Archive for May 1, 2012

[Engineering] – Laser cutter failure, flour costs more than the bread

At work, virtually all my coworker have product development in their “DNA”. We are all creative types, who takes lots of pride in bringing a product from an idea to life. And so consequently, whenever we read about some new widget or tool, we’ve always tried to convince our boss that it would benefit the company tremendously, if only if we have the latest and greatest Super Machine 2000.

Our boss, who’s rarely wrong, always tell us that as design engineers, our time is the most valuable spent designing. “Whenever we need something, and need something quick, we just toss money at someone and have them bang it out and put it in a Fedex overnight box”.
My buddy Dave’s grandparents owns a laser engraver. They own a trophy engraving shop and laundromat down in Renton. It’s really wierd to think of a sweet old lady at the controls of an Epilog 20W CO2 laser system… but she doesreally good work. So the next time you need something engraved, check out the Puhich Dry Cleaners in Renton on 319 Main Ave. South.

I know what a 20W CO2 laser can do; it can do a lot more than mark plastic and burn through anodize layer on aluminum. There was a discussion thread on making lens cap holders, so I drew one up in Soldiworks real quick:


Here’s the test run in paper. So far so good, right?

Unfortunately, the laser engraver is running on Windows 98. It requires a firmware update before it can talk to anything past Win98, and there is always a risk of bricking a machine doing a firmware update. So we are stuck with a computer that works – abet a very slow one, with a parallel port printer connection. (I bet some of the folks I know had never seen one… they went the way of the dodo after USB became popular).

Complicating the problem is that the printer driver runs as a Corel Draw plugin. Corel Draw 8, to be exact. And even the earliest DXF that Solidworks can save the file in, the simple fillets on the drawings don’t quite come through – let alone the more complicated splines and polylines.

The example above worked okay, because the laser cut it out as a *Raster* art, instead of a vector art. But cutting in raster mode drastically drops the laser’s power output. And it’s not like you can run multiple passes over the same piece of PTFE either – the slow heat transfer of doing so just warps the plastic – and the results looked like someone tried cutting the material with a dull butter knife.

Obviously something like this, out of 3mm PMMA, will be a bit out of the question:


So my options are:

1) Try to mitigate the risk of the current laser cutter’s firmware upgrade (maybe see if I can do a hardware replacement of the logic board, upgrade the computer to something snazzy, then retry the Solidworks -> laser cutter workflow.

2) Pay someone like Pololu online to do the laser cutting for me. Essentially, someone else will be eating part of my lunch if these products go on sale. Might be okay if there’s only a few parts, but I’ll have to rethink the design a little bit.

Turns out, RedWolf airsoft out of Hong Kong will happily sell me a 30mm silencer for about $US10.00. Aluminum barrel, both ends with a machined aluminum plug. They even put a 14mm CW thread on one end and 14mm CCW threads on the other, so out of the box, the dang thing will fit on just about every single airsoft gun out there.

In Hong Kong, we have a saying that “the flour costs more than the bread”. The term originated from the housing bubble days where the value of the land gets bid up so quickly that older apartment buildings prices are being outstripped by the land value of neighbouring lots, but it also applies to engineering and business where by some form of competitive advantage (and economies of scale), someone can build a product cheaper than you can even start sourcing raw materials.

Got a cool little bookmark for all my troubles with the laser cutter though…

Tooling Launch, new parts, webstore and more!

Hello Kickstarter!

As we sail pass the 200% funded mark tonight, I’d like to turn our attention back to the engineering side and share some cool news with you all:


What you are looking at is the CAD screenshot for the injection mold for OpenBeam. The yellow and green parts represents the steel core and cavity that will be used to form the plastic parts; the red pins are the “ejection pins” that pushes the parts out of the mold when the mold opens; and the area in the top is the nozzle where plastic is injected. The forces involved in the process is measured in tens of tonnes, so as you can imagine, the mold has to be built out of very, very strong materials.

