Archive for the ‘gEEk’ Category

AllElectronics “Mystery Infrared Device” with LIRC

NOTE: This device is no longer sold; rescuing this information before it disappears from various caches.

Description of the device from AllElectronics:
Our best guess is this is an infrared receiver/ transmitter for use with televisions or other remote-controlled equipment. Made for OnCommand™, it consists of a small black box, 2″ x 1.95″ x 0.6″ with a dark-red plastic IR window on one side. Inside is a small pc board with four clear LEDs and a module that looks like an IR receiver. There is a 3.5mm phone jack and a 6′ 6-conductor phone cord with a modular phone plug.
CAT# IR-13

Various information on modification for use with a PC: (pulled from cache of AllElectronics product review page)

Reviewer: Seth Marks from CRYSTAL LAKE, IL US
This circuit can be used with one minor modification to make a serial IR receiver for use with LIRC. Connect the following: White Wire to DCD (Pin 1), Red Wire to RTS (Pin 7), Blue Wire – GND (Pin 5) The only modification you must perform is to add a pullup resistor between the output pin on the IR transmittor (connected to the white wire) and “In” on the 78l05 (the pin on the main IC closest to the red wire). Seems to work great.

Note: I (Tim) have personally used these instructions and can confirm that they work. With the white/data wire tied to DCD as above, make sure to select “DCD Device” rather than “Rx Device” in the (Win)LIRC serial receiver settings.

Reviewer: Mike from SAN ANTONIO, TX US
Just received this module and started playing around with it. This is what i figured out for the wiring. Yellow and Blue- ground, Red and Green- positive(around 9-12VDC), White- IR out, Black- IR in, 3.5mm jack- External IR emitter If you jumper the white and black together whatever is received from the ir receiver is transmitted out the four IR emitters on the board.(IR amplifier)Or plug in an IR emitter to the jack and controll hard to reach equipment.I have thought up many ways of using these modules.

CNC milling custom 40DP timing belt “gears”/pulleys

Woo, it’s been a long time since I messed with pick & place stuff. Bad Tim.

An irritation I have been having is making everything work using reliably sourceable, off-the-shelf parts (not lucky eBay/surplus finds). In particular I’ve found small “tin can” stepper motors are hard to source in small quantities repeatably, and once you do, finding timing belt pulleys to fit the shaft of the motor you’ve just scored is a fresh new challenge. In a previous iteration, I use some steel tubing and superglue to shim a motor shaft up to size(ish), but here is an alternate approach: my “pick & place” machine is just my CNC machine with a vacuum head bolted on, so why not just cut some pulleys on a CNC machine?

14-Tooth 40DP Pulley

14-Tooth 40DP Pulley, carve on a CNC mill using a 1/32″ bit

For reference, here is the existing head in action.

This last attempt used the “40DP” type small timing belts/pulleys* since they seemed to be readily available here. Despite the massive main pulley and tiny one on the motor, the gear ratio works out to only about 5.2:1. This is adequate for a typical 1.8deg/step stepper (~0.35 degrees/step final head resolution), but pretty coarse for a 7.5deg/step tin-can motor. This is the smallest ‘proper’ stepper I can find in hobbyist quantity and pricing, and it seems to work well. The shaft diameter is 4mm. (Sidenote: A note on the product’s page indicates it now comes with a flatted shaft. You may wish to augment the below to take advantage of this.)

Here is what I did to make a 40DP pulley to work with the new motor. Similar process ought to work for other pulley profiles and sizes.

Thingiverse user drofarts has put together a set of parametric pulley design files in OpenSCAD format. These are CAD files, but more like a text scripting language than a traditional CAD package. You need to install OpenSCAD to use these files if you don’t have it already. Open the desired file and tweak parameters as needed, such as the desired profile, number of teeth, shaft diameter, etc. Use Design -> Compile and Render to see what you’re going to get. For best results in the next step, set the ‘no_of_nuts’ parameter to zero to simplify the output. When satisfied, use Design -> Export as STL… to save the file.

OpenSCAD pulley output

If you were planning to make it on a 3D printer, you’re pretty much done! You can output .stl directly. I don’t have one and will be carving it on a CNC mill, so an extra step is necessary. Basically, you’re going to want to carve the 3D model down to a simplified, 2D representation of just the pulley profile, and do any CNC/toolpath-specific monkeying in your favorite CNC software. For this, OpenSCAD’s ‘projection’ feature can be used. I created a separate scad file that simply imports the .stl from the first step and presents a 2D projection of the pulley profile only.

projection(cut=true) translate([0,0,-8.5]) import("C:/data/projects/pickplace/head/pulleys/Pulley_T-MXL-XL-HTD-GT2_N-tooth.stl");

Change the path and filename to the file you generated, of course. The negative Z ‘translate’ parameter lowers the part partially below the ‘floor’ (zero), which, combined with the ‘cut=true’ projection parameter, causes the bottom part of the pulley (large flanged base with setscrew holes we can’t cut on the CNC) to be excluded from the projection. You may need to modify this parameter depending on the height of the pulley you generated.

OpenSCAD pulley output (sliced)

Then save this using Design -> Export as DXF.

I cut this pulley from a piece of flat Delrin stock using a 1/32″ (0.03125 inch / 0.79375mm) router bit. A larger bit may not be able to get in between the teeth for 40DP profile. In my CNC software (CamBam) I added a bottom shoulder by outside pocketing the pulley profile to 1/4″ depth, then carving the rest of the way through the stock at a slightly larger diameter. If needed, a top shoulder can be added by gluing a washer to the top of the newly created pulley.

But does it work?

Yes :-) Below are some comparison images of the homemade pulley vs. a commercially available one. The latter is fine except that it doesn’t come in the shaft diameter I need.

Homemade pulley (right) and commercially available pulley (left)

The quality of the pulley-belt meshing between the two is comparable. The tooth depth on the homemade one could stand to be a bit deeper, but I haven’t noticed a difference in performance so far.

New pulley on motor

New pulley mounted on the new 4mm motor’s shaft. Perfect fit!

* I can’t seem to find any source/documentation on what the various timing belt “standards” are, or what makes one different/better than another. Also, that source seems to have gone out of business. Suggestions for either of these resources welcome.

Fun with cheap TV-tuner dongles and Software Defined Radio (SDR)

So, last week I joined the bandwagon of exploring software-defined radio (SDR) via one of those super-cheap Chinese TV tuner USB sticks. In a nutshell, the idea of SDR is that, rather than the traditional approach of building dedicated radio receiver hardware for each possible RF band and modulation type (here’s your AM radio, here’s your FM radio, here’s your TV receiver…), each of which can only do one thing, we can simply make an extremely *wide* bandwidth receiver frontend that captures ALL the signals, shovel the raw waveform into a computer, and emulate all the desired radio receiver frontends and tuning in software via digital filtering. New type of radio scheme just got invented? You don’t have to buy/build a new radio receiver, just download this update! Historically, this ‘universal receiver’ has been somewhat hairy and expensive to build. The most well-known (and open-source!) is probably the Universal Software Radio Peripheral, most commonly associated with the gnuradio project. Recently though, Antti Palosaari and other clever folks discovered that a $20 USB TV tuner can be pressed into service as a ‘universal enough’ receiver for many purposes.

There are many ‘flavors’ of the sticks that work for this. These sticks consist of two parts (as far as you’re concerned): a frontend tuner chip, and the Realtek RTL2832U demodulator chip. The latter also includes the USB interface. RTL2832U-based sticks are popular because, while it is officially intended to output TV/FM signal data, it is easy to put this IC into a mode where it dumps the raw tuner output directly to the USB port at high speed. This allows user software to bend, fold, mutilate and decode arbitrary radio signals as it sees fit.

The ‘tuner’ part of this stick is somewhat interchangeable; they all do pretty much the same thing (although some are better or worse at the job for our purposes). A large list of tuners, and the products they appear in, is being maintained here. The Elonics E4000 tuner is regarded as the ‘best’ as it can tune over a wider range (64-1700MHz, with a small coverage gap in the middle) compared to the others. Note however, because of the ‘interchangeable’ nature of the tuners, the stick you receive is not at all guaranteed to contain the tuner you wanted – it will most likely contain whichever flavor was cheapest in China at the time this batch was manufactured. The Realtek IC is much less likely to be substituted with another part since all the USB drivers (or at least USB VID/PID codes) would have to be rewritten.

Case in point; the one I bought was the ezcap DVB-T/DAB/FM stick; upon cracking it open I found an FC0013 tuner rather than the E4000 others have reported.

Some Software

Several SDR software packages (other than, of course, gnuradio) have now been written or updated to accept data from the RTL2832U, and present it in a user-friendly manner. These consist generally of a frequency/tuning setting, spectral plot, waterfall plot (sort of a stripchart of the time-varying spectrum over the last 30 seconds or so), and various options for demodulating a user-specified portion of the spectrum (usually to the form of audio played back on the speakers).
Some that I have tested so far are:

Gqrx SDR receiver – For Linux; supports several common modulations including AM, FM (wide/narrow), and SSB. At the time of this writing, you have to pull an experimental source tree and compile it yourself to get the (very recently added) support for RTL dongles. Luckily, this (for me at least) went painlessly following this tutorial (Gqrx portion begins on page 2; warning: annoying float-over ads); it just takes a while.

HDSDR – For Windows; supports even more modulations (AM, FM, ECSS, single sideband (lower, upper), CW, DRM) and allows the filter bandwidth to be adjusted in most cases. This program is freeware, but not open-source.

SDR# (SDR-Sharp) – For Windows; supported modulations include AM, FM (narrow/wide), single (lower/upper) and dual sideband, CW (lower, upper). This is my personal favorite so far, as the filter bandwidth can be arbitrarily set and easily fine-tuned by simply clicking and dragging the filter envelope shown on the waterfall plot. Tuning can also be accomplished by dragging the spectrum plot as a ‘radio dial’ besides the usual typing/mousewheeling in the Frequency field.

