Hackaday Links: June 28, 2020

You can imagine how stressful life is for high-power CEOs of billion-dollar companies in these trying times; one is tempted to shed a tear for them as they jet around the world and plan their next big move. But now someone has gone and upset the applecart by coming up with a way to track executive private jets as they travel across North America. This may sound trivial, but then you realize that hedge fund managers pay big money for the exact same data in order to get an idea of who is meeting with whom and possibly get an idea of upcoming mergers and acquisitions. It’s also not easy, as the elites go to great lengths to guard their privacy. Luckily, the OpenSky Network lists all ADS-B traffic its web of ground stations receives, unlike other flight monitoring sites which weed out “sensitive” traffic. Python programs scrape the OpenSky API and cross-reference plane registrations with the FAA database to see which company jets are doing what. There are plenty of trips to Aspen and Jackson Hole to filter out, but with everyone and his little brother fancying themselves a day trader lately, it’s another tool in the toolbox.

We got a nice note from Michelle Thompson this week thanking us for mentioning the GNU Radio Conference in last week’s Links article, and in particular for mentioning the virtual CTF challenge that they’re planning. It turns out that Michelle is deeply involved in designing the virtual CTF challenge, after having worked on the IRL challenges at previous conferences. She shared a few details of how the conference team made the decision to go forward with the virtual challenge, inspired in part by the success of the Hack-A-Sat qualifying rounds, which were also held remotely. It sounds like the GNU Radio CTF challenge will be pretty amazing, with IQ files being distributed to participants in lieu of actually setting up receivers. We wish Michelle and the other challenge coordinators the best of luck with the virtual con, and we really hope a Hackaday reader wins.

Amateur radio is often derided as a hobby, earning the epithet “Discord for Boomers” according to my son. There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but there are actually plenty of examples where a ham radio operator has been able to make a big difference in an emergency. Case in point is this story from the Western Massachusetts ARRL. Alden Jones (KC1JWR) was hiking along a section of the Appalachian Trail in southern Vermont last week when he suddenly got light-headed and collapsed. A passing hiker who happened to be an emergency medical technician rendered aid and attempt to contact 911 on his cell phone, but coverage was spotty and the dispatcher couldn’t hear him. So Alden, by this point feeling a little better, pulled out his handy talkie and made an emergency call to the local repeater. Luckily the Western Massachusetts Traffic Net was just about to start, so they went into emergency mode and coordinated the response. One of the hams even went to the rescue staging area and rigged up a quick antenna to improve the signal so that rescuers could finally get a helicopter to give Alden a ride to the hospital. He’s fine now, and hats off to everyone who pitched in on the eight-hour rescue effort.

And finally, there are obviously a lot of details to be worked out before anyone is going to set foot on the Moon again. We’ve got Top People™ working on all the big questions, of course, but apparently NASA needs a little help figuring out how and where the next men and first women on the Moon are going to do their business. The Lunar Loo Challenge seeks innovative designs for toilets that can be used in both microgravity and on the lunar surface. There is $35,000 in prize money for entrants in the Technical division; NASA is also accepting entries in a Junior division, which could prove to be highly entertaining.

BinDayCator Lets You Know When To Take Out The Trash

Municipal waste pickup is a wonderful luxury. Typically once a week, large trucks come by and pick up bins of garbage from your residence. All you have to do is remember to put them out! In a uniquely human way, this is very hard to do. Enter the BinDayCator.

The project consists of a 3D-printed model of a typical council wheelie-bin. Printed in white filament, the bin is translucent enough to glow when lit by powerful WS2812B LEDs. Having four LEDs both helps fill the entire model with an even light, as well as allows the bin to display multiple colors in different segments. This means that if it’s green bin day, the bin glows green. If it’s the day for the red and blue bins, the indicator will light up segments in red and blue.

Unfortunately there’s no global standard that councils use to serve up bin day data over the Internet, so configuration isn’t as simple as pointing the BinDayCator at your local waste authority’s website. Instead, some Node-RED code is used to scrape the council website once a day and tell the ESP8266 controlling the BinDayCator which bins are due to be placed on the roadside. A later revision has a custom calendar UI that can allow for manual configuration of the relevant days.

The BinDayCator is a cute device, and one that would likely be commercially successful if there were a simple and easy way to configure the necessary data feed. We’d love one by our front door so we didn’t miss another collection day. Visual indicators are always useful, even if its just for checking the mail. Video after the break.

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Innovative Bird Feeder Design Recycles Recycling’s Garbage

Recycling beverage cartons isn’t 100% efficient. The process yields some unusable garbage as a byproduct. Why? Because containers like juice boxes are mostly paper, but also contain plastic and aluminum. The recycling process recovers the paper fibers for re-use, but what’s left after that is a mixture of plastic rejects and other bits that aren’t good for anything other than an incinerator or a landfill. Until now, anyway!

