A flip-top foundry for metal casting

Flip-Top Foundry Helps Manage The Danger Of Metal Casting

Melting aluminum is actually pretty easy to do, which is why it’s such a popular metal for beginners at metal casting. Building a foundry that can melt aluminum safely is another matter entirely, and one that benefits from some of the thoughtful touches that [Andy] built into his new propane-powered furnace.

The concern for safety is not at all undue, for while aluminum melts at a temperature that’s reasonable for the home shop, it’s still a liquid metal that will find a way to hurt you if you give it half a chance. [Andy]’s design minimizes this risk primarily through the hands-off design of its lid. While most furnaces have a lid that requires the user to put his or her hands close to the raging inferno inside, or that dangerously changes the center of mass of the whole thing as it opens, this one has a fantastic pedal-operated lid that both lifts and twists. Leaving both hands free to handle tongs is a nice benefit of the design, too.

The furnace follows a lot of the design cues we’ve seen before, starting as it does with an empty party balloon helium tank. The lining is a hydrid of ceramic blanket material and refractory cement; another nice safety feature is the drain channel cast into the floor of the furnace in case of a cracked crucible. The furnace is also quite large, at least compared to [Andy]’s previous DIY unit, and has a sturdy base that aids stability — another plus in the safety column.

Every time we see a new furnace design, we get the itch to start getting into metal casting. And with the barrier to entry as low as a KFC bucket or an old fire extinguisher, why not give it a try? Although it certainly pays to know what can go wrong before diving in.

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Hackaday Links: May 16, 2021

With the successful arrival of China’s first Mars lander and rover this week, and the relatively recent addition of NASA’s Perseverance rover and its little helicopter sidekick Ingenuity, Mars has collected a lot of new hardware lately. But while the new kids on the block are getting all the attention, spare a thought for the reliable old warhorse which has been plying Gale Crater for the better part of a decade now — Curiosity. NASA has been driving the compact-car-sized rover around Mars for a long time now, long enough to rack up some pretty severe damage to its six highly engineered wheels, thanks to the brutal Martian rocks. But if you think Curiosity will get sidelined as its wheels degrade, think again — the rover’s operators have a plan to continue surface operations that includes ripping off its own wheels if necessary. It’s a complex operation that would require positioning the wheel over a suitable rock and twisting with the steering motor to peel off the outer section of the wheel, leaving a rim to drive around on. JPL has already practiced it, but they predict it won’t be necessary until 2034 or so. Now that’s thinking ahead.

With all the upheaval caused by the ongoing and worsening semiconductor shortage, it might seem natural to expect that manufacturers are responding to market forces by building new fabs to ramp up production. And while there seems to be at least some movement in that direction, we stumbled across an article that seems to give the lie to the thought that we can build our way out of the crisis. It’s a sobering assessment, to say the least; the essence of the argument is that 20 years ago or so, foundries thought that everyone would switch to the new 300-mm wafers, leaving manufacturing based on 200-mm silicon wafers behind. But the opposite happened, and demand for chips coming from the older 200-mm wafers, including a lot of the chips used in cars and trucks, skyrocketed. So more fabs were built for the 200-mm wafers, leaving relatively fewer fabs capable of building the chips that the current generation of phones, IoT appliances, and 5G gear demand. Add to all that the fact that it takes a long time and a lot of money to build new fabs, and you’ve got the makings of a crisis that won’t be solved anytime soon.

From not enough components to too many: the Adafruit blog has a short item about XScomponent, an online marketplace for listing your excess inventory of electronic components for sale. If you perhaps ordered a reel of caps when you only needed a dozen, or if the project you thought was a done deal got canceled after all the parts were ordered, this might be just the thing for you. Most items offered appear to have a large minimum quantity requirement, so it’s probably not going to be a place to pick up a few odd parts to finish a build, but it’s still an interesting look at where the market is heading.