Note that the RTL support in these programs (and in some cases the programs themselves) are very new; they may be much evolved from the anecdotes above by the time you read this.

Some Oddities

Heat issues
When my shiny new tuner stick arrived I wasted no time building gqrx and firing it up. I was rather dismayed to find that the tuner frequency set in the software seemed to have absolutely no correlation to the frequency actually tuned (confirmed by finding some local FM radio stations and comparing their spoken station identifications to the frequency displayed). Same story on other software. It turns out that these chips run pretty warm, and mine arrived on about the hottest day of the year – after a few minutes of being plugged in, the stick was overheating and the tuner IC was no longer responding to commands. This has been mostly solved by removal of the stick’s plastic case and cooler overall temperatures. It seems others have seen the same problem on similar sticks; this user (original Romanian) (English translation) solved it by cutting a hole in the case and bonding a small heatsink to the IC.

Aliasing and other ghosts
With the overheating issue sorted, I confirmed some ‘known’ FM radio stations were where they belonged… but noticed strong FM stations also popping up at truly bizarre locations on the dial. It turns out these sticks are prone to showing you aliased signals and other forms of ‘ghost’ signals. Aliasing occurs when a high-frequency signal is undersampled. As I understand it, these sticks ‘demodulate’ a signal by multiplying the incoming signal with a reference frequency (the ‘local oscillator’, or LO), causing it to be frequency-shifted down to something more manageable. (In most SDR software, the ‘center frequency’ adjustment for tuning adjusts the LO.) Poor filtering of strong signals can cause accidental demodulation of those signals even at far-away local oscillator frequencies, probably most noticeable at integer multiples of the signal’s carrier. The result is that a spurious alias of that signal will show up, ‘folded over’ to an unexpected frequency.

A sure giveaway that you are looking at an alias and not the real signal is that it moves in the ‘wrong’ direction if the tuner center frequency is altered slightly. That is, while authentic signals should appear at a consistent frequency regardless of small tuning changes, an alias will appear to change frequencies as the tuner center frequency (LO) is adjusted.

I have also noticed other ‘ghost’ signals repeated at multiple frequencies, but without the giveaway folding. I don’t have an explanation for these. However, the false-frequency copies seem to vary widely in amplitude, to the extent of appearing and disappearing, as the LO is adjusted.

NOTE: Specific alias/ghost behavior may be (and probably is) tuner IC specific; your results may vary depending on the type of tuner in your particular stick.

I/Q imbalance (DC Offset)
Another issue common to these cheap TV sticks is an imbalance between the I and Q components (we’ll get to that in a minute) of the returned signal. This typically manifests as a continuous false ‘signal’ peak always at the center (LO) frequency.

Primer on some digital RF basics (e.g. what is all this ‘I/Q’ stuff?)

This paper from Agilent is a good overview of how these tuner sticks and similar digital radios are implemented under-the-hood, as well as covering many basic digital modulation schemes and how to identify them.

What’s Out There?
Oh, the fun you can have. So far I have read the entire neighborhood’s pager messages, eavesdropped on bored rent-a-cops’ walkie-talkie chatter, gotten weather reports, and found many more things I can’t even begin to identify. Here is a quick link-dump for some specific cool stuff people have managed to find, and how to do it yourself.

Read pager messages
Plot the courses of aircraft via their radio identification messages
Acquiring GPS (scroll down a bit)
Receive weather satellite images

I might try to cobble together a visual identification guide (or links to same, if this already exists) as a Part 2.

PS. Action shot of sniffing pager data out of the air in my hometown. Click for fullsize:

Screenshot of capturing pager data using the SDR-Sharp and PDW software

Screenshot of capturing pager data using the SDR-Sharp and PDW software

Notes to myself: Using EnergyMicro EFM32 with GCC open-source toolchain

The EFMs can be used with many different toolchains after installing EnergyMicro’s “Simplicity Studio” package, which includes board/chip support packages and some code examples.

EnergyMicro’s application note AN0023 has an overall good overview of setting up an Eclipse + GCC (CodeSourcery) toolchain. Nevertheless, in attempting to replicate this process on my Win7 system (work PC; not my first choice of OS) I ran into a few particular time-wasting issues. The appnote recommends to find and install specific (“old” / current at the time of writing) versions and see it work, then take the risk of updating versions – I just installed the current version of everything (including Eclipse). This might be part of my problems. Installing toolchain components to a slightly unexpected location (i.e. not on the C:\ drive, let alone “C:\progra~1”) may add a bit of uncertainty too.

Some quick notes / “problemlet” observations:
The Simplicity Studio code examples install to one of your OS/version-specific “home” folders, regardless of where you told it to install the application proper. On Win7 there are many variations of a “home” folder; they get installed to the Windows “%appdata%” path (which expands to something like C:\Users\yourname\AppData\Roaming). Assuming you’ve performed the necessary voodoo to bring back some kind of ‘Run’ dialog / command line in Win7, you should be able to type %appdata% at the prompt and thereby obtain the actual path it expands to on your flavor.

During installation of Simplicity Studio you are prompted to install the SEGGER J-Link (JTAG / debug client emulator) drivers. In my case, I was prompted to install them about 30 times (wtf?). After the first installation appeared to succeed, I canceled out of the numerous repeat prompts (holding down ESC key works well for this) without any apparent ill effects.

Otherwise, installation and setup of Simplicity, Eclipse and the various other bits went pretty smoothly, up until…

Problem #1: Broken handling of PATH in Eclipse (Juno)
Attempting to build the ‘blink’ example, eclipse barfs out the following error:
program “cs-make” not found in path
So, dig down to Windows Environment Variables, confirm the path to the build tools has been correctly added…sure enough, there it is. Open a command prompt (defaults to C:\Users\myusername) and type cs-make … Windows can find it too, apparently. Just for fun, copy the CodeSourcery build tools’ path from the system path variable to the *user* path variable, close and re-open Eclipse… same problem. Finally, digging deep in the Eclipse build setup (Project -> Settings -> C/C++ Build -> Environment and manually adding the $path$ variable to the Eclipse-specific environment variables shows that it appears to have taken the “user” environment path, and injected several Java-related paths, apparently overwriting the first several path entries (including the one for the build tools). Manually adding the OS-provided “path” variable here (it expands to a plain text string once added) and hand-adding the build tool path (in my case, “d:\CodeSourcery\Sourcery_CodeBench_Lite_for_ARM_EABI\bin”) is ugly, but it works and I don’t have a better idea.

Problem #2: Install Path Assumptions; Wide Open Spaces
As mentioned earlier, I installed Eclipse and the build tools to my dedicated non-installed-by-the-IT-department-by-default apps partition, D:\. Apparently that is a minor nono – the Makefiles in the Simplicity Studio examples have a hard-coded expectation that you installed everything in “C:\Program Files\” (or your OS-flavor equivalent). After hacking around in the blink example’s makefile a bit to remove all traces of this assumption, I ran into the 2nd problem:

cs-make: *** [build/system_efm32lg.o] Error 1

This incredibly helpful error message from cs-make means that a failure occurred in some upstream tool. Clicking on the ‘Console’ tab at the bottom of the Eclipse window discloses the actual problem:

11:37:58 **** Build of configuration Default for project blink ****
cs-make all
“Building file: ../../../../../Device/EnergyMicro/EFM32LG/Source/system_efm32lg.c”
“D:/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_CodeBench_Lite_for_ARM_EABI /bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc”
(…etc, etc…)
The system cannot find the path specified.
cs-make: *** [build/system_efm32lg.o] Error 1

Note the two, yes two, superfluous and unwanted spaces in the middle of the GCC path string, between “Sourcery_CodeBench_Lite_for_ARM_EABI” and “/bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc”. I have absolutely no idea where those are coming from (they aren’t in any of the strings used to build this path string in the Makefile), or whether this is a specific bug of cs-make, Windows ports of make, or make in general. Lacking any kind of better idea, I “solved” this by wrapping every possible piece of data that may be used to generate a path with the makefile ‘strip’ directive (discovered via yet more googling in circles, yay), e.g. a string definition blah becomes $(strip blah), and $(QUOTE)$(TOOLDIR)/bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc$(QUOTE) becomes $(QUOTE)$(strip $(TOOLDIR))$(strip /bin/arm-none-eabi-gcc)$(QUOTE), etc. Note that it appears any piece of string variable which has already been ‘strip’ped must again be re-‘strip’ped when using it to build another string (e.g. in the above, I’ve already defined TOOLDIR = $(strip $(WINDOWSCS)) , and WINDOWSCS = $(strip D:/CodeSourcery/Sourcery_CodeBench_Lite_for_ARM_EABI) , to no apparent effect.

Once every susceptible substring in the Makefile has been flushed out and dealt with (this may take a few builds), eclipse builds the project without failures and produces a .bin file. Whee!

Now, the next step is to actually download this fresh new executable to the target board and run it. As I understand it, this requires cooperation of several tools. GDB (GNU Debugger) is used to (besides debug) interact with the vendor-specific JTAG device and actually burn code onto a device. There is also some sort of TCP/IP loopback server (gdbproxy? J-Link apparently performs this function) in the mix somehow.

Aside: This is where everything seemed to sh*t the bed when I tried to set up a similar Eclipse+GCC toolchain for msp430 microcontrollers – building went smoothly, but the whole matryoshka of uneasy agreements between gdb, gdbproxy, and the proprietary binary-blob (.dll) JTAG tool could only be jostled into working occasionally, with a lot of gdb-related process-killing and potentially rebooting between build attempts.

Sure enough, the next problem occurs here.

‘Launching blink Default’ encountered a problem

Error creating session
Cannot run program “arm-none-eabi-gdb”: Launching failed
Cannot run program “arm-none-eabi-gdb”: Launching failed
Cannot run program “arm-none-eabi-gdb”: Launching failed

As a quick sanity-check, typing arm-none-eabi-gdb at a command prompt successfully launches GDB, so this is probably more Eclipse-specific path BS. Since I don’t have infinite time to burn on this, another hacky ‘solution’: manually ‘Browse’-ing to and thus hardcoding the path to arm-none-eabi-gdb in Eclipse’s debug configuration dialog, under (green ‘bug’ button dropdown arrow) -> Debug Configurations -> Debugger. This done, launching debug dumps a healthy amount of gibberish (raw GDB commands and responses) to the console, along with several errors/warnings from gdb and several inexplicable red lines of text (that do not, outwardly, appear to be error messages, but rather echoes of send commands), but the gdb stream seems to suggest that bytes were successfully pushed to the dev board.

