will allow him to reach even higher speeds. If this isn’t fast enough for you, personally, there are other options available for ludicrous speed.

Now, this gear is still “fixed” in the sense that it’s a permanent gear ratio for his unicycle and it doesn’t allow him to shift gears or coast. There’s no freewheel mechanism so the unicycle can still be pedaled forward and backwards like a traditional unicycle. The advantage of this setup is that the wheel spins 1.5 times for every one revolution of the pedals, allowing him to more easily reach higher speeds.

Hackaday Links: October 28, 2018

Steve Jobs was actually a good designer and CEO. This is a statement that would have been met with derision in 2010, with stories of a ‘reality distortion field’. We’re coming up on a decade in the post-Jobs era, and if there’s one thing the last seven or eight years can tell us, it’s that Jobs really, really knew how to make stuff people wanted. Apart from the iPhone, OS X, and the late 90s redesign of their desktops, the most impressive thing Jobs ever did was NeXT. Now there’s book that describes the minutia of all NeXT hardware. Thanks to the Adafruit blog for pointing this one out.

Speaking of Apple, here’s something else that’s probably not worth your time. It’s a highly exclusive leak of upcoming Apple hardware that’s sure to change everything you know about tech. Really, it’s a floating hockey puck branded with the Apple logo. No idea what this is, but somebody is getting some sweet, sweet YouTube ad revenue from this.

A few years ago, [Tom Stanton] built an electric VTOL plane. It looked pretty much like any other foam board airplane you’d find, except there were motors on the wingtips a lá an Osprey. Now, he’s massively improving this VTOL plane. The new build features a 3D printed fuselage and 3D printed wing ribs to give this plane a proper airfoil. Despite being mostly 3D printed, this VTOL plane weighs less than half of the first version. Also, a reminder: VTOL planes (or really anything that generates lift from going forward) are the future of small unmanned aerial craft. Better get hip to this now.

Next weekend is the Hackaday Superconference, and you know we’re going to have an awesome hardware badge. It’s a badge, that’s a computer, and has a keyboard. What more could you want? How about an expansion header? Yeah, we’ve got a way to add a shift register and 8 LEDs to the badge. From there, you can do just about everything. Who’s going to bring an old parallel port printer?

The Ultimate MIDI Wind Controller Is The Human Voice

When it comes to music, the human voice is the most incredible instrument. From Tuvan throat singing to sopranos belting out an aria, the human vocal tract has evolved over millions of years to be the greatest musical instrument. We haven’t quite gotten to the point where we can implant autotune in our vocal cords, but this project for the Hackaday Prize aims to be a bridge between singers and instrumentalists. It’s a hands-free instrument that relies on vocal gesture sensing to drive electronic musical instruments.

The act of speaking requires dozens of muscles, and of course no device that measures how the human vocal tract is shaped will be able to measure all of them, but the Multiwind does manage to measure breathing in, breathing out, the shape of the lower lip, the upper lip, and its own tilt, giving it far more feedback than any traditional wind instrument. It does this with IMUs and a mouthpiece mounted on a mount that is seemingly inspired by one of those hands-free harmonica neck mounts.

The output for this device is MIDI, although the team behind this build already has data streaming to an instance of Max, and once you have that, you have every musical instrument imaginable. It’s an innovative musical instrument, and something we’re really excited to see the results of.

Easy Blinking LED Eyes For Halloween

There’s not much time left now. If you’re going to put something together to give the youngsters some night terrors in exchange for all that sweet candy, you better do it quick. This late to the game you might not have time to do anything too elaborate, but luckily we’ve come across a few quick Halloween hacks that can get you some pretty cool effects even if it’s only a few hours before the big night.

As a perfect example, these LED “blinking eyes” were created by [Will Moser]. Using nothing more exotic than some bare LEDs, an Arduino, and a cardboard box, these little gadgets can quickly and easily be deployed in your windows or bushes to produce an unsettling effect after the sun goes down. Thanks to the pseudorandom number generator in the Arduino code, the “eyes” even have a bit of variability to them, which helps sell the idea that your Halloween visitors are being watched by proper creatures of the night.

