When Unfolding An STL In Software, Math Isn’t The Tricky Part

Some time ago, [Trammell Hudson] took a shot at creating a tool that unfolds 3D models in STL format and outputs a color-coded 2D pattern that can be cut out using a laser cutter. With a little bending and gluing, the 3D model can be re-created out of paper or cardboard.

There are of course other and more full-featured tools for unfolding 3D models: Pepakura is used by many, but is not free and is Windows only. There is also a Blender extension called Paper Model that exists to export 3D shapes as paper models.

What’s interesting about [Trammell]’s project are the things he discovered while making it. The process of unfolding an STL may be conceptually simple, but the actual implementation is a bit tricky in ways that have little to do with number crunching.

For example, in a logical sense it doesn’t matter much where the software chooses to start the unfolding process, but in practice some start points yield much tighter groups of shapes that are easier to work with. Also, his software doesn’t optimize folding patterns, so sometimes the software will split a shape along a perfectly logical (but non-intuitive to a human) line and it can be difficult to figure out which pieces are supposed to attach where. The software remains in beta, but those who are interested can find it hosted on GitHub. It turns out that it’s actually quite challenging to turn a 3D model into an unfolded shape that still carries visual cues or resemblances to the original. Adding things like glue tabs in sensible places isn’t trivial, either.

Tools to unfold 3D models feature prominently in the prop-making world, and it’s only one of the several reasons an economical desktop cutter might be a useful addition to one’s workshop.

Put that DLP Printer to Use Making PCBs

Now that these DLP printers are cheaper and more widely available, we’re starting to see hackers poking around the edge of the envelope to see what else the machines are capable of. [Electronoobs] recently got his hands on a couple of these printers, and thought he would do some experiments with using them for PCB production.

Rather than extruding molten plastic, these printers use light to cure resin layer-by-layer. In theory if the printer is good enough to cure the light-activated resin for a high resolution print, it should be able to do much the same thing with photosensitive PCBs.

Unfortunately, getting an STL out of a PCB design program takes a few intermediary steps. In the video after the break, [Electronoobs] shows his workflow that takes his design from EasyADA and turning it into a three dimensional object the DLP printer will understand. He does this with Blender and it looks pretty straightforward, but in the past we’ve seen people do similar tricks with Inkscape if that’s more your style.

Once you’ve grafted another dimension onto your PCB design, you may need to scale it to the appropriate size. [Electronoobs] notes that his STL for a 60 mm wide PCB came out of Blender as less than 2 mm wide, so you might need to break out the dreaded mathematics to find the appropriate scale value. Once the dimensions look good, you can load this file up into the printer as you would any normal print.

On the printer side of things, [Electronoobs] manually laminates UV photoresist film onto some copper clad boards with an iron, but you could skip this step and buy pre-sensitized boards as well. In any event, you drop the board where the UV resin normally goes, press the print button, and wait about ten minutes. That should give it enough time to expose the board, and you then proceed with the normal washing and acid bath process that hackers have been doing since time immemorial.

As [Electronoobs] shows, the results are quite impressive. While this still won’t make it any easier for you to do double-sided PCBs in the home lab, it looks like a very compelling method for producing even SMD boards with relative ease. This isn’t the first time somebody has tried using a DLP printer to run off some PCBs, but now that the technology has matured a bit it looks like it’s finally becoming practical.

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3D Printering: Blender Tips For Printable Objects

3D models drawn in Blender work great in a computer animated virtual world but don’t always when brought into a slicer for 3D printing. Slicers require something which makes sense in the real world. And the real world is far less forgiving, as I’ve found out with my own projects which use 3D printed parts.

Our [Brian Benchoff] already talked about making parts in Blender with his two-part series (here and here) so consider this the next step. These are the techniques I’ve come up with for preparing parts for 3D printing before handing them off to a slicer program. Note that the same may apply to other mesh-type modeling programs too, but as Blender is the only one I’ve used, please share your experiences with other programs in the comments below.

I’ll be using the latest version of Blender at this time, version 2.79b. My printer is the Crealty CR-10 and my slicer is Cura 3.1.0. Some of these steps may vary depending on your slicer or if you’re using a printing service. For example, Shapeways has instructions for people creating STLs from Blender for uploading to them.