Success! I think. I guess. Maybe.
Switching over to the “Segger J-Link GDB Server” program (remember, the appnote says to start this before Eclipse and leave it running) shows GDB “Connected to” along with another green mark, which it did not before. Good sign, I suppose.

…OK, maybe not. Attempting to set a breakpoint and run the application does nothing. Attempting to restart the “Debug” process from the beginning just causes Eclipse to hang. With some dicking about (close Eclipse, manually kill all *gdb processes in Windows task manager, restart) I can get as far as “Starting target CPU…” and “4 KB downloaded” appearing in J-Link, but no apparent activity on the target board. But, uploading the freshly built ‘blink.bin’ binary using the ‘energyAware Commander’ DOES work! So, at least the compiler / build environment is sane. Something is going wonky between Eclipse/J-Link/GDB/board. If “Show log window” and “Verify download” are enabled in J-Link GDB Server, download lines have “Verify failed” after them.

After a reboot and starting over with the recommended versions of Eclipse (2.7.3 / Indigo) and its plugins… it works! Then switching back to the current version… it works! It is possible the PC and/or board were just in a wonky state and fixed by a good old-fashioned powercycle. Aaaanyway, downloading code to the development board thru Eclipse seems to be OK now.

Last little niggles:

  • Upon starting a debug session, a large page shows up with the following in bright red scary text: No source available for “__cs3_interrupt_vector_em() “. This is not any kind of error message, really. It just means that the interrupt vector table(?) (which it wants to show you for some reason) has no source code available to show you. (You are instead given the option to view an assembler dump.)
  • The “EmbSys Registers” tab shown in the appnote screen shots does not appear. Solution: This tab is not enabled by default – enable it using Window->Show View->Other->Debug->EmbSys Registers
  • . Once this is done, the tab will appear with a note to set your chip. Now go into Window -> Preferences -> C/C++ -> Debug -> EmbSys Register Viewer and select the appropriate architecture/vendor/chip. For the EFM32LG-STK3600 (Leopard Gecko Starter Kit), this is ARM3, EnergyMicro, and EFM32LG990F256, respectively. Close out of there and the EmbSys tab should contain a list of viewable registers in a folder hierarchy by association (e.g. those associated with the ADC, WDT, etc.).

  • Unresolvable symbol errors: On my setup, several error messages appear under “problems” when debugging is started: “Symbol ‘cmuClock_CORE’ could not be resolved” and “Type ‘uint32_t’ could not be resolved”, for example. They don’t seem to be hurting anything (and I have not found/ looked for any fix for this), but I’d bet real money that this is a stupid paths problem again.
  • Well, Future Tim, there you have it. Working EFM32 debugging on an open-source toolchain!

Buying Parts

Solved: Can’t connect to high (>10) Windows COM ports / cleaning out unused COM ports

Problem: Windows, and many Windows apps that use serial (COM) ports, have various problems accessing “high” numbered COM ports. I cannot find an authoritative or quantatative definition of “high” (and it may depend on your app), but I have seen apps start failing after COM8, COM9, COM15… anything in the 20s is asking for trouble. If you are a developer and routinely plug in different “serial” devices (including USB gadgets with virtual COM support, Bluetooth dongles, Arduinos etc.) Windows will happily assign a new port number to each one until something breaks and you go hunting for this post.

Depending on the application, the “s**t-the-bed” breakover often depends on a hardcoded number (e.g. only supports up to COM8), or going to double digits, etc.

Solution1: Some apps may let you enter the COM port number in a special way (UNC path) that lets higher-number COM ports be used, e.g: \\.\COM25
(that is, precede the port name with a double backslash, dot, and then another backslash). If the app uses backslashes as an escape character, try doubling the backslashes, e.g. \\\\.\\COM37

Why this form? Why only some applications? Why does the number where this form becomes necessary differ between applications? (avrdude.exe requires it for COM10 and higher; pyserial will work without it up to at least COM15 or so, but not COM25. Of course, this all may just depend on the phase of the moon and your results may vary.) Beats the hell outta me. If anyone knows what this is all about, please post in the comments!

Solution2: Clean out those rusty, dusty old unused COM port numbers (you know, for that silly dongle you plugged in exactly once years ago and never touched again) so you can recover those “working” low COM port numbers for new devices. Trouble is Windows will not show it in Device Manager unless the device is plugged in, which is a problem if the thing got lost or broke long ago. To see the hidden allocations and remove them:

1. Open a command prompt as Administrator. (Start->Run, type cmd ). Or, right-click Start->Programs->Accessories->Command Prompt and choose “Run as administrator”

2. At the command prompt type set devmgr_show_nonpresent_devices=1

3. At the command prompt type start devmgmt.msc to start Device Manager. For this to work you MUST start it from this command prompt – don’t mouseclick your way into it or try to use an already open copy.

4. When device manager opens, select View -> Show hidden devices

Now when you expand the COM ports section, every COM port ever allocated will be shown (all the ones for nonexistent devices will be grayed out). Now you can right-click all the defunct ones and uninstall them.

NOTE: Without the magic incantations above, you will still have a View -> Show hidden devices option, but it won’t actually show the nonexistent COM port eating devices.

Solved: SL4A force close when calling recognizeSpeech

Problem: SL4A crashes upon the first call to recognizeSpeech() : com.googlecode.android_scripting stopped unexpectedly (Force Close).

The corresponding Android log via adb shell #logcat:

D/AndroidRuntime( 2785): Shutting down VM
W/dalvikvm( 2785): threadid=1: thread exiting with uncaught exception (group=0x4
I/ActivityManager( 1429): Starting: Intent { act=android.speech.action.RECOGNIZE
_SPEECH } from pid 2785
E/AndroidRuntime( 2785): FATAL EXCEPTION: main
E/AndroidRuntime( 2785): java.lang.RuntimeException: Unable to start activity Co
tivity.FutureActivity}: android.content.ActivityNotFoundException: No Activity f
ound to handle Intent { act=android.speech.action.RECOGNIZE_SPEECH }
E/AndroidRuntime( 2785): at


Solution: Install Google’s free Voice Search app from the app marketplace. This app provides the activity android.speech.action.RECOGNIZE_SPEECH.

Computer-controlled RGB LED Buckyball

Everyone and his brother has built LED cubes before, and while they are unmitigatedly awesome, I wanted to try something a little different. As far as I can tell, nobody has made an LED buckyball before!

Completed ball running some cheesy visualizations

And of course, the requirements for such a large, sparse shape are a little different. In a typical LED cube design, the leads of the LEDs themselves form the structural members and support base of the cube – the lead lengths more-or-less set the size and density of the cube, and since it sits on a large surface area, there’s plenty of room to bring out plenty of signals and drive them from a single many-pinned microcontroller (usually via Charlieplexing). In a large, sparse hollow sphere, the wiring for Charlieplexed LEDs would get unwieldly pretty fast. So instead, I used a bussed approach where each LED sits with its own tiny microcontroller on a serial bus, with a unique address programmed into each one. Such addressable “smart pixel” LED nodes have been around for a while and available off-the-shelf, but for various reasons (outlined below), I opted to design my own open source (GPL) version, dubbed das Blinkenlichten, and used these for the project. These nodes sit on a 3-wire (power, data, gnd) bus and speak over a self-clocking bit protocol. The ball contains 90 such nodes; one for each of the 60 junctions of the buckyball, plus 30 more in the “long” beams of the ball (more on that later too).

Sidebar: Addressable RGB LED nodes
Addressable “smart pixels” or RGB LED nodes have been around for a while; in the hobbyist community, BlinkM is probably the most well-known. However, at close to $13 a pop, a deployment of any significant number of these adds up very fast. In addition, the code was/is very much proprietary – not only closed source with dire warning against reverse-engineering, but only allowed for noncommercial applications at that. As of late 2004, there was really not much in the way of very inexpensive nodes or open-source designs to pick up and build on one’s own. Add to that patent issues surrounding many of these products (including pretty much all I2C-based designs), and the situation for open blinky hardware was bleak indeed. So I rolled my own that was dirt-cheap, minimal wire count and GPL’ed. By happy coincidence, it also avoids all the RGB LED control patents that I am aware of. Luckily, as of late 2011 there are many more inexpensive, open-source and even microcontrollerless (shift-register based) blinkies available in single or strips, so go nuts!

In real life, buckyballs are spherical molecules composed entirely of carbon. The LED ball models the most well-known of these molecules, carbon-60 (buckminsterfullerene), consisting of 60 carbon atoms. These atoms are arranged such that their bonds form 12 polygons and 20 hexagons, with one carbon atom at each vertex. The stitching, and often coloring, of soccer balls (footballs outside the US) mimics this structure.

Construction details:
I wanted the ball to consist of basically nothing but light – i.e. a bare minimum of visible wiring, electronics or any other opaque portions. Thus the light from the tiny LEDs would have to be well diffused throughout the entire structure. Playing around, I found that hot-glue sticks make almost perfect LED diffusers, and wasted no time cleaning out the local art&craft store’s supply for the ball’s structural elements. In retrospect, this was not the ideal solution: despite anything you might hear about the buckyball being a magically strong shape, it’s still not enough to hold the weight of 90 hot-glue sticks and electronics without sagging into more of a pear shape. In the end I had to add some internal “guy wires” (monofilament fishing line) to help it hold a spherical shape. As you can see, it’s still not perfect, so I’ll have some adjusting to do!

The ball consists of 12 pentagonal sections totaling 60 sticks, and 20 hexagonal sections formed by connecting 3 sticks between each neighboring trio of pentagons.

