Riding Mower Repair Uncovers Miniature Culprit

Most people would be pretty upset it the lawn mower they spent $4,000 USD on had a major failure within the first year of owning it. But for [xxbiohazrdxx], it was an excuse to take a peek under the hood and figure out what brought down this state-of-the-art piece of landscaping gear.

It should be said that, at least technically, the Husqvarna TS 348XD in question was still working. It’s just that [xxbiohazrdxx] noticed the locking differential, which is key to maintaining traction on hilly terrain, didn’t seem to be doing anything when the switch was pressed. Since manually moving the engagement lever on the transmission locked up the differential as expected, the culprit was likely in the electronics.

Testing the dead actuator.

As [xxbiohazrdxx] explains, the switch on the dash is connected to a linear actuator that moves the lever on the transmission. The wiring and switch tested fine with a multimeter, but when the actuator was hooked up to a bench power supply, it didn’t move. Even more telling, it wasn’t drawing any power. Definitely not a good sign. Installing a new actuator would have solved the problem, but it was an expensive part that would take time to arrive.

Repairing the dead actuator seemed worth a shot at least, so [xxbiohazrdxx] cracked it open. The PCB looked good, and there were no obviously toasted components. But when one of the internal microswitches used to limit the travel of the actuator was found to be jammed in, everything started to make sense. With the switch locked in the closed position, the actuator believed it was already fully extended and wouldn’t move. After opening the switch itself and bending the contacts back into their appropriate position, everything worked as expected.

A tiny piece of bent metal kept this $4,000 machine from operating correctly.

As interesting as this step-by-step repair process was, what struck us the most is [xxbiohazrdxx]’s determination to fix rather than replace. At several points it would have been much easier to just swap out a broken part for a new one, but instead, the suspect part was carefully examined and coaxed back to life with the tools and materials on-hand.

While there’s plenty of folks who wouldn’t mind taking a few days off from lawn work while they wait for their replacement parts to arrive, not everyone can afford the luxury. Expedient repairs are critical when your livelihood depends on your equipment, which is why manufacturers making it harder and more expensive for farmers to fix their tractors has become such a major issue in right to repair battles all over the globe.

DIY Ergonomic Game Pad Lends A Hand

Does it seem like everyone you game against can do everything faster than you? Chances are good that they have some kind of dedicated game pad or macro pad with a bunch of custom shortcuts. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, but why buy one when you can build your own? [lordofthedum] did the smart thing when they built their own version of the Azeron game pad, which is an outrageously expensive but ergonomic and cool-looking macro pad that reminds us of the DataHand ergonomic keyboard.

Each finger hovers over a C-shaped group of three switches — one actuates by moving the finger forward, another by moving backward, and the third by pushing down like a regular button. The thumb gets a 4-way joystick. All of these inputs are wired up to an Arduino Pro Micro, which has sort of become the standard for DIY macro pads and keyboards. We think this looks fantastic, and really raises the bar for DIY macro pads.

Need a few more keys, but still want a thumb joystick? Check out the smooth and sweet Sherbet game pad.

ESP8266 Keeps Tabs On The Kid’s Tablets

Assuming you have a child and it’s no longer womb-bound, there’s a fairly high chance they’ve already had some experience with the glowing beauty that is the LCD display; babies of only a few months old are often given a tablet or smartphone to keep them occupied. But as the child gets to the age where they are capable of going outside or doing something more constructive, staring slack-jawed and wide-eyed at their tablet becomes a concern for many parents.

[Richard Garsthagen] is one such parent. He wanted a way to monitor and control how much time his children were using their iPad, so he came up with an automated system based on the ESP8266. Not only does it keep track of how long the tablet is being used, it even includes a reward system which allows the parent to add extra usage time for good behavior.

At the most basic level, the device is a sort of “holster” for the child’s tablet. When the tablet is placed in the slot, it presses a microswitch at the bottom of the cavity which stops the timer. When the switch is open, the LED display on the front of the device counts down, and the ESP8266 pushes notifications about remaining time to the child’s device via IFTTT.

Time can be added to the clock by way of RFID cards. The cards are given out as a reward for good behavior, completion of chores, etc. The child only needs to pass the card in front of the system to redeem its value. Once the card has been “spent”, the parent can reset it with their own special card.

It’s a very slick setup, making perfect use of the ESP8266. Reading the RFID cards, updating the timer, and using IFTTT’s API keeps the little board quite busy; [Richard] says it’s completely maxed out.

