Cheap Front Panels with Dibond Aluminium

The production capability available to the individual hacker today is really quite incredible. Even a low-end laser engraver can etch your PCBs, and it doesn’t take a top of the line 3D printer to knock out a nice looking enclosure. With the wide availability of these (relatively) cheap machines, the home builder can churn out a very impressive one-off device on a fairly meager budget. Even low volume production isn’t entirely out of the question. But there’s still one element to a professional looking device that remains frustratingly difficult: a good looking front panel.

Now if your laser is strong enough to engrave (and ideally cut) aluminum sheets, then you’ve largely solved this problem. But for those of us who are plodding along with a cheap imported diode laser, getting text and images onto a piece of metal can be rather tricky. On Hackaday.io, [oaox] has demonstrated a cost effective way to create metal front panels for your devices using a print service that offers Dibond aluminum. Consisting of two thin layers of aluminum with a solid polyethylene core, this composite material was designed specifically for signage. Through various online services, you can have whatever you wish printed on a sheet of pre-cut Dibond without spending a lot of money.

As explained by [oaox], the first step is putting together the image you’ll send off to the printer using a software package like Inkscape. The key is to properly define the size of the Dibond plate in your software and work within those confines, otherwise the layout might not look how you expected once the finish piece gets back to you. It’s also important to avoid lossy compression formats like JPEG when sending the file out for production, as it can turn text into a mushy mess.

When you get the sheet back, all you need to do is put your holes in it. Thanks to the plastic core, Dibond is fairly easy to cut and drill as long as you take your time. [oaox] used a step drill for the holes, and a small coping saw for the larger openings. The final result looks great, and required very little effort in the grand scheme of things.

But how much does it cost? Looking around online, we were quoted prices as low as $7 USD to do a full-color 4×4 inch Dibond panel, and one site offered a 12×12 panel for $20. For a small production run, you could fit several copies of the graphics onto one larger panel and cut them out with a bandsaw; that could drop the per-unit price to only a couple bucks.

We’ve seen some clever attempts at professional looking front panels, from inkjet printing on transparencies to taking the nuclear option and laser cutting thin plywood. This is one of those issues the community has been struggling with for years, but at least it looks like we’re finally getting some decent options.

Move Over Aluminum: Cast Iron for the Home Foundry

When it comes to choice of metals that can be melted in the home foundry, it’s a little like [Henry Ford]’s famous quip: you can melt any metal you want, as long as it’s aluminum. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; there’s a lot you can accomplish by casting aluminum. But imagine what you could accomplish by recycling cast iron instead.

It looks like [luckygen1001] knows a thing or two about slinging hot metal around. The video below shows a fairly expansive shop and some pretty unique tools he uses to recycle cast iron; we were especially impressed with the rig he uses to handle the glowing crucibles from a respectful distance. The cast iron comes from a cheap and abundant source: car disc brake rotors. Usually available free for the asking at the local brake shop, he scores them with an angle grinder and busts them into manageable chunks with a hammer before committing them to the flames. The furnace itself is quite a thing, running on a mixture of diesel and waste motor oil and sounding for all the world like a jet engine starting up. [luckygen1001] had to play with the melt, adding lumps of ferrosilicon alloy to get a cast iron with better machining properties than the original rotors. It’s an interesting lesson in metallurgy, as well as a graphic example of how not to make a flask for molding cast iron.

Cast iron from the home shop opens up a lot of possibilities. A homemade cast aluminum lathe is one thing, but one with cast iron parts would be even better. And if you use a lot of brake rotors for your homebrew cast iron lathe, it might require special handling.

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Folding Robots With Special Materials

When it comes to robots, we usually see some aluminum extrusion, laser-cut parts, maybe some 3D printed parts, and possibly a few Erector sets confabulated into a robot arm. This entry for the Hackaday Prize is anything but. It’s a robot chassis, a 3D printer, and the structural frame for any sort of moving project that’s made out of a special composite material.

[Marc]’s project for the Hackaday Prize is all about articulated mechanisms. Instead of the usual structural components, he’s using Hylite, a special material that’s basically a polypropylene core clad in a sheet of aluminum on both sides. By carefully milling away the aluminum on both sides, [Marc] is creating a living hinge that can be used to build a 3D printer, robot, or really anything else.

This really isn’t a finished project; it’s more of a technology demonstrator. That said, [Marc] has a lot of examples where he can bend these Hylite aluminum plates over on themselves, can create boxes and space frames, and has the ability to create just about any shape he wants. It’s really a highly precise means of bending aluminum with a mill, and has the added benefit of looking really, really good.