To create the physical ball, I needed some kind of scaffolding to hold the ball in shape during various stages of (in)completion, and ideally serve as a construction guide. For this, I bought a cheap inflatable soccer ball on eBay, blew it up, and assembled the ball around it in pieces. The markings on this ball (a promotional item for a foul-tasting yet inexplicitly popular domestic beer) are not 100% faithful to a real C60 molecule; the pentagonal sections are a bit small, resulting in the spokes between them (forming the hexagons) being a bit longer than the pentagon segments. I’ll just refer to these as the “long” sticks from now on.

First, I assembled all the Blinkenlichten boards with a 5mm LED. Each board is about 10mm square and can sit flush against the end of a glue stick with only the solder tabs sticking out. Each of the 60 sticks forming the pentagons are end-lit, with the LED node installed by drilling a hole in one end the diameter of the LED and shoving it in. The remaining 30 “long” sticks (to form the hexagonal sections) have a hole drilled in its middle and the LED inserted perpendicular to the stick. I’ve found that using a drill bit a tiny bit smaller than the LED itself works well: the drilling action heats up the stick enough to partially melt the inner walls of the hole; quickly shoving in the LED after this allows the walls to stretch slightly to accommodate it, then glues it tightly in place.

Template for cutting pentagon sticks to size/shape

"Long" (hexagonal) sticks with the LED perpendicular

I first built the required number of pentagonal sections, with the length of each side matching that printed on the soccer ball. To do this, I made two simple templates in Inkscape and printed them out. One consists of two lines intersecting at 108 degrees (the interior angle of a pentagon), indicating the length to cut each stick to and the angle to cut the end at so that the 5 sticks will sit flush against each other when assembled. The other is a template for laying up the pentagon itself. A box cutter knife made short work of cutting the sticks to the right size and shape. With all the sticks cut to shape, I used more hot glue (for its intended purpose this time) to assemble the sticks into pentagons, being sure to fill in any gaps where the sticks mated.

Stack of assembled pentagons

With all 12 pentagons assembled, I wired their power, data and ground terminals together using 3 runs of color-coded magnet wire. I made a complete ring with each – although this was not strictly necessary, it provides two parallel current paths between any two points around the pentagon. Not a bad idea since the ones nearest where the power/data cable will plug in will be passing a lot of current. To avoid any surprises later, I quickly clipped the Arduino (running a simple test loop) to each assembled pentagon to make sure they were working. Finally, I tacked the wires together and onto the backside of each pentagon with hot glue. While I had the magnet wire handy, I took this opportunity to solder lengths of wire to each of the 30 “long” sticks as well.

Testing the pre-assembled segments to avoid surprises later

With the pentagons assembled and wired, I began assembling them onto on the inflated beach ball, adding the “long” sticks in between as needed. For this I just kind of winged it to avoid tolerance stack-up, marking and cutting one stick at a time for a good fit. After cutting to length, I cut a V-shaped notch in both ends of each stick so that they would mesh well with the pentagon corners they attached to. These were similarly glued into place, squeezing in extra hot glue to fill in any voids.

Sections being assembled on the beachball

Ball structurally completed, but not wired up

Finally! The buckyball looks like a buckyball. The beach ball was deflated and removed. By this stage each pentagon was already bussed together, so wiring consisted of using all the pre-wired “long” sticks to bridge neighboring pentagons together, folding or trimming any excess magnet wire and tacking it to the back of each stick (i.e. the inside surface of the ball.) After a final electrical test with the whole ball assembled, I sealed in all the LED boards and solder points with (you guessed it) more hot glue, made a hanger out of metal rod and cut two pieces of plexiglass to serve as the top and bottom supports for the rod. Bends in the hanging rod prevent the ball from sliding free of the rod or stretching out of shape.

Making endcaps for the top/bottom, which will support its weight when the hanging rod is passed through.

Completed ball running some cheesy visualizations

Electronics & Programming:
After some brief forays writing effects code in Processing and C (to run directly on the Arduino), I decided to write the visual effects script in Python for the most flexibility. The effects script outputs serial data to an Arduino (for the blog cred, yo), which serves as the bridge between the PC and the RGB LED array. Commands are sent as 3-byte packets to the Arduino consisting of a sync byte (0x55) followed by the Blinkenlichten address and command bytes. The Arduino clocks these out to the ball in the native Blinkenlichten single-wire format (not to be confused with Dallas 1-Wire(R) Protocol). See the Blinkenlichten page(s) for a full description of this protocol, but it basically consists of bits encoded as the ratio of ON-time to OFF-time on the wire (if the high “half” of the bit is longer than the low half, it is decoded as a 1 and vice versa), endcapped by a START (high for longer than the maximum bit ON-time) and END (low for longer than the maximum bit OFF-time) condition. Special commands exist for address discovery, address grouping, low-power mode and a couple other handy features.

Obviously, with 90 tiny microcontrollers and 270 unique LED dice potentially drawing power at the same time, there’s no way an Arduino / USB port can supply sufficient power on its own. A small perfboard mates the Arduino (running off the USB supply) to a 5V/4A wall wart for power to the ball electronics. The USB and wall-wart power are *not* bridged together (although the grounds are). Even at 4A (claimed) output capability, the wall wart struggles to keep the ball lit at full tilt – currently (hah!) it takes on a reddish hue if all the LEDs are going near full brightness, because the power supply output drops below the 4V or so it takes to light the blue LEDs. Also, the “3-wire” cable through my window now consists of 5 strands of rainbow wire (power and ground doubled up) because it was getting a tad warm with only one power and one ground strand.

Arduino supplies the data, while a 5V/4A wall-wart (black cable) supplies the power. The flat rainbow wire, is the perfect shape for sneaking around a closed window and to the ball outside.

When I assembled the Blinkenlichten nodes, I just programmed them serially and threw the finished ones in a box. Needless to say, by the time nodes were pulled from this box and the ball assembled, the node IDs are in no particular order. To make things easier on myself, I numbered all the locations in a logical way by writing them on the beachball with marker, then map the “human-readable” number to the actual node ID at that location in software. If you noticed various numbers scrawled on the beachball, this is what they are for (red: pentagon locations, black: “long” stick locations, green: actual node ID at that spot, in hexadecimal).

As of this writing, the effects script has only a tiny handful of effects I could throw together quickly – one pays homage the well-known “snake” games of yore, a couple others simulate paint splotches or crystal growth in various ways, and one just fades the primary colors in and out. Obviously, many of these require the software to have knowledge of the physical structure and relationships of the LED array. For this, the script includes a “neighbor table” consisting of a 2D list of each (human-readable) node number’s immediate neighbors. A couple more tables identify other relationships, such as which nodes are in the same pentagon or hexagon section. The script makes (or will make ;-) extensive use of das Blinkenlichten’s address-grouping features to run high-speed complementary effects on different logical groups with a minimum of bus traffic.

Blinkenlichten schematics/PCB, firmware and Arduino library – see the Blinkenlichten page
Buckyball effects script and Arduino serial-to-blinken script

Fixing an Acer AL2216W LCD Monitor (Delta DAC-19M010 power supply, bad caps)

There are several dozen of this model of monitor at my work since last year or so; the other day I found one on top of the dead electronics plunder pile recycling bin, looking brand new. Googling the model # and terms such as “problems” or “repair” or “won’t turn on” revealed pages of discussion on the forums: it seems this model of monitor is yet another victim of the bad capacitor plague that somehow continues to sweep the electronics world. Upon opening the monitor, this suspicion was confirmed by several visibly bulging capacitors in the low-voltage section of the power supply.

Probable Symptoms:

  • Monitor won’t turn on, no apparent power, black screen
  • Blinking power LED
  • Turns on but shuts itself off without warning*

Note: This power supply board (or very similar model) appears to be used in a variety of monitors from different manufacturers. Depending on which one you have, your symptoms may differ to what I have observed on the AL2216W. In particular, the monitor may simply not turn on (too-low logic voltage or software-controlled shutdown), may blink its power LED to indicate a fault, or may turn on for a few seconds and switch off again. In my case, the monitor showed absolutely no external signs of life (power LED dark and no response to the power switch), but a very brief flash of the backlight could be seen just as the unit was unplugged, confirming it did indeed have power but “chose” not to switch on (likely as a safety feature).

Obligatory Butt Covering Warnings

This is a wall-powered electronic gadget. Opening it and poking around inside carries a small, but non-zero, risk of electric shock even when unplugged. (There is a 100K bleeder resistor across the mains filter cap, but this could fail.) For your safety, wait at least one full minute after unplug to go near the supply board, and use a screwdriver with an insulated handle to short across the leads of the filter cap to be sure it is discharged. If you see a fat spark and blinding flash of light, the safety bleeder resistor has probably failed, and you might want to reconsider poking around in here.

(Opening it and poking around inside while it’s plugged in carries a guarantee of electric shock, just FYI.)


This is fairly straightforward. Pop off the plastic cover hiding the screws that attach the base. Unscrew them and any other visible screws, then carefully pry at the seam where the two halves of the monitor “shell” come together. Once inside, more screws. Note that to get the final metal shields off, the backlight connectors and the ribbon cable to the button panel must be disconnected, then the scew-in posts for the video connectors and two screws concealed in the mains cord socket must be removed.

What’s inside?

Surprisingly little, it turns out. There is one large power supply board (made by Delta Electronics, Inc.) and a much smaller display controller board (marked A220Z1-Z01-H-S6) with only two highly-integrated Realtek ICs and some discrete components. My educated guess is that the controller boards are very unlikely to fail, so start by looking at the Delta board.

Fault Finding

By all accounts, bad capacitors are usually the underlying cause of these problems. Due either to being under-rated or a sordid tale of corporate espionage (see Wikipedia link above), the capacitors will gradually vaporize their electrolyte (and sometimes not so gradually, with a bang) until they can no longer perform their capacitorly duties, causing the monitor to go haywire.

