Laser And Webcam Team Up For Micron-Resolution Flatness Measurements

When you want to measure the length, breadth, or depth of an object, there are plenty of instruments for the job. You can start with a tape measure, move up to calipers if you need more precision, or maybe even a micrometer if it’s a really critical dimension. But what if you want to know how flat something is? Is there something other than a straightedge and an eyeball for assessing the flatness of a surface?

As it turns out, there is: a $15 webcam and a cheap laser level will do the job, along with some homebrew software and a little bit of patience. At least that’s what [Bryan Howard] came up with to help him assess the flatness of the gantry he fabricated for a large CNC machine he’s working on.

The gantry arm is built from steel tubing, a commodity product with plenty of dimensional variability. To measure the microscopic hills and valleys over the length of the beam, [Bryan] mounted a lens-less webcam to a block of metal. A cheap laser level is set up to skim over the top of the beam and shine across the camera’s image sensor.

On a laptop, images of the beam are converted into an intensity profile whose peak is located by a Gaussian curve fit. The location of the peak on the sensor is recorded at various points along the surface, leading to a map of the microscopic hills and valleys along the beam.

As seen in the video after the break, [Bryan]’s results from such a quick-and-dirty setup are impressive. Despite some wobblies in the laser beam thanks to its auto-leveling mechanism, he was able to scan the entire length of the beam, which looks like it’s more than a meter long, and measure the flatness with a resolution of a couple of microns. Spoiler alert: the beam needs some work. But now [Bryan] knows just where to scrape and shim the surface and by how much, which is a whole lot better than guessing.   Continue reading “Laser And Webcam Team Up For Micron-Resolution Flatness Measurements”

Metric And Inch Threads Fight It Out For Ultra-Precise Positioning

When you’re a machinist, your stock in trade is precision, with measurements in the thousandths of your preferred unit being common. But when you’re a diemaker, your precision game needs to be even finer, and being able to position tools and material with seemingly impossibly granularity becomes really important.

For [Adam Demuth], aka “Adam the Machinist” on YouTube, the need for ultra-fine resolution machinist’s jacks that wouldn’t break the bank led to a design using off-the-shelf hardware and some 3D printed parts. The design centers around an inch-metric thread adapter that you can pick up from McMaster-Carr. The female thread on the adapter is an M8-1.25, while the male side is a 5/8″-16 thread. The pitches of these threads are very close to each other — only 0.0063″, or 161 microns. To take advantage of this, [Adam] printed a cage with compliant mechanism springs; the cage holds the threaded parts together and provide axial preload to remove backlash, and allows mounting of precision steel balls at each end to make sure the force of the jack is transmitted through a single point at each end. Each full turn of the jack moves the ends by the pitch difference, leading to ultra-fine resolution positioning. Need even more precision? Try an M5 to 10-32 adapter for about 6 microns per revolution!

While we’ve seen different thread pitches used for fine positioning before, [Adam]’s approach needs to machining. And as useful as these jacks are on their own, [Adam] stepped things up by using three of them to make a kinematic base, which is finely adjustable in three axes. It’s not quite a nanopositioning Stewart platform, but you could see how adding three more jacks and some actuators could make that happen.

Continue reading “Metric And Inch Threads Fight It Out For Ultra-Precise Positioning”

Microscopy Hack Chat With Zachary Tong

Join us on Wednesday, June 23 at noon Pacific for the Microscopy Hack Chat with Zachary Tong!

There was a time when electronics was very much a hobby that existed in the macroscopic world. Vacuum tubes, wire-wound resistors, and big capacitors were all mounted on terminal strips and mounted in a heavy chassis or enclosure, and interfacing with everything from components to tools was more an exercise in gross motor skills than fine. Even as we started to shrink components down to silicon chips, the packages we put them in were still large enough to handle and see easily. It’s only comparatively recently that everything has started to push the ludicrous end of the scale, with components and processes suitable only for microscopic manipulation, but that’s pretty much where we are now, and things are only likely to get smaller as time goes on.

The microscopic world is a fascinating one, and the tools and techniques to explore it are often complex. That doesn’t mean microscopy is out of the wheelhouse of the average hacker, though. Zachary Tong, proprietor of the delightfully eclectic Breaking Taps channel on YouTube, has been working in the microscopic realm a lot lately. We’ve featured his laser scanning confocal microscope recently, as well as his latest foray into atomic force microscopy. In the past he has also made DIY acrylic lenses, and he has even tried his hand at micromachining glass with lasers.

Zach is pretty comfortable working in and around the microscopic realm, and he’ll stop by the Hack Chat to share what he’s been up to down there. We’ll talk about all the cool stuff going on in Zach’s lab, and see what else he has in store for us.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, June 23 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you tied up, we have a handy time zone converter.
Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

Used EDM Electrodes Repurposed As Air Bearings For Precision Machine Tools

If you’ve ever played air hockey, you know how the tiny jets of air shooting up from the pinholes in the playing surface reduce friction with the puck. But what if you turned that upside down? What if the puck had holes that shot the air downward? We’re not sure how the gameplay would be on such an inverse air hockey table, but [Dave Preiss] has made DIY air bearings from such a setup, and they’re pretty impressive.

Air bearings are often found in ultra-precision machine tools where nanometer-scale positioning is needed. Such gear is often breathtakingly expensive, but [Dave]’s version of the bearings used in these machines are surprisingly cheap. The working surfaces are made from slugs of porous graphite, originally used as electrodes for electrical discharge machining (EDM). The material is easily flattened with abrasives against a reference granite plate, after which it’s pressed into a 3D-printed plastic plenum. The plenum accepts a fitting for compressed air, which wends its way out the micron-sized pores in the graphite and supports the load on a thin cushion of air. In addition to puck-style planar bearings, [Dave] tried his hand at a rotary bearing, arguably more useful to precision machine tool builds. That proved to be a bit more challenging, but the video below shows that he was able to get it working pretty well.

We really enjoyed learning about air bearings from [Dave]’s experiments, and we look forward to seeing them put to use. Perhaps it will be in something like the micron-precision lathe we featured recently.

Continue reading “Used EDM Electrodes Repurposed As Air Bearings For Precision Machine Tools”