Automate Away The Drudgery Of CNC Manufacturing

One of the keys to making money with manufacturing is to find something that you can make a lot of. Most small manufacturers have one or two “bread and butter” items that can be cranked out in quantity, which of course has a quality all its own. The problem with that approach, though, is that it runs the risk of being boring. And what better way to avoid that than by automating your high-volume job, with something like this automated  CNC work cell?

Looks like money.

[Maher Lagha] doesn’t offer too much in the way of build details, but the video below pretty much tells the tale. The high-volume items in this case are customized wooden coasters, the kind a restaurant would buy for their bar or a business would give away as swag. The small 3-axis CNC router at the center of the work cell is the perfect choice for making these — one at a time. With no desire to be tied to the machine all day to load raw stock and unload completed coasters, [Maher] came up with automated towers that hold stacks of pallets. Each pallet, which acts as a fixture for the workpiece through multiple operations, moves from the input stack into the router’s work envelope and to the output stack using a combination of servos and pneumatics. The entire work cell is about a meter on a side and contains everything needed for all the operations, including air for the pneumatics and dust extraction.

Each coaster requires two tools to complete — one for surfacing and one for lettering — and [Maher] has two ways to tackle that. The first is to allow a stack of coasters to go through the first operation, change tools, and switch the roughed-in stock back to the input stack for the second round of machining. The other is just to build another work cell dedicated to lettering, which seems to be in progress. In fact, it looks as if there’s a third work cell in the works in [Maher]’s shop. The coaster business must be pretty good.

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Books You Should Read: Prototype Nation

Over the years, I’ve been curious to dig deeper into the world of the manufacturing in China. But what I’ve found is that Western anecdotes often felt surface-level, distanced, literally and figuratively from the people living there. Like many hackers in the west, the allure of low-volume custom PCBs and mechanical prototypes has me enchanted. But the appeal of these places for their low costs and quick turnarounds makes me wonder: how is this possible? So I’m left wondering: who are the people and the forces at play that, combined, make the gears turn?

Enter Prototype Nation: China and the Contested Promise of Innovation, by Silvia Lindtner. Published in 2020, this book is the hallmark of ten years of research, five of which the author spent in Shenzhen recording field notes, conducting interviews, and participating in the startup and prototyping scene that the city offers.

This book digs deep into the forces at play, unraveling threads between politics, culture, and ripe circumstances to position China as a rising figure in global manufacturing. This book is a must-read for the manufacturing history we just lived through in the last decade and the intermingling relationship of the maker movement between the west and east.

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Compressed Air Keeps Screws Moving Through Modular Production System

If there’s an unsung hero of manufacturing, it’s the engineer who figures out how to handle huge numbers of small parts. It’s one thing to manually assemble something, picking each nut, bolt, and washer by hand. It’s another thing to build a machine that can do the same thing, but thousands of times in a row, ideally without making mistakes.

Most of us don’t need that level of automation in our processes, but when you do, it results in some interesting challenges. Take this pneumatic screw accelerator that [Christopher Helmke] designed for his modular production system. One of the custom machines in his system is a screw counter, which uses a magnetic wheel to feed screws — or nuts or washers — from a hopper, orient them correctly, and drop them into an output chute. While the counting bit worked quite well, parts would only go so far under the force of gravity in the clear vinyl tube used to connect the counter to the next process.

[Christopher]’s solution was simple but effective. His first prototype simply injects compressed air into the parts feed tube, which pushes the screws through the tubing. It works surprisingly well, propelling the parts through quite a long length of tubing, handling twisting paths easily and even working against gravity. Version 2 integrated the accelerator and a re-orienting fixture into a single part, which mates with a magazine that holds a large number of screws.

There are a lot of interesting features [Christoper] built into these simple parts that are worth keeping in mind. Our favorite is printing channels to guide small cable ties around the tubing to clamp it into the accelerator. We’ll be keeping that trick in mind.

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Retrotechtacular: Clay Pipe The Hard Way

Troll YouTube long enough and chances are good that you’ll come across all kinds of videos of the “How It’s Made” genre. And buried in with the frying pans and treadmills and dental floss manufacturers, there no doubt will be deep dives on how pipe is made. Methods will vary by material, but copper, PVC, cast iron, or even concrete, what the pipe factories will all have in common is the high degree of automation they employ. With a commodity item like pipe, it’s hard to differentiate yourself from another manufacturer on features, so price is about the only way to compete. That means cutting costs to the bone, and that means getting rid of as many employees as possible.

Such was not always the case, of course, as this look at how Irish Stoneware & Fireclays Ltd. made clay pipe, drain tiles, and chimney flues back in the 1980s shows. The amount of handwork involved in making a single, simple piece of clay pipe is astonishing, as is the number of hands employed at the various tasks. The factory was located in Carrickmacross, County Monaghan, Ireland, near an outcropping of shale that forms the raw material for its products. Quarrying the shale and milling it into clay were among the few mechanized steps in the process; although the extrusion of the pipe itself was also mechanized, the machines required teams of workers to load and unload them.