First, inspect all the electrolytic (“tin-can”) capacitors for visible problems. Their tops normally have a score pattern on them, but should otherwise be flat. They should not bulge upward, even a little. Visible bulging, ruptured tops or signs of leakage (e.g. brown goo around the top or seams) are sure signs they need replacing. Note that failed or failing caps will not always show visible signs.

On the Delta DAC-19M010 board, things are divided up into 3 logical sections: the bottom half is a switching power supply that steps your 120/240V wall power down to a 13.8V and 5V rail. Roughly speaking, everything to the left of the large center transformer is its primary (high-voltage) side, and everything to the right is the low-voltage secondary side (the high side may also be marked off by cutouts and/or a line on the underside of the board). The upper half of the board (more or less) is the backlight inverter, with another large transformer to step this low voltage up to the 1kV or so needed to feed the CCFL backlights.

I’m sure you noticed the large, high voltage cap on the high side, right near where the power cord plugs in. You did short it, right? This is the one that can make your skeleton glow even if the monitor is unplugged. Luckily, consensus from the internet is that this filter cap on the primary side rarely fails, so unless it is showing visible signs you can probably leave it alone.

There are seven electrolytic caps on the low-voltage side, all of which should be replaced if you even slightly suspect a capacitor problem. (Technically, the topmost one connects to the backlight inverter, but you should change it anyway.) On my monitor, the 13.8V rail read a tad high (14.x) and the 5V rail showed only 4.1V. There is likely an undervoltage lockout circuit on the controller that prevents operation at this voltage, although there may have been significant voltage ripple due to the bad caps that was resetting or otherwise fouling up the logic directly.

Collateral Damage

With the caps replaced, it’s a good idea to check for any obvious collateral damage. There are several surface-mount fuses (denoted Fxxx) on the bottom of the board which might have been affected (zero-ohm resistors may have been stuffed in place of some fuses; check these too). After you triple-check that the mains filter cap is discharged, also check the through-hole fusible resistor to the immediate left (high voltage side) of the switching transformer. There is also a surface-mount fuse on the controller board near the power entry connector.

Cap List

Here are suitable replacement parts currently available on Digikey. Be careful when removing the old ones, as some of them are near very brittle powdered-core inductors and tacked down with some kind of glue. Note, one of the parts below has a higher voltage rating than the original (this is OK).

Quantity Part# Value Lead Spacing Height
2x 565-1546-ND (220u/25V) 3.50mm 11.5mm
1x 338-2342-ND (2200u/10V) 5.00mm 21.00mm
3x 493-1065-ND (1000uF/25V) 5.00mm 20.00mm
1x 565-1550-ND (470uF / 25V) 3.50mm 20.00mm

* Note, if the screen’s backlight cuts out (often after a couple seconds) but the monitor appears to remain powered, the fault is most likely in the backlights or backlight inverter section of the power supply board, not the low-voltage section. You can confirm whether the entire system or only the backlight has shut off by holding a strong flashlight directly against the screen while a valid video signal is present – if you can see the image around the edges of the flashlight, the low-voltage supply and controller board are probably OK. Replacing C204 MAY solve it, but otherwise, fixing backlight issues is a whole different animal, which I don’t cover here. You MAY be able to identify a single dud tube by unplugging one at a time (WITH THE MONITOR UNPLUGGED!!!) and testing the monitor, but this is not 100% reliable (some inverter circuits will detect a single “open” (e.g. unplugged) tube and shut down anyway).

Slam Stick: dissected!

Woot! It sounds like a gadget I designed will be featured in next month’s EDN magazine (Prying Eyes column). This must be some kind of ironic career turning point: I landed a job by reverse-engineering other peoples’ stuff; now people reverse-engineer my stuff.

UVLO, Comparators with hysteresis (now with 20% more equations!)

The Mosquino board is intended to operate from very low-power sources, such as RF, vibration energy harvesting and small thermal gradients (e.g. body heat). Although the ATMega and the rest of the circuit can be put to sleep at < <1uA once they have reached legal operating voltage, many semiconductor circuits fail this test with too-low or slowly rising power supplies. For example, the datasheet for the MCP1703 voltage regulator shown claims a quiescent current of a couple uA (in regulation), but it actually peaks out at over 100uA just below its regulation voltage, and that's not considering any other circuitry living downstream. So, as a key part of this balanced breakfast, this is a simple UVLO (undervoltage lockout) circuit that will hopefully become standard in the next Mosquino rev. It should be guaranteed to draw <10uA over the full (0.0 ~ 11V) range, and in practice probably much lower.

The active ingredient is simply a micropower comparator with a fixed reference and some positive feedback added to generate hysteresis. While deceptively simple, the math to cleanly resolve the desired on/off thresholds into a set of resistor values gets a little icky, so this post is mostly a note to myself so I never have to derive it again :-) (Yeah, I hate math and chose a career as an electronic engineer. Go figure.)


Two voltage thresholds, a “turn-on” threshold (Vh) and a lower “turn-off” threshold (Vl), determined by 3 resistor values, are defined by the user. (A reference voltage lower than either of these, Vref, is either provided by the user or comes for free with your comparator.) When a trickle of power is available, the input voltage charges up from zero until the higher, turn-on, thresold is reached, and this is then connected to the rest of the circuit (CPU, etc.). The circuit will be Doing Stuff, in some cases drawing more power than what’s coming in. In this case, the voltage at the input cap will begin to fall as power is consumed. The circuit gets cut off when the input voltage reaches the lower, turn-off threshold.

The feedback resistor, R3, is effectively placed in parallel with either R1 or R2 depending on the comparator’s state, which has the effect of pulling the compared voltage (+ terminal of the comparator) up or down slightly. This makes the divided Vcc appear lower than it really is until the comparator turns on, and higher than it really is until the comparator turns off again (see the equivalent circuits above).

Choosing these thresholds

The thresholds should be chosen such that the chosen power supply can actually (and reliably) charge up to the turn-on threshold, ideally in a reasonable amount of time. The turn-off threshold should be low enough (far enough from the turn-on threshold) that the turn-on current surge and any startup tasks don’t drag the supply all the way down to it and immediately turn your circuit off again. Needless to say, both should be within the circuit’s legal operating voltage range.

Setting the resistor values

R1 and R2 are a voltage divider; their ratio sets the comparison voltage between 0 and Vcc. For our purposes let’s also consider R3 this way, so we are really computing a relative relationship between R1, R2 and R3 that makes your Vh and Vl work. An approximately infinite number of actual resistances would work as long as the ratios between them are correct; we can worry about actual resistance values later. To make things simple we’ll define R3 = 1 and compute R1 and R2 relative to it. Here’s the math you need to do so (you can read the derivation below if interested).

  • Define R3 = 1.
  • Choose R1: R1 = (Vh/Vl) – 1
  • Choose R2: R2 = (Vref * R1) / (R1*Vl + Vl – Vref*R1 – Vref)

You should now have values (probably small decimal numbers < 1) for R1 and R2. Now let's choose real values for them. For a low-power application, you want to use large resistor values to minimize wasted current through them. But, the comparator's + input pin will have some amount of leakage / bias current, so this limits how large of resistors you can use (bias current sunk or sourced by the pin will affect its voltage and thus the overall setpoint accuracy). For decent accuracy, you want the current into the node containing the input pin to be at least 10x (ideally 100x) of the leakage current. For the LTC1540, the bias current is around 1nA, which is about as close to sweet f-all as you can get. In practice, the contribution of R3 in this application will be the weakest (highest resistance value) of the three by far, and so R1/R2 will be much lower. You can probably choose a value for R3 on the order of 15-30M ohms. In fact, a quick survey at Digikey says these are your only readily available standard values in that range; you might have to put two 15Ms in series. Beyond that point, you have to start worrying about truly silly stuff like the resistance of the PCB itself (especially on a humid day) goofing up your setpoints, so again, don't go too crazy. Now, multiply your ratio values for R1 and R2 by that value, and choose the closest standard value that is available for each. Optional, but recommended: Check the actual Vh and Vl you will get from choosing the standard values:

Notes for the LTC1540-based circuit above:

The part is guaranteed to operate correctly down to 2V, and in most cases will behave well below that. In my tests, it operated great down to about 1.4V. Below that, a spurious HIGH pulse on the output occurs from about 0.8 ~ 1.4V. For best results in the UVLO circuit shown above, be sure the FET it drives has a threshold voltage of at least 2V to guarantee the false signal will not be seen downstream.

If that part is not available, a couple parts with similar specs exist (e.g. MAX9117-9210 series), but they are not pin-compatible.

The Maths:

Motorized SMT tape-and-reel feeder for DIY pick & place

Despite the impact of work, wedding planning and Super Metroid fan-hacks (not necessarily in that order ;-) on my freetime, my scheme to design a DIY-able open pick & place system is starting to come along. So far, there is a proper vacuum placement head, a rough idea of what the software architecture might look like, and this. For those who saw the last post, you probably guessed what it was leading up to.

This is a simple proof-of-concept of a SMT tape-and-reel part feeder design. The main parts are a stepper motor and feed sprocket to advance the tape, two walls with guide slots, and a simple slider mechanism to allow the feeder to accept tapes of varying width. Please note that it does not (yet) include any mechanism for peeling and disposing of the tape covering. Suggestions and innovations in this area (as well as all others) are welcome!

All the parts were cut on a CNC mill – design files and G-code are available here. The .cb files included can be opened with the free version of CamBam. More photos / video and design details are available below.

The Tape Standard
The geometry of the standardized tape that holds SMT parts is documented in EIA-481-2-A, which until very recently was only available at a price too high for mortals (or from your favorite ‘alternative’ source, wink nudge). It appears that EIA disbanded at the end of 2010 and the documents are now public. Regardless, here are the parts of interest to us building a DIY tape-and-reel feeder:

Pitch (distance between sprocket holes): 4mm
Sprocket hole diameter: 1.5mm
Center of sprocket hole to edge of tape: 1.75mm
Center of sprocket hole to edge of component wells: min. 0.75mm??? (seemingly not specified; varies between manufacturers)
On opposite side of tape – ending edge of component wells to edge of tape: 0.6mm min.
Tape thickness: 0.2 ~ 0.4mm, not including covering.

