The Narrowing Gap Between Amateur and Professional Fabrication

The other day I saw a plastic part that was so beautiful that I had to look twice to realize it hadn’t been cast — and no, it didn’t come out of a Stratysys or anything, just a 3D printer that probably cost $1,500. It struck me that someone who had paid an artisan to make a mold and cast that part might end up spending the same amount as that 3D printer. It also struck me that the little guys are starting to catch up with the big guys.

Haz Bridgeport, Will Mill

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting a hold of the equipment. If you need a Bridgeport mill for your project, and you don’t have one, you have to pay for someone else to make the thing — no matter how simple. You’re paying for the operator’s education and expertise, as well as helping pay for the maintenance and support of the hardware and the shop it’s housed in.

I once worked in a packaging shop, and around 2004 we got in a prototype to use in developing the product box. This prototype was 3D printed and I was told it cost $12,000 to make. For the era it was mind blowing. The part itself was simplistic and few folks on Thingiverse circa 2017 would be impressed; the print quality was roughly on par with a Makerbot Cupcake. But because the company didn’t have a 3D printer, they had to pay someone who owned one a ton of cash to make the thing they wanted.

Unparalleled Access to Formerly Professional-Only Tools

But access to high end tools has never been easier. Hackerspaces and tool libraries alone have revolutionized what it means to have access to those machines. There are four or five Bridgeports (or similar vertical mills) at my hackerspace and I believe they were all donated. For the cost of membership, plus the time to get trained in and checked out, you can mill that part for cheap. Repeat with above-average 3D printers, CNC mills, vinyl cutters, lasers. The space’s South Bend lathe (pictured) is another example of the stuff most people don’t have in their basement shops. This group ownership model may not necessarily grant you the same gear as the pros, but sometimes it’s pretty close.

Being too afraid to use an expensive and unfamiliar tool is a stumbling block for a lot of people. But I don’t need to tell you that hackerspaces are a motherlode of knowledge. Find those subject matter experts — the machine shop ninja, the person with the cleanest welds, the dude whose PLA prints always look great. When that falls short, we have a resource our ancestors did not: the Internet. YouTube alone has revolutionized getting trained in on tools. People go to trade school to learn how to operate big expensive machines, but you can learn what to do for free.

Just Send it Out

For pretty much the entire human existence we have been hoarding our knowledge. Trade guilds jealously preserved their knowledge, while masters took their best tricks to the grave. Only recently did the Open Source ethos develop, encouraging the sharing of knowledge and designs. Now we can download and use free equivalents to expensive professional software. I use Inkscape instead of Illustrator, Fritzing (pictured) instead of Eagle. Open Source software allows you to do your design work at home, for very little money. Are these packages as sophisticated and feature-rich as the pros? Definitely not, but usually they’re surprisingly close. Making vectors in Illustrator might involve some innovative tools like warps and filters, but those features don’t make my laser-cut enclosures fit together any better.

Even if you don’t have a hackerspace nearby, the story doesn’t end. So many companies out there will take your DXFs and STLs and use their equipment to make the part.

Where once we had to make PCBs with toner transfers and acid etches, now we can send stuff to OSH Park or Dirty or any of a passel of service providers. Fictiv offers urethane casting and CNC machining as well as 3D printing. Shapeways helps you print your design using a number of materials, and they even have an online store so you can make a little dough. Speaking of selling, sites like Tindie also give you the opportunity to sell the products you create.

I’m not sure how people invented things in the past but it was a far bigger deal than it is now. When people say “it’s never been easier” to make quality fabricated goods, its’ really true.

Building a Working Game of Tetris in Conway’s Game of Life

If you haven’t been following along with Conway’s Game of Life, it’s come a long way from the mathematical puzzle published in Scientific American in 1970. Over the years, mathematicians have discovered a wide array of constructs that operate within Life’s rules, including many that can be leveraged to perform programming functions — logic gates, latches, multiplexers, and so on. Some of these creations have gotten rather huge and complicated, at least in terms of Life cells. For instance, the OTCA metapixel is comprised of 64,691 cells and has the ability to mimic any cellular automata found in Life.

A group of hackers has used OTCA metapixels to create a Tetris game out of Life elements. The game features all 7 shapes as well as the the movement, rotation, and drops one would expect. You can even preview the next piece. The game is the creation of many people who worked on individual parts of the larger program. They built a RISC computer out of Game of Life elements, as well as am assembler and compiler for it, with the OTCA metapixels doing the heavy lifting. (The image at the top of the post is the program’s data synchronizer.

Check out the project’s source code on GitHub, and use this interpreter. Set the RAM to 3-32 and hit run.