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Hackers Beware: Shenzhen Is Closing

If you’re among those of us with immediate plans for a PCB or parts order from China, watch out – Shenzhen just recently got put on a week-long lockdown. Factories, non-essential stores and public places are closed, and people are required to spend time at home – for a city that makes hardware thrive, this sounds like a harsh restriction. Work moves to remote where possible, but some PCB fabs and component warehouses might not be at our service for at least a week.

It might be puzzling to hear that the amount of cases resulting in closures is as low as 121, for a city of 12.6 million people. The zero-tolerance policy towards COVID has been highly effective for the city, with regular testing, adhered-to masking requirements and vaccinations – which is how we’ve been free to order any kinds of boards and components we needed throughout the past two years. In fact, 121 cases in one day is an unprecedented number for Shenzhen, and given their track record and swift reaction, it is reasonable to expect the case count dropping back to the regular (under 10 cases per day) levels soon.

Not all manufacturing facilities are located in Shenzhen, either. Despite what certain headlines might have you believe, supply chain shortages aren’t a certainty from here. A lot of the usual suspects like PCBWay and JLCPCB are merely reporting increased lead times as they reallocate resources, and while some projects are delayed for now, a lot of fabs you’d use continue operating with minor delays at most. SeeedStudio has its operations impacted more severely, and your Aliexpress orders might get shipped a bit later than usual – but don’t go around calling this a Chinese New Year v2 just yet. For those who want to keep a closer eye on the situation and numbers, the [Shenzhen Pages] Twitter account provides from-the-ground updates on the situation.

Wondering how your supply chain might be affected? We’ve talked about this way back in February 2020, addressing then-warranted worries that Chinese New Year would grow into a longer disruption than planned due to COVID becoming into a factor to manage. If you’re yet to discover the significance of Shenzhen, books have been written on this marvellous city, where you can build a successful hardware company in a week’s time. We’ve even had a meetup there once!

Header image: Charlie fong, CC BY-SA 4.0.

There’s More In A Cardboard Box Than What Goes In The Cardboard Box

The cardboard box is ubiquitous in our society. We all know what makes up a cardboard box: corrugated paper products, glue, and some work. Of course cardboard boxes didn’t just show up one day, delivered out of nowhere by an overworked and underpaid driver. In the video below the break, [New Mind] does a deep dive into the history of the cardboard box and much more.

Starting back in the 19th century, advancements in the bulk processing of wood into pulp made paper inexpensive. From there, cardboard started to take its corrugated shape. Numerous advancements around Europe and the US happened somewhat independently of each other, and by 1906 a conglomerate was formed to get the railroads to approve cardboard for use on cargo trains.

By then though, cardboard was still in its infancy. Further advancements in design, manufacturing, and efficiency have turned the seemingly low tech cardboard box into a high tech industry that’s heavy on automation and quality control. It’ll certainly be difficult to think of cardboard boxes the same.

There also numerous ways for a hacker to re-use cardboard, be it in template making, prototyping, model making, and more. Of course, corrugation isn’t just for paper. If corrugated plastic floats your boat, you might be interested in this boat that floats due to corrugated plastic.

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Hackers And China

The open source world and Chinese manufacturing have a long relationship. Some fifteen years ago, the big topic was how companies could open-source their hardware designs and not get driven bankrupt by competition from overseas. Companies like Sparkfun, Adafruit, Arduino, Maple Labs, Pololu, and many more demonstrated that this wasn’t impossible after all.

Maybe ten years ago, Chinese firms started picking up interesting hacker projects and producing them. This gave us hits like the AVR transistor tester and the NanoVNA. In the last few years, we’ve seen open-source hardware and software projects that have deliberately targeted Chinese manufacturers, and won. We do the design and coding, they do the manufacturing, sales, and distribution.

But this is something else: the Bangle.js watch takes an essentially mediocre Chinese smartwatch and reflashes the firmware, and sells them as open-source smartwatches to the general public. These pre-hacked watches are being sold on Kickstarter, and although the works stands on the shoulders of previous hacker’s reverse engineering work on the non-open watch hardware, it’s being sold by the prime mover behind the Espruino JavaScript-on-embedded language, which it runs on.

We have a cheap commodity smartwatch, being sold with frankly mediocre firmware, taken over by hackers, re-flashed, re-branded, and sold by the hackers on Kickstarter. As a result of it being (forcibly) opened, there’s a decently sized app store of contributed open-source applications that’ll run on the platform, making it significantly more useful and hacker friendly than it was before.

Will this boost sales? Will China notice the hackers’ work? Will this, and similar projects, end up in yet another new hacker/China relationship? We’re watching.