Two nights ago I signed off on the mold designs; our friends at the injection molder had done a fantastic job with the tooling design and finished this phase of the project 5 days ahead of schedule. If you look at the Gantt chart on the previous update, this means we can start the injection mold fabrication five days earlier. At this rate, we should be able to have injection molded first samples at Seattle Maker Faire.

Eagle-eyed readers might notice that there are extra parts in the mold:


Thanks to all of your support, I was able to add two more parts into the OpenBeam system at launch time. Can you see them in the mold cavity drawings above?

The new parts are:

A feet / end cap


And a 608 bearing to NEMA 17 adapter


The feet end caps are pretty straight forward. You can attach them to either the end of an extrusion or to the side of an extrusion, like so. The screw sit in a counterbore in the part, and you have the option of sticking a 3M Bumpon into the big circular recess to make the part non-skid:


The 608 Bearing to NEMA 17 mount adapter is designed with robotics and machine builders in mind. It allows you to put a 608 bearing (aka rollerblade bearing, one of the most common and least expensive ball bearings on the market) concentric to a NEMA17 motor shaft using the same mounting brackets easily. This allows pulleys, support bearings, idler wheels, etc to be added without much trouble.

The shaft clamp got a slight make-over too, based on usability studies on the 3D printed models:


Now, a single size shaft clamp will clamp on a shaft all the way from 7 to 15mm. Also, a separate screw clamps the shaft clamp to the beam; the inner screws are strictly for clamping onto the shaft. This will make it much easier to work with the shaft clamp and for repositioning things.

The “L plate” got a face lift as well:

TL625-000100-001-A - L Plate, OpenBeam 1515

The additional hole now allows the plate to be in a 45 degree gusset brace:


I couldn’t have made the improvements without your support, so it’s only fair that these changes are reflected in your reward packages. Every reward package will receive a number of the feet pieces; if your reward package came with NEMA 17 motor mount plates, you’ll be receiving the 608 bearing adapters as well.

In other engineering news; some of you have been asking for structural analysis data on OpenBeam. My engineering buddy Jared will be helping me run some simulations – since I lack the necessary FEA package in my version of Solidworks to do so, and I’ve been pretty swamped with business startup tasks. If you’re into racing cars, you should check out Jared’s website here. He does some amazing work, and we should get some nice engineering data from Jared in a week or so.

Other business startup tasks:

You may have noticed the URL in the screenshots that’s molded into each of the plastic parts. As I mentioned in the Kickstarter video – it doesn’t do anyone any good if you cannot buy the components on an individual, a-la-carte basis after the project is over. is currently under development to be the webstore and knowledge base for this product. There, you will find project blogs, application notes, how-to videos, and eventually, the design files for OpenBeam. (Please no-one laugh at the URL, it’s very, very much under development at this point. And please don’t try placing orders. It *will* break. In fact, I will be switching ecommerce host in the next few days).

I am also happy to announce that we have signed up our first retail storefront partnership. Metrix: Create Space will be a stocking distributor here in Seattle; seven days a week, noon till midnight, you will be able to walk in and buy OpenBeam components and extrusions from them. We look forward to announcing more retail partnerships soon. Online dealerships and international sales channels are also in the works.

It’s been a pretty incredible journey so far; every day brings new challenges, new problems to solve – but that’s a subject for the next update. My focus remains the same – to get these parts into your hands as soon as possible, and to show this at as many Maker Fares as I can, and spread the word far and wide. I really look forward to seeing what each of you will be building with this product!

Thank you for your support on OpenBeam,

-=- Terence

(+ somewhat annoyed & neglected girlfriend, and her furry monster puppy)

[Engineering] – Now *THIS* is marketing, in a nutshell

This XKCD cartoon sums it up about marketing oneself:

[Engineering] – Bullet Flight Sensor, Systems Integration

Quick status update on the bullet flight sensor. This is heading into systems integration testing next, where I’ll be firing up each section of the circuit and making sure it all works. Missing is the break beam sensor that I put a air rifle round through by accident :-)


Note the “unusual” arrangement with the pocket wizard. The “hot shoe adapter” is actually plugged into the sensor to simulate a camera’s hotshoe firing the pocket wizard.

