Shape Shifting Structures Work With Magnets

In The Dark Knight, Lucius Fox shows Bruce Wayne a neat bit of memory weave fabric. In its resting state, it is a light, flexible material, but when an electrical current is applied, it pops into a pre-programmed shape. That shape could be a tent or a bat-themed paraglider. Science has not caught up to Hollywood in this regard, but the concept has been demonstrated in a material which increases its rigidity up to 318% within one second when placed in a magnetic field. Those numbers do not mean a lot by themselves, but increasing rigidity in a reversible, non-chemical way is noteworthy.

The high-level explanation is that hollow tubes are 3D printed and filled with magnetorheological fluid which becomes more viscous in the presence of a magnet because the ferrous suspended particles bunch up to form chains instead of sliding over one another. Imagine a bike tire filled with gel, and when you need a little extra traction the tire becomes softer, but when you are cruising on a paved trail, the tire becomes as hard as a train wheel to reduce friction. That could be darn handy in more places than building a fast bike.

The DIN Rail and How It Got That Way

Unless you’ve spent some time in the industrial electrical field, you might be surprised at the degree of integration involved in the various control panels needed to run factories and the like. Look inside any cabinet almost anywhere in the world, and you’ll be greeted by rows of neat plastic terminal blocks, circuit breakers, signal conditioners, and all manner of computing hardware from programmable logic controllers right on to Raspberry Pis and Arduinos.

A well-crafted industrial control panel can truly be a thing of beauty. But behind all the electrical bits in the cabinet, underneath all the neatly routed and clearly labeled wires, there’s a humble strip of metal that stitches it all together: the DIN rail. How did it come to be, and why is it so ubiquitous?

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Tables are Turned as Robots Assemble IKEA Furniture

Hackaday pages are rife with examples of robots being built with furniture parts. In this example, the tables are turned and robots are the masters of IKEA pieces. We are not silly enough to assume that these robots unfolded the instructions, looked at one another, scratched their CPUs, and began assembling. Of course, the procedure was preordained by the programmers, but the way they mate the pegs into the ends of the cross-members is a very human thing to do. It reminds us of finding a phone charging socket in the dark. This kind of behavior is due to force feedback which tell the robots when a piece is properly seated which means that they can use vision to fit the components together without sub-millimeter precision.

All the hardware used to make the IKEA assembler is publicly available, and while it may be out of the typical hacker price range, this is a sign of the times as robots become part of the household. Currently, the household robots are washing machines, smart speakers, and 3D printers. Ten years ago those weren’t Internet connected machines so it should be no surprise if robotic arms join the club of household robots soon. Your next robotics project could be the tipping point that brings a new class of robots to the home.

Back to our usual hijinks, here is a robot arm from IKEA parts and a projector built into a similar lamp. or a 3D printer enclosed in an IKEA cabinet for a classy home robot.

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Jenkins Given an Industrial Stack Light for Build Reporting

When working on software development in a team environment, it’s important to know the status of your build at all times. Jenkins can display build automation info on a screen but where’s the fun in that? A popular office project is to build some kind of visual display of a project’s status, and [dkt01] has done just that with this stack light build monitor.

In this day and age of online shopping, random bits of industrial hardware are just an eBay away, so it’s easy to find some cool lamps or indicators for any project. [dkt01] sourced a standard 24V stack light off the shelf. With its green, red, and yellow indicators, its perfect for showing the current status of their build server.

The project uses an Arduino Pro Micro combined with an ENC28J60 Ethernet adapter. We used to see that chip all the time but in 2017 it’s somewhat of a classic setup with the great unwashed masses largely migrating to the ESP8266. However, for the purposes of this project, it was perfect for connecting to the wired office network (after all, you want to know the status of your build and not of your WiFi). [dkt01] even managed to get a web configuration to work despite the relatively meager resources of the ATmega32u4.

The build is cleanly executed, with the microcontroller and Ethernet hardware tucked into a 3D printed base for the stack light’s enclosure. It’s far more likely to become a permanent office fixture if it’s a tidy build without wires hanging out everywhere so a custom PCB ties everything together neatly. In another nice touch, the stack lights flash on initialization to indicate if the DHCP lease was successful, which makes troubleshooting easier. There’s an overview of all different light combinations and meanings in the video after the break.