It turns out it is in fact possible to turn such reject material into a product that can be injection-molded, as shown here with [Stefan Lugtigheid]’s SAM bird feeder design. The feeder is not just made from 100% recycled materials, it’s made from the garbage of the recycling process — material that would otherwise be considered worthless. Even better, the feeder design has only the one piece. The two halves are identical, which reduces part count and simplifies assembly.

[Stefan] makes it clear that the process isn’t without its quirks. Just because it can be injection-molded doesn’t mean it works or acts the same as regular plastic. Nevertheless, the SAM birdfeeder demonstrates that it can definitely be put to practical use. We’ve seen creative reprocessing of PET bottles and sheet stock made from 3D printed trash, but recycling the garbage that comes from recycling drink cartons is some next-level stuff, for sure.

The Woeful World Of Worldwide E-Waste

How large is the cache of discarded electronics in your home? They were once expensive and cherished items, but now they’re a question-mark for responsible disposal. I’m going to dig into this problem — which goes far beyond your collection of dead smartphones — as well as the issues of where this stuff ends up versus where it should end up. I’m even going to demystify the WEEE mark (that crossed out trashcan icon you’ve been noticing on your gadgets), talk about how much jumbo jets weigh, and touch on circular economies, in the pursuit of better understanding of the waste streams modern gadgets generate.

Our lives are encountering an increasing number of “how do I dispose of this [X]” moments, where X is piles of old batteries, LCDs, desktop towers, etc. This leads to relationship-testing piles of garbage potential in a garage or the bottom of a closet. Sometimes that old gear gets sold or donated. Sometimes there’s a handy e-waste campaign that swings through the neighborhood to scoop that pile up, and sometimes it eventually ends up in the trash wrapped in that dirty feeling that we did something wrong. We’ve all been there; it’s easy to discover that responsible disposal of our old electronics can be hard.

Fun fact: the average person who lives in the US generates 20 kg of e-waste annually (or about 44 freedom pounds). That’s not unique, in the UK it’s about 23 kg (that’s 23 in common kilograms), 24 kg for Denmark, and on and on. That’s quite a lot for an individual human, right? What makes up that much waste for one person? For that matter, what sorts of waste is tracked in the bogus sounding e-waste statistics you see bleated out in pleading Facebook posts? Unsurprisingly there are some common definitions. And the Very Serious People people at the World Economic Forum who bring you the definitions have some solutions to consider too.

We spend a lot of time figuring out how to build this stuff. Are we spending enough time planning for what to do with the gear once it falls out of favor? Let’s get to the bottom of this rubbish.
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The Metabolizer Turns Trash Into Treasure

The amount of stuff we humans throw away is too damn high, and a bunch of it harms the ecosystem. But what are you gonna do? [Sam Smith] thinks we can do better than shoving most of it in a landfill and waiting for it to break down. That’s why he’s building The Metabolizer. It’s a series of systems designed to turn household trash (including plastic!) into useful things like fuel, building materials, and 3D prints.

The idea is to mimic the metabolism of a living organism and design something that can break down garbage into both useful stuff and fuel for itself. [Sam] is confident that since humans figured out how to make plastic, we can figure out a system to metabolize it. His proof-of-concept plan is to break down waste into combustible, gaseous fuel and use that fuel to power a small engine. The engine will power an open-source plastic shredder and turn a generator that powers an open-source plastic pellet printer like the SeeMeCNC Part Daddy.

Shredding plastic for use as a biomass requires condensing out the tar and hydrocarbons. This process leaves carbon monoxide and hydrogen syngas, which is perfect for running a Briggs & Stratton from Craigslist that’s been modified to run on gaseous fuel. Condensation is a nasty process that we don’t advise trying unless you know what you’re doing. Be careful, [Sam], because we’re excited to watch this one progress. You can watch it chew up some plastic after the break.

If [Sam] ever runs out of garbage to feed The Metabolizer, maybe he could build a fleet of trash-collecting robots.

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Waste Shark Aims To Clean Our Harbours And Oceans

Drones are adding functionality to our everyday lives, and automation is here to help humanity whether we’re ready for it or not. In a clever combination of the two, [Richard Hardiman] of RanMarine has developed small drone-boats that scoop up garbage from the ocean — he calls them ‘Waste Sharks.’

The two models — slim and fatboy — aim to collect up to 1,100 pounds of garbage apiece in the ‘mouths’ just below the water’s surface. The Waste Sharks are still restricted to remote control and are only autonomous when traveling between waypoints, but one can see how this technology could evolve into the “Wall-E of water.”

