Keep It Simple, Smartly

“Keep it simple” sounds like such good advice, but what exactly is the “it”; what parts of a project should you try to keep simple? You can’t always make everything simple, can you? Are all kinds of “simplicity” equally valuable, or are there aspects of a design where simplicity has multiplier effects on the rest of the project?

I ran into two seemingly different, but surprisingly similar, design problems in the last couple weeks, and I realized that focusing on keeping one aspect of the project simple had a multiplier effect on the rest — simplifying the right part of the problem made everything drastically easier.

EA Axon Great plane, but heavy!

The first example was a scratch-built airplane design. I’d made a few planes over the summer, focusing on plans on the Interwebs that emphasize simplicity of the actual build. Consequently, the planes were a bit heavy, maybe not entirely aerodynamic, and probably underpowered. And this is because the effort you expend building the plane doesn’t fundamentally have anything to do with flight. Keeping the build simple doesn’t necessarily get you a good plane.

Weight, on the other hand, is central. Wings produce lift, whether measured in grams or ounces, and anything heavier just isn’t gonna fly. But reducing weight has a multiplier effect. Less weight means smaller and lighter motors and batteries. Structures don’t need to be as stiff if they’re not subject to heavier bending forces. And, important to the noob pilot, planes with less weight per wing area fly slower, giving me (ahem, the noob pilot) more reaction time when something goes sideways. Trying to simplify the design by trimming weight has knock-on effects all around.

My latest fully-DIY design threw out anything that brought weight along with it, including some parts I thought were necessary for stiffness or crash resistance. But with the significantly lowered weight, these problems evaporated without needing me to solve them — in a way, the complexity of design was creating the problems that the complexity of design was supposed to solve. Ditching it meant that I had a slow plane, with simple-to-build wings, that’s capable of carrying a lightweight FPV camera. Done and done! Simply.

Nope. Too complex.

At the same time, I’m building a four-axis CNC foam cutter. I’ve built many 3D printers, and played around with other folks’ DIY CNC machines, so I had a few design ideas in my head starting out. My first iteration of an XY axis for the machine runs on metal angle stock with a whopping eight skate bearings per axis. It’s strong and rigid, and clumsy and overkill, in a bad way for this machine.

3D printers want to move a relatively light tool head around a small volume, but relatively quickly. CNC mills need to be extremely rigid and shoulder heavy side loads, subject to some speed constraints. A foam cutter has none of these needs. The hot wire melts the foam by radiation, so there are no loads on the machine because it doesn’t even contact the workpiece. And because it cuts by melting, it has to go slow. These are the places in the design where simplification will bear the most fruit.

I write this in retrospect, or at least from the perspective of a second prototype. I wanted the first design to hold the cutting filament taut, hence the rigid frame. But separating the tension from the motion, by using a lightweight external bow to keep the filament tight, meant that the machine could be dead simple. I could use smaller plastic sliders instead of complex bearings, on thin rods instead of bulky rails. In a day after having this realization, I got twice as far as I had on the previous machine design in a week, and it takes up a lot less space in my basement.

So take your KISS to the next level. Brainstorm a while about the binding constraints on your design, and what relaxing any of them can do. Do any particular simplifications enable further simplifications? Those are the ones that you want to start with. Keep it simple, smartly. And because it’s not always easy to find these multiplier effects, tell your friends!

Over-Engineered Single Button Timer

Feature creep is typically something to be avoided, since watching a relatively simple project balloon into a rat’s nest of complexity often leads to ineffective, or even abandoned, projects. On the other hand, if you can maintain a tight focus, it’s not always a bad thing. [cbm80Amiga] shows us how to drill down and add specific features in this single-button timer without losing focus on what the original project was all about.

The timer is based on an Arduino Pro Mini and an HX1230 LCD with a simple piezo speaker for audible alerts. A single button controls operation of the timer, with short presses incrementing each digit and long presses moving on to the next digit. Controlling button presses this finely is a project in its own, but then [cbm80Amiga] moves on to other features such as backlight control, low power modes which allow it to operate for around two years on a single battery charge, preset times for various kitchen uses, and different appearance settings.

Honestly we aren’t sure how you could cram any more features on this timer without fundamentally altering the designed simplicity. It doesn’t fall into the abyss of feature creep while being packed with features, and it’s another example of how keeping things simple is often a recipe for success.

Thanks to [Hari] for the tip!

Continue reading “Over-Engineered Single Button Timer”

Pushbutton → Push Notification

How many mundane devices upgrade to IoT because they let you monitor a single data point or a variable? That little nudge over the communication precipice allows you to charge 500% more. Now, if you are as handy as a Hackaday reader, you can throw a lazy afternoon at the problem and get the same effect from a “dumb” appliance. If IoT is as simple as getting a notification when your laundry is dry, or your water is boiling, all you really need is a WiFi device and a push notification, right? Does it need to be more complicated than that? [Gianni] believes it is that simple (machine translation) and has built up an easy-to-implement version on Raspberry Pi, Arduino, and ESP8266.

[Gianni] leverages the aptly named Pushover (a paid app with a 1-week trial period) to convert your bits, bytes, words, or strings to a push notification. This idea is born of the desire for a home security system which doesn’t require constant monitoring but instead alerts you to problems. The minimum requirement you need is for your phone to chime with a notification saying, “Your front window sensor has been tripped.” Now it is time to launch your IP camera app or call someone nearby.

It’s not revolutionary, it may be the “Hello World” of IoT, but that is all some people need. The general idea is the same no matter the framework you want to use. For instance, if you Google Suite account, you can set up a chatroom just for your alert notifications; Google’s quickstart takes about 3 minutes to test it out in Python. The same setup is also available for Slack, and [Tom Nardi] did a guide for doing this with Discord. These tackle the receiving side, but the sending side is really flexible too — that MQTT broker you built could easily be the source of the alerts.

Build a handful of these in a weekend and keep them nearby to step up your next project to IoT status with a couple of solder joints. Maybe it will be a motion sensor for your own security system.