3D Printer Repurposed For Light-Duty Lab Automation Tasks

Laboratory automation equipment is expensive stuff, to such a degree that small labs are often priced out of the market. That’s a shame, because there are a lot of tedious manual tasks that even modest labs would benefit from automating. Oh well — that’s what grad students are for.

But it actually isn’t that hard to bring a little automation to the lab, if you follow the lead of [Marco], [Chinna], and [Vittorio] and turn a 3D printer into a simple lab robot. That’s what HistoEnder is — a bog-standard Creality Ender 3 with a couple of special modifications that turn it into a tool for automating histology slide preparation. Histology is the study of the anatomy of tissues and uses various fixing and staining techniques to make microscopic features visible. In practice, this means moving baskets of glass slides back and forth between jars of different solutions, a job that’s perfect for a simple Cartesian gantry lab robot with a small work envelope and light loads.

None of the printer modifications are permanent; the 3D printed accessories — a hook for the slide basket and a carrier for standard histology staining jars — can quickly come off the printer to return it to its regular duty. All it takes to run HistoEnder is a bit of custom G-code and some careful alignment of the jar carrier on the print bed. We suppose the bed heater could even be used to warm up the fixing and staining solutions. There’s a brief video of HistoEnder in action embedded in the tweet below.

This isn’t the first time this team has repurposed technology for the lab — remember the fitness band that was turned into an optical densitometer?

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Jigsaw Puzzles Are Defeated

To some folx, puzzles are the ultimate single-player game, but to others, they are like getting a single Tootsie Roll on Halloween. [Shane] of Stuff Made Here must fall into the latter category because he spent the equivalent of 18 work-weeks to make a robot that solves them automatically. Shots have been fired in the war on puzzles.

The goal of this robot is to beat a hybrid idea of two devilish puzzles. The first is all-white which could be solved by taking a piece at random and then checking its compatibility with every unsolved piece. The second is a 5000-piece monster painted white. There is a Moby Dick theme here. Picking up pieces like a human with fingers is out of the question, but pick-and-place machines solved this long ago, and we learn a cool lesson about how shop-air can create negative pressure. Suction. We wonder if anyone ever repurposed canned air to create a vacuum cleaner.

The meat of this video is overcoming hurdles, like a rhomboidal gantry table, helping machine vision see puzzle pieces accurately, and solving a small puzzle. [Shane] explains the solutions with the ear of someone with a technical background but at a high enough level that anyone can learn something. All the moving parts are in place, but the processing power to decode the puzzle is orders of magnitude higher than consumer machines, so that will wait for part two.

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No-Laser CNC Engraver Is Something New Under The Sun

Hooking up a laser to a CNC gantry isn’t exactly an Earth-shattering innovation, but it does make for a useful tool. Even a cheap diode laser mounted to an old 3D printer can do engraving, marking, or even light-duty cutting. But what about a laser engraver without the laser? Can that be of any use?

Apparently, the answer is yes, if you can harness the power of the sun. That’s what [Lucas] did with his solar-tracking CNC engraver, the build of which is shown in the video below. The idea is pretty simple — mount a decent-sized magnifying lens where the laser optics would normally go on a laser engraver, and point the thing at the sun. But as usual, the devil is in the details. The sun has a nasty habit of moving across the sky during the day, or at least appearing to, so [Lucas] has to add a couple of extra degrees of freedom to a regular X-Y CNC rig to track the sun. His tracking sensor is simplicity itself — four CdS photocells arranged with a pair of perpendicular shades, and an Arduino to drive the gimbals in the correct direction to keep all four sensors equally illuminated. He had some initial problems getting the jerkiness out of the control loop, but the tracker eventually kept the whole thing pointing right at the Sun.

So how does it work? Not bad, actually — [Lucas] managed to burn some pretty detailed designs into a piece of wood using just the sun. He mentions adding a shutter to douse the cutting beam to allow raster patterns, but even better might be a servo-controlled iris diaphragm to modulate beam intensity and control for varying sun conditions. He might also check out this solar engraver we covered previously for some more ideas, too.

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Modified 3D-Printer Solders Through-Hole Components

Surface-mount technology has been a fantastic force multiplier for electronics in general and for hobbyists in particular. But sometimes you’ve got no choice but to use through-hole components, meaning that even if you can take advantage of SMDs for most of the design, you still might need to spend a little time with soldering iron in hand. Or not, if you’ve got a spare 3D printer lying around.

All we’ve got here is a fairly brief video from [hydrosys4], so there aren’t a lot of build details. But it’s pretty clear what’s going on here. Starting with what looks like a Longer LK4 printer, [hydrosys4] added a bracket to hold a soldering iron, and a guide for solder wire. The solder is handled by a more-or-less standard extruder, which feeds it into the joint once it’s heated by the iron. The secret sauce here is probably the fixturing, with 3D-printed jigs that hold the through-hole connectors in a pins-up orientation on the bed of the printer. With the PCB sitting on top of the connectors, it’s just a matter of teaching the X-Y-Z position of each joint, applying heat, and advancing the solder with the extruder.