Already, [Marc] has a few interesting robots that are built around this construction technology. The first is a remote control focus for a telescope that simply connects an eyepiece to the scope. Actuation is provided pneumatically, and all reports say this example works well. The other example is a flat-pack phone stand. It’s a bit simpler than a focus mechanism, but it is a small and inexpensive way to show off the technology. Great work, and an excellent project in The Hackaday Prize.

How to Build Anything Out of Aluminum Extrusion and 3D Printed Brackets

The real power of 3D printing is in infinite customization of parts. This becomes especially powerful when you combine 3D printing with existing materials. I have been developing a few simple tricks to make generic fasteners and printed connectors a perfect match for aluminum extrusion, via a novel twist or two on top of techniques you may already know.

Work long enough with 3D printers, and our ideas inevitably grow beyond our print volume. Depending on the nature of the project, it may be possible to divide into pieces then glue them together. But usually a larger project also places higher structural demands ill-suited to plastic.

Those of us lucky enough to have nice workshops can turn to woodworking, welding, or metal machining for larger projects. Whether you have that option or not, aluminum extrusion beams provide the structure we need to go bigger and to do it quickly. And as an added bonus, 3D printing can make using aluminum extrusion easier and cheaper.

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The Aluminum Wiring Fiasco

Someone who decides to build a house faces a daunting task. It’s hard enough to act as the general contractor for someone else, but when you decide to build your own house, as my parents did in the early 1970s, it’s even tougher. There are a million decisions to make in an information-poor and rapidly changing environment, and one wrong step can literally cast in stone something you’ll have to live with forever. Add in the shoestring budget that my folks had to work with, and it’s a wonder they were able to succeed as well as they did.

It was a close call in a few spots, though. I can recall my dad agonizing over the wiring for the house. It would have been far cheaper to go with aluminum wiring, with the price of copper wire having recently skyrocketed. He bit the bullet and had the electrician install copper instead, which ended up being a wise choice, as houses that had succumbed to the siren call of cheaper wiring would start burning down all over the United States soon thereafter.

What happened in the late 60s and early 70s in the residential and commercial electrical trades was an expensive and in some cases tragic lesson in failure engineering. Let’s take a look at how it all happened.

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This Vapour Deposition Chamber Isn’t Vapourware

If you are an astronomer with an optical reflecting telescope, the quality of your mirror is one of your most significant concerns. Large observatories will therefore often have on-site vapour deposition plants to revitalise their reflectors by depositing a fresh layer of aluminium upon them. You might think that such a device would be the preserve only of such well-funded sites, but perhaps [Michael Koch]’s work will prove you wrong. He’s created his own vapour deposition system (Google Translate link of the German original) from scratch, and while it might be smaller than the institutional equivalents it is no less effective in its task.

At the heart of it is a stainless steel vacuum vessel with a two stage vacuum pump system to evacuate it. The mirror to be silvered is suspended in the vessel, and a piece of aluminium is suspended over a coil of tungsten wire that his electrically heated to melt it. The molten aluminium is described as “wetting” the tungsten wire in the same manner as we’ll be used to solder working on copper, but in the vacuum it vaporizes and deposits itself upon the mirror. Such a simple description glosses over the impressive work that went into it.

This is a long-running project that isn’t entirely new, but very much worth a look if only for its introduction to this fascinating field. If you are new to vacuum work, how about looking at a Superconference presentation introducing vacuum technology?

Thanks [Paul Bauer] for the tip.

Medium Machine Mediates Microcontroller Messages

Connecting computers to human brains is currently limited to the scope of science fiction and a few cutting-edge laboratories. Tapping into some nerves farther from our central wetware is possible and [Peter Buczkowski] shows us his stylish machine for implanting a pattern into our brains without actively having to memorize anything.

His Medium Machine leverages a TENS unit to activate forearm muscles in a pattern programmed into an Arduino. Users place their forearm across two aluminum electrodes mounted on a tasteful wooden platform and extend a single finger over a button. Electrical impulses trigger the muscles which press the button. That’s all. After repeating the pattern a few times, the users should be able to recite it back on command even if they aren’t aware of what it means. If this sounds like some [Johnny Mnemonic] memory cache, you are absolutely correct. This project draws inspiration from the [William Gibson] novel which became a [Keanu Reeves] movie.

Users can be programmed with a Morse code message or the secret knock to open an attic library or play a little tune. How about learning a piano song?

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