DIY Capacitive Rotational Encoder on the Cheap with FR4

Rotary encoders are critical to many applications, even at the hobbyist level. While considering his own rotary encoding needs for upcoming projects, it occurred to [Jan Mrázek] to try making his own DIY capacitive rotary encoder. If successful, such an encoder could be cheap and very fast; it could also in part be made directly on a PCB.

First prototype, two etched plates with transparent tape as dielectric material. Disc is 15 mm in diameter.

The encoder design [Jan] settled on was to make a simple adjustable plate capacitor using PCB elements with transparent tape as the dielectric material. This was used as the timing element for a 555 timer in astable mode. A 555 in this configuration therefore generates a square wave that changes in proportion to how much the plates in the simple capacitor overlap. Turn the plate, and the square wave’s period changes in response. Response time would be fast, and a 555 and some PCB space is certainly cheap materials-wise.

The first prototype gave positive results but had a lot of problems, including noise and possibly a sensitivity to temperature and humidity. The second attempt refined the design and had much better results, with an ESP32 reliably reading 140 discrete positions at a rate of 100 kHz. It seems that there is a tradeoff between resolution and speed; lowering the rate allows more positions to be reliably detected. There are still issues, but ultimately [Jan] feels that high-speed capacitive encoders requiring little more than some PCB real estate and some 555s are probably feasible.

This project is a reminder that FR4 (whether copper-clad, etched, or blank) shows up in clever applications: copper tape and blank FR4 can be used to quickly prototype RF filters, PocketNC built an entire small CNC tool around FR4, and our own [Voja] wrote a full guide on making beautiful enclosures from FR4.

Cheap Flamethrower Is Predictably Worrying

We’d never criticize somebody for coming up with a creative way to save a few bucks. In truth, pickings would be pretty slim around here if we deleted every project or hack where cost savings was a prime motivator. That being said, there’s still some things you should probably spend a few extra dollars on. You know, the essential things in life that you need to know will be safe and reliable, like your car and…your flamethrower.

While we don’t have any information about what kind of car [Steve Hernandez] is driving, but over on Hackaday.io, he’s posted some info about his 3D printed wrist-mounted flamethrower. The final result does look pretty impressive, but given the subject matter and the lack of any safety gear, we would firmly plant it in the “Don’t try this at home” category.

At the heart of this flamethrower is a solenoid valve recovered from a Glade air freshener. Rather than spraying out the smell of lilacs, this valve has found a new purpose in life by squirting out butane from a pressurized can. The butane is then ignited by a spark gap made up two nails connected to a 300 kV boost coil.

[Steve] designed the frame of this creation in OpenSCAD, and printed it out in a single piece. It holds the butane can and solenoid in position, as well as keeping the nails in the proper orientation for the spark gap to function. Admittedly the head of his printed flamethrower does look very cool, but if there was ever a situation where you should be suspect of the heat tolerance of 3D printed plastic, a flamethrower is probably it.

What’s noticeably lacking of course is any method to keep the flame from potentially traveling back up through the valve and into the butane can. The high-speed flow coming out of the nozzle is probably enough to keep that from happening, but we still wouldn’t feel comfortable strapping his device to our wrist as-is.

You may be surprised to find that wrist-mounted flamethrowers are a relatively popular project here at Hackaday. We’ve covered quite a few over the years, but still aren’t convinced this is something we personally need to add to our collection of gear.

NodeConf EU Hackable Badge

During conferences, a name-tag is one of the first things people look at when bumping in to others – mentally trying to keep track of faces and names. But gone are the days when your name tag was a post-it stuck on your arm. Over the years, conference badges have become increasingly interesting and complex. Hackable electronic badges are becoming the norm, and not just at hardware cons. For the recently concluded NodeConfEU conference in Ireland, [Gordon Williams], of Espruino fame, designed a JavaScript centric hackable badge.

NodeConf EU is the key Node.js event in Europe, providing a forum for the Node.js community. So when they brain-stormed ideas for a conference badge, they obviously gravitated towards a design that could run JS. [Gordon]’s Puck.js fit the requirements perfectly, and he was tasked with creating a new design based on the Puck.js. The feature list included BlueTooth Low Energy, low power consumption so it could run off a CR2032 battery, a high contrast LCD, some buttons, NFC, and a prototyping area – all packaged in a beautiful hexagonal shaped PCB (obviously) to resemble the Node.js logo. The badges were programmed with attendee names, but the fun, juicy part could be accessed by pressing buttons in the Konami code sequence.

Easy to follow, detailed documentation helped hackers quickly get started with code examples. They were also presented several challenges to work through allowing them to get familiar with the badge. Hacked badges were entered for a Grand Challenge with a chance to win a free ticket to next years conference. The badge hardware and firmware are open source and source files are hosted in a Github repository. Check out a short overview of the badge in the video after the break.

Thanks to [Conor] from nearForm for letting us know about this awesome badge.

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The Perils of Developing the Hackaday Superconference Badge

In case you haven’t heard, the best hardware conference in the world was last weekend. The Hackaday Superconference was three days of hardware hacking, soldering irons, and an epic hardware badge. Throw in two stages for talk, two workshop areas, the amazing hallwaycon and the best, most chill attendees you can imagine, and you have the ultimate hardware conference.

Already we’ve gone over the gory details of what this badge does, and now it’s time to talk about the perils of building large numbers of an electronic conference badge. This is the hardware demoscene, artisanal manufacturing, badgelife, and an exploration of exactly how far you can push a development schedule to get these badges out the door and into the hands of eager badge hackers and con attendees.

The good news is that we succeeded, and did so in time to put a completed badge in the hand of everyone who attended the conference (and we do have a few available if you didn’t make it to the con). Join me after the break to learn what it took to make it all happen and see the time lapse of the final kitting process.