You might be wondering what happens when the clock reaches zero. Well, according to the video after the break…nothing. Once the time runs out, a notification simply pops up on the tablet telling them to put it away. Some might see this as a fault, but presumably it’s the part of the system where humans take over the parenting and give the ESP8266 a rest.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a microcontroller used to get the little hackers on schedule. At least (so far) none of them have gone full Black Mirror and started tracking when the kiddos are watching it.

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Roll Your Own Rotary Encoders

[miroslavus] hasn’t had much luck with rotary encoders. The parts he has tested from the usual sources have all been problematic either mechanically or electrically, resulting in poor performance in his projects. Even attempts to deal with the deficiencies in software didn’t help, so he did what any red-blooded hacker would do — he built his own rotary encoder from microswitches and 3D-printed parts.

[miroslavus]’s “encoder” isn’t a quadrature encoder in the classic sense. It has two switches and only one of them fires when it turns a given direction, one for clockwise and one for counterclockwise. The knob has a ratchet wheel on the underside that engages with a small trip lever, and carefully located microswitches are actuated repeatedly as the ratchet wheel moves the trip lever. The action is smooth but satisfyingly clicky. Personally, we’d forsake the 3D-printed baseplate in favor of a custom PCB with debouncing circuitry, and perhaps relocate the switches so they’re under the knob for a more compact form factor. That and the addition of another switch on the shaft’s axis to register knob pushes, and you’ve got a perfectly respectable input device for navigating menus.

We think this is great, but perhaps your project really needs a legitimate rotary encoder. In that case, you’ll want to catch up on basics like Gray codes.

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Inside A Microswitch

We’ve taken a few microswitches apart, mostly to fix those pesky Logitech mice that develop double-click syndrome, but we’ve never made a video. Luckily, [Julian] did, and it is worth watching if you want to understand the internal mechanism of these components.

[Julian] talks about the way the contacts make and break. He also discusses the mechanical hysteresis inherent in the system because of the metal moving contact having spring-like qualities

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Microswitches: Past The Tipping Point

You find them everywhere from 3D printers to jet airliners. They’re the little switches that detect paper jams in your printer, or the big armored switches that sense when the elevator car is on the right floor. They’re microswitches, or more properly miniature snap-action switches, and they’re so common you may never have wondered what’s going on inside them. But the story behind how these switches were invented and the principle of physics at work in the guts of these tiny and useful switches are both pretty interesting.

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Endurance Test Machine Is Not Quite Useless

It seems [Pete Prodoehl] was working on a project that involved counting baseballs as they fell out of a chute, with the counting part being sensed by a long lever microswitch. Now we all know there are a number of different ways in which one can do this using all kinds of fancy sensors. But for [Pete], we guess the microswitch was what floated his boat — likely because it was cheap, easily available and replaceable, and reliable. Well, the reliable part he wasn’t very sure about, so he built a (not quite) Useless Machine that would conduct an endurance test on the specific switch brand and type he was using. But mostly, it seemed like an excuse to do some CAD design, 3D printing, wood work and other hacker stuff.

The switches he’s testing appear to be cheap knock-off’s of a well known brand. Running them through the torture test on his Useless Machine, he found that the lever got deformed after a while, and would stop missing the actuator arms of his endurance tester completely. In some other samples, he found that the switches would die, electrically, after just a few thousand operations. The test results appear to have justified building the Useless Machine. In any case, even when using original switches, quite often it does help to perform tests to verify their suitability to your specific application.

Ideally, these microswitches ought to have been compliant to the IEC 61058 series of standards. When switches encounter real world loads running off utility supply, their electrical endurance is de-rated depending on many factors. The standard defines many different kinds electro-mechanical test parameters such as the speed of actuation, the number of operations per minute and on-off timing. Actual operating conditions are simulated using various types of electrical loads such as purely resistive, filament lamp loads (non-linear resistance), capacitive loads or inductive loads. There’s also a test involving a locked rotor condition. Under some of the most severe kinds of electrical loads, a switch may be expected to last just a few hundred operations. But if the switch is used for low power applications (contact current below 20 mA), then it is expected to last up to its mechanical endurance limit. For most microswitches, this is usually in the range to 100,000 to 300,000 operations.

Coming back to his project, his first version was cobbled together as a quick hack. A 3D-printed lever was attached to a motor fixed on a 3D-printed mount. The switch was wired to an Arduino input, and a four-digit display showed the number of counts. On his next attempt, he replaced the single lever with a set of three, and in yet another version, he changed the lever design by adding small ball bearings at the end of the actuator arms so they rolled smoothly over the microswitch lever. The final version isn’t anywhere close to a machine that would be used to test these kind of switches in a Compliance Test Laboratory, but for his purpose, we guess it meets the bar.

For those interested, here is a great resource on everything you need to know about Switch Basics. And check out the Useless Machine in action in the video below.

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