Retrotechtacular: Shake Hands With Danger

OK, you’re going to have to engage your safety squints and sit back to enjoy this one: a classic bit of safety propaganda from US heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar from 1980 entitled “Shake Hands with Danger.”

Actually, you’ll probably need to engage your schlock filters for this 23-minute film too, as both the writing and the theme song are pretty hard to take. The film is one of those “Scared Straight” attempts to show just how horrifically wrong things can go both in the field and in the shop when working on anything made of stuff stronger than human flesh and bone. And in that regard, the film is highly effective — we found ourselves getting a bit queasy at a few points, with the poor dude who got his hand sucked into a bench grinder being both terrifying and relatable. [Three-Finger Joe] indeed.

Now, you might take exception with the acting, but as you watch all these vignettes, keep in mind that these are all old-school stunts — that’s actually a gigantic D9 bulldozer they crashed, and that brake chamber explosion really blew out that truck’s windows. They did a great job making the potential consequences of a moment’s thoughtlessness sickeningly vivid. Especially that arm-in-the-linkages scene. Ugh.

Whatever way you practice the hacking arts, stay safe out there. And don’t “Shake Hands with Danger.”

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Swap Your Microwave For A High Voltage Stereo

When building a new project, common wisdom suggests to avoid “reinventing the wheel”, or doing something simple from scratch that’s easily available already. However, if you can build a high-voltage wheel, so to speak, it might be fun just to see what happens. [Dan] decided to reinvent not the wheel, but the speaker, and instead of any conventional build he decided to make one with parts from a microwave and over 6,000 volts.

The circuit he constructed works essentially like a Tesla coil with a modulated audio signal as an input. The build uses the high voltage transformer from the microwave too, which steps the 240 V input up to around 6 kV. To modulate that kind of voltage, [Dan] sends the audio signal through a GU81M vacuum tube with the support of a fleet of high voltage capacitors. The antenna connected to the magnetron does tend to catch on fire somewhere in the middle of each song, so it’s not the safest device around even if the high voltage can be handled properly, but it does work better than expected as a speaker.

If you want a high-voltage speaker that (probably) won’t burn your house down, though, it might be best to stick to a typical Tesla coil. No promises though, since working with high voltages typically doesn’t come with safety guarantees.

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3D Printer Warning: Heating Plastic To High Temps Is Not Healthy

If you’ve ever tried to cut a piece of acrylic with a tool designed to cut wood or metal, you know that the plastic doesn’t cut in the same way that either of the other materials would. It melts at the cutting location, often gumming up the tool but always releasing a terrible smell that will encourage anyone who has tried this to get the proper plastic cutting tools instead of taking shortcuts. Other tools that heat up plastic also have this problem, as Gizmodo reported recently, and it turns out that the plastic particles aren’t just smelly, they’re toxic.

The report released recently in Aerosol Science and Technology (first part and second part) focuses on 3D printers which heat plastic of some form or other in order to make it malleable and form to the specifications of the print. Similar to cutting plastic with the wrong tool, this releases vaporized plastic particles into the air which are incredibly small and can cause health issues when inhaled. They are too small to be seen, and can enter the bloodstream through the lungs. The study found 200 different compounds that were emitted by the printers, some of which are known to be harmful, including several carcinogens. The worst of the emissions seem to be released when the prints are first initiated, but they are continuously released throuhgout the print session as well.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that aerosolized plastic is harmful to breathe, but the sheer magnitude of particles detected in this study is worth taking note of. If you don’t already, it might be good to run your 3D printer in the garage or at least in a room that isn’t used as living space. If that’s not possible, you might want to look at other options to keep your work area safe.

Thanks to [Michael] for the tip!

The Engineering Case For Fusing Your LED Strips

Modern LED strips are magical things. The WS2812 has allowed the quick and easy creation of addressable RGB installations, revolutionizing the science of cool glowy things. However, this accessibility means that it’s easy to get in over your head and make some simple mistakes that could end catastrophically. [Thomas] is here to help, outlining a common mistake made when building with LED strips that is really rather dangerous.

The problem is the combination of hardware typically used to run these LED strings. They’re quite bright and draw significant amounts of power, each pixel drawing up to 60 mA at full-white. In a string of just 10 pixels, the strip is already drawing 600 mA. For this reason, it’s common for people to choose quite hefty power supplies that can readily deliver several amps to run these installations.

It’s here that the problem starts. Typically, wires used to hook up the LED strips are quite thin and the flex strips themselves have a significant resistance, too. This means it’s possible to short circuit an LED strip without actually tripping the overcurrent protection on something like an ATX power supply, which may be fused at well over 10 amps. With the resistance of the wires and strip acting as a current limiter, the strip can overheat to the point of catching fire while the power supply happily continues to pump in the juice. In a home workshop under careful supervision, this may be a manageable risk. In an unattended installation, things could be far worse.