For a couple of other examples of Life creations, check out the Game of Life clock and music synthesized from Life automata we published earlier.

Cheap And Easy Motion Tracking

[Koppany Horvarth] set out to create a dirt-cheap optical tracking rig for VR that uses only two cameras and a certain amount of math to do its thing. He knew he could do theoretically, and wouldn’t cost a lot of money, but still required a lot of work and slightly absurd amount of math.

While playing around with a webcam that he’d set up to run an object-tracking Python script and discovered that his setup tended to display a translucent object with a LED inside of it as pure, washed-out white. This gave [Koppany] the idea that he could use such a light as part of his object tracking project. He 3D-printed 50mm hollow spheres out of transparent PLA, illuminated via a LED and powered by a 5V power supply hacked from an old USB cable. After dealing with some lens flares, he sanded down the PLA a little to diffuse the light and it worked like a charm.

To learn more check out his GitHub code repository. You can also take inspiration in some of the other motion tracking posts we’ve published in the past, like motion tracking on the cheap with a PIC and this OpenCV Airsoft turret.

Capsela is Dead, Long Live Capsela

In the magical 80s, there was a building set that stood apart from the rest. Capsela, originally created by Mitzubishi Pencil Company (the Uniball folks) looked like a series of clear plastic spheres with gears and motors inside. The signature Capsela modules served as both enclosure and functional component. The set came with a variety of gear options like planetary gear, worm gear, and clutch capsules. You could use chain drives and propellers. A lot of the parts were water-resistant, and part of the toy’s shtik was that you could make boats out of it with pontoons keeping most of the robot out of the water.

Hex connectors printed by ericd3

Capsela’s sets were relatively simple, with only DC motors to make things move. However, as the product found success, the company built increasingly larger and more complicated sets with  greater capabilities. For instance, in ’87 they released the Robotic Workshop that included an IR remote that could be configured with a Commodore 64. Later on the Capsela Voice Command 6000 was released, featuring a microcontroller that could understand 8 verbal commands as well as interpret IR signals within 25 feet.

I never got any of those fancy sets, but I still found a lot to do with the basic set my parents bought me for Christmas. The unique architecture of the set was both boon and bane–it certainly was a striking set, in terms of its appearance. However, there were only so many ways you could those spheres together. Also, if you weren’t making a boat the pontoons were fairly useless, with the most clever solution being to use one as a wheel substitute.

The thing that really did it for me, other than hacking out reconfigurable boats in my bathtub, was being able to see everything. All the gearboxes could be seen though the clear plastic. How many nerds learned about mechanical engineering by peering through Capsela spheres?

As with all things, Capsela had its peak and faded away. The product was licensed to a number of new manufacturers, but never found the same success. They tried focusing on the educational market but no dice.

Nevertheless, the product has retained a degree of  nostalgia for those of us who outgrew it. A few years ago, software developer [José Romaniello] described how the toy set him on a path toward being an engineer. He started a Hacker News thread that engaged a bunch of fans in a nerdfest about how great the toy was and how one might 3D print new pieces. Not much was done in the 3DP world that I have seen, other than re-creating Capsela’s hex connectors and that sort of thing.

It’s Baaaaack….

“If they can remake Beauty and the Beast they can bring back Capsela”, is how I’m assuming the thought process went. Sure enough, a company emerged with a redesigned version of the set, available over the internet and in brick and mortar stores. Put out by a shell company called the Unitrust Development Company, the product has been renamed IQ Key.

The new kits seem very similar to those classic sets from  the 80s, other than superficial changes in the product’s appearance — the faceted geography of the pontoons and capsules suggest a refreshed product — it looks pretty much the same. The battery pack (slash switch) has also been redesigned, and looks like it may have an IR receiver built in. The company has also redesigned those hexagonal connectors and now they are circular and bayonet into place.

Is it the same old Capsela we knew and loved? Maybe, maybe not, but there’s only one way to find out: to hack the hell out of it!

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Sneakers: a Love-Fest

“A TURNIP CURES ELVIS” begins the opening credits, an intriguing beginning to a smart and still timely film that was released around 25 years ago. If you’ve never seen the movie, I’m about to spoil the hell out of it.

Sneakers features the title characters, hackers who work the 1992 gig economy as freelance penetration testers. They work for Martin Bishop, a hippie hacker Obi Wan who works San Francisco’s gray market, doing good deeds and helping banks improve their security.

While there is a fair amount of cheese in Sneakers, a lot of the problems the characters face — physical security and cryptography come to mind — remain the problems of today. Securing our digital business? Check. Surveillance? Check? Gray operators? Absolutely. At the same time, the movie does a good job of exploring different categories of hacker. The various characters seem to offer glimpses of people I see all the time at the hackerspace. Bigger than life, certainly, but they are in a Hollywood movie, after all.

