Evolving the 3D Printed Linear Actuator

Our open source community invites anyone with an idea to build upon the works of those who came before. Many of us have encountered a need to control linear motion and adapted an inexpensive hobby servo for the task. [Michael Graham] evaluated existing designs and believed he has ideas to advance the state of the art. Our Hackaday Prize judges agreed, placing his 3D Printed Servo Linear Actuator as one of twenty winners of our Robotics Module Challenge.

[Michael]’s actuator follows in the footstep of other designs based on a rack-and-pinion gear such as this one featured on these pages, but he approached the design problem from the perspective of a mechanical engineer. The design incorporated several compliant features to be tolerant of variances between 3D printers (and slicer, and filament, etc.) Improving the odds of a successful print and therefore successful projects. Beginners learning to design for 3D printing (and even some veterans) would find his design tips document well worth the few minutes of reading time.

Another useful feature of his actuator design is the 20mm x 20mm screw mounting system. Visible on either end of the output slider, it allows mixing and matching from a set of accessories to be bolted on this actuator. He is already off and running down this path and is facing the challenge of having too many things to share while keeping them all organized and usable by everyone.

The flexible construction system allows him to realize different ideas within the modular system. He brought one item (a variant of his Mug-O-Matic) to the Hackaday + Tindie Meetup at Bay Area Maker Faire, and we’re sure there will be more. And given the thoughtful design and extensive documentation of his project, we expect to see his linear servos adopted by others and appear in other contexts as well.

This isn’t the only linear actuator we’ve come across. It isn’t even the only winning linear actuator of our Robotics Module Challenge, but the other one is focused on meeting different constraints like compactness. They are different tools for different needs – and all worthy additions to our toolbox of mechanical solutions.

Dissecting the Elusive Wax Motor

We’d wager most readers aren’t intimately acquainted with wax motors. In fact, a good deal of you have probably never heard of them, let alone used one in a project. Which isn’t exactly surprising, as they’re very niche and rarely used outside of HVAC systems and some appliances. But they’re fascinating devices, and once you’ve seen how they work, you might just figure out an application for one.

[AvE] recently did a complete teardown on a typical wax motor, going as far as cutting the thing in half to show the inner workings. Now we’ve seen some readers commenting that everyone’s favorite foul-mouthed destroyer of consumer goods has lost his edge, that his newer videos are more about goofing off than anything. Well we can’t necessarily defend his signature linguistic repertoire, but we can confidently say this video does an excellent job of explaining these little-known gadgets.

The short version is that a wax motor, which is really a linear actuator, operates on the principle that wax expands when it melts. If a solid block of wax is placed in a cylinder, it can push on a piston during the phase change from solid to liquid. As the liquid wax resists compression, the wax motor has an exceptionally high output force for such a small device. The downside is, the stroke length is usually rather short: for the one [AvE] demonstrates, it’s on the order of 2 mm.

By turning heat directly into mechanical energy, wax motors are often used to open valves and vents when they’ve reached a specific temperature. The common automotive engine thermostat is a classic example of a wax motor, and they’re commonly found inside of dishwashers as a way to open the soap dispenser at the proper time during the cycle.

This actually isn’t the first time we’ve featured an in-depth look at wax motors, but [AvE] actually cutting this one in half combined with the fact that the video doesn’t look like it was filmed on a 1980’s camera makes it worth revisiting the subject. Who is going to build a wax motor power device for the Power Harvesting Challenge in the 2018 Hackaday Prize?

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Servo Becomes Mini Linear Actuator

RC servos are a common component in many robotics projects, but [Giovanni Leal] needed linear motion instead of the rotary actuation that servos normally offer. The 3D Printed Mini Linear Actuator was developed as a way to turn a mini servo into a linear actuator, giving it more power in the process.

A servo uses a potentiometer attached to the output shaft in order to sense position, and the internal electronics take care of driving the motor to move the shaft to the desired angle. [Giovanni] took apart an economical mini servo and after replacing the motor with a 100:1 gear motor and using it to power a compact 3D printed linear actuator, he used the servo’s potentiometer to read the linear actuator’s position. As a result, the linear actuator can exert considerably more force than the original servo while retaining exactly the same servo interface. You can see one being assembled and tested in the video embedded below, which is part of [Giovanni]’s entry for The 2018 Hackaday Prize.

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Motorized Mini Excavator Rises From Sheets of Plywood

Fathers of Hackaday, we’ve got bad news — you’ve been out-fathered. Behold the mechanism of your undoing: a working miniature excavator, executed in plywood.

