Category Archives: tools

The Open Hardware Toolchain Survey

Apologies for the silence. This blog got put on an unannounced hiatus as my new project gobbled up all of my free time.

If you’re reading this then the odds are pretty good that you already know what open source hardware is and why documentation is important.

So, you are the perfect person to follow this link and provide your input to the Open Hardware Toolchain Survey. Anonymous. 10-15 minutes max.

Not only will your perspective help to shape future hardware documentation tools, it will help guide the discussion at the Open Source Hardware Association’s (OSHWA) Documentation Jam in NYC April 26-29.

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Aligni Wants To Let You Use Their BOM Software For Free

As Bunnie pointed out on his blog, managing the Bill Of Materials (BOM) for a project can become quite complicated. Even a simple project, if it needs to be manufactured by someone else, would benefit from a BOM-specific tool

One such tool is Aligni, a web-based tool that can be used to construct the entire BOM, coordinate with manufacturers and manage inventory. Oh, and Aligni wants to let open source projects use the site for free.

I interviewed Jake Janovetz on what Aligni can do for open source hardware.

Can you give me some background on where Aligni came from and what it’s been used for?

Aligni was created out of a need to manage parts for a small electronics company.  Everything on the market was either too big (SAP, Oracle, Agile, Arena PLM), dead (Parts & Vendors), or would not handle inventory (Agile, Arena, etc).  We wanted a one-stop shop to handle things from design, part management, BOMs, cost info, inventory, assembly management, quoting, and purchasing. Interestingly, some products out there solved some of these.  QuoteFX is a widely used platform for doing quoting via database.  I think it runs in the $100′s per month per user.  Which is absolutely ludicrous.  It’s just a piece of what Aligni does and we do it much better!

What open projects have used Aligni successfully?

Unfortunately, none, really.  Some small projects have started and left over the years.  We haven’t really pushed hard on Open Aligni.  The commercial version of Aligni has lots of successful companies using it.

What do you, or the Aligni team, think about open hardware in general? How do you think it compares to the proprietary approach? Strengths and weaknesses?

We love open hardware.  As it has become better defined over the years, it is easier to talk about it.  Early on, it was confusing what it really meant.  Both open and proprietary are very valid.  In particular, a corporate entity will often get a lot of value from using proprietary hardware.  It’s simply a matter of motivation and accountability.  But Open Hardware is profoundly useful and disruptive (that’s a good thing). We originally introduced Open Aligni because we felt Open Hardware lacked a venue and a proper presentation.  The Open Hardware projects out there tend to cobble together some Google Docs or spreadsheets or other things in an inconsistent and hard-to-maintain manner.  Aligni is a more structured, disciplined approach to presenting hardware designs and managing them.
More after the jump… Continue reading
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Bunnie’s Factory Tour Part 1: How To Make A BOM

Bunnie Huang posted an extensive explanation of how you’re doing your Bill Of Materials (BOM) all wrong. Here’s a taste. For the whole 5-course meal head over to his blog.

Most Makers trying to scale up quickly realize the only practical path forward is to outsource production.

Every single assumption, down to the color of the soldermask, has to be spelled out unambiguously for a third party to faithfully reproduce a design. Missing or incomplete documentation is the lead cause of production delays, defects, and cost overruns.

Here’s some of the things missing from the [typical] BOM:

  • Approved manufacturer for each component
  • Tolerance, material composition, and voltage spec for passive components
  • Package type information for all parts
  • Extended part numbers specific to each manufacturer

A complete BOM for an LED flasher also needs to include the PCB, battery, plastic case pieces, lens, screws, any labeling (for example, a serial number), a manual, and packaging (plastic bag plus cardboard box, for example). There may also need to be a master carton as a single boxed LED flasher is too small to ship on its own.

