Inside Digital Calipers

If you do any kind of machining, 3D printing, or PCB layout, you probably have at least considered buying a pair of calipers. Old-fashioned ones had a dial and were mechanical devices, but lately, digital ones have become quite affordable. We keep meaning to tear a set of ours apart to see what’s inside, but thanks to [learnelectronics], we don’t have to — the video below provides a fascinating look at what’s inside a cheap pair of Harbor Freight calipers.

Honestly, it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard to figure out how far down a bar you are. The trick is the caliper has to be super accurate. Oddly enough, the cheap calipers examined use capacitors as a sensing element.

There is a long flexible PCB stuck to the sliding part with conductive pads. The display unit is also a printed circuit and manages the battery, the display, and the other half of the capacitive sensor. If you want a more detailed explanation of how the sensor actually works, check out capsense.com. If you note, the pattern on the sliding part has traces that look like a square wave, and half have a different phase than the other half. These are the sine plates and the cosine plates. A 100 kHz signal flows through the capacitor, and it is possible to read the direction of travel and the amount of travel easily.

The calipers are very accurate, but it’s possible to improve them. A more practical project is to make them communicate with the outside world.

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A Fancy Connected Caliper For Not A Lot

An essential for the engineer is a decent caliper, to measure dimensions with reasonable accuracy. Some of us have old-fashioned Vernier scales, while many up-to-date versions are electronic. When entering large numbers of dimensions into a CAD package matters can become a little tedious, so the fancier versions have connectivity for automatic reading transfer. [Mew463] didn’t want to shell out the cash for one of those, so modified a cheaper caliper with an ESP32-C3 microcontroller to provide a Bluetooth interface.

Many cheaper calipers have a handy hidden serial port, and it’s to this interface the mod is connected via a simple level shifter. The ESP and associated circuitry is mounted on a custom PCB on the back of the caliper body, with a very neatly designed case also holding a small Li-Po cell. It adds a little bulk to the instrument, but not enough to render it unusable. Whether the work required to design and build it is worth the cost saving over an off-the-shelf connected caliper is left to the reader to decide.

We’ve covered similar hacks in the past, but this one’s to a very high standard. Meanwhile if calipers are of interest to you then they’re a subject we’ve examined in some significant detail.

A digital caliper connected to a tablet computer

Custom Interface Adds USB And Wi-Fi To Digital Calipers

Although old-school machinists typically prefer the mechanical vernier scale on their trusty calipers, many users nowadays buy calipers with a digital readout. These models often come with additional features like differential measurements, or a “hold” function for those situations where you have to maneuver the instrument somewhere deep inside a machine. Another useful feature is a data link that lets you log your measurements on a computer directly instead of manually entering all the values.

The VINCA-branded caliper that [Liba2k] bought has such a data link feature, which requires a USB adapter that’s sold separately. There is a micro-USB connector on the tool itself, but instead of implementing a USB interface, this is used to carry a proprietary serial protocol — a design decision that ought to be classified as a felony if you ask us. Rather than buying the official USB adapter, [Liba2k] decoded the protocol and built his own interface called VINCA Reader that can connect through either USB or Wi-Fi.

The serial format turned out to be a simple serial bus that clocks out 24 bits at a time. In order to adapt its 1.2 V signal level to the 3.3 V used by an ESP32, [Liba2k] designed a simple level shifter circuit using a handful of discrete components. The ESP can communicate with the computer through its Wi-Fi interface, for which [Liba2k] wrote a spreadsheet-like application; alternatively, an ordinary USB cable can be connected to emulate a keyboard for use with any other software.

With its added Wi-Fi feature, the VINCA Reader is actually more complete than the official USB adapter, and will probably be cheaper as well. The serial interface appears to be common to all caliper manufacturers, although many went for a more sensible connector than micro-USB. An automated readout system is particularly handy if you have to make thousands of similar measurements.