The hardware side of this project is very simple. [Will] takes a container such as a small cardboard box and cuts two holes in it to serve as the eyes. He notes that containers which are white or reflective on the inside work best. You’ll want to get a little artistic here and come up with a few different shaped sets of eyes, which is demonstrated in the video after the break. Inside each box goes a colored LED, wired back to the Arduino.

For the software, [Will] is using a floating analog pin as a source of random noise, and from there comes up with how often each LED will blink on and off, and for how long. Both the hardware and software sides of this project are perfect for beginners, so it might be a good way to get the Little Hackers involved in the festivities this year; if you’re the type of person who enjoys replicating small humans in addition to creeping them out.

LEDs seem to be the hacker’s decoration of choice come Halloween, from wearable LED eyes to remote controlled illuminated pumpkins.

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Making PCBs With A Cutting Plotter

[LudwigLabs] is creating PCBs using copper foil and a cutting plotter (vinyl cutter). In this approach, it’s an additive process where instead of removing copper from a copper-clad board, the traces are cut out of copper foil and transferred to a solid backing surface (cardboard, fiberglass, etc.).

While similar to the use of copper tape laid out by hand, as covered by us last year, the big advantage of using a cutting plotter is that it allows one to create much more complicated traces similar to those you would expect to see on a factory-made PCB. Since cutting plotters translate a 2D design into very precise movements of the cutting blade, this allows for sharp angles and significantly thinner traces, allows designs from EDA software like KiCad or Altium to be quickly translated to physical boards.

Enterprising hackers might consider the possibility of using this approach to make two-sided, and even multi-layered boards. The copper is produced separately from the substrate which opens up the potential for using uncommon materials like glass or paper to host the circuits. The main limitations are the transferring of (very delicate) copper structures and creating vias without damaging the traces.

As a comparison with traditional PCB fab processes, the photo exposure and etching (or laser exposure and etching) process requires the creation of masks, UV exposing a board, etching, cleaning and so on. The simplicity of copper foil traces has led to many experimenting with this approach. Would you want to use this additive process, or are there refinements or alterations you would make?

Brain Cell Electronics Explains Wetware Computing Power

Neural networks use electronic analogs of the neurons in our brains. But it doesn’t seem likely that just making enough electronic neurons would create a human-brain-like thinking machine. Consider that animal brains are sometimes larger than ours — a sperm whale’s brain weighs 17 pounds — yet we don’t think they are as smart as humans or even dogs who have a much smaller brain. MIT researchers have discovered differences between human brain cells and animal ones that might help clear up some of that mystery. You can see a video about the work they’ve done below.

Neurons have long finger-like structures known as dendrites. These act like comparators, taking input from other neurons and firing if the inputs exceed a threshold. Like any kind of conductor, the longer the dendrite, the weaker the signal. Naively, this seems bad for humans. To understand why, consider a rat. A rat’s cortex has six layers, just like ours. However, whereas the rat’s brain is tiny and 30% cortex, our brains are much larger and 75% cortex. So a dendrite reaching from layer 5 to layer 1 has to be much longer than the analogous neuron in the rat’s brain.

These longer dendrites do lead to more loss in human brains and the MIT study confirmed this by using human brain cells — healthy ones removed to get access to diseased brain cells during surgery. The researchers think that this greater loss, however, is actually a benefit to humans because it helps isolate neurons from other neurons leading to increased computing capability of a single neuron. One of the researchers called this “electrical compartmentalization.” Dig into the conclusions found in the research paper.

We couldn’t help but wonder if this research would offer new insights into neural network computing. We already use numeric weights to simulate dendrite threshold action, so presumably learning algorithms are making weaker links if that helps. However, maybe something to take away from this is that less interaction between neurons and groups of neurons may be more helpful than more interaction.

Watching them probe neurons under the microscope reminded us of probing on an IC die. There’s a close tie between understanding the brain and building better machines so we try to keep an eye on the research going on in that area.

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