Screwy Math For Super Fine Adjustments: Differential Screws

For any sort of precision machine, precision adjustability is required. For the hacker this usually involves an adjustment screw, where the accuracy is determined by the thread pitch. This was not good enough for [Mark Rehorst] who wanted adjustment down to 10 μm for his 3D printer’s optical end-stop, so he made himself a differential adjustment screw.

Tiny adjustment can be made to the green block due to the thread pitch differences

Differential screws work by having two threads with a slightly different pitch on the same shaft. A nut on each section of thread is prevented from rotating in relation to the other, and when the screw is turned their relative position will change only as much as the difference between the two thread pitches.

The differential screw in this case started life as a normal M5 bolt with a 0.8 mm thread pitch. [Mark] machined and threaded section of the bolt down to a M4 x 0.7 mm thread. This means he can get 0.1 mm (100 μm) of adjustment per full rotation. By turning the bolt 1/10 rotation, the  relative movement comes down to 10 μm.

This mechanism is not new, originating from at least 1817. If you need fine adjustments on a budget, it’s a very elegant way to achieve it and you don’t even need a lathe to make your own. You can partially drill and tap a coupling nut, or make a 3D printed adapter to connect two bolts.

Fabricating precision tools on a budget is challenging but not impossible. We’ve seen some interesting graphite air bearings, as well as a 3D printed microscope with a precision adjustable stage.

[Ben Krasnow]’s Take On DIY Air Bearings

We’ve got to admit that watching [Ben Krasnow]’s new video on air bearings is tough. We found our eyes constantly checking the spherical air bearing in the foreground, which for the first eight minutes of the video just kept going. It was strangely hypnotic, and made it hard to concentrate on all the other cool stuff [Ben] was up to.

If the topic of air bearings seems familiar, it might be because we recently reported on DIY air bearings made from used EDM electrodes. [Ben] saw that too, and dusted off his old air bearing project. Literally, as it turns out, because the graphite blocks whose porosity and softness make them the perfect material for air bearings also makes for a dusty workshop. We’d recommend breathing protection of some sort while machining graphite. In addition to simple puck bearings, [Ben] came up with more complicated designs, including the aforementioned spherical bearing. He used the steel ball itself as a precision tool to grind the graphite out, first by coating it with abrasive and then by cutting grooves in it to act like a file. A cylindrical bearing was also cut, this time with sandpaper glued directly to the ground steel rod that would seat in the bearing.

[Ben]’s other innovation is vacuum preloading, where he applies both vacuum and pressure to the bearing plenum. The vacuum provides the force needed to capture the moving element while the pressure bears the load. It’s a careful balancing act, but it works well enough to capture the large steel ball and keep it turning effortlessly.

We really liked [Ben]’s take on air bearings, especially his thoughts on creating fully enclosed cylindrical bearings. Those could be useful for low-friction linear drives, and we look forward to seeing more on those.

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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.

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The Machinists’ Mantra: Precision, Thy Name Is Rigidity

“Everything is a spring”. You’ve probably heard that expression before. How deep do you think your appreciation of that particular turn of phrase really is? You know who truly, viscerally groks this? Machinists.

As I’ve blathered on about at length previously, machine tools are all about precision. That’s easy to say, but where does precision really come from? In a word, rigidity. Machine tools do a seemingly magical thing. They remove quantities of steel (or other materials medieval humans would have killed for) with a slightly tougher piece of steel. The way they manage to do this is by applying the cutting tool to the material within a setup that is so rigid that the material has no choice but to yield. Furthermore, this cutting action is extremely precise because the tool moves as little as possible while doing so. It all comes down to rigidity. Let’s look at a basic turning setup.

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Precision Pantograph Probes PCBs

Electronic components are getting smaller and for most of us, our eyesight is getting worse. When [Kurt] started using a microscope to get a better view of his work, he realized he needed another tool to give his hands the same kind of precision. That tool didn’t exist so he built it.

The PantoProbe is a pantograph mechanism meant to guide a probe for reaching the tiny pads of his SMT components. He reports that he has no longer has any trouble differentiating pins 0.5 mm apart which is the diameter of the graphite sticks in our favorite mechanical pencils.

[Kurt] has already expanded his machine’s capability to include a holder for a high-frequency probe and even pulleys for a pick-and-place variation. There’s no mention of dual-wielding PantoProbes as micro-helping-hands but the versatility we’ve seen suggests that it is only a matter of time.

Four bar linkages are capable of some incredible feats and they’re found all around us. Enjoy one of [Kurt]’s other custom PCBs in his Plexitube Owl Clock, or let him show you to make 3D objects with a laser engraver.

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Hackaday Trims Its Own Resistors

There are times when you might want an odd-value resistor. Rather than run out to the store to buy a 3,140 Ω resistor, you can get there with a good ohmmeter and a willingness to solder things in series and parallel. But when you want a precise resistor value, and you want many of them, Frankensteining many resistors together over and over is a poor solution.

Something like an 8-bit R-2R resistor-ladder DAC, for instance, requires seventeen resistors of two values in better than 0.4% precision. That’s just not something I have on hand, and the series/parallel approach will get tiresome fast.

Ages ago, I had read about trimming resistors by hand, but had assumed that it was the domain of the madman. On the other hand, this is Hackaday; I had some time and a file. Could I trim and match resistors to within half a percent? Read on to find out.

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Moving Microns With A High Precision Linear Stage

As anyone who has experimented with their own home-made CNC machinery will tell you, precision isn’t cheap. You can assemble a gantry mill using off-the-shelf threading and kitchen drawer slides. But it’s a safe assumption that if you put the tool at a particular position it won’t be quite at the same position next time you return. But if you take your budget from dirt cheap to reasonably priced you can do much better. [Adam Bender] designs high-precision automation systems for a living, so when he needed a precision linear stage for a personal project he achieved micron level accuracy for under $500.

micron-precision-linear-actuator
Red parts are the two spring-loaded nuts

He explains the problem of backlash with an inexpensive lead screw — the wiggle between threaded components that cause positional chaos. His solution uses two nuts preloaded against each other with a spring. There is still a stick-slip issue; a tendency to move in lurches due to differences between the coefficients of static and dynamic friction between the materials. Careful choice of machining stock for the nut to picking materials in which these coefficients were almost identical reduced the stick-slip to as little as possible.

He goes into significant detail on the design, manufacture, and testing of all the components of his stage, its body, sealing system, and control. If you are a precision CNC guru maybe you’ll find it interesting as a cleverly designed component, but if you are a mere dilettante you’ll find it fascinating to read a comprehensive but accessible write-up from a professional in the field.

This build probably goes a step beyond most we’ve featured in the past, but that’s not to say we’ve not seen some pretty good efforts.