Cheap Caliper Hack Keeps ‘Em Running Longer

Many a hacker is a fan of the cheapest calipers on the market. Manufactured in China and priced low enough that they’re virtually disposable, they get a lot of jobs done in the world where clinical accuracy isn’t required. However, their batteries often die when left in a drawer for a long time. [Ben] was sick of that, and got to hacking.

The result was a quick-and-dirty mod that allows the calipers to be powered by a AAA battery. The average AAA cell has 5-10 times the capacity of the typical LR44 coin cells used in these devices.

[Ben] whipped this up with an eye to making it work rather than making it nice, so there are some shortcuts taken. The battery housing was 3D-printed on the lowest-quality settings that were viable, and it’s held to the calipers with hot glue. Similarly, bare wire ends were used instead of proper contacts, taking advantage of the battery being crammed in to make a good connection.

It’s a hack that will likely save [Ben] much frustration, as he’ll now rarely open his drawer to find his calipers dead. However, one [Pete Prodoehl] suggests another useful trick: store the calipers in the closed position with the lock screw tight to save them turning themselves on accidentally.

Whichever way you go, you’ve hopefully learned something today that will keep your cheap calipers working when you need them. Next, you might consider hacking them to capture data, too.

caliper jaw tools

Printable Caliper Jaws Increase Precision, Deflect Derision

If you’ve watched as many machining videos as we have, no doubt you’ve seen someone commit the cardinal sin of metalworking: using caliper jaws to scratch a mark into metal. Even if it’s a cheap Harbor Freight caliper rather than an expensive Starrett or Mitutoyo tool being abused, derision and scorn predictably rain down upon the hapless sinner’s head.

The criticism is not without its merit, of course. Recognizing this, [Nelson Stoldt] came up with these clamp-on nosepieces designed to turn calipers into a better marking tool. Using stock calipers as marking gauges always introduces some error, since the jaws are equal lengths and thus have to be held at a slight angle to the workpiece in order to make a mark. The caliper jaws correct for this admittedly negligible error by extending one jaw, allowing it to ride on a reference face while the other jaw remains perpendicular to the workpiece. As a bonus, the short jaw has a slot to mount a steel marking knife, saving the caliper jaws from damage.

[Nelson] chose to 3D-print his caliper jaws, but they could just as easily be milled from solid stock to make them a little more durable. Then again, you could always 3D-print the calipers in the first place, and integrate these jaws right into them.

3D Printed Calipers Work Like Clockwork

Most of us use calipers when working with our 3D printers. Not [Albert]. He has a clockwork caliper design that he 3D printed. The STL is available for a few bucks, but you can see how it works in the video below. We don’t know how well it works, but we’ll stick with our digital calipers for now.

The digital readout on this caliper is more like a sophisticated watch. A window shows 10s of millimeters and two dials show the single digits and the number after the decimal point.

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Digital Caliper Talks For Accessibility, With This App

A good instrument stays with its owner for a lifetime, becoming part of their essential trusted toolkit to be consulted as a matter of habit. If you use a caliper to measure dimensions¬† you’ll know this, and a quick glance at its scale or digital display will be second nature. But if you aren’t fortunate enough to have the eyesight to see the caliper, then it’s off-limits, and that’s something [Naomi Wu] has addressed with her open-source accessible speaking caliper app. It’s an Android app that connects to digital calipers that contain Bluetooth connectivity, and as well as speaking aloud the caliper reading it also displays it in very large text on the device screen. As well as the source link from which you can build the app, it’s available for installation directly from the Google Play Store.

If you’re used to [Naomi] from her video tours of the electronics businesses in her native Shenzhen, her eye-catching wearable projects, or her exploits with an industrial CNC machine in her living room, you might be interested to know that aside from this app she’s been a long-time proponent of open-source in China. She was responsible among other projects for the Sino:bit educational computer board, which holds the distinction for her of having secured the first ever Chinese OSHWA certification.

You can see the caliper app in action below the break.

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