You Can Learn a Lot From a Blinkenrocket

At this year’s Chaos Communication Congress, we caught up with [muzy] and [overflo], who were there with a badge and soldering project they designed to teach young folks how to solder and program. Blinkenrocket is a basically a 64-LED matrix display and just enough support hardware to store and display animations, and judging by the number of blinking rockets we saw around the necks of attendees, it was a success.

Their talk at 34C3 mostly concerns the production details, design refinements, and the pitfalls of producing thousands of a thing. If you’re thinking of building a hardware kit or badge on this scale, you should really check it out and crib some of their production optimization tricks.

For instance, instead of labelling the parts “C2” or “R: 220 Ohms”, they used a simple color-coding scheme. This not only makes it easier for kids to assemble, but it also means that they didn’t have to stick 1,000 part labels on every component. Coupled with [overflo]’s Zerhacker, SMD parts in strips were cut to the right length and color-coded in one step, done by machine.

The coolest feature of the Blinkenrocket itself is the audio programming interface. It’s like in the bad old days of software stored on cassette tapes, but it’s a phenomenal interface for getting a simple animation out of a web app and straight into a piece of minimal hardware — just plug it into a laptop or cell phone’s audio out and press “play” in the browser. The original design tried to encode the data in the pulse-length of square waves, but this turned out to be very hardware dependent. The final design used frequency-shift keying. What’s old is new again.

Everything you could want to know about the design, its code, and even the website itself are up on the project’s GitHub page, so go check it out. If you’d like to arrange a Blinkenrocket workshop yourself, shoot [muzy] or [overflo] an e-mail. Full disclosure: [overflo] gave us a kit, the “hard-mode” SMD one with 0805 1206 parts, and it was fun to assemble and program.

Give Workshop Pencils a Flush-Mounted Home

Pencils and pens are apt to go wandering in a busy workshop if they don’t have a handy storage spot. For most of us a soup can or an old coffee mug does the trick, but for a prettier and more useful holder [Stuff I Made] has a short video demonstrating a storage unit made from an elbow fitting and a scrap piece of plywood. He cuts a plywood disk that is friction-fit into one end of the elbow, then it gets screwed into a wall making an attractively flush-mounted holder in a convenient spot.

With the right joint the bottom of the holder remains accessible, as a 90 degree bend would be no good. With a shallower joint angle, a regular screwdriver can still reach the mounting screw and it’s possible to access the bottom of the holder just in case it needs cleaning or something small falls inside. You can see the process and results in the video embedded below. Not bad for one screw, a spare joint, and a scrap piece of plywood.

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Tricked-Out Tablet Becomes Workbench Tool

The workbench of the typical electronics hobbyist today would probably be largely recognizable by Heathkit builders back in the 60s and 70s. But where the techs and tinkerers of yesteryear would have had a real dead-tree SAMS Photofact schematic spread out on the bench, today you’ll get more use out of a flat-screen display for data sheets and schematics, and this handy shop Frankentablet might be just the thing to build.

Tablets like the older Nexus 9 that [enginoor] used as the basis for this build have a little bit of a form-factor problem because unlike a laptop, a tablet isn’t very good at standing up on its own. To fix that, they found a suitable silicone skin for the Nexus, and with some silicone adhesive began bedazzling the back of the tablet. A bendy tripod intended for phones was added, and with the tablet able to stand on its own they maximized the USB port with a right angle adapter and a hub. Now the tablet has a USB drive, a mouse, and a keyboard, ready for perusing data sheets online. And hackers of a certain age will appreciate the eyeball-enhancing potential of the attached USB microscope.

[enginoor]’s bench tablet is great, but we’ve seen full-fledged bench PCs before too. Take your pick — wall mounted and floating, or built right into the workbench.

Thanks to [ccvi] for the tip.