 

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DARPA’s Open Source Cyber-Electro-Mechanical Design Tools Are Posted

Just a quick post to remind the world that DARPA has posted the open source design tools (and associated tutorial) that will be used to simulate and eventually manufacture an infantry fighting vehicle. This Fast Adaptive Next-Generation Ground Vehicle (FANG) Challenge is part of the Adaptive Vehicle Make (AVM) program. The primary tool that I’m working with now is CyPhyML written by Vanderbilt University.

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Makeblock Is A New Modular Aluminum Extrusion System

Makeblock is here to solve your robot problems. The t-slot aluminum extrusion is a tried-and-true way of building modular frames, and even simple mechanisms. It works, but it has an Achilles Heel…the nut.

t slot nut boltThat nut has to be inserted into the slot so that the bolt can torque down on the beam. Some designs include a nut that can be inserted straight through the slot and twisted instead of needing to be slid in from one end (FAZTEK). Others turn the bolt around so that the head of the bolt takes the place of the traditional nut and the nut tightens down from the outside of the bolt (MakerBeam).

A new Kickstarter campaign does away with the nut all together. Instead of using a t-slot, they have a slot with parallel sides and just the right threading to allow you to screw in a nut at any point along the slot.

Makeblock looks like an extremely well integrated system for prototyping cyber-electro-mechanical systems. They have the modular beam system itself, but they also have their own electronics with the correct footprint to fit on the beams and adapters for common things like Lego and servos. Additionally, they have it working in the real world and appear to have the manufacturing muscle to produce a lot of the kits.

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Ford Officially Backing Open Source 3D Printers

In a press release Ford Motor Company bragged about using 3D printing in general, and the open source Makerbot Thing-O-Matic in particular, to develop some of the smaller plastic parts for its vehicles. Zack Nelson, the engineer in the video, lists the easy availability of design files and community support as benefits to using the open source machine.

The full text of the press release is after the jump.

Continue reading

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DIY Spot Welder

A spot welder can be used to permanently attach small pieces of (mostly ferrous) metal without the need for screws, rivets or adhesives. The actual science of optimizing a spot welder is pretty deep, but at the end of the day all you’re doing is heating up metal until it flows, so as long as the tool does that you can get some home shop use out of it…particularly if it’s made out of like $10 worth of materials and runs on household current. BTW, don’t mess around with high current devices unless you know what you’re doing and take all the appropriate safety precautions (like not standing in a puddle).

Here Grant Thompson of TheKingOfRandom.com explains how to make your own.

More after the jump  Continue reading

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Bunnie’s Totally Open Source Laptop

Andrew (bunnie) Huang, who won the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s 2012 Pioneer Award (for something different), is currently testing the first version of his open source laptop hardware.

It’s about 120mm by 150mm by 14mm nad it has a small battery board so it should be able to fit into an average sized laptop frame (yet to be designed). Nearly the entire motherboard is open source; only a couple things required closed source firmware and the board is bootable without them.

One of the things I love about open source is that people don’t tend to worry about anything other than the best possible solution. They don’t try to design in some sort of crippling restriction that will lock in customers. Like, for example, Apple arbitrarily redesigning their docking port and then telling developers they can’t use it in their device if it includes ports compatible with anything else. Bunnie not only used a standard SATA-style port to connect the battery and mother boards but he also make the connection for the battery itself a standard molex so you can use cheap, commonly available RC vehicle batteries.

At the moment he’s apparently running through the tedious process of validating all the board’s functions, but that highlights another thing I love about open source. Down in the lengthy comments beneath his post it was suggested that he include a physical kill switch for the microphone and camera. Bunnie hadn’t thought of that, but recognized it as a good idea, and is planning to add the feature. It would take a year to get something like that changed anywhere else and that’s assuming the developers ever heard about a good user-submitted idea.

 

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Vagina Hacking by Scanlime, Open Hardware (Emphasis on Hard)

Beth over at scanlime is no stranger to building electronics. But this time she wanted to, well…in her own words, “create something new and exciting that I can immediately use in my everyday life. It also happens to be a sex toy.” Specifically, one of those little remote-controlled vibrating egg things.

