This ESP8266 Dev Board Has A Surprising Story Behind It

If you’re looking to get started with the ESP8266, there’s no shortage of development boards out there to select from. But we don’t think you’ll find one with a more unique a backstory than the open source ME-ESP8266. That’s because Malouf, the company that makes the $20 USD board, is a home goods company better known for their pillows and bed frames.

So how do you go from mattress toppers to microcontrollers? Well, as unlikely as it might seem, the missing element is Toys R’ Us. Or more specifically, the liquidation of Toys R’ Us. A Texas distribution center Malouf purchased from the iconic toy retailer included an automated conveyor belt system to move product through the gargantuan building, but unfortunately, they couldn’t get it to work with their existing system. The company decided to use their in-house team of engineers to solve the problem, and the ME-ESP8266 was born.

It turns out that an ESP8266 board developed to move bedding around an old Toys R’ Us warehouse has a lot of useful features for hackers and makers. It’s got an integrated relay, 16 MB of flash storage, an IR receiver, beefy screw terminals, and a 2.54mm-pitch GPIO pin header. There’s even a MAX232 on the board so it can talk to RS-232 devices. The hardware is compatible with the standard Arduino IDE as a “Generic ESP8266 Module”,  so you’ll have no problem using existing libraries and example code.

Now under normal circumstances, the public would never know about this sort of behind the scenes engineering. But instead of keeping their new ESP board to themselves, the team at Malouf got the go ahead from the company’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to release it as an open source project. Even more impressive, they got the company to put the board into production so it could be sold to the public. So today we not only learned that bedding companies have CTOs, but that they can be exceptionally open-minded.

Our hats off to the engineers at Malouf and the forward thinking brass that green lit production of the ME-ESP8266. It’s not the first interesting development to come from the liquidation of Geoffrey’s kingdom, but it just might be the most useful.

24 thoughts on “This ESP8266 Dev Board Has A Surprising Story Behind It

    1. Not likely.

      For their purposes this is fine. Though I wonder why they didn’t go with a module which would get them FCC module certification and in low volume should come out cheaper than chips and discretes.

  1. I’ll never understand why people pick the interfaces they do on these things.

    I’m not using wireless or IR(?!?!?!) to talk to anything that actually has to work, which includes anything that’s switching 5 amps of line current. That’s insane. Nor am I very keen on every tiny device having a direct connection to an IP network so that I have to worry about keeping a network stack secured and up to date.

    I want a wire, preferably two wires taking different paths. I want the wire to be on some kind of multidrop or daisy-chain network, presumably a ring., which lets out RS-232 and especially single RS-232. These seem like absolute no-brainer requirements. But *nobody* builds that stuff. Why? What am I missing.

    1. There are industrial remotes used to change settings and program some equipment like thermostats, PIR detectors and maybe even coveyor belt controllers. Used on close range to quickly and easily upload settings, I would guess they maybe have something like that they need interfacing to. Like a PDA type device or similar to an aircon remote.

      IR is also great for galvanically isolated serial in general.

    2. People build things that fulfill their needs, clearly your needs are different. So the solution is to build your own board then, and only include the components you need. Then you can release the details of your board and/or sell it, which will get a HAD article on it, and someone will invariably complain in the comments that it lacks x,y, or z and has too many a,b, or c. It’s the circle of life!

    3. The device was not made for your requirements. I would be that is meets all the requirements of the engineers who needed to get the conveyor system up and running in an industrial environment within their intranet, plus using the same device in multiple locations keeps troubleshooting somewhat simple. A nice heavy relay to turn on motor contactors, incandescent loads. Simple wifi connection, ir detection/transmission, lots of data storage.

      It is great to have this open and reap the benefit of a larger production run.

    4. This board is designed this way because it needs to work in preexisting industrial environment. It usually means esoteric communication protocols and interfaces, lot of EMI noise, hard to do and expensive new wiring, a lot of metal elements and wires acting as Faraday cage. It has the 5A relay not because it needs to switch that much current but because dry contact is the simplest way to interact with industrial equipment and that particular relay was most reliable, cheapest and easiest to source.

      If you want to interface a number of RS-232 devices with some kind of network in multidrop topology then RS-485 probably fits the bill. From what I remember you just need few RS-232 to RS-485 converters but you should do your research before you start spending money.

      1. > It usually means esoteric communication protocols and interfaces,

        … which are not supported here…

        > lot of EMI noise, hard to do and expensive new wiring, a lot of metal elements and wires acting as Faraday cage.

