Tuesday, 9 June 2015

FirePick Delta Pick-and-Place Beta Testing

Having received my Beta Kit for the FirePick Delta, I have begun the build process and helping out by contributing to the online documentation of the build process.

Photo courtesy of fellow beta tester Assaf Inbal
The hardware has a large number of 3D printed components as well as more traditional components such as aluminum extrusion frames.

The build process is, at the moment, not something you can just sit down and work through on a weekend.  It's still very much in development so slow and steady does the trick if you don't want to have to undo and re-do work later.

There is no real standardization of naming or processes for hardware startups, but the Beta Kit is more what I would call at the "Alpha" stage.  The hardware itself and bill of materials is more or less at a final Beta stage, but the kit process is still very much Alpha.  Documentation is in progress but currently bottlenecked with the head designer because some elements of the build and assembly are non-intuitive or even counter-intuitive.  Those who dive in and assemble everything based on the extremely detailed 3D models of the assemblies in the official repository do so at their own risk. It is possible to paint yourself somewhat into a corner, so the best option for those of us who can wait is to take it slow.

There are some lessons to be learned from the process so far, which can be applied to any Beta program:

  • Make sure intentions, scope, and expectations are clear for your Beta program.  There is a difference between Early Adopter and Alpha/Beta Tester & Developer.  You don't want someone buying too early, not fully understanding what they are getting into.
  • Fast is good, but Right The First Time is always better.  If you have not personally made 100% sure of every last item going into your kits, it costs through the nose later in terms of following up on any component that was any mixture whatsoever of: not quite right, missing, or needs replacement.  Then you need to sort out which is which, because since you're designing something new it's incredibly important to know whether a part is wrong or defective versus simply being shipped wrong.  Then there is all the time and cost required on top of all of that to ship replacements.  You can absolutely rely on your testers and developers to give you prompt and accurate feedback, but whenever possible you want people to be running into only one type of problem otherwise issues compound each other rapidly and the effort needed to sort it out and rectify things goes through the roof.
  • People will surprise you in good ways.  This will often be unexpected.  Think of it not just as collaboration paying off, but also as a sign that your project isn't doomed.  It's good!
Partial machine from Beta Kit.  Photo by Assaf Inbal (fellow beta tester)

You can see a list of all posts relating to the FirePick Delta by clicking here.

Friday, 5 June 2015

DIY Reflow Oven for Printed Circuit Board production

I recently outgrew the hot plate I was using for reflow soldering of pcbs, and I upgraded to a reflow oven powered by the ControLeo2 reflow controller by whizoo.com.

When making circuit boards, a big deal in even small production is being able to do more than one thing at a time.  One way to do that is by using a reflow oven to solder all the components on a board at once instead of one at a time by hand.  To do that, you need a special oven.

The ControLeo2 was a project funded on Kickstarter and created by Peter Easton.  I recently received a unit and I have to say, I'm mightily impressed with the quality and care that has clearly gone into this product.

Here is my completed oven, all ready to go.  You can see all the reflective coating on the inside as well as a servo motor that cracks the door open to control the cooldown period.


Good control over the reflow process is key to reliability.

I can't wait to give it a real workout.  If the performance is anything like the quality of the components and parts I've seen so far, I'm going to be very happy with my new oven.

You can buy your own here.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Mooltipass Nearing Production!


I am a Beta Tester for the Mooltipass offline password keeper (an open-source project) and last I posted I had received the hardware for testing.  There is news!

Beta Testing has been at times a lot of work, but I did my share helping troubleshoot and test (I even collected a bug bounty for finding a bug in a late near-final version.)  I am happy to say that the Mooltipass has become something I use and rely on daily.  It is an excellent tool that I can recommend happily.

The Mooltipass firmware is finalized, other development is almost done, and production is almost ready to start. That means that you will soon be able to buy your own Mooltipass.

In the meantime, the project creator has posted his own thoughts about having managed the project if you would like to know more about that end of things.

Note: this post originally stated that the Mooltipass had entered production,but that is not yet quite true.  The firmware is complete and the job of Beta Testers is (for now) done.

Monday, 25 May 2015

Functional Prototypes, or How To Develop That Idea You Have

Sometimes I will consult with someone who has an idea they have been working on.  Maybe they have a basic sketch, maybe just a concept.  Sometimes they have entire folders full of notes on their idea.

The details are different, but what they want is the same: What is the next step in developing my idea?

The next step is to prototype. Then iterate on that prototype (meaning make another, better one with what you learned) to develop your idea beyond the drawing board.

The most useful kind of prototype for development is the Functional Prototype.  The functional prototype demonstrates how the idea is supposed to work.  It doesn't matter what it looks like, or how big or ugly it is.  It only matters that it is the thing that shows "my idea works like this."

Start into prototyping as soon as you can.  Anything that iterates and grows the idea.  Even just a proof-of-concept, which is a much more limited form of prototype that simply focuses on one piece of the idea and shows that it can work.

I have been designing and building things for a living for over ten years now, and one observation I have that holds true across any kind of design & development - whether professional or hobby, software or hardware - is that the real learning and development happens in iterative prototypes. Every idea comes to life in your head or on paper and gets fleshed out there.

But if your idea is staying on paper and you're not breaking it (or your prototypes) by finding flaws when trying to turn them into prototypes or proofs-of-concept, then you're not actually developing the idea.  And you're probably not learning anything either.

Move to prototyping as soon as you can, fail as early and often as possible, and fail as cheaply as possible both in terms of time and materials.

That is the next step in developing that idea you have.

If you're serious about developing a new idea, hiring a consultant like me (at AE Innovations) can save you time and money by helping you to focus on what matters instead of having to waste time and money figuring it all out by yourself.

Thursday, 14 May 2015

FirePick Delta News - beta testing begins soon

The FirePick Delta (an open source microfactory project) is shipping their Beta hardware!(May 2015)

The FirePick Delta is primarily a pick-and-place robot for assembling circuitboards.  However, it can support many different functions.  The point is to allow hobbyists and small businesses to use a robot to do things that are normally very inefficient and/or not feasible in a small workshop (such as pick-and-place of components, which is using a robot to install tiny electronics onto circuitboards.)

I will be one of the Beta Testers, responsible for assembling the hardware and setting up the software toolchain in order to test things out.  I will be responsible for helping with documentation as well (proper clear documentation).

In the meantime, visit the instagram page from Tin Whiskers to see the hardware all coming together!

See everything about FirePick Delta by clicking here.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

The Cactus Micro - $11 Arduino-compatible with ESP2866 wi-fi integrated

I recently purchased the Cactus Micro (made by aprbrother.com) - it is available on Tindie as well as through this eBay seller.


I have been quite impressed with this item, especially for $11.  It is an Arduino Micro (same driver as Arduino Leonardo or Lilypad USB) and integrates an ESP8266 wi-fi module on pins 11 and 12 for software serial.

Sunday, 15 February 2015

The LED Checker is pretty dang handy

I recently purchased an LED Checker through Tindie.com.  It's a tiny little PCB tool for quickly checking and testing surface mount LEDs.  It was a steal for under $10.


There are traces and pads for just about any size and configuration of LED so you can not only check the polarity but also test for function and brightness.  Surface mount LEDs can be a pain