Micro-Sized Flex For Commercial Quality Bodging

We love watching the creativity unleashed by the democratization of once-exotic technologies. The casualness by which one can order a cheap, small run of PCBs has unlocked a flood of fine pitch components and projects which look commercial quality even with a total build volume of one. Now the once mythical flex PCB has been falling from it’s stratospheric pricing and with OSHPark’s offering it feels like we’re at the inflection point. [qwertymodo] leveraged this by creating a beautifully twisted flex to add link port support to the Super Game Boy

In the mid-90’s Nintendo released the Super Game Boy, a cartridge for the SNES which allowed you to play Game Boy games on the big screen. Each cartridge was in fact an entire Game Boy with the appropriate hardware to present it in a way the host console could interface with, but missing some of the hardware a standalone Game Boy would include like a link port to connect it to another system. This mod fixes this limitation by bridging the correct pins out from the CPU to a breakout board which includes the link port connector. For general background on what’s going on here, check out [Brian]’s article from April describing a different mod [qwertymodo] executed to the same system.

What’s fascinating is how elegant the mod is. Using a a flex here to create a completely custom, strangely shaped, one-of-a-kind adapter for this random IC, in low volume is an awesome example of the use of advanced manufacturing techniques to take our hacks to the next level. It reminds us a little of the method [Scotty] used to add the headphone jack to his iPhone 7 back in 2017. At the time that seemed like a technology only available to hackers who could speak a little Mandarin and lived in Shenzhen.

Detailed information on this hack is a little spread out. There is slightly more info in these tweets, and if you have a Super Game Boy crying out for a link port the adapter flexes are sometimes available here. Look beyond the break to see what the mod originally looked like sans-flex.

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These Projects Bent Over Backward To Win The Flexible PCB Contest

Back in March, the call went out: take your wiggliest, floppiest, most dimensionally compliant idea, and show us how it would be better if only you could design it around a flexible PCB. We weren’t even looking for a prototype; all we needed was an idea with perhaps a sketch, even one jotted on the legendary envelope or cocktail napkin.

When we remove constraints like that, it’s interesting to see how people respond. We have to say that the breadth of applications for flex PCBs and the creativity shown in designing them into projects was incredible. We saw everything from circuit sculpture to wearables. Some were strictly utilitarian and others were far more creative. In the end we got 70 entries, and with 60 prizes to be awarded, the odds were ever in your favor.

Now that the entries have been evaluated and the winners decided, it’s time to look over the ways you came up with to put a flexible PCB to work. Normally we list all the winners in our contest wrap-ups, but with so many winners we can’t feature everyone. We’ll just call out a few of the real standout projects here, but you really should check the list of winning projects to see the full range of what this call for flexibility brought out in our community.

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Living Hinges At The Next Level

First of all, a living hinge is not a biological entity nor does it move on its own. Think of the top of a Tic Tac container where the lid and the cover are a single piece, and the thin plastic holding them together flexes to allow you to reach the candies disguised as mints. [Xiaoyu “Rayne” Zheng] at Virginia Tech designed a method of multimaterial programmable additive manufacturing which is fancy-ese for printing with more than one type of material.

The process works under the premise of printing a 3D latticework, similar to the “FILL” function of a consumer printer. Each segment of material is determined by the software and mixed on the spot by the printer and cured before moving onto the next segment. Like building a bridge one beam at a time, if that bridge were meant for tardigrades and many beams were fabricated each minute. Mixing up each segment as needed means that a different recipe results in a different rigidity, so it is possible to make a robotic leg with stiff “bones” and flexible “joints.”

We love printing in different materials, even if it is only one medium at a time. Printing in metal is useful and could be consumer level soon, but you can print in chocolate right now.

Via Phys.org. Thank you again for the tip, [Qes].

FLEX Pager Protocol In Depth

We love pager hacks. One of our earliest head-slappers was completely reverse-engineering a restaurant pager’s protocol, only to find out that it was industry-standard POCSAG. Doh!

[Corn] apparently scratches the same itch, but in the Netherlands where the FLEX protocol is more common. In addition to walking us through all of the details of the FLEX system, he bought a FLEX pager, gutted it, and soldered on an ATMega328 board and an ESP8266. The former does the FLEX decoding, and the latter posts whatever it hears on his local network.

These days, we’re sure that you could do the same thing with a Raspberry Pi and SDR, but we love the old-school approach of buying a pager and tapping into its signals. And it makes a better stand-alone device with a lot lower power budget. If you find yourself in possession of some old POCSAG pagers, you should check out [Corn]’s previous work: an OpenWRT router that sends pages.

Designing Flat Flexible PCBs

You can find flex PCBs in just about every single piece of consumer electronics. These traces of copper laminated in sheets of Kapton are everywhere, and designing these cables, let alone manufacturing them, is a dark art for the garage electronics wizard. Having these flat flex cables and PCBs manufactured still requires some Google-fu or a contact at a fab house, but at least now designing these cables is a solved problem.

[Oli] needed a way to connect two PCBs together over a moving part. Usually this means some sort of connector or cable, but he’s developed an even better solution – flexible PCB connections. To generate these copper traces sandwiched between a few layers of Kapton, [Oli] wrote a Python script to take a set of parameters, and produces an design for Eagle that includes all the relevant bits.

Of course, with a flexible PCB layout, the question of how to get these manufactured comes up. we’ve seen a few creative people make flexible PCBs with a 3D printer and there’s been more than one Hackaday Prize project using these flex PCBs. [Oli] says any manufacturer of flexible circuits should be able to reproduce everything generated from his script without much thinking at all. All we need now is for OSH Park to invent purple Kapton.

You can grab [Oli]’s script on his GitHub.

Pulito: The LEGO Roomba

When [Dave] installed hardwood flooring in his house, he needed a solution to help automate the monotonous task of routine sweeping. Rather than go out and buy one of the many existing automated sweep robots out there, he decided to use his passion for LEGO Robotics to design and build a NXT based Swifferbot he calls Pulito. His version implements all the important features such as object avoidance using bump sensors, an IR beacon used to automatically return to the charging station, and a photoresistor to monitor the charge of the battery. [Dave] also includes a nifty LEGO sensor multiplexor, allowing him to save on I/O ports, which is almost worth sharing by itself.

Videos after the break.

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Pinch Control2: Laser Drawing

[atduskgreg] posted this cool looking rig.  That’s a batting glove, chopped up and equipped with a flex sensor and a pressure sensor. The end goal was to create a new method of drawing. You can see he’s interfaced with the servos decently. It seems fairly responsive and intuitive. Looking at his results though, make us wonder if all that effort was worth it. We would probably apply this rig to some kind of animatronics.