3D Printing Safety (According To The UL)

If you want to start a heated discussion in 3D printing circles, ask people about the requirements to print safely. Is ABS safe to print without ventilation? Can you drink out of a PLA cup? How nasty is that photo resin if you spill it on yourself? If you are at home, it’s more or less up to you. But if you are building a shared hackerspace, a corporate workstation, or a classroom, these questions might come up, and now, the UL has your answer. The UL200B document is aimed at 3D printers in “institutions of higher education,” but we imagine what’s good for the university is good for us, too.

The 45-page document isn’t an easy read. It does cover both “material extrusion” and “vat photopolymerization” technology. In fact, they identify seven “most common” processes ranging from powder bed fusion, energy deposition, and more.  The work results from a UL task force with participants from Harvard, Princeton, and Carnegie-Mellon. We were surprised there didn’t seem to be any industry representation, but maybe that was on purpose.

With extrusion printing — what we’d call FDM — the focus seems to be on ultra-fine particles and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). However, the level of VOCs rose up to six times with resin printers when compared to FDM. Filters helped with ABS, nylon, and ASA, and polycarbonate/ABS. The paper does acknowledge that PLA is probably safer, although it is quick to point out that PLA with additives may not be as safe as plain PLA. If you want a quick summary, check out Table 2, starting on page 23.

The rest of the document is about creating a safety plan for all the printers that might be on a college campus — that might not be as interesting. However, you’ll want to skip forward to the appendix section. It has some data about relevant industrial standards and other data.

This is a great step in analyzing the risks of 3D printing. Of course, laser printers and copiers also spew micro-particles, and we seem to have survived those for a number of decades. Still, more data is good — you should be informed to make decisions about your health and safety. We didn’t see much in the document that covered food safety, something we’ve talked about before. If you want to monitor your VOC exposure, we got you.

Victorian Train Tunnel Turned Test Track

Characterizing the aerodynamic performance of a vehicle usually requires a wind tunnel since it’s difficult to control all variables when actually driving. Unless you had some kind of perfectly straight, environmentally controlled, and precision-graded section of road, anyway. Turns out the Catesby Tunnel in the UK meets those requirements exactly, and [Tom Scott] recently got to take a tour of it.

The 2.7 kilometer (1.7 mile) long tunnel was constructed as a railway tunnel between 1895 and 1897, thanks to the estate owner objecting to the idea of “unsightly trains” crossing his property. The tunnel’s construction was precise even by modern standards, deviating only 3 mm from being perfectly straight along its entire length. It lay abandoned for many years until it was paved and converted into a test facility, opening in 2021.

To measure the speed without the luxury of GPS reception, a high-speed camera mounted inside a vehicle detects reflective tags mounted every 5 m along the tunnel’s wall. This provides accurate speed measurement down to 0.001 km/h. A pair of turntables are installed at the ends of the tunnel to avoid an Austin Powers multi-point turn (apparently that’s the technical term) when turning around inside the confined space.

Due to the overhead soil and sealed ends, the temperature in the tunnel only varies by 1 – 2 °C year round. This controlled environment makes the tunnel perfect for coastdown tests, where a vehicle accelerates to a designated speed and then is put into neutral and allowed to coast. By measuring the loss of speed across multiple runs, it’s possible to calculate the aerodynamic drag and friction on the wheels. Thanks to the repeatable nature of the tests, it was even possible to calculate the aerodynamic losses caused by [Tom]’s cameras mounted to the outside of the vehicle.

The Catesby Tunnel is an excellent example of repurposing old infrastructure for modern use. Some other examples we’ve seen include using coal mines and gold mines for geothermal energy.

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Hackaday Links: June 4, 2023

A report released this week suggests that 50 flights into its five-flight schedule, the Mars helicopter might be starting to show its age. The report details a protracted communications outage Ingenuity’s flight controllers struggled with for six sols after flight 49 back in April. At first attributed to a “communications shadow” caused by the helicopter’s robotic buddy, Perseverance, moving behind a rocky outcrop and denying line of sight, things got a little dicey once the rover repositioned and there was still no joy. Since the helicopter has now graduated from “technology demonstration” to a full-fledged member of the team tasked with scouting locations for the rover while respecting the no-fly zone around it, it was essential to get it flying again. Several attempts to upload a flight plan failed with nothing but an acknowledgment signal from the helicopter, but a final attempt got the program uploaded and flight 50 was a complete if belated success. So that’s good, but the worrying news is that since Sol 685, the helicopter has been switching in and out of nighttime survival mode. What that portends is unclear, but no matter how amazing the engineering is, there’s only so much that can be asked on Ingenuity before something finally gives.

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It Turns Out Parrots Love Videoconferencing

A recent experiment showed that parrots seem considerably enriched by the ability to video call other parrots. It’s important that the activity be done in a healthy and ethical way, so researchers do not recommend bird caretakers immediately slap a spare tablet in front of every bird — but the results are as heartwarming as they are encouraging.