[Engineering] – Teaser

Any guesses what this will become? :-)


(Leave a comment, with contact information, if you really want to know ;-) ).

-=- Terence

[Engineering] – Bullet Flight Sensor, Design Validation Testing

Successful night at Tam Labs tonight! :-)

Tonight, the goal was to test the breadboarded prototype of the bullet flight sensor’s electronics. Remember – I am a mechanical engineer; this is a completely new foray into the world of electronics for me, aside from some simple “hook a solid state relay to a microprocessor and bit bang some code to turn on the rice cooker” projects. So even though this may seem like kindergarden EE stuff, it’s a fairly big leap for me, design wise; I’m no longer relying on the ability to clobber code and instead using discrete logic ICs and doing actual calculations and setting RC time constants, etc.

We begin with the breadboarded model:


And our setup in the lab:


On the bench is a trusty oscilloscope to look at the signals at different lines, a DC power supply set to 5V, 100mA current limit, and a signal generator. The signal generator won’t be used for this project here.

First, I verified that the *new* sensor is working – the last one had a round put through it by accident:

Blogged at:

Next, I verified that the 555IC is getting the power that it needs. Turns out that the power rails aren’t fully connected all the way. A bit of poking with an ohm-meter fixed that. Now I am ready to insert my test points:


And trip the break-beam sensor, with my gimpy fingers:

Blogged at:

Orange line, or Ch1, is my sensor’s output. It goes from High to Low when the beam is broken. The turquoise line, or Ch2, is my 555’s trigger output. It goes from low to high when the input pulse is received. That’s a VERY promising sign.

My fat butter fingers can only move so fast through a 10mm opening, so the event scrolls off the oscilloscope’s screen. I tried dropping a small machine screw through the opening, but that actually prove to be much harder than expected (don’t laugh!). Frustrated, I finally came up with the following idea:


By flexing the rubber ducky antenna on one of my pocket wizards and getting it to spring through the break-beam sensor gap, I can generate a quick enough blip from the sensor:

Blogged at:

Each major division is 5 milli-second on this setting, so the rubber ducky antenna is only in the beam’s path for about 10mS. My fingers can’t move *that* fast, for sure :-)

Repeating the test again a few times, got me the same result:

Blogged at:

Note that irregardless of the pulse length from the sensor, the 555’s output always sits at about 35ms. This is a litte bit off from the design goal of 40ms (1/250 second shutter speed, or sync speed on a 1.6x crop camera), but close enough for government work. I attribute the difference in component value tolerances on setting the RC constant.

Now the final test – does the output from the 555 trip the SCR to fire the strobe and pocket wizard?
(I selected an SCR instead of a cheaper / more common transistor. The SCR is rated to 400V, so even an older, high voltage “digital camera killer” flash will work on this sensor. )


*drum roll please*

Nothing happened.

Turns out the same bug that bit me on the 555 timer bit me again. The top and bottom half of the power bus on this breadboard is not connected, and the SCR wasn’t grounded properly because of that. Now, plugging in a pocket wizard, this is what I get (with Ch2 now monitoring the anode of the SCR):

Blogged at:

Interesting, it seems to add a bit of noise to the sensor output line. But the characteristic beep of the PW firing can be heard as the beam is broken. (Note that the sync voltage of the pocket wizard is only 3V or so).

Plugging in the 580EXii:

Blogged at:

Again, some electronic noise on the sensor line, but we got what we need out of it – the clean voltage drop that triggers the monostable multivibrator.