The video below shows it in action at high speed; we slowed it down to 25% to get an idea of how it is in reality, and while it might not be fast, it’s precise and it doesn’t get tired. It may not have much application for one-off boards, but if you’re manufacturing small PCB runs, it’s a genius solution. We’ve seen similar solder bots before, but hats off to [hydrosys4] for keeping this one simple.

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Vertical Mill Completes Scrapyard Lathe Build

One thing’s for sure: after seeing [Roland Van Roy] build a vertical mill from industrial scrap, we’ve got to find a better quality industrial scrapyard to hang around.

The story of this build started, as many good shop stories do, at the lathe, which in this case was also a scrapyard build that we somehow managed to miss when it first posted. This lathe is decidedly different from the common “Gingery method” we’ve seen a few times, which relies on aluminum castings. Instead, [Roland] built his machine from plate stock, linear slides, and various cast-off bits of industrial machines.

To make his lathe yet more useful, [Roland] undertook this build, which consists of a gantry mounted over the bed of the lathe. The carriage translates left and right along the bed while the spindle, whose axis lines up perfectly with the center axis of the lathe, moves up and down. [Roland] added a platform and a clever vise to the lathe carriage; the lathe tool post and the tailstock are removed to make room for these mods, but can be added back quickly when needed. Digital calipers stand in for digital read-outs (DROs), with custom software running on a Picaxe and a homebrew controller taking care of spindle speed control.

[Roland] reports that the machine, weighing in at about 100 kg, exhibits a fair amount of vibration, which limits him to lighter cuts and softer materials. But it’s still an impressive build, and what really grabbed us was the wealth of tips and tricks we picked up. [Roland] used a ton of interesting methods to make sure everything stayed neat and square, such as the special jig he built for drilling holes in the T-slot extrusions to the use of cyanoacrylate glue for temporary fixturing.

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Animatronic Saturn V Launch Tower Sends Lego Model To The Moon

When it comes to their more adult-oriented models, Lego really knocked it out of the park with their Saturn V rocket model. Within the constraints of the universe of Lego parts, the one-meter-tall model is incredibly detailed, and thousands of space fans eagerly snapped up the kit when it came out.

But a rocket without a launchpad is just a little sad, which is why [Mark Howe] came up with this animatronic Saturn V launch pad and gantry for his rocket model. The level of detail in the launchpad complements the features of the Saturn V model perfectly, and highlights just what it took to service the crew and the rocket once it was rolled out to the pad. As you can imagine, extensive use of 3D-printed parts was the key to getting the look just right, and to making parts that actually move.

When it’s time for a launch, the sway control arm and hammerhead crane swing out of the way under servo control as the Arduino embedded in the base plays authentic countdown audio. The crew catwalk swings away, the engines light, and the service arms swing back. Then for the pièce de résistance, the Saturn V begins rising slowly from the pad on five columns of flame. [Mark] uses a trio of steppers driving linear actuators to lift the model; the flame effect is cleverly provided by strings of WS2812s inside five clear plastic tubes. We have to say it took some guts to put the precious 1,969-piece model on a lift like that, but the effect was well worth the risk.

This project has a great look and is obviously a labor of love, and a great homage to the Apollo program’s many successes. We’ve got a ton of other Apollo-era hacks on our pages, including a replica DSKY, a rejuvenated AGC, and a look behind the big boards of mission control.

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No Need For Speed With This Arduino-Based Inkjet Printer

When it comes to computers, it seems like the only thing that matters is speed. The more the better, in general, and the same applies to peripherals. We want the fastest network adapters, the fastest video card, and the fastest printer. So why in the world would anyone intentionally build a really slow inkjet printer? For art, of course.

At least that’s the story [HomoFaciens] tells us in the video below. His efforts are in support of a friend’s art project, which seeks to print slowly but continuously on a roll of paper. [HomoFaciens]’s printer is based on an H-P C6602 inkjet cartridge, one of those high-priced consumables that make buying a new printer more attractive than replacing them once depleted. After figuring out how to drive the printhead — 5 to 6 μs pulses of 18 volts through a ULN2803 Darlington array driver chip seemed to do the trick — he mounted everything to the gantry of an old 3D printer. It’s interesting to watch the images slowly being built up — something that printers usually hide from prying eyes — and to see how the DPI count of the printer can be increased by interlacing each printed line.

Near the end of the video, we get a glimpse of his “tattoo gun printer”, which reminded us of all the other cool things he’s done over the years. From a CNC machine made from paperclips and cardboard to an encoder made from a wheel of resistors, [HomoFaciens] has some interesting designs that you really should check out.

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