Speaking of learning from the marketplace, if you’re curious about what brands and models of hard drives hold up best in the long run, you could do worse than to look over real-world results from a known torturer of hard drives. Cloud storage concern Backblaze has published their analysis of the reliability of the over 175,000 drives they have installed in their data centers, and there’s a ton of data to pick through. The overall reliability of these drives, which are thrashing about almost endlessly, is pretty impressive: the annualized failure rate of the whole fleet is only 0.85%. They’ve also got an interesting comparison of HDDs and SSDs; Backblaze only uses solid-state disks for boot drives and for logging and such, so they don’t get quite the same level of thrash as drives containing customer data. But the annualized failure rate of boot SDDs is much lower than that of HDDs used in the same role. They slice and dice their data in a lot of fun and revealing ways, including by specific brand and model of drive, so check it out if you’re looking to buy soon.

And finally, you know that throbbing feeling you get in your head when you’re having one of those days? Well, it turns out that whether you can feel it or not, you’re having one of those days every day. Using a new technique called “3D Amplified Magnetic Resonance Imaging”, or 3D aMRI, researchers have made cool new videos that show the brain pulsating in time to the blood flowing through it. The motion is exaggerated by the imaging process, which is good because it sure looks like the brain swells enough with each pulse to crack your skull open, a feeling which every migraine sufferer can relate to. This reminds us a bit of those techniques that use special algorithms to detects a person’s heartbeat from a video by looking for the slight but periodic skin changes that occurs as blood rushes into the capillaries. It’s also interesting that when we spied this item, we were sitting with crossed legs, watching our upper leg bounce slightly in time with our pulse.

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Water And Molten Aluminium Is A Dangerous Combination

It is not uncommon for a Hackaday writer to trawl the comments section of a given article, looking for insights or to learn something new. Often, those with experience in various fields will share kernels of knowledge or raise questions on a particular topic. Recently, I happened to be glazing over an article on aluminium casting with interest, given my own experience in the field. One comment in particular caught my eye.

 And no, the water won’t cause a steam explosion. There’s a guy on youtube (myfordlover, I think) who disproves that myth with molten iron, pouring the iron into water, pouring water into a ladle of molten iron and so on. We’ll be happy to do a video demonstrating this with aluminum if so desired.

Having worked for some time in an aluminium die casting plant, I sincerely hope [John] did not attempt this feat. While there are a number of YouTube videos showing that this can be done without calamity, there are many showing the exact opposite. Mixing molten aluminium and water often ends very poorly, causing serious injury or even fatalities in the workplace. Let’s dive deeper to see why that is.

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SkyWater PDK Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, September 16 at noon Pacific for the CNC on the SkyWater PDK Hack Chat with Tim “mithro” Ansell, Mohamed Kassem, and Michael Gielda!

We’ve seen incredible strides made in the last decade or so towards democratizing manufacturing. Things that it once took huge, vertically integrated industries with immense factories at their disposal are now commonly done on desktop CNC machines and 3D printers. Open-source software has harnessed the brainpower of millions of developers into tools that rival what industry uses, and oftentimes exceeds them. Using these tools and combining them with things like on-demand PCB production and contract assembly services, and you can easily turn yourself into a legit manufacturer.

This model of pushing manufacturing closer to the Regular Joe and Josephine only goes so far, though. Your designs have pretty much been restricted to chips made by one or the other big manufacturers, which means pretty much anyone else could come up with the same thing. That’s all changing now thanks to SkyWater PDK, the first manufacturable, open-source process-design kit. With the tools in the PDK, anyone can design a chip for the SkyWater foundry’s 130-nm process.  And the best part? It’s free — as in beer. That’s right, you can get an open-source chip built for nothing during chip manufacturing runs that start as early as this November and go through 2021.