Thankfully, the solution is simple. By installing an appropriately rated fuse for the number of LEDs in the circuit, the installation becomes safer, as the fuse will burn out under a short circuit condition even if the power supply is happy to supply the current. With the example of 10 LEDs drawing 600 mA, a 1 amp fuse would do just fine to protect the circuit in the event of an accidental short.

It’s a great explanation of a common yet dangerous problem, and [Thomas] backs it up by using a thermal camera to illustrate just how hot things can get in mere seconds. Armed with this knowledge, you can now safely play with LEDs instead of fire. But now that you’re feeling confident, why not check out these eyeball-searing 3 watt addressable LEDs?

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How To Make A Human Crossbow

Say you have a team of French engineers, a lake in the summer, a wizened old machinist, and some gigantic bungee cords. What would you build? The answer is clear, a human-launching crossbow. (Video, and making-of embedded below.)

the-human-crossbow-how-we-made-it-kim41mdcizymp4-shot0001You can start out watching the promo video because it looks like a lot of fun, but don’t leave without watching the engineering video. What looks like a redneck contraption turns out to be painstakingly built, and probably not entirely a death trap. The [Rad Cow] team even went so far as to purchase metal cart wheels.

Everyone else on the Intertubes would tell you not to do this at home. We say go for it. That is, draw up reasonable plans, work with an obviously competent machinist, and make something silly. It’s not going to be more dangerous than the stuff that [Furze] pulls off.

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What Can Happen When You Do Try This At Home

In somewhat of a countdown format, [John McMaster] looked back over the last few years of projects and documented the incidents he’s suffered (and their causes) in the course of doing cool stuff.

[John] starts us off easy — mis-wiring and consequently blowing up a 400V power supply. He concludes “double-check wiring, especially with high power systems”. Other tips and hazards involve situations in which we seldom find ourselves: “always check CCTV” before entering the experiment chamber of a cyclotron to prevent getting irradiated. Sounds like good advice.

hotplate[John] also does a lot of IC decapping, which can involve both heat and nasty acids. His advice includes being ready for large spills with lots of baking soda on hand, and he points out the need to be much more careful with large batches of acid than with the usual smaller ones. Don’t store acid in unfamiliar bottles — all plastics aren’t created equal — and don’t store any of it in your bedroom.

The incidents are listed from least to most horrible, and second place goes to what was probably a dilute Hydrofluoric acid splash. Keyword: necrosis. First place is a DIY Hydrochloric acid fabrication that involves, naturally, combining pure hydrogen and chlorine gas. What could possibly go wrong?

Anyway, if you’re going to do “this” at home, and we know a bunch of you are: be careful, be protected, and be prepared.

Thanks [J. Peterson] for the tip!

Hacking Diabetes Meters, Towards An Artificial Pancreas

We’ve covered a number of diabetes-related hacks in the past, but this project sets its goals especially high. [Tim] has diabetes and needs to monitor his blood glucose levels and administer insulin accordingly. As a first step, he and a community of other diabetics have been working on Android apps to log the data when combined with a self-made Bluetooth re-transmitter.

But [Tim] is taking his project farther than previous projects we’ve seen and aiming at eventually driving an insulin pump directly from the app. (Although he’s not there yet, and user input is still required.) To that end, he’s looking into the protocols that control the dosage pumps.

We just read about [Tim] in this article in the Guardian which covers the diabetic-hacker movement from a medical perspective — the author currently runs a healthcare innovation institute and is a former British health minister, so he’s not a noob. One passage made us pause a little bit. [Tim] speaks the usual praises of tech democratization through open source and laments “If you try to commercialize [your products], you run up against all sorts of regulatory barriers.” To which the author responds, “This should ring alarm bells. Regulatory barriers are there for a reason.”

We love health hacking, and we’re sure that if we had a medical condition that could be helped by constant monitoring, that we’d absolutely want at least local smart-phone logging of the relevant data. But how far is too far? We just ran an article on the Therac-25 case study in which subtle software race conditions ended up directly killing people. We’d maybe hesitate a bit before we automated the insulin pump, but perhaps we’re just chicken.

The solution suggested by [Lord Ara Darzi] in the Guardian piece is to form collaborations between patients motivated by the DIY spirit, and the engineers (software and hardware) who would bring their expertise, and presumably a modicum of additional safety margin, to the table. We like that a lot. Why don’t we see more of that?