The Clutter Manifesto

My basement workshop is so crammed full of stuff I literally can’t use it. My workbench, a sturdy hardwood library table, is covered in junk to the point that I couldn’t find a square foot that didn’t have two layers of detritus on it — the top layer is big things like old projects that no longer work, boxes of stuff, fragile but light things perched on top. Underneath is the magma of bent resistors, snippets of LED strip, #4 screws, mystery fasteners I’ll never use, purple circuit boards from old versions of projects, and a surprising number of SparkFun and Adafruit breakouts that have filtered down from higher up in the heap.

When work on something I bring the parts up to the dining room and work on the table, which is great for many reasons — more space, better light, and superior noms access top the list. The down side is that I don’t devote any time to making my real shop into a viable working place, and it becomes a cluttered store room by default.

I am therefore focusing on a four-part plan to reclaim my work space from heaps of junk.

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Mike Harrison’s Reverse Engineering Workshop

Hardware teardowns are awesome when guided by experts. One of our favorites over the years has been [Mike Harrison], who has conquered teardowns of some incredibly rare and exquisitely engineered gear, sharing the adventure on his YouTube channel: mikeselectricstuff. Now he’s putting on a workshop to walk through some of the techniques he uses when looking at equipment for the first time.

[Mike] will be in Pasadena a few days early for the Hackaday Superconference and floated the idea of hosting a workshop. We ordered up some interesting gear which he hasn’t had a chance to look at yet. A dozen lucky workshop attendees will walk through the process [Mike] uses to explore the manufacturing and design choices — skills that will translate to examining any piece of unknown gear. He may even delve into the functionality of the equipment if time allows. Get your ticket right now!

To keep things interesting we’re not going to reveal the equipment until after the fact. But follow the event page where we’ll publish the details of his reverse engineering work after the workshop.

[Mike] is the badge designer for this year’s Hackaday Superconference badge. Unfortunately Supercon is completely sold out (we tried to warn you) but you can check out the badge details he already published. And we will be live streaming the Supercon this year — more details on that next week!

The Most Useless Tools You Can’t Seem to Part With

I’m a tool person. No matter how hard I try, I eventually end up with a bunch of tools that I just can’t bear to banish from my workshop. Why? I’m gonna keep it 100%: it’s the same emotion behind hoarding — fearing that you might need a thing later and not be able to have it.

The stuff costs money, and if you have to script to buy a bunch of tools pertaining to Project X, you expect to still have and probably need those very same tools — even if they have to sit in a box on my shelf for 20 years, taunting me every time I have to move it to one side.  “Heat-bending element” the box’s label describes at tool I haven’t used in at least 5 years. I have a bunch of these white elephants. I’ll probably need to heat-bend acrylic real soon… yeah.

I’ve found that pretty much everyone in our crowd can relate. You buy a special tool for one project and it was expensive and tremendously helpful, and since then it’s been sitting around uselessly. You certainly couldn’t part with it, what if you needed it again? So you store it in your house for 20 years, occasionally coming across it when looking for something else, but it never actually gets used.

Join me now in a walk down our memory lane of useless tools.

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It’s A Wall-Mounted Dremel Workstation!

We’ve all seen Dremel drill presses, but [Tuomas Soikkeli] has created a full-fledged (albeit miniature) workstation using his Dremel as the motor. He has a gnome-sized belt sander with what appear to be skateboard wheels turning the belt, with the Dremel’s toolhead tensioning the belt and turning it as well. There’s a wee table saw, petite lathe, cute router, etc.

The Dremel attaches to the base via the 3/4-to-1/2 threaded end upon which specialized tool ends may be connected, and which DIY add-ons (like this light ring that we published previously) typical connect. Though in truth the threaded end varies in tensile strength from model to model — even the knockoffs have the same end, but is it strong enough to attach to the rig?

We like how [Tuomas] has his rig mounted to the wall. It looks like he has a couple of flexible shaft extenders nearby, allowing the rig to almost serve same role as a shop’s air tools.

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