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High Speed Chronograph Looks Like Pro Gear

It can be hard enough to take a good photograph of a running kid or pet, and if we’re being honest, sometimes even stationary objects manage to allude our focus. Now imagine trying to take a picture of something moving really fast, like a bullet. Trying to capture the moment a fast moving projectile hits an object is simply not possible with a human behind the shutter button.

Enter the ballistic chronometer: a device that uses a set of sensor gates and a highly accurate timer to determine how fast an object is flying through it. Chronometers that operate up to a couple hundred meters per second are relatively common, but [td0g] had something a little faster in mind. He’s come up with an optical setup that he claims can capture objects moving as fast as Mach 2. With this chronometer tied into a high-speed flash rig, [td0g] is able to capture incredible shots such as the precise instant a bullet shatters a glass of water.

Because he couldn’t find any phototransistors with the sub-microsecond response time necessary to detect a small object moving at 1,000 m/s, [td0g] ended up using LEDs in a photoconductive configuration, where 27 VDC is applied backwards against the diode. Careful monitoring of voltage fluctuations across the diode allows for detection of changes in the received light level. To cut down on interference, [td0g] used IR LEDs as his light sources, reasoning there would be less ambient IR than if he used something in the visual range.

What really impresses with this build is the attention to detail and amount of polish [td0g] put into the design. From the slick angled bracket that holds the Arduino and LCD to the 3D printed covers over the optical gates, the final device looks like a professional piece of equipment with a price tag to rival that of a used car.

For the future, [td0g] plans on upgrading to faster comparators than he LM339’s he has installed currently, and springing for professionally done PCBs instead of protoboard. In it’s current state this is already a very impressive piece of kit, so we’d love to see what it looks like when it’s “finished”.

If you don’t need something quite this high end but still would like to see how fast something is going, we have covered chronometer builds to fit every budget.

Conductive Concrete Confounds Circuitry

There’s a fairly good chance you’ve never tried to embed electronics into a chunk of concrete. Truth be told, before this one arrived to us via the tip line, the thought had never even occurred to us. After all, the conditions electronic components would have to endure during the pouring and curing process sound like a perfect storm of terrible: wet, alkaline, and with a bunch of pulverized minerals thrown in for good measure.

But as it turns out, the biggest issue with embedding electronics into concrete is something that most people aren’t even aware of: concrete is conductive. Not very conductive, mind you, but enough to cause problems. This is exactly where [Adam Kumpf] of Makefast Workshop found himself while working on a concrete enclosure for a color-changing barometer called LightNudge.

While putting a printed circuit board in the concrete was clearly not workable, [Adam] was hoping to simplify manufacturing of the device by embedding the DC power jack and capacitive touch sensor into the concrete itself. Unfortunately, [Adam] found that there was a resistance of about 200k Ohm between the touch sensor and the power jack; more than enough to mess with the sensitive measurements required for the touch sensor to function.

Even worse, the resistance of the concrete was found to change over time as the curing process continued, which can stretch out for weeks. With no reliable way to calibrate out the concrete’s internal conductivity, [Adam] needed a way to isolate his electronic components from the concrete itself.

Through trial and error, [Adam] eventually found a cheap method: dipping his sensor pad and wire into an acrylic enamel coating from the hardware store. It takes 24 hours to fully cure, and two coats to be sure no metal is exposed, but at least it’s an easy fix.

While the tip about concrete’s latent conductivity is interesting enough on its own, [Adam] also gives plenty of information about casting concrete parts which may be a useful bit of knowledge to store away for later. We have to admit, the final result is certainly much slicker than we would have expected.

This is the first one we’ve come across that’s embedded in concrete, but we’ve got no shortage of other capacitive touch projects if you’d like to get inspired.

Fluid Simulations in the Kitchen Sink

In an age of ultra-powerful GPUs and cheap processors, computational techniques which were once only available to those with a government-sized R&D budgets are now available to the everyday hacker. An example of industry buzzword turned desktop software is the field of “computational fluid dynamics”, which put simply allow modeling how gasses or liquids will behave when moving through a cavity under specific conditions. Extensive utilization of these fluid simulations are often cited as one of breakthrough techniques which allowed SpaceX to develop their engine technology so rapidly when compared to Apollo and Shuttle era methods.

But just because anyone with a decent computer has access to the technology used for developing rocket engines doesn’t mean they have to use it. What if you prefer to do things the old-fashioned way? Or what if, let’s me honest, you just can’t figure out how to use software like Autodesk CFD and OpenFOAM? That’s exactly where [Desi Quintans] found himself when developing GUST, his cooling duct for i3-type 3D printers.

[Desi] tried to get the big name fluid simulation projects working with his prototype designs for an improved cooling duct, but had no end of trouble. Either the learning curve was too steep, or the simulation wasn’t accurate enough to give him any useful data. But remembering that air is itself a fluid, [Desi] took his simulation from the computer to the sink in order to better visualize what his cooling duct was doing to the airflow.

[Desi] printed up a box with a hole in the bottom that would connect up to his nozzles under test. As the volume of water in the box would be a constant between tests, he reasoned that this would allow him to evaluate the different nozzles at the same pressure. Sure enough, he found that the original nozzle design he was using caused chaotic water flow, which backed up what he was seeing in his experiments when mounted onto the printer.

After several iterations he was able to tame the flow of water by using internal baffles and fins, which when tested in water created something of a laminar flow effect. When he tried this version on the printer, he saw a clear improvement in part cooling, verifying that the behavior of the air and water was close enough for his purposes.

We’ve seen other projects that successfully used fluid simulations in their design before, but the quick and dirty test procedure [Desi] came up with certainly has its charms.