The standard tape widths are 8/12/16/24/32/44/56 mm. For tapes 32mm and wider, a row of slightly elongated (same pitch) sprocket holes is added to the other side. According to various sources, the standard also says the pitch between part wells should be a multiple of 4mm and “Pin 1” (if any) should generally be on the sprocket side and facing forward. A longer explanation of the part orientation rules is that the part should be a) widthwise (its longer dimension, if any, across the tape); b) Pin 1 toward the round sprocket holes (unless this conflicts with the first rule); c) Pin 1 facing in the direction of travel (unless this conflicts with the first 2 rules). How religiously any given vendor adheres to these rules is anybody’s guess. There is also no rule saying the ‘well’ or pocket holding each part has to remotely match the size of the part (except to prevent it being able to flip over or rotate 90 degrees during shipping), so visual positioning correction is occasionally needed for parts from particularly lazy vendors.

Feeder Design Points
With these things in mind, the shown test-design uses the following dimensions, which seem to work well with varying size tape samples I fed through it:

Sprocket thickness of 0.7874mm (.031″) – this is a ‘standard’ stock thickness in the US, so it was an easy first test. I sunk the sprocket so that it lies flush with the inside wall. With these values, the depth of the tape track is cut to 2.14376mm (0.0844 inches) to put the edge of the tape flush with the track when on the sprocket, forcing it to stay straight despite all the feed force being delivered on one side. For the ‘outside’ (non-driven side) wall, the track is cut to a depth of 1mm (0.039 inches). The width of the slot is 0.79375mm (0.03125″), as this is the closest (commonly available in the US) milling bit width that will accommodate both plastic and the slightly thicker paper tapes. To assist loading tape, a wider ‘mouth’ is cut on the input side of both sides’ slot, tapering to the slot width to guide the tape in. In reality, the mouth you see in the photos is not really large enough to be useful (it looked a lot bigger on my monitor!…). Also, the mouth on the non-drive side in the photos is on the wrong side since I completely forgot to account for this half being flipped over :p These are corrected in the downloadable files.

With the sprocket as designed, the tape track radius is 13.6mm (0.536″), and the track makes a 180 degree pass around the sprocket to eject the spent tape at the bottom of the same end it comes in on. In hand-testing some tape around the sprocket, I found it does not always sit flush against the sprocket throughout the entire 180 degrees, so the tape track is widened a bit around the sprocket to accommodate. The ~31mm sprocket diameter / number of teeth (22) was chosen purely for convenience on my part, as this is the tallest that would comfortably fit on the homebrew CNC mill I’m using for testing. In practice, a larger diameter is advisable so as not to limit the size of parts (deepness or length of the ‘wells’ vs. sprocket diameter and bend radius) that can be fed. Also, the reels themselves will be much taller than this anyway. Just keep in mind that as sprocket diameter goes up, so will the required motor torque to advance the sprocket one step, and the linear distance per step. At some point some form of gear reduction will be necessary vs. simply tacking the sprocket directly to the motor shaft.

To handle a wide (pun intended) variety of tape widths, a trio of smooth nylon PCB standoffs (0.250″ dia) are sunk and bolted into the drive side to act as sliding rails for the halves to be pulled apart to the desired width. A rubber band around both halves keeps them tensioned and in contact with the tape edges when loaded. This could definitely stand improvement, but it works for now.

Despite being a quick ‘n dirty test piece, the action of this feeder (by hand) is surprisingly smooth. The nylon spacers are pretty slippery, and the Delrin also provides a smooth, low-friction surface when machined. With the motor is a different story; these tin-can motors are 7.5deg/step and the driver board I’m using right now doesn’t really support microstepping low-current motors.

Tape Sprocket Creator

This is a free (open source) Python script for creating feeder sprockets for e.g. perforated tape or film advance. I wrote it for myself to generate SMD tape-and-reel feed sprockets, but it might also be useful for making replacement sprockets for 8/16/35mm film, microfilm and paper-tape systems whose original reader hardware no longer exists or is difficult to find replacement parts for. The output is a .DXF template suitable for laser cutting, 3D printing or CNC machining. “Documentation” below, but it should be pretty self-explanatory. It should work with any modern version of Python (tested on 2.6).


Sprocket design goals / differences from other sprocket types

The drive sprocket’s dimensions are specified mainly by the number of teeth, width (or diameter) of the sprocket holes, and the pitch (distance between sprocket hole centers). The tape is usually advanced either tangentally to the sprocket, or partially wrapped around the sprocket. Thus the distance between the outside edges of any two teeth at any point, either tangent to the sprocket or along the circumference of the sprocket, should never exceed the distance between the outer edges of any two sprocket holes (the taper of the teeth is computed to counteract the radial splay of the teeth). Additionally, a landing area (flank) is cut at the base of the teeth matching the thickness of the tape, giving it a place to ‘catch’ when pressed against the sprocket’s inner diameter. Unlike e.g. roller chain sprockets or spur gears, no undercut (cuts below the inner diameter) is provided for rollers or a mating gear’s teeth, and no special geometry is needed along the sides of the teeth.

Some Terminology:

Pitch: The center-to-center distance between sprocket holes, and thus the sprocket teeth.

Tooth Face: The tapered portion of the tooth. In this application, the tooth taper is calculated to smoothly slide into the sprocket holes as the sprocket rotates.

Tooth Flank: The ‘upright’ (or slightly concave) base of the tooth. In this application, it should be the same height as (or slightly taller than) the tape thickness so that the tape sprockets rest fully within the flank.

Tooth Land: This is the surface left if the tip of the tooth has been blunted or “cut off”. This might be done to fit the sprocket into a particular diameter. I’m an EE; I don’t know what other dis/advantages pointy vs. blunted teeth would have in this application.

Basic usage:

Fill in all the values called for in ‘Basic Parameters’. Aside from angles, which are in degrees, use any unit of measurement you prefer (inch/mm/etc.), as long as it is consistent; output will be in the same units. If you desire a specific tooth taper angle, enter it, otherwise just press “Compute / auto angle” to suggest an angle and generate the sprocket.

Mostly, the pitch and sprocket hole width are dictated by the tape to be fed, and also drive the important diameters. You can get closer to a desired sprocket diameter by adjusting the number of teeth. The important diameters are:

Inner diameter: This is the diameter at the base of the teeth, where the bottom of the tape rests.

“Design diameter”: This is the most important diameter as far as the program is concerned, and is fully dictated by the pitch and number of teeth. The design diameter is the diameter at the top of the tooth flanks, which is the top of the tape. You could also think of this as the outside diameter of the tape if wrapped around the sprocket.

Outer diameter: This is the diameter at the tips of the teeth. By playing with the tooth angle and cutting off the tips (tooth length %), there is some leeway to constrain the outer diameter to fit the available space.

Note that the angle auto-suggest feature is currently broken (will return incorrect results). It will (usually) calculate an angle that will allow the tape to *wrap around* the sprocket at any radius from the base of the teeth, but what you really want is the tape to fit at an arbitrary angle across the teeth (specifically, the outer edges of whatever teeth it intersects while tangent to the sprocket should not exceed the outsides of the sprocket holes). For now you might have to cut a few gears and experiment, or just set the angle arbitrarily high.

Extra Options:
If you will be cutting out the sprocket on a CNC mill, outside pocketing will leave some material at the base of each tooth flank due to the diameter of the round cutter. Enabling ‘Remove cutter leftovers’ and entering the cutter diameter will add DXF points (drill hits) near the tooth edges to remove this material. Users of other fabrication methods can probably ignore this option.

If designing a sprocket in one measurement system for use in another, you can optionally select a unit conversion to be applied when writing out the DXF file. E.g. if your tape is specced in mm but your CAD/CAM software expects inches, select ‘mm to inches’ before saving the DXF.

I wrote this to solve a very specific need for one of my own projects; so very little time and debugging went into it. There is no idiot-checking. Expect errors or bizarre output if you leave necessary fields blank, mix & match units (inch/mm) arbitrarily, enter a negative number of teeth or any other physically impossible geometry. Even if you do everything correctly, there is no guarantee the output will be correct or meet your needs. Please check the results very carefully before you lay out any $$$ to have anything professionally made by a fabrication service!

Right now the arc between teeth is output as a straight line, not an arc or series of tiny lines approximating one. This should not be a huge problem for a reasonable number of teeth, but something to be aware of.

Other notes:

“Auto angle” calculation is only done if the angle field is blank: if there is a number there (including a previous auto-calculation), it will be left alone. If you have changed any parameters and want to redo “auto angle”, please delete the contents of this box.

The sprocket image shown in the program window is not to scale – it is automatically scaled to fit inside the window. It is not unusual for the sprocket to appear to change size dramatically when parameters are modified.

Square Pegs and Round Holes:
Unless you have some fancy software sweeping the sprocket teeth into 3D, you are probably making a flat gear out of flat stock, and it will have flat edges. If the sprocket holes are round, the tooth edges will contact somewhere earlier than the outside diameter of the hole, and so may need to be tweaked – especially if the material is thick relative to the holes. (See the diagram below for an exaggerated example.) Use this formula to calculate the effective tooth width that will exactly fit the hole:

w = sqrt(d^2 – t^2)

where d is the sprocket hole diameter and t is the stock thickness.

Reversing an aquarium pump

An aquarium air pump can be used as an inexpensive source of low vacuum with a small amount of tweaking. Supplies needed are:

The air pump
Screwdriver (usually) to open the air pump
Hose barb (your favorite size) for vacuum inlet
Glue (e.g. RTV/caulk, epoxy, etc.)

Of course, you could convert one by sealing up the whole thing in a big Tupperware container and punching a port through, but this method is more robust and compact.

