2017: As The Hardware World Turns

The year is almost over, and now it’s time to look back on the last fifty-odd weeks. What happened in this year in hacking? 2017 will go down as the beginning of another AI renaissance, although we’re not going to call it that; this year was all about neural nets and machine learning and advancements resulting from the development of self-driving cars and very beefy GPUs. Not since the 80s have we seen more work in ‘AI’ fields. What will it amount to this time around the hype cycle? Find out in a few years.

Biohacking was big this year, and not just because people are installing RFID tags and magnets in their hands. CRISPR is allowing for Star Trek-style genome hacking, and this year saw in vivo experiments to enable and disable individual genes in rat models. Eventually, someone is going to get a Nobel for CRISPR.

We’re going to Mars, and soon — very soon — a SpaceX Falcon Heavy is going to either lob a Tesla Roadster into solar orbit or the Atlantic Ocean. We learned about the BFR that will take dozens of people to Mars in a single launch. Boeing and Lockheed think they can compete with the Elon Musk PR powerhouse. The Bigelow Aerospace inflatable module passed its in-flight test on the ISS, giving the space station a new storage closet. Even in space, amazing stuff is happening this year.

Is that it? Not by a long shot. This year has seen some of the coolest hacks we’ve ever seen, and some of the dumbest security breaches ever. Hackaday is doing awesome. What else did 2017 have? Read on to find out.

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If 3D Printer, Then Custom Aluminum Extrusion Brackets

Aluminum extrusions are a boon for mechanical assemblies, but they require a stock of brackets and other hardware to be kept on hand. [mightynozzle] has decided to make things a little easier for prototyping and low-stress assemblies by creating a collection of 3D printable brackets for aluminum extrusions. 3D printing your own bracket hardware means faster prototyping, and if the assemblies don’t need the extra strength and rigidity of metal brackets you can just stick with the 3D printed versions.

The files are on Thingiverse, and include STL files of common brackets as well as an OpenSCAD script for customizing. Not familiar with OpenSCAD? No problem, we have a quick primer with examples.

This project showcases two things well. The first is that while brackets are not particularly expensive or hard to obtain, it can still be worth 3D printing them to reduce the overall amount of hardware one needs to keep on hand to make prototyping faster. The other is that 3D printing can shine when it comes to the creation of things like brackets: a few dimes’ worth of plastic can be turned into precise yet geometrically simple objects that would be a pain to make by other means. It certainly beats sitting on one’s hands waiting for parts to be delivered.

My Kingdom for a Capacitor

While working on a project recently, I required a capacitor of around 1000 μF and went rummaging through my collection of parts. No luck there. At that point I’d usually go through my collection of junk electronics and computer motherboards, but I had recently gone through and tossed the stuff that had been laying around for as long as I could remember. No matter, I thought. I’ll just head over to RadioShack and…

Now, I have been accused of many things over the years, but “deep” is certainly not one of them. Yet, at this moment I had what could only be described as an existential crisis. There is no RadioShack, not in my state at least. I don’t live in an area that’s blessed with a maker “scene”, so no independent shop or even a hackerspace within reasonable driving distance of me either. I could order it online of course, but everyone’s trying to sell them in bulk and shipping will take a few days at least. A few days? Who knows where my interests will be in a few days. How can I get anything done under these conditions?

Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I got in the car and took a ride to the only place I knew where I could by electronic components for cheap: Goodwill. Continue reading “My Kingdom for a Capacitor”

Opening the Door to Functional Prints

If you are going to do something as a joke, there is nothing to say that you can’t do a nice job of it. If you’re like [Michael], a whimsical statement like “Wouldn’t it be funny to put Gründerzeit-style doors on the server cabinet?” might lead down a slippery slope. True to his word, [Michael] not only installed the promised doors, but he did a darn nice job of it.

Buying new doors was the easy part because the door frame and hinges were not standardized back then, so there was nothing on the server cabinet to his mount doors. He walks us through all the steps but the most interesting point was the 3D printed door hinges which [Michael] modeled himself and printed in steel. His new hinges feature his personal flair, with some Voronoi patterning while matching the shape of the originals. We love seeing 3D printed parts used as functional hardware, and hinges are certainly a piece of hardware meant to hold up under pressure.

This is not the first 3D printed door hardware we’ve seen. Check out this innovative latch printed as a single piece and here’s the skinny on making flexible objects yourself.

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An Old Video Game Controller on Even Older Computer

For those of us not old enough to remember, and also probably living in the States, there was a relatively obscure computer built by Microsoft in the early 80s that had the strong Commodore/Atari vibe of computers that were produced before PCs took over. It was known as the MSX and only saw limited release in the US, although was popular in Japan and elsewhere. If you happen to have one of these and you’d like to play some video games on it, though, there’s now a driver (of sorts) for SNES controllers.

While the usefulness of this hack for others may not help too many people, the simplicity of the project is elegant for such “ancient” technology. The project takes advantage of some quirks in BASIC for reading a touch-pad digitizer connected to the joystick port using the SPI protocol. This is similar enough to the protocol used by NES/SNES controllers that it’s about as plug-and-play as 80s and 90s hardware can get. From there, the old game pad can be used for anything that the MSX joystick could be used for.

We’ve seen a handful of projects involving the MSX, so while it’s not as popular as Apple or Commodore, it’s not entirely forgotten, either. In fact, this isn’t even the first time someone has retrofitted a newer gaming controller to an MSX: the Wii Nunchuck already works for these machines.

A Noob’s Guide to McMaster-Carr

For the penny-pinching basement hacker, McMaster-Carr seems like a weird go-to resource for hardware. For one, they’re primarily a B2B company; and, for two, their prices aren’t cheap. Yet their name is ubiquitous among the hacker community. Why? Despite the price, something makes them too useful to ignore by everyday DIY enthusiasts. Those of us who’ve already been enlightened by the McMaster-Carr can design wonders with a vocabulary of parts just one day away at the click of a button.

Today, this article is for those of us who have yet to receive that enlightenment. When used wisely, this source of mechanical everything brings us a world of fast parts at our fingertips. When used poorly, we find nothing but overpriced stock components in oversized shipping boxes.

Since we, the McMaster-Carr sages, are forever doomed to stuff our desk drawers with those characteristic yellow baggies till the end of time, we thought we’d give an intro to the noobs that are just beginning to flex their muscles with this almighty resource. Grab another cup of coffee as we take you on a tour of the good and good-grievances of McMaster-Carr.

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Get Inside a TCXO Clock Chip

[Pete] wondered how real-time clock modules could be selling on eBay for $1.50 when the main component, the Maxim DS3231 RTC/TCXO chip, cost him more like $4 apiece. Could the cheap modules contain counterfeit chips?

Well, sure they could. But in this case, they didn’t, and [Pete] has the die shots to prove it. He started off by clipping the SOIC leads rather than desoldering — he’s not going to be reusing this chip after he’s cut it in half. Next was a stage of embrittling the case by heating it up with a lighter and dunking it in water. Then he went at it with sandpaper.

It’s cool. You can see the watch crystal inside, and all of the circuitry. The DS3231 includes a TCXO — temperature-corrected crystal oscillator — and it seems to have a bank of capacitors that it connects and disconnects depending on the chip’s temperature to keep the oscillator running at the right speed. [Pete] used one in an offline situation, and it only lost sixteen seconds over a year, so we’d say that they work fine.

If you’d like to know more about how crystals are used to keep time, check out [Jenny]’s excellent article. And if sixteen second per year is way too much for you, tune up your rubidium standard and welcome to the world of the time nuts.