Overall it’s a solid build with some off-the-shelf components that serves a genuine purpose. For a similar project built on a smaller scale, check out the Indictron. For something bigger, show us how you’ve learned to output your server status on the city’s traffic lights. Ask first, though.
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Desktop Factory Teaches PLC Programming

How to train young engineers in industrial automation is a thorny issue. Most factories have big things that can do a lot of damage and cost tons of money if the newbie causes a crash. Solution: shrink the factory down to desktop size and let them practice on that.

Luckily for [Vadim], there’s an off-the-shelf solution for miniaturizing factory automation: FischerTechnik industrial training models. The models have motors, conveyors, pneumatic cylinders, and sensors galore, but the controller is not exactly the industry standard programmable logic controller (PLC). [Vadim] set out to remedy this by building an interface between the FischerTechnik models and a Siemens PLC. He went through a couple of revisions of his board, including one using rivets from the sewing store to interface with the FischerTechnic connectors. Eventually, he settled on more robust connectors and came up with a board that lets students delve into PLC programming without killing anyone. The video below shows it going through its paces; we can only imagine where playing with these kits as a kid would have led us.

As great as [Vadim]’s system is for training engineers, we can also see it helpful in getting kids interested in a career in industrial automation. We recently covered a similar effort to show kids big science using LEGO Mindstorms. Both of these can help get STEM kids to see the wider world of technical careers and perhaps steer them into automation. After all, the people who make the robots are probably going to be the last ones obsoleted, right?

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Industrial Indicator Makes the Move from PLC to FPGA

Industrial controls are fun to use in a build because they’re just so — well, industrial. They’re chunky and built to take a beating, both from the operating environment and the users. They’re often power guzzlers, though, so knowing how to convert an industrial indicator for microcontroller use might be a handy skill to have.

Having decided that an Allen-Bradley cluster indicator worked with the aesthetic of his project, a Halloween prop of some sort, [Glen] set about dissecting the controls. Industrial indicators usually make that a simple task so that they can be configured for different voltages in the field, and it turned out that the easiest approach to replacing the power-hungry incandescent bulbs with LEDs was to build a tiny PCB to fit inside the four-color lens.

The uniquely shaped board ended up being too small for even series resistors for the LEDs, so a separate driver board was also fabbed. The driver board is set up to allow a single 5-volt supply and logic levels of 3.3-volt or 5-volt, making the indicator compatible with just about anything. The finished product lends a suitably sinister look to the prop.

If you’re not familiar with the programmable logic controllers such an indicator would be used with in the field, then maybe you should try running Pong on a PLC for a little background.

Mod Your Camera With ModBus

Industrial hardware needs to be reliable, tough, and interoperable. For this reason, there are a series of standards used for command & control connections between equipment. One of the more widespread standards is ModBus, an open protocol using a master-slave architecture, usually delivered over RS-485 serial. It’s readily found being used with PLCs, HMIs, VFDs, and all manner of other industrial equipment that comes with a TLA (three letter acronym).

[Absolutelyautomation] decided to leverage ModBus to control garden variety digital cameras, of the type found cluttering up drawers now that smartphones have come so far. This involves getting old-school, by simply soldering wires to the buttons of the camera, and using an Arduino Nano to control the camera while talking to the ModBus network.

This system could prove handy for integrating a camera into an industrial production process to monitor for faults or defective parts. The article demonstrates simple control of the camera with off-the-shelf commercial PLC hardware. Generally, industrial cameras are very expensive, so this hack may be useful where there isn’t the budget for a proper solution. Will it stand up to industrial conditions for 10 years without missing a beat? No, but it could definitely save the day in the short term for a throwaway price. One shortfall is that the camera as installed will only save pictures to its local memory card. There’s a lot to be said for serving the images right to the engineer’s desk over a network.

We’ve seen [Absolutelyautomation]’s work before – check out this implementation of Pong on an industrial controller.