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A Motion Capture System For Everyone

[Chordata] is making a motion capture system for everyone to build and so far the results are impressive, enough to have been a finalist in the Hackaday Human Computer Interface ChallengeIt started a few years ago as one person’s desire to capture a digital performance of a dancer on a stage and has grown into a community of contributors. The board files and software have just been released as alpha along with some instructions for making it work, though more detailed documentation is on the way.

Chordata motion capture dancer and BlenderFifteen sensor boards, called K-Ceptors, are attached to various points on the body, each containing an LSM9DS1 IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). The K-Ceptors are wired together while still allowing plenty of freedom to move around. Communication is via I2C to a Raspberry Pi. The Pi then sends the collected data over WiFi to a desktop machine. As you move around, a 3D model of a human figure follows in realtime, displayed on the desktop’s screen using Blender, a popular, free 3D modeling software. Of course, you can do something else with the data if you want, perhaps make a robot move? Check out the overview and the performance by a clearly experienced dancer putting the system through its paces in the video below.

As a side note, the latest log entry on their Hackaday.io page points out that whenever changes are made to the K-Ceptor board, fifteen of them need to be made in order to try it out. To help with that, they show the testbed they made for troubleshooting boards as soon as they come out of the oven.

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Light Painting Animations Directly From Blender

Light painting: there’s something that never gets old about waving lights around in a long exposure photo. Whilst most light paintings are single shots, some artists painstakingly create frame-by-frame animations. This is pretty hard to do when moving a light around by hand: it’s mostly guesswork, as it’s difficult to see the results of your efforts until after the photo has been taken. But what if you could make the patterns really precise? What if you could model them in 3D?

[Josh Sheldon] has done just that, by creating a process which allows animations formed in Blender to be traced out in 3D as light paintings. An animation is created in Blender then each frame is automatically exported and traced out by an RGB LED on a 3D gantry. This project is the culmination of a lot of software, electronic and mechanical work, all coming together under tight tolerances, and [Josh]’s skill really shines.

The first step was to export the animations out of Blender. Thanks to its open source nature, Python Blender add-ons were written to create light paths and convert them into an efficient sequence that could be executed by the hardware. To accommodate smooth sliding camera movements during the animation, a motion controller add-on was also written.

The gantry which carried the main LED was hand-made. We’d have been tempted to buy a 3D printer and hack it for this purpose, but [Josh] did a fantastic job on the mechanical build, gaining a solidly constructed gantry with a large range. The driver electronics were also slickly executed, with custom rack-mount units created to integrate with the DragonFrame controller used for the animation.

The video ends on a call to action: due to moving out, [Josh] was unable to continue the project but has done much of the necessary legwork. We’d love to see this project continued, and it has been documented for anyone who wishes to do so. If you want to check out more of [Josh]’s work, we’ve previously written about that time he made an automatic hole puncher for music box spools.

Thanks for the tip, [Nick].

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3D Printering: When an STL File is Not Quite Right

STL files are everywhere. When there’s something to 3D print, it’s probably going to be an STL. Which, as long as the model is good just as it is, is no trouble at all. But sooner or later there will be a model that isn’t quite right in some way and suddenly project progress hits a snag.

When models interface with other physical things, those other components may not always be exactly as the designer expected. Being mindful about such potential inconsistencies during the design phase can help prevent problems, but it’s not always avoidable. The reason it’s a problem is because an STL file represents a solid model as a finished unit; it is not really intended to be rolled back into CAD programs for additional design changes.

STL files can be edited, but just like re-modeling a component from scratch, it can be a tricky process for those who don’t live and breathe this stuff. I’ll describe a few common issues related to STLs that can hold up getting that new project together, along with ways to deal with them. Thanks to 3D printing becoming much more commonplace, basic tools are within reach of even the least CAD-aware among us.

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You’d Print A Part, But Would You Print A Foot?

Born with just one foot, [Nerraw99] had to work around prosthetics all his life. Finally getting fed up with the various shortcomings of his leather and foam foot, he designed, tweaked, printed and tested his own replacement!

After using Structure Sensor to scan both his feet, [Nerraw99] began tooling around with the model in Blender and 3D printing them at his local fablab/makerspace: MakerLabs. It ended up taking nearly a dozen printed iterations — multiple printing issues notwithstanding — to get the size right and the fit comfortable. Not all of the attempts were useless; one version turned out to be a suitable water shoe for days at the beach!

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