And here’s the happy camera dork with his new toy (click link for video:)

Test firing bullet flight detector switch

Now that the circuit is verified working, I am okay with releasing the resources to order the acrylic for laser cutting to form the chassis, as well as starting PCB layout. Stay tuned… :-)

[Hotlinks] – Cool stuff this week (2010.01.17 -> 2010.01.23)


Mujahid Abdulrahim at the University of Florida has an SAE white paper on the sports of drifting:

Same dude also has 1000fps footage from a Phantom High Speed camera of Mini-Z racers crashing on YouTube. What a cool guy.

TechRestore has a cool series of stop-motion photography of various gadgets being unboxed, disassembled and reassembled. Here’s one of the iPhone 3GS going under the knife. They have a behind the scenes look at how these are done here.

Tormach CNC has a really innovative tool in beta – combining a USB microscope with a CNC mill. It’s part vision based CMM, part machine setup tool. The last part is key – you can reverse engineer a part, and machine a new part using the same tool to setup / reference features already on an existing part.


Garett Kern, of Garett’s Table, has a totally out of this world take on the classic Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich.

Food Pairing is an awesome website for exploring different food pairing options.

[Hotlinks] – Crappy Mandarin, boys with toys

Really bad Mandarin

Came across this priceless video of the current Macau SAR’s chief executive, Mr. Fernando Chui, being sworn in. His Mandarin is unbearably bad, so some prankster had taken the liberty and subtitled it with just about the worse words one can use, given his mispronunciations. So he’s shown essentially in the video talking about fecal matter, pants not fitting, and a sick Dad frying cheese – to the Chinese President Hu Jin Tao.

My mandarin isn’t perfect, but if I’m the chief executive, I’d at least learn how to say my own name, the place I’m running, and the place I report to correctly.

And on the note of good Mandarin speaker, here’s a clip of the Australian PM Kevin Rudd at APEC2007.

Boys with Toys

Came across Vrogy’s photo stream on Flickr. What do you do when you mix a CAD guy, a CNC mill and a cosplaying geek? A website where you can download Solidworks model of the Halo3 sniper rifle, among other things.

And speaking of boys and projectile weapons, here’s an old video of a Rufus Hussey, the “Bean Shooter Man”. Mr. Hussey passed away in the 1990s, so this must be (judging from the Pepsi cans) quite an old video.

And here’s a modern day German guy by the name of Joerg Sprave that designs some really out of this world slingshots, complete with compound ball bearings and load balancing yokes.

Kickstarter campaign is a go!


[DIY] – 3D Camera Rig

I’ve really been lagging on my blogging. Here’s a quick update.

I’ve recently found myself working out of the Beaverton office again, so late one night after finishing up I hopped onto the company’s aging, crusty lathe:

Machining stainless

These are custom captive screws for the Benro quick-release plates I picked up in Hong Kong. I’m mounting the Benro plates to a piece of 8020 1010 extrusion, and the T-slots are a little bit deeper than an ISO standard camera mount. So, for my application, a custom screw would be needed.

I’m actually pretty happy with how this turned out; the machine is old and the hand-ground parting tool isn’t the best for cutting stainless steel.

To chuck the screw into the chuck without damaging it, I took a page from an old machinist trick of slotting a nut with a hacksaw and clamping it in a 3-Jaw chuck. I started with a 1/4-20 x 0.5″ SAE button head socket cap screw.

(Note: Yes, I am aware that the standard tripod thread is a 1/4-20 British Standard Whitworth – cut with a 55 deg angle instead of a 60 deg angle. I challenge the reader to find one here in a hardware store in the good ol’ USA. A 60 deg SAE thread is “close enough” for this application with some very minor interference)

The resultant screw is a bit too long, so I trimmed it down a little bit with my motor tool.