We’re sure this news will stir a bunch of questions, so Tim Ansell, a software engineer at Google who goes by the handle “mithro” will drop by the Hack Chat to discuss the particulars. He’ll be joined by Mohamed Kassem, CTO and co-founder of efabless.com, and Michael Gielda, VP of Business Development at Antmicro. Together they’ll field your questions about this exciting development, and they’ll walk us through just what it takes to turn your vision into silicon.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, September 16 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones baffle you as much as us, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

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Creating A Custom ASIC With The First Open Source PDK

A process design kit (PDK) is a by now fairly standard part of any transformation of a new chip design into silicon. A PDK describes how a design maps to a foundry’s tools, which itself are described by a DRM, or design rule manual. The FOSSi foundation now reports on a new, open PDK project launched by Google and SkyWater Technology. Although the OpenPDK project has been around for a while, it is a closed and highly proprietary system, aimed at manufacturers and foundries.

The SkyWater Open Source PDK on Github is listed as a collaboration between Google and SkyWater Technology Foundry  to provide a fully open source PDK and related sources. This so that one can create manufacturable designs at the SkyWater foundry, that target the 130 nm node. Open tools here should mean a far lower cost of entry than is usually the case.

Although a quite old process node at this point (~19 years), it should nevertheless still be quite useful for a range of applications, especially those that merge digital and analog circuitry. SkyWater lists their SKY130 node technology stack as:

  • Support for internal 1.8V with 5.0V I/Os (operable at 2.5V)
  • 1 level of local interconnect
  • 5 levels of metal
  • Inductor-capable
  • High sheet rho poly resistor
  • Optional MiM capacitors
  • Includes SONOS shrunken cell
  • Supports 10V regulated supply
  • HV extended-drain NMOS and PMOS

It should be noted that use of this open source PDK is deemed experimental at this point in time, and should not be used for any commercial or otherwise sensitive applications.

Header image: Peellden/ CC BY-SA 3.0

Retrotechtacular: The Art Of The Foundry

Mention the term “heavy industry” and the first thing to come to mind might well be the metal foundry. With immense machines and cauldrons of molten metal being shuttled about by crane and rail, the image of the foundry is like a scene from Dante’s Inferno, with fumes filling a vast impersonal factory, and sparks flying through the air. It looks like a dangerous place, as much to the soul as to the body, as workers file in each day to suffer mindlessly at the hearths and ladles, consumed in dirty, exhausting work even as it consumes them.

Things are not always as they appear, of course. While there’s no doubting the risks associated with working in a foundry such as the sprawling Renfrew works of Babcock and Wilcox Ltd. in the middle of the previous century, as the video below shows the work there was anything but mindless, and the products churned out by the millions from this factory and places like it throughout the world were critical to today’s technology.

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Fail Of The Week: When Good Foundries Go Bad

Like many of us, [Tony] was entranced by the idea of casting metal, and set about building the tools he’d need to melt aluminum for lost-PLA casting. Little did he know that he was about to exceed the limits of his system and melt a hole in his patio.

[Tony]’s tale of woe begins innocently enough, and where it usually begins for wannabe metal casters: with [The King of Random]’s homemade foundry-in-a-bucket. It’s just a steel pail with a homebrew refractory lining poured in place, with a hole near the bottom to act as a nozzle for forced air, or tuyère. [Tony]’s build followed the plans pretty faithfully, but lacking the spent fire extinguisher [The King] used for a crucible in the original build, he improvised and used the bottom of an old propane cylinder. A test firing with barbecue charcoal sort of worked, but it was clear that more heat was needed. So [Tony] got hold of some fine Welsh anthracite coal, which is where the fun began. With the extra heat, the foundry became a mini-blast furnace that melted the thin steel crucible, dumping the molten aluminum into the raging coal fire. The video below shows the near catastrophe, and we hope that once [Tony] changed his pants, he hustled off to buy a cheap graphite or ceramic crucible for the next firing.

All kidding aside, this is a vivid reminder of the stakes when something unexpected (or entirely predictable) goes wrong, and the need to be prepared to deal with it. A bucket of dry sand to smother a fire might be a good idea, and protective clothing is a must. And it pays to manage your work area to minimize potential collateral damage, too — we doubt that patio will ever be the same again.

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