To be fair, the rules of the game have changed lately. Time was when a nipper would ask for the impossible, and we dads would never have to deliver. But with CNC routers, 3D-printing, and industrial-grade CAD software you can use for free, the possibility hurdle is getting ever shorter. Still, when his son put in this request, [Alex Lovegrove] really delivered. Everything on this excavator works, from tracks to boom to bucket. There are hundreds of parts, mostly machined from plywood but with a smattering of 3D-printed gears and brackets. The tracks and slew gear are powered by gear motors, while linear actuators stand in for hydraulic rams on the boom. The videos below show the machine under test and the unbearable cuteness of it being loved.

Hacker parents need not despair, of course. There’s plenty of room left for your imagination to run amok. For inspiration, check out this working railway system, or any of the several backyard roller coasters we’ve featured.

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Junkyard RC Conversion Looks Like Mad Max Extra

Over the years we’ve noticed that there is a subset of hackers out there who like to turn real life vehicles into remote controlled cars. These vehicles are generally destroyed in short order, either by taking ridiculous jumps, or just smashing them into stuff until there’s nothing left. In truth that’s probably what most of us would do if we had access to a full size RC car, so no complaints there.

As a rule, the donor vehicles for these conversions are usually older and cheap. That only makes sense, why spend a lot of money on a vehicle you intend on destroying? But even still, the RC conversion [William Foster] has recently completed may take the cake. We don’t know how much of the “antiquing” of his donor vehicle was intentionally done, but on the whole, the thing looks like it got dragged from the bottom of a lake somewhere. Presumably, he got a great deal on it.

The video posted to YouTube is primarily about [William] driving his creation around (sometimes from the back seat, no less), but towards the second half of the video there’s a quick rundown on the hardware used to make this pile of rust move.

A standard RC transmitter and receiver combination are used to control a pair of Arduinos mounted in the center console, which are in turn hooked up to external stepper drivers. The wheel is turned via a chain and sprocket arrangement, and the pedals are pushed with homebrew contraptions that look like they are made from lead screws intended for 3D printers.

All in all, it appears [William] has cooked up a fairly responsive control system with commodity hardware you could get on Amazon or eBay. Not sure we’d be backseat driving this thing personally, but to each their own.

We recently covered a Jeep that got a similar remote control upgrade, but these super-sized remote controlled vehicle builds are not just limited to the ground either.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Adaptive Guitar

Due to a skiing accident, [Joe]’s new friend severed the motor nerves controlling her left arm. Sadly she was an avid musician who loved to play guitar — and of course, a guitar requires two hands. Or does it? Pressing the string to play the complex chords is more easily done using fingers, but strumming the strings could be done electromechanically under the control of a foot pedal. At least that’s the solution [Joe] implemented so beautifully when his friend’s family reached out for help.

There are just so many things to enjoy while reading through [Joe]’s project logs on his hackaday.io page, which he’s entered into the Hackaday Prize. He starts out with researching how others have solved this problem. Then he takes us through his first attempts and experiments. For example, an early discovery is how pressing the strings on the fretboard pulls the string down where the picks are located, causing him to rethink his initial pick design. His criteria for the pick actuators leads him to make his own. And the actuators he made are a thing of beauty: quiet, compact, and the actuator body even doubles as part of a heat sink for his custom controller board. During his pick design iterations he gets great results using spring steel for flexibility leading up to the pick, but thinking of someday going into production, he comes up with his own custom-designed, laser-cut leaf springs, different for each string.  Needing Force Sensitive Resistors (FCRs) for the foot pedal, he iterates to making his own, laying out the needed interlinked traces on a PCB (using an Eagle script) and putting a piece of conductive rubber over it all. And that’s just a sample of the adventure he takes us on.

In terms of practicality, he’s made great efforts to make it compact and easy to set up. The foot pedal even talks to the control board on the guitar wirelessly. Non-damaging adhesives attach magnets and velcro to the guitar so that the control board and pick bridge can be precisely, yet easily, attached single-handedly. The result is something easy to manage by someone with only one working hand, both for set-up and actual playing. See it for yourself in the video below.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: 3D Printed Linear Actuator Does 2kg+

The rabbit hole of features and clever hacks in [chiprobot]’s NEMA17 3D Printed Linear Actuator is pretty deep. Not only can it lift 2kg+ of mass easily, it is mostly 3D printed, and uses commonplace hardware like a NEMA 17 stepper motor and a RAMPS board for motion control.

The main 3D printed leadscrew uses a plug-and-socket design so that the assembly can be extended easily to any length desired without needing to print the leadscrew as a single piece. The tip of the actuator even integrates a force sensor made from conductive foam, which changes resistance as it is compressed, allowing the actuator some degree of feedback. The force sensor is made from a 3M foam earplug which has been saturated with a conductive ink. [chiprobot] doesn’t go into many details about his specific method, but using conductive foam as a force sensor is a fairly well-known and effective hack. To top it all off, [chiprobot] added a web GUI served over WiFi with an ESP32. Watch the whole thing in action in the video embedded below.

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