Finally, the movie is just smart. Those opening credits offer a preview: the anagrams that begin the movie (“A TURNIP KILLS ELVIS” translates to Universal Pictures) are not just some art director’s conceit for the opening credits. The anagrams end up being important later on in the film, where there is a key clue hidden but if you think about it, shuffling letters on your Scrabble tray could be taken as a metaphor for hacker thinking — taking the same information as everyone else but looking at it in a different way.

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What’s the Best Way to Learn Electronics?

What’s the best way to learn electronics? It’s a pithy question to ask a Hackaday audience, most of whom are at least conversant in the field already. Those who already have learned often have just their own perspective to draw upon—how they themselves learned. Some of you may have taught others. I want to explore what works and what doesn’t.

Hobbyists Learn Differently Than Students

One thing I can say straight off is that students learn differently than people who learn at home. Hobbyists have the advantage of actually being interested, which is a quality a student may not enjoy. People have been teaching themselves electronics since the beginning, with analog projects–Heathkit models, BEAM robots, and ham radio sets–evolving into purely digital projects.

Let’s face it, Arduinos lower the bar like nothing else. There’s a reason why the Blink sketch has become the equivalent to “Hello World”. Dirt cheap and easily configured microcontrollers combined with breakout boards make it easy for anyone to participate.

However, ask any true EE and that person will tell you that following wiring diagrams and plugging in sensor boards from Sparkfun only teaches so much. You don’t bone up on terms like hysteresis or bias by building something from uCs and breakout boards. But do you need to? If you are truly interested in electronics and learn by making those Adafruit or Sparkfun projects, sooner or later you’ll want to make your own breakout boards. You’ll learn how to design your own circuit boards and figure out why things work and why they don’t. I don’t need to tell you the Internet has all the answers a neophyte needs–but the interest has to be there in the first place.

What’s the Best Way to Learn in the Classroom?

There is a product category within robotics kits that consists of “educational rovers” designed to be purchased in group lots by teachers so that each student or small group gets one. These rovers are either pre-built or mostly built—sure, you get to screw in motor mounts, but all the circuit boards are already soldered up for you, surface mount, no less. They come pre-configured for a variety of simple tasks like line following and obstacle avoidance. The Makeblock mBot is an example.

I think it’s part of that whole “learn coding” initiative, where the idea is to minimize the assembly in order to maximize the coding time. Insofar as soldering together a kit of through-hole components teaches about electronics, these bots mostly don’t do it. By all appearances, if there is a best way to learn electronics, this an’t it. However, regardless of what kind of project the teacher puts in front of the student, it still has to generate some sort of passion. What those robots provide is a moment of coolness that ignites the firestorm of interest.

I once led a soldering class that used Blinky Grids by Wayne and Layne as the focus. This is a fantastic kit that guides you through building a small LED matrix. It’s particularly cool because it can be programmed over a computer monitor with light sensors interacting with white and black squares on the company’s web site. When my students finished their grids, they all worked and had unique messages scrolling through. Now, that is a payoff. I’m not saying that any of those folks became hardware hackers as a result of my class, but it beat the hell out of a Christmas tree, am I right?

Getting back to that rover, what must be acknowledged is that the rover itself is the payoff, and that’s only as far as it goes if everyone loses interest. However, a lot of those rovers have expansion possibilities like bolting on another sensor or changing the method of programming–for instance, the mBot has both a graphic programming interface and can also be reflashed with a regular old Arduino bootloader.

Readers, share in comments your own perspective. How did you learn? How would you teach others?

Hackaday Prize Entry: Room-Tracking Red Vines Flinger

[Vije Miller]’s Arduino Licorice Launcher is based on the simple and logical premise that one must always have a voice-activated Red Vines catapult in the workshop. When he calls out to the robot, it turns to aim at him and flings a piece of licorice at his head.

The chassis is CNCed out of quarter-inch MDF and the spring-loaded catapult arm is managed by two servos, one to tension the arm and one to secure it until it’s triggered.  Third and fourth servos aim the catapult and dispense another piece of licorice from the magazine. His robot adapts a radio homing technique [Vije] learned about from RoboWarner, which allows a robot to track a moving RF signal.

[Vije]’s first prototype uses an Arduino Uno connected to a serial port on a PC, but he hopes to acquire an MKR1000 WiFi module, which combines a Arduino Zero with WiFi. Already, this Red Vines launcher is a complete success; the marketing team at Red Vines sent him a huge pile of swag and free licorice for his efforts. You can check out [Vije]’s promo video of the project below.

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