Have a gander at the pictures below. The internals shown are pretty typical, and diabolically simple: AC wall power flows through a U-shaped electromagnet, which wiggles a small permanent magnet between the poles rapidly back and forth to pump a rubber bellows. The bellows draws air directly from the inside of the case and forces it through the output port, drawing new air into the case through some small holes or dust filter on the case somewhere. Thus, “reversing” the pump requires simply drilling your own hose barb into the case and sealing up the original vent (plus any other air leakage paths). The converted pump can be used as a vacuum pump by plugging the new port into your vacuum-needing device and letting the original port vent to atmosphere, and can still function normally as a positive-pressure pump as needed.

Common air leakage paths are around the AC cord entry, around the output port and where the screws / rubber feet go (the screws may be hiding under the rubber feet anyway). Probably the easiest thing to do is just run a nice fat bead of RTV around the entire seam between the halves of the case before putting it back together.

The pump shown pulls about 5 inches mercury (~127mmHg); most are probably in that ballpark. If your needs fall somewhere above this but well below a “real” vacuum pump (or even a disembodied fridge compressor), it might be possible to beef up the vacuum or flowrate a bit by putting 2 in series or parallel.

Some “standards”:
In the US at least (don’t know about elsewhere), the common size pumps (for 10 ~ other double digits gallon fish tanks) generally take 3/16″ flex tubing, and unmarked tubing in the fish supplies section of your local pet store is probably this size. Larger pumps with e.g. 1/4″ ports are available for large tanks, but if it doesn’t say what size tubing to use, you can probably assume 3/16. This refers to the tubing inner diameter (or the pump port’s outer diameter); the tubing outer diameter can vary significantly and is often not specced. Since you will be adding your own port, you can really make it any size you want, but sticking with 3/16 means you will have plentiful local sources of matching hose barbs, tee fittings and other parts at most any pet store.

Pick n place head update

This is a quick follow up to the pick & place head article, in which I actually build the darn thing :-) As in, not just fit-test the parts together and take a picture, but actually pick and place some stuff with it. I’ve been busy/lazy, so not too much to show in terms of software yet (the video you see below is running a ‘dumb’ g-code placement script). The parts list has been updated will be updated in the next couple days, along with new CamBam/DXF files.

Live test of the head as currently designed. This is bolted to my ghetto homebrew CNC mill, which is kinda slow. On a more built-for-purpose (or less ghetto) machine, performance should be much better.

The webcam’s weird eyeball-shaped case has been removed, revealing a rectangular board with sanely-spaced mounting holes in its corners. Also, a proper solenoid valve has been bolted to the head and hooked up to a reversed aquarium pump for suction. The rubber nozzles are from a sacrificial el-cheapo SMD vacuum pen ($3USD ,eBay), which comes with three sizes that fit on a standard 16-gauge needle.

Otherwise, it’s pretty much as described in the previous post.

A little bit of guts. This board holds a transistor to drive the 12VDC solenoid valve from a parallel port pin, Pololu microstepping motor driver (Allegro A4983) and 5V regulator. At the top you can make out a simple pressure sensor conditioning circuit that isn’t hooked up yet.

Cubeternet 2MP UVC webcam teardown

For my pick and place project, I picked up a pair of too-good-to-be-true webcams: the Cubeternet no-name UVC webcam. For this project, there is a lot to like: 2MP resolution (claimed, at least), built-in LED ring, cross-platform UVC interface, hand-adjustable focus and a legitimate glass (no polycarbonate) lens…for $16! Alas, my review of this cam is currently mixed, since one of the cameras failed after being plugged in for more than a few minutes. This particular camera – the first I tested – became warm to the touch soon after plugging in; I assumed this was normal operation and that the cam’s solid metal “eyeball” enclosure was the heatsink for a voltage regulator screwed into it. Turns out this is not normal at all; the 2nd camera does not get even slightly warm after running overnight. Now, what to do with a broken webcam? Take it apart!

Teardown photos: In here

Opening the case reveals solid components, but an unfortunately typical “Chinese toy” construction with hand-bent and soldered leads everywhere, a couple stray solder balls and liberal application of hot glue (yes, really) to hold everything in place. If you’ve ever taken apart a cheap electronic toy for soundbending, you probably know what I’m talking about. Of the identifiable ICs, there are:

(Integrated USB2.0 UVC camera controller in 44-pin TQFP; its manufacturer denotes it as VC0342. This is driven by a 12MHz crystal oscillator.)

Turbo IC, Inc.
(64-Kbit I2C EEPROM in SOIC-8. Contains USB descriptor strings referencing “Vimicro Corp. Venus USB2.0 Camera” and “Sirius USB2.0 Camera (Audio)”. The remainder of the data most likely consists of imager-specific register initialization values. Here is a dump of the EEPROM contents in ASCII HEX format, or in raw format.)

Voltage regulator:
Kingbor 6206A
(Ho-hum, 3.3V 3-terminal regulator.)

Typical “big glass plate” CMOS image sensor; this is the partnumber silkscreened on the bottom of it, but the Google turns up very little information and certainly no datasheets. An user on a Chinese message board says it is a 2MP imager made by Micron.

There are six very bright LEDs hand-soldered into the board and bent into position; an electret microphone is also glued into the case. A handful of what appear to be discrete transistors/FETs deliver power to the LEDs and may serve a purpose switching/sequencing power to the imager.

In the images of the controller side, you can see a big solder blob dangling precariously off one of the FETs onto the PCB. While it’s not clear if this one was the culprit, this blob or one of a couple similar ones are the most likely cause of failure. Despite all this, the lens assembly is all glass as claimed, and seems to be of much higher quality relative to the rest of the guts. The minimum focus distance is well below 1 inch. On another bright side (no pun intended), the LEDs are bright as hell, adjustable via an analog thumbwheel on the USB cable, and holes in the four corners of the square board can allow easy attachment to the placement head. The untimely death of one of the cameras is certainly discouraging, and given the internals can’t be cleanly written off as a fluke. Still, even assuming a 50% failure rate, doubling up on these cams is still a good bit cheaper than the nearest name-brand equivalent.

Image segmentation for PnP optical placement

Quick ‘n dirty (but working!) image segmenter for randomly-strewn part identification. About 1 page worth of scripting takes an image of objects on background, determines which part is the background, determines the outside contour of each object and numbers each as a separate object. Now that it’s known where to look for one specific object, the task of identifying that object (or just matching it to another just like it) becomes a whole lot simpler. Combined with the auto-aligner, this reduces a “naive” (bruteforce cross-correlation between needle and haystack images) image matcher to only having to scan against 4 orientations (90-degree rotations) to find which has Pin 1 in the right place (and whether it’s the same part, etc.) Hopefully as I dig deeper into opencv, there is a less-naive algorithm builtin for this that does not rely on contrast/color historgrams: most electronic parts basically consist of a flat black body and shiny reflective metal leads (i.e. appearing the same color as your light source and/or the background, and/or whatever happens to be nearby at the moment). Edge-based stuff still seems like a better approach, though I would welcome being proven wrong if it means not having to write the identifier from scratch myself :-)

Steps in brief:
The first image was taken using the actual webcam that will be attached to the pick n place head, looking at a handful of representative parts on a piece of white paper. This image was dumbly processed using a Sobel edge-detector (it’s builtin to Gimp and I was feeling lazy), Gaussian blur to expand the soon-to-be-resulting mask around the part a little and close any gaps in the edge-detection result, and finally threshold the result to produce the second image. The goal in these steps is to produce a closed-form contour blob for each part that’s at least as wide as the part, while minimizing stray blobs from random noise / dirt specs / etc. (internal, fully-enclosed blobs/noise due to part features/markings is OK). Finally, opencv’s FindContours function is run (mode=CV_RETR_EXTERNAL) on the resulting image, returning a vector that contains a polygonal approximation of each external contour found. Each discrete (non-touching) contour blob is returned separately, that is, every part in the frame is now effectively tagged and numbered!

There are a couple noise points identified in the image above. Better-chosen constants for the initial image operations (threshold, blur radius, …) may help, but I’ll probably end up having it measure the area of the blobs and throw away any that’s too small to possibly contain a valid part. Switching to a more advanced edge-detector, e.g. Canny, may help too. In any case, the full image matcher should figure it out eventually :-)

Code Demo – basically ripped straight from the pyopencv examples
Segmentation example – requires Python (2.6) and opencv 2.1.0 / pyopencv.

Pick ‘n Place Head

This weekend I got some parts in and put together a preliminary placement head for my open-source pick ‘n place project. My requirements are that it be buildable with off-the-shelf parts (ideally same-source, to save on shipping) and no special equipment, allow +/-180 degree rotation while maintaining an undisturbed vacuum, and support interchanging of the “tools” (vacuum needles). All that’s really needed to build this are the discrete parts shown, a bit of drillable plastic (e.g. Delrin) for the base material, and a drill. A drill press would be handy (a CNC mill *really* handy, and not such an out-there thing to have considering you are probably retrofitting this onto one).

This head consists of a hollow rotary shaft with a Luer lock fitting on one end, right-angle flexible tubing barb on the other end, and a large toothbelt (notched belt, timing belt) gear in between. The shaft is held in place but allowed to rotate by a pair of bearings, and the rotation is provided by a small stepper motor at the other end of the toothbelt. The gear ratio is approximately 5.2:1, providing a rotational resolution of about 0.35 degrees/step with a common 200 step/rev stepper motor (if no microstepping is used). Finally, just to the left of it is a 1024×768 Webcam with manually adjustable focus and a ring of built-in LEDs for lighting. The webcam mounting is definitely not ideal, given the camera’s weird eyeball-like shape. Tentative plan is to lash it down with some string, align it nicely with respect to the CNC table, then backfill the opening the camera’s butt sits in with epoxy.

The hardest part was finding a combination of parts that would all fit together nicely. Currently, the fits are mostly exact to “pretty damn good”, but a bit of adhesive is needed to join them permanently.

Parts List
Unless otherwise noted, all of these parts were sourced from Small Parts Inc. in the US due to the large selection and an actually competent parametric search engine, which was a great help in finding combinations of mutually-fittable parts. Accordingly, measures are in Imperial unless noted otherwise (that’s just how they come here).