Parrots are intelligent creatures known to require and benefit from intellectual and emotional stimulation, and their eyesight is such that they are able to use a display like a tablet screen much like a human would. They are also social creatures, and that led to researchers designing a pilot study to explore a parrot-to-parrot videoconferencing system.

The three-month study showed that when given the opportunity to initiate and receive video calls, every single parrot in the test group did so and all bird caretakers reported perceived benefits. Birds made friends, seemed highly motivated, and even learned behaviors by watching others.

Curious about the details? The published results (a PDF and two brief videos) covers all the bases. Parrot pals may also remember another time that technology enriched a feathered friend with a motorized buggy complete with beak-compatible joystick for steering.

Make Yourself A Megamind With A Hypercentric Camera

Sometimes, all it takes to learn something new is a fresh perspective on things. But what’s to be learned from reversing your perspective completely with a hypercentric lens? For one thing, that you can make humans look really, really weird.

To be fair, there’s a lot to the optical story here, which [volzo] goes over in ample detail. The short version of it is that with the right arrangement of optical elements, it’s possible to manipulate the perspective of a photograph for artistic effect, up to the point of reversing the usual diminishment of the apparent size of objects in the scene that are farther away from the camera. Most lenses do their best to keep the perspective of the scene out of this uncanny valley, although the telecentric lenses used in some machine vision systems manipulate the perspective to make identical objects within the scene appear to be the same size regardless of their distance from the camera. A hypercentric lens, on the other hand, turns perspective on its head, making near objects appear smaller than far objects, and comically distorts things like the human face.

[volzo]’s hypercentric camera uses a 700-mm focal length Fresnel lens mounted on a motorized gantry, which precisely positions a camera relative to the lens to get the right effect. A Raspberry Pi controls the gantry, but it’s not strictly needed for the hypercentric effect to work. Lighting is important, though, with a ring of LEDs around the main lens providing even illumination of the scene. The whole setup as well as the weirdly distorted portraits that result are shown in the video below.

If these bizarrely distorted faces look familiar, you might be recalling [Curious Marc]’s head-enlarging wearable.

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A Real-World Experience In PCB Dye-Sub Printing

We all love PCB artwork, but those who create it work under the restriction of having a limited color palette to work with. If it’s not some combination of board, plating, solder mask, and silk screen, then it can’t easily be rendered on a conventional PCB. That’s not the end of the story though, because it’s technically possible to print onto a PCB and have it any color you like. Is it difficult? Read [Spencer]’s experience creating a rainbow Pride version of his RC2014 modular retrocomputer.

Dye-sublimation printing uses an ink that vaporizes at atmospheric pressure without a liquid phase, so a solid ink is heated and the vapor condenses back to solid on the surface to be printed. Commercial dye-sub printers are expensive, but there’s a cheaper route in the form of an Epson printer that can be converted. This in turn prints onto a transfer paper, from which the ink is applied to the PCB in a T-shirt printing press.

[Spencer] took the advice of creating boards with all-white silkscreen applied, and has come up with a good process for creating the colored boards. There is still an issue with discoloration from extra heat during soldering, so he advises in the instructions for the kit to take extra care. It remains however a fascinating look at the process, and raises the important point that it’s now within the reach of perhaps a hackerspace.

Regular readers will know we’ve long held an interest in the manufacture of artistic PCBs.

C++17’s Useful Features For Embedded Systems

Although the world of embedded software development languages seem to span somewhere between ASM and C89 all the way to MicroPython, there is a lot to be said for a happy medium between ease of development and features that makes the software more robust without adding overhead or bloat to the final firmware image.

This is where C++ has objectively many advantages over even C99, and as [Çağlayan Dökme] argues in a recent blog post C++17 adds many developer critter comforts to C++98 and the more recent C++11 C++14 standards.

First stepping back a generation (technically two, with C++20 also being a thing already), the addition of binary literals (e.g. 0b1010'1100) in C++14 and the expanded use of constexpr is addressed, with the latter foreshadowing C++17’s increased focus on compile time optimizations. A new attribute in C++17 that is part of this is [[nodiscard]], which when added before to the return type of a function or method requires the return value to be used in some manner, much like with functions in Ada (contrasted with procedures).

As [Çağlayan] notes, the biggest strength of compile-time checks is that it can save a lot of deploy-test-fix round-trips, with the total number of issues caught after deployment that could have been caught during compilation ideally being zero. Here C++17 streamlines the static_assert() mechanism and simplifies using if constexpr to instantiate code depending on compile-time conditions. Beyond compile-time optimizations there are a few other niceties, such as C++17 guaranteeing copy elision (return value optimization) when an object is returned directly, which is a welcome feature in hard real-time environments.

With today even MCUs having enough grunt to run multi-threaded applications and potentially firmware compiled from a many-thousand LoC codebase, picking a programming language that assists the developer with such an arduous task is very important, with Ada being the primary choice for high-reliability embedded platforms, but C++ along with C enjoying the most widespread (free) compiler support. Even if C++ isn’t supported on every single MCU out there (8051-based and most PIC MCUs mostly), whenever it is an option, it’s a pretty solid choice, especially with knowledge of these new language features.