Trimming the screws

The tool is a Taiwanese made version of the Foredom – a 600W motor on a flex shaft and a foot pedal for actuation. It takes all the standard Dremel accessories and it’ll slice through stainless pretty easily. I lined the jaws of my Wilton vice with some engineering paper scrap, and used my pano clamp as a clamping base for the tripod plate. Then, using another machinist’s trick, I put a nut on each of the screws to be cut. When removing the nut, the nut acts as a tap and cleans out any debris on the screw threads and restores the proper thread form. :-)

And BTW – at 20,000+ RPM and with 600W of power behind the disc – any slip up is … painful. Warning: somewhat graphic picture ahead:


The wound looks A LOT worse than it actually is. I think the heat from the abrasive blade cauterized the wound – it didn’t bleed much. Digging all the abrasive grit out under running water was a different story – good reminder to be more careful the next time.

And here’s the finished rig! Now, I need to order some 3D glasses…

3D Camera rig

[Prototyping] – Something you don’t see every day – an SLA machine in action

Now here’s something you don’t see everyday: an SLA machine in action.


The machine in question is a 3D Systems Viper high resolution unit. I used a long exposure on a tripod to capture the actual laser beam tracing the part; the laser is a diode pumped solid state Nd:YVO4 100mW laser. For those of you unfamiliar with how SLA process works, it works like this:

1) A computer solid model is sliced into thin slices, between 0.002″ to 0.003″ thick. All the newer machines are 0.003″ or better in Z-resolution.

2) A laser then traces the cross section in a vat of photopolymer. Okay, by photo-polymer, I mean, a vat of very expensive goo – where the laser touches the goo, the goo turns into plastic. How expensive? I’ve heard that when it first came onto the market, resins were about $5000 – $6000 per gallon. They have since came down in price, but suffice to say it’s a very expensive proposition.

3) After each layer is formed, the platform in the tank drops by a build layer thickness and the goo flows over the part, readying the next layer to be drawn.

4) At the end of the build the platform gets raised again and the goo drains off the part, leaving you with a solid object.

These are very expensive machines – starting price of one of these is in the quarter-million dollar range, and the laser only lasts so many hours before it has to be replaced. Needless to say, unless you’re keeping the machine *very* busy, just the depreciation would eat you alive.

[Photography] – The great Hybrid-DSLR Meetup

Work had me in Southern California this week, performing some first article inspections on some SLA master patterns and cast urethane molds. I took advantage of the plane ticket to visit family and friends in the area, and found out that Phillip Bloom and Mitch from are hosting a Hybrid DSLR meetup in Venice Beach.

Hybrid DSLRs, for those unfamiliar with them, are the latest evolution in photojournalistic tools. They allow the filming of video, often in hi-def, on a digital SLR body. Because of the large sensor size, large pixel site, and often resolution reduction employed to generate the 1080p frames, the image quality on the video is often much less noisier than what can be squeezed out of a high end video camera. Also, inherent with the use of a DSLR body for shooting video is the ability for these bodies to change lenses and maintain good control over depth of field.

This means that for the first time, indy film-makers can chase that shallow DOF film look without the use of expensive lighting trucks and 35mm film cameras. Although the movement is in its infancy, a small industry is springing up around this class of cameras (and as an enterprising engineer, I am wondering what I can do to grab a slice of that pie). There is also a very strong DIY movement too for the less affluent film makers.

Here are some of the rigs present at the meetup:


Here’s your most basic HDSLR rig. Virtually everyone shooting video does so by manually pulling focus, so an LCD hood is pretty essential. This is a Zacuto Z-Finder hood – and quite frankly after playing with all the options out there, you really get what you pay for. These retail for $299 – not cheap – about the cost of an inexpensive prime – but the magnified LCD fills one’s field of view and really allows one to pull focus.

The Zacuto comes with a die-cut VHB adhesive backed mounting flange that sticks onto the back of the LCD. Once stuck there, it can be removed, at the expense of breaking the flange. New flanges are $20.00.

As much of a fan as I am in DIYing; this is something that I’ll have to buy if I choose to go this route. I simply do not possess the optical engineering skills to design something like this.

In this particular case, some sort of directional mic with a windsock is attached to the hotshoe.