Partnumber Desc.
3002DSTNTG18 Nice Ball Bearing 3002DS, .250″ bore x .6875″ OD x .250″ width
BFM-250-P Mounted sleeve bearing, .250″ ID, 1 17/32 center-to-center bolt spacing
B00137SITY Steel tubing, 1/4″ OD .152 ID, 12″ long
40DP-14/S-01 Timing Belt Pulley Delrin, 0.0816 Pitch, 40DP, .350″ Diameter, 1/8″ Bore, For up to 1/4″ Wide Belt, 14 teeth
40DP-70/S-01 Timing Belt Pulley Delrin, 0.0816 Pitch, 40DP, 1.806″ Diameter, 1/4″ Bore, For up to 1/4″ Wide Belt, 70 teeth
TB188-090-01 Timing Belt Urethane/Polyester, Single-Sided, 0.0816″ Pitch, 0.1875″ Wide x 7.3440″ Long, 90 Teeth
LCX-LC005 Male Luer Lock to tubing adapter, .145″ OD hose barb (mates well enough with .152″ ID steel tubing)
F1-EL001 Elbow Connector , Classic Barbs for 3/32″ ID Tubing, .145″ OD
HSTA-08-24-10 1.5″ aluminum standoffs, 8-32 thread
B00137UP68 (Optional) 11ga Steel Tubing, .120″OD, .094″ID (for mating 2mm shaft stepper motors, if used, to the 1/8″ pulley

Misc. Parts
2x 2″ x 4.5″, 1/4″ thick pieces of Delrin or similar
4x 1/2″, #4-40 bolts and nuts (assuming 2 bolts for stepper motor)
4x 1/2″, #8-32 bolts for standoffs
1x Webcam, manual focus, hi-res and builtin lighting strongly recommended
1x 3mm shaft stepper motor*
1x Method of attaching to your mill – a bit of aluminum angle bracket, or a dovetail, etc., depending on your mill.
1x 3-way air solenoid valve
1x Vacuum source (see here for a cheap one)
Air tubing and appropriate couplings to your solenoid valve. The head’s air path terminates in a 3/32″ hose barb, so you’ll want a 3/32″ to (whatever) barb adapter, or a 3/32 that screws directly into your solenoid. Those using metric are on your own :-) but will probably have an easier time of it anyway.

* The timing pulleys and stepper motors only come in a handful of diameters (imperial for the pulleys and usually metric for the small motors), so a 3mm (.118″) motor onto a .125″ ID pulley was the closest I could come up with in a reasonable amount of effort. Any small, el-cheapo permanent magnet (“tin can”) stepper motor should work here, but sourcing it may be annoying. Off-the-shelf 3mm-shaft motors I found are Jameco’s ValuePro 42BY48H08, Anaheim Automation’s TSM42 series, and Portescap’s 42/44 series e.g. 42×048 and 42S100. This surplus stepper is also worth a look, but you’ll have to remove a pre-attached plastic(?) gearhead. Beware, many of these smaller motors are 7.5deg/step, so even with the gear reduction, you will probably want to look at microstepping them to ensure adequate rotational resolution. Also, most of the companies selling them have no online click-and-buy ordering; you’ll have to phone up a salesdouche at the least, hope that you are worth their time to buy One Lousy Motor, and possibly haggle (“Request a Quote”). How companies that don’t know what their product costs stay in business is beyond me, but that’s a rant for another day.

If you want to skip that hassle, I’ve taken an alternative approach and simply bodged a surplus 2mm-shaft motor up to a 3mm shaft by gluing a short piece of thicker steel tubing onto the existing shaft (see partlist).

Design Files
CamBam drawings with machining operations for the top and bottom plates. The machining ops assume 1/4″ thick plastic, 1/8″ endmill for most cuts, and .166″ (#19) drill for the #8-32 bolt holes into the standoffs. It’s designed for the Cubeternet webcam (or equivalent eyeball-cam) and a stepper motor with 42mm center-to-center mounting holes. You can get the free CamBam at

Note, I made some small improvements to these files after the above prototype was carved, so what you see in the file will not match it exactly. In particular, the standoffs were moved to more optimal places and a feature has been added allowing the motor to be slid to remove any slack in the belt.

The assembly should be pretty self-explanatory. One bearing on each of the Delrin plates (inset the ball bearing if you can; otherwise gluing it down should be fine). The hollow shaft goes thru the bearings, Luer adapter and hose barb go on either end (use adhesive, just don’t clog the air path with it). The motor shaft center should sit just a hair (50-100 mils?) over 1.75″ from the hollow shaft. On mine, an online calculator produced the 1.75 figure, but the belt turned out to be a bit loose once built this way. If possible, make an elongated hole for one of the motor screws so the motor position can be adjusted to tension the belt. You could probably also insert a peg somewhere in the belt path to push it inward and take up the slack. With the camera focus set such that the largest part you will ever populate can fit in-frame, find the resulting camera height (distance from part) and set the depth of the shaft so that the camera is “in focus” maybe an inch or two above the placement position (i.e. with the needle touching the board). This will allow the head to focus on parts without touching the needle down.

For my build, I used instant glue to attach the Luer adapter to the needle shaft, and hot-melt glue to tack down the large pulley and hose barb. None of these parts should be seeing significant force; if they are, you’re Doing It Wrong and the hot glue should hopefully break loose before something more important does. Using a non-permanent adhesive for the hose barb and pulley also allows this assembly to be disassembled later if needed. The shaft itself is free-floating and the large pulley rests against the ball bearing due to gravity. This will prevent damage due to crashing the needle into the table or too-tall part, but if you experience problems with the shaft riding up on its own, try adding a bit of extra weight or put a dab of adhesive where the shaft passes through the lower bearing.

Suggested “v2” improvements
–Move air valve (if/when one is specified) onto head to minimize air volume between valve and head. Needed? (may be beneficial for reversed aquarium pumps or other weak vacuum sources)
–Bump detect: rather than firmly adhere the shaft into the bearing, allow it to float up and down, normally resting by gravity with the large pulley against the ball bearing. Place a contact switch just above the pulley: if the head/part contacts the surface with more than minimal force (enough to lift the shaft), contact switch is triggered. This could be used to halt the machine if a bump was not expected. If the switch’s trigger position is reliable enough, it could be used intentionally to automatically determine component heights.
–Probe function: There is a conductive metal path from the needlepoint all the way up to and including the bearing outer race, so it would be easy to touch a contact here and use the needle to probe for any conductive objects (e.g. find the tabletop if it is metal, or some capacitive shenanigans for PCBs/etc.). Useful?

Toward an open-source Pick and Place machine

So, there’s some really cool, empowering stuff going down these days with regard to manufacturing. Cartesian machines (i.e. CNC mills) are relatively simple to build from off-the-shelf parts; there are a bajillion people doing this and plenty of ready-made open-source designs available. More recently, hobbyists have gotten in on designing open-source rapid prototypers (3D printers); as a result, designs have now crossed the sub-$1000 threshold off-the-shelf, and you can even build a GPL’ed 3D printer that can almost replicate itself!

One thing that I haven’t seen cross the blood-brain barrier of proprietary commercial systems is pick-and-place machines that can assemble electronics. These things are badass; full of automated win and articulating robotic arms, but they’re also damned expensive: the crap ones start at >$10k and use literally a fishing-lure-and-weight type arrangement to peel back the tape covering tape-and-reel parts, so you have to keep resetting the weights. Those with more advanced / less manual feeders scale skyward from there. And of course, the software end of these things, especially machine vision algorithms to place parts more accurately, is some serious $ecret $auce. So… let’s change this!

Most of the “big stuff” is straightforward: The PCB layout software generates a list of coordinates for each part. A small vacuum needle mounted on a Cartesian head picks up each part from a known location, rotates it 90/180/etc. degrees as needed, and sets it down at its coordinates. It does not even need to be 100% accurate: surface tension of the solder during reflow will pull most minorly misaligned parts back into place.

The big barriers are:

1) Low cost / self-manufacturable feed mechanisms:
Electronic parts are packaged in several different ways, most commonly tape-and-reel, plastic tubes, or in trays. Each has a different, maybe cumbersome, way of knowing the location of the next part in the package and freeing the part from the package. Picking up stuff and putting it down is easy compared to dealing with the wide variety of tape and tube sizes reliably. Oh, and if your board uses 50 unique parts, you need 50 feeders. Hence the emphasis on making them cheap and mass-self-produceable, e.g. by CNC or casting or 3D printing.


2) Machine Vision
For larger parts, once the first part is successfully picked (e.g. by human intervention), it is enough to know how many parts per inch of tape, advance the tape a known amount per pick, then just grab blindly for the part and plant it at its destination coordinates. But for smaller and finer parts, this is not accurate enough: the parts can be slightly off-center or crooked in their tape wells, and this becomes significant as the part size decreases. Professional machines use a set of cameras and image processing algorithms to recognize the part, find its dead center and correct any rotational error. In theory, a suitably good vision system would allow you to peel back the tape and just sprinkle the parts on the table, forgoing feed mechanisms entirely at the expense of some small manual labor. Actually programming this algorithm on the other hand…

Another nice thing to have would be:

3) Automatic needle swapping. Many more advanced CNC mills are able to spit out their current tool, e.g. a specific size drill bit (in a known location in a tool rack) and pick up a different tool. It would be nice for the pick and place machine to be able to change to smaller and larger needles/suction cups to handle large and small parts seamlessly. If not, placements can be sorted, e.g. smallest to largest, so that the needle only has to be manually changed a couple times.

I’ve made some very initial feasibility-study stabs at building such a machine, and begun building a bit of hardware. I created a separate page for this project with more detailed specs/documentation and progress so far:
Pick and Place Project

Throwies overtake Kendall/MIT station sculpture

Blinking RGB LED throwies adorn the “Steaming Globe” sculpture near the Kendall/MIT station just after the 4th of July fireworks show. No idea how this could have happened.

Kids had a blast pulling them off and throwing them back onto the globe (and each other!). The whole rest of the night as we walked around, we saw blinking kids.