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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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Lots Of Links

Here are a lot of links I think are relevant to open hardware. The first is that apparently RepRap has its own magazine now!

Zero Cost Modeling of Space Frames – Julian Edgar demonstrates how to predict the failure mode of a complex frame (in this case a recumbent bicycle) without FEA software. The process involves making a scale model by soldering together copper wire then pulling on it to see where it bends or breaks. It’s a quick and easy way to see where the structure is mathematically weak.

XYZ SpaceFrame Vehicles – This is a principle for building modular bicycles and a few functional real-world examples. Here’s a pdf describing how to make one of the bicycles.

Open Source Government & Engaged Citizens: The Death Star Inspiration – Matt Micene writes, “Innovation doesn’t always result in direct business value, but can improve business in general. Innovating in the open means you can garner additional expertise you need to transform a marginal value into a direct value.”

A Guide For 3D Printing With a RepRap – ArvidJense has put together an infographic to help makers build things, specifically musical instruments, but the ideas can be applied to anything.

Someone Needs To Buy Makerbot Already – Steve Symington is talking about financial investment stuffs, but the interesting thing is that Makerbot only seems to have attracted serious financial interest after (or based on the promise of) abandoning open source principles.

Party Robotics – They are a startup focused on making open source drink mixing machines.

Using OpenSCAD for 2D Machining – Matthew Venn gives a brief overview of his process for modeling a multi-piece part in OpenSCAD and then using the projection() function to export DXFs for CNC milling.

Designing For Laser Cutting In OpenSCAD – This is a similar (but more extensive) set of instructions from a Dutch FabLab.

Make Your Own Arduino – streetjerk shows you how to put together a thru-hole Arduino from raw materials. This is particularly useful if, like streetjerk, you want to incorporate additional components (like a motor driver) into the board itself rather than use I/O ports.

Prepper Movement Embracing 3D Printing – PosserteusMaximus has compiled a list of links on how the preppers/survivalist community is becoming aware of, using and contributing to open hardware and 3D printing.

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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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QU-BD Combo CNC Mill And 3D Printer Pre-Order Interview

I’ve been saying for a while that there’s nothing inherently expensive about 3D printing technology…at least not the FFF type. Assuming the technology becomes more popular over the next few years (which I do) I don’t see any reason why 3D printers couldn’t become as cheap and ubiquitous as 2D printers.

However, 3D printing has weaknesses, not the least of which is that it can’t work in metal.* You can take the plastic parts and cast metal parts from them, but the heat and gases have side effects that nobody in their right mind would ever allow inside a house. It is possible to work metal by machining it in a small CNC mill, as demonstrated by the ease of finding a desktop mill on Google. Since 3D printers and CNC mills function so similarly, why not combine both functions into one machine?

QU-BD is working on that. Openalia interviewed them back when they were coming off of a successful effort to Kickstarter their own thermoplastic extruder. Now they’ve arrived at the main event, the beta Rapid Prototyping Mill (RPM) pre-order. This design is important because it has the potential to create all of the (non-electrical) parts for a 3D printer, including its own extruder. Read through the interview with Chelsea Thompson after the jump to learn a little bit about the RPM and the Revolution, which is an all-metal frame 3D printer.

* I’m limiting the analysis to current technology. Sure, there might be an unforeseen breakthrough in materials science in the near future, but that’s a different discussion.

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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RepRap Generation 7 Electronics

This design is by Markus (Traumflug) Hitter and should be of particular interest to the RepRap side of 3D printing. RepRap stands for Replicating Rapid Prototyper because Dr. Adrian Bowyer’s project was focused on creating a machine that could more-or-less reproduce itself. We have the RepRap project to thank for the recent explosion in amateur interest in 3D printing and it was the RepRap’s self-reproducing feature that made the explosion possible. The more parts the machine can make, or process, on its own the easier it will reproduce. Traumflug’s Gen 7 electronics are simple and single-sided, so the board can be milled on a suitably equipped RepRap.

You can buy the electronics from Traumflug or find the files at github

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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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Help OSE Refine The Design Of Their Backhoe

Open Source Ecology is gradually evolving their process for open source engineering. This latest installment is a Google Doc that anyone can jump in and view/edit. They’ve posted several questions so all you have to do is comment. You can also download the CAD files and a viewer if you don’t have anything to open them with at the blog post. The wiki page for the backhoe is here.

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The Fixer’s Manifesto v1.0- From The Inventors Of Sugru

If you like the Fixer’s Manifesto then you can also look at pictures of people holding it here, if that’s your thing. If you want to fork/hack/improve it you can do that on the github page. If all of that is just to “free as in beer” for you then you can also buy a print from Sugru (it comes with a pink pen for making edits…yeah).

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