        Two out of those three argue *against* wireless. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

        And I’m not convinced about the wiring thing in an industrial environment. People run wires all the time in those environments.

        Your description also argues against RS-232, or any other single-ended serial protocol. RS-485 is more reasonable, but an external converter costs more than this board. CAN can work, although the transceivers are often ridiculously expensive for reasons I don’t understand. In fact, the cost of better interfaces may be the real reason for using RS-232.

        > It has the 5A relay not because it needs to switch that much current but because dry contact is the simplest way to interact with industrial equipment and that particular relay was most reliable, cheapest and easiest to source.

        In that case, what probably happens when that 5A relay closes is that a 50A contactor closes downstream of it. The heavier the equipment that’s being controlled, the less you want unreliable communication.

        1. You do understand the baseboard + hats philosophy right? Make a baseboard that works, and breaks out the interfaces and implements the most common subset of required features. Make hats / shields, whatever that provide your lesser used interfaces. Only 1/3rd your machines use RS485? make it a separate board with the RS485 transceiver. Need to deal with a bunch of stuff which does contact closure? It’s built in to the baseboard. Their specific use case is sorting items on a conveyor based on data in a barcode label. Do they need to talk to a server if they encode their sorting info directly into the barcode? NO. RS232 is fine if you have short connections, which if they are using a barcode scanner that outputs RS232, the cables are likely only a couple feet. Scan barcode, if bit X is set, operate solenoid valve for package diverter via relay. Overly simplified example, but it really can be that easy (obviously you’d want more robust barcode encoding for specifying the destination.)

        2. Looking at that board I could quite easily and cheaply use it to interact with RS-232, RS-422, RS-485, CAN (TTL Serial to CAN converter is like 14 bucks on Amazon), interact with current or voltage output sensors, program some devices thru IR (I have seen smart water pumps that use this method), use IR as sensor (as in IR barrier), deploy mesh network when running wires is problematic, bridge Faraday cages by connecting two of them or use them as serial to WIFI (and probably Ethernet) bridge. This board is not a be-all and end-all solution. It’s more like a glue that lets you put other things together.

          > In that case, what probably happens when that 5A relay closes is that a 50A contactor closes downstream of it. The heavier the equipment that’s being controlled, the less you want unreliable communication.

          Dude if you don’t know what dry contact is in automation (what you described is actually considered as wet contact) and how ubiquitous it is, why are you event talking about this board. It was born as solution to a problem and released into the world because somebody thought it was nifty enough and would save some time somebody else. And it probably will. But not you. Just move on. And if your problem don’t have existing solution, try finding it yourself. Learn stuff, ask questions, talk to people, do stuff, fail, do stuff again, try to get people with the same problem to work with you.

      1. A former employer was embracing Internet 4.0, i.e. every machine on the mfg floor attached to the Internet.
        I voiced my opinion that all a bad competitor needs to do is hack one machine e.g. mill/lathe and change one dimension by 1mm.

      2. Sounds like you don’t.

        Where have you been for the last 50 years, while industrial sites the world over still run CP/M?

        Rule #1: It’s always cheaper to interface with existing equipment instead of ripping it out. They built this thing to the exact standards that they needed to fill that interfacing gap. They get to keep the old equipment without paying for replacement and have it work with the system they’ve already adopted elsewhere.

        It’s a bloody miracle they were forward thinking enough to offer it as a product to those who can make use of some (or even all) of it’s features. This both gives them an extra stream of revenue for work they already had to undertake, and provides a new dev board with a variety of features to the maker community at subsidised cost.

    5. Wires that aren’t there can’t get pinched or broken in places that are difficult to access after laboriously tracking down where the break is. Wires that aren’t there don’t cost anything.

      If something causes an interruption in wireless communication, you take care of that and the wireless link is self-fixing. An interruption in a wire means some human has to be paid to find it and solder it, or replace that entire piece of wire.

      These boards could be remotely programmed to handle tasks with locally connected sensors and actuators. They could communicate wirelessly periodically and asynchronously to report what they’ve done and to check for software updates and new commands. Properly programmed for error checking and requesting re-transmission, wireless is as reliable as a wire.

  2. Wires. Across a huge factory floor. With lots of motors.

    See, I worked at some industrial network like that. Must have been the 1990ies (the network was older, it was being integrated into some sort of newfangled computer thing, I was the software guy).

    The “wires” came in as a huge bundle (roughly 2K), at the other ends were some “inputs”. Mostly switches.

    The induced noise was typically around 60V. Ouch.

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