She ended up producing a hack that is remarkably polished. She even designed and 3D printed a custom enclosure for the whole thing. If she had used neon pink plastic it would have been hard to tell that it wasn’t part of the original product.

She’s got an incredibly detailed description of the project on her blog. Personally, I think the most interesting part of the hack was her solution to the power problem.

This was getting complicated fast. Lithium polymer battery, a boost converter to raise the voltage to 5V for the sonar module, charging circuit, “fuel gauge” indicator. All of this work goes into every commercial product that runs on batteries, and we often take it for granted. As far as I’m aware, though, there isn’t a great equivalent for quick DIY prototyping. The Arduino Fio board is close to what I want: an Arduino with a built-in LiPo battery charger. But it doesn’t have the 5V boost converter or any way of monitoring the battery’s charge. Without designing my own PCB, I’d need several separate components: batteryfuel gaugecharge/boost. All total, over $45 and a lot more bulk and complexity than I wanted. I was really hoping there was a better option.

It so happens that this sort of amalgamation of parts is already pretty commonplace in the form of portable cell-phone chargers. These devices are very little more than a boost converter, charger, lithium battery, and a very basic fuel gauge. Best of all, thanks to economy of scale, they’re really inexpensive. The 3200 mAH battery I used in this project was only $22, and it’s something I can reuse for multiple projects… or even to charge my phone.

This is an elegant solution that can apply to an array of different projects. Once something becomes commoditized it can drop below the price point at which it makes sense to reproduce the functionality yourself. All wireless projects need power, and with cell phone chargers becoming cheap and easy to find it makes sense to just plug one into the project’s USB slot and call it a day. Not only is it cheaper and easier, but it’s modular because you can still use it for its original purpose.

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VehicleFORGE – DARPA’s Open Source Hardware Competition Is Open For Registration

I’m gonna start this post with a little bit of background. I’m a developer on various open source hardware projects, others and my own. Hardware has more barriers to entry than software, particularly when it comes to distributed collaboration. It’s not a matter of exchanging text files; you have to work with images, CAD files, videos, documents, etc and then there’s the problem of incompatible versions of multimedia. Even when everybody uses the same file formats, it can be difficult to convey all of the relevant information. And if you change anything it can be a huge issue. Then there’s the ever-present problem of turning the design into an actual physical thing.

What the open source hardware community needs is a common set of tools, but not just a few tools, an entire toolchain. I tried to work out a common file format and quickly realized that it’s not possible. You need a common database format, and not just a database, you need tools that can edit the project files without losing all the relationships in the database. Basically, you need an end-to-end development environment that links any random developer with all other developers, using identical file formats, and identical tools, that eventually produces a digital description of the machine that can be qualified and fabricated virtually.

It’s a huge undertaking. Without an end-to-end environment each piece is only marginally useful. The chicken and egg problem seemed almost insurmountable.

However, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) had the same thought, and they threw a lot of money at it. In an attempt to cut the development time of military vehicles by a factor of five, DARPA has created a complete, web-based, virtual development environment…oh and they’re releasing it under an open source license.

It’s called VehicleFORGE and for its first trick it will host a year-long, three-stage competition to design the Marine Corps’ next amphibious infantry fighting vehicle. It’s called the FANG Design Challenge and it’s open to any “U.S. person.” Yes, ANYONE (who doesn’t violate ITAR restrictions). All you have to do is register and, when the competition goes live on 14 January 2013, you’ll be able to design a vehicle using cutting-edge open source tools.

I just registered and I can assure you that, after poking around the members area for a while, VehicleFORGE looks polished. It’s only got a few controls, but they’re exactly what you need, they work intuitively, and it’s an overall slick experience. The only stuff that’s live at the moment seems to be the social network stuff (competitors and teams).

Speaking of which, if you’d like to join Team Openalia, just register and do a quick search or follow the link.

I’m fairly certain that the competition will be won by teams uploading a lot of high-performance parts that aren’t included in DARPA’s list of supplied components. However, participating will be a lot of fun. Lets see how well we can do against the other non-professional teams!

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