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Lessons In Small Scale Manufacturing From The Othermill Shop Floor

Othermachine Co. is not a big company. Their flagship product, the Othermill, is made in small, careful batches. As we’ve seen with other small hardware companies, the manufacturing process can make or break the company. While we toured their factory in Berkeley California, a few interesting things stood out to us about their process which showed their manufacturing competence.

It’s not often that small companies share the secrets of their shop floor. Many of us have dreams of selling kits, so any lessons that can be learned from those who have come before is valuable. The goal of any manufacturing process optimization is to reduce cost while simultaneously maintaining or increasing quality. Despite what cynics would like to believe, this is often entirely possible and often embarrassingly easy to accomplish.

Lean manufacturing defines seven wastes that can be optimized out of a process.

  1. Overproduction: Simply, making more than you currently have demand for. This is a really common mistake for first time producers.
  2. Inventory: Storing more than you need to meet production or demand. Nearly every company I’ve worked for has this problem. There is an art to having just enough. Don’t buy one bulk order of 3,000 screws for six months, order 500 screws every month as needed.
  3. Waiting: Having significant delays between processes. These are things ranging from running out of USB cables to simply having to wait too long for something to arrive on a conveyor belt. Do everything you can to make sure the process is always flowing from one step to another.
  4. Motion: If you have a person walking back and forth between the ends of the factory to complete one step of the manufacturing process, this is wasted motion.
  5. Transport: Different from motion, this is waste in moving the products of each individual process between sections of the assembly.
  6. Rework: Get it right the first time. If your process can’t produce a product that meets specifications, fix the process.
  7. Over-processing: Don’t do more work than is necessary. If your part specifies 1000 hours of runtime don’t buy a million dollar machine to get 2000 hours out of it. If you can find a way to do it with one step, don’t do it with three.

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The first thing that stuck out to me upon entering Othermachine Co’s shop floor is their meticulous system for getting small batches through the factory in a timely manner. This allows them to scale their production as their demand fluctuates. CNCs and 3D printers are definitely seasonal purchases; with sales often increasing in the winter months when hackers are no longer lured away from their workstations by nice weather.

As the seven sins proclaim. It would be a bad move for Othermachine Co. to make too many mills. Let’s say they had made an extra 100 mills while demand was at a seasonal low. If they found a design or quality problem from customer feedback they’d have to commit to rework, potentially throwing away piles of defective parts. If they want to push a change to the machine or release a new model they’d either have to rework the machines, trash them, or wait till they all sold before improving their product. Even worse, they may find themselves twiddling their thumbs waiting for their supply to decrease enough to start manufacturing again. This deprives them of opportunities to improve their process and leads to a lax work environment.

One way to ensure that parts are properly handled and inventory is kept to a minimum is with proper visual controls. To this end, Othermachine Co has custom cardboard bins made that perfectly cradle all the precision parts for each process in their own color coded container. Since the shop floor is quite small, it lets them focus on making spindle assemblies one day and motion assemblies another without having to waste time between each step. Also, someone can rekit the parts for a recently completed step easily without interrupting work on the current process going on.

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It’s hard to define what’s over processing and what isn’t. My favorite example of what isnt, and something I’ve fought for on nearly every factory floor I’ve worked on is proper torque limiting screwdrivers. They’re a little expensive, but they are a wonderful tool that helps to avoid costly rework and over processing. For example, let’s say you didn’t have a torque limiting screwdriver. Maybe your customers would complain that occasionally a screw came loose. Now, one way to solve this would be the liberal application of Loctite. Another way would be an additional inspection step. Both of these are additional and completely uneccessary steps as most screws will hold as long as they are torqued properly.

In one factory I worked in, it was often a problem that a recently hired worker would overtorque a screw, either stripping it or damaging the parts it was mating together. A torque limiting screwdriver takes the worker’s physical strength out of the equation, while reducing their fatigue throughout the day. It’s a win/win. Any time a crucial step can go from unknown to trusted with the application of a proper tool or test step it is worth it.

Another section where Othermachine Co. applied this principle is with the final machining step for the CNC bed. The step produces a large amount of waste chips. Rather than having an employee waste time vacuuming out every Othermill after it has gone through this process, they spent some time designing a custom vacuum attachment. This essentially removed an entire production step. Not bad!

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With the proper management of waste it is entirely possible to save money and improve a process at the same time. It takes a bit of training to learn how to see it. It helps to have an experienced person around in order to learn how to properly respond to them, but with a bit of practice it becomes a skill that spreads to all areas of life. Have any of you had experience with this kind of problem solving? I’ve really enjoyed learning from the work stories posted in the comments.