Moving onto looking at pull-focuses: here’s the DFocus pull focus system is designed by aerospace engineer David Aldrich in his free time. My kinda guy! :-). At about $150.00 it’s the cheapest pull-focus system out there. Since I don’t have regular access to a mill, I will have to buy one of these systems as well. Might as well support the little guy. carries these.


Here’s another option for focus monitoring while pulling focus. This gentlemen is mounting a portable LCD monitor to a hotshoe to miniball head adapter. There are modifications out there to put a sunscreen on the LCD as well so that it is daylight readable. This particular LCD monitor was purchased on Planet 5D forum group buys and comes from some generic factory in China.


On the other extreme end, ViewFinder LLC demonstrated their fly-by-wire radio controlled pull focus system. A RF link between the control module here drives a servo-motor setup. If you have to ask, you probably can’t afford it. That system costs more than my 5D Mk II – for the pull focus alone.


The rest of ViewFinder LLC’s stuff is equally … well crafted. See those silver connectors? Those are LEMO connectors. Swiss made, precision medical grade connectors. Idenitfy those as such publicly, and the engineer who designed that system will size you up and see how good our engineering skillz are. These guys also build accessories for the Red Camera folks – so they are doing some very high end work. All their support cages are billet CNC machined.


A really cool feature of ViewFinderLLC is their remote video start switch, positioned near the user’s thumb in the grip setup above. Apparently, on the 5Dii, putting it in 2 second timer mode, and configuring the live view screen to video only will start the video recording if the “shutter release” IR signal is received from a Canon RC1 remote unit. Now I’ll have to find a RC1 and a way to reverse engineer that IR signal…

Here are a few more of the big boy rigs:


Most of these rigs consists of a pair of rails, onto which the camera body, lens adapter / DOF adapter, lens, pull focus system, and a matt box system to control flare mounted on a pair of 15mm rails. Stainless and carbon fiber are the material of choice here for building these rigs. Kinda like expensive Legos, I imagine. Actually, the only thing expensive about these rigs is the machining. Everyone is billet CNCing the clamps, when an extrusion tool would be cheaper. No one thinks that an extrusion tool is worth the effort to do, and the MOQ on an extrusion is high. On the other hand – by CNC machining the parts, the costs are kept high, so it locks out the more budget-conscious folks. Talk about a Catch-22 situation.


Closeup of the battery reveals it to be a generic Li-Ion pack. That I certainly can build…


Here’s a home-made camera stabilizer, using copper pipes, washers for weight, and a Traxx monster truck universal joint for the swivel. It’s very twitchy, as far as stabilization goes. I am not sure if this is a design path that I want to go down; I’m going to try a silicone grease dampened design first.


Another great rig, featuring a rifle stock and a Zacuto finder again. These Zacuto units are quite popular.


Here’s Hunter’s slide rail system. This allows the camera to slide laterally during a shot. This particular system uses TGP (Turned Ground and Polished) steel rails with an oil filled bronze linear bearing. It slides really smoothly.

Slider rail

Here’s Yaro’s version of the same thing. I asked him if it was DIYed and he gave me a strange look. Turns out someone online builds them and sells ‘em. I pointed out that they were all stock 8020 extrusion parts.

For those interested; the parts in questions are:

1020 extrusion piece (base rail – avail up to 140+” long)

Slider (linear bearing) appears to be part # 6535.
This section of the 8020 catalog has all the linear slider components, along with the replacement UHMW inserts for the bearing slides, for those of you going the DIY route.

While we are on the subject of camera slides and camera dollies, here’s a hack to convert an IKEA shelf piece into a camera dolly track system:

In the DIY spirit, here’s a 3D photo / video system, rocking twin 7Ds with nifty fifties. Note the use of the 80/20 profiles for spacing the cameras:


There as so much gear floating around, even carrying my “full combat load” I honestly felt like an iPhone shooter at a UW garage shoot. So it was refreshing to finally see someone with *JUST* a 5D Mk II :-)


And finally, the overhead cam group shot:


A big thanks to Phillip Bloom for putting it together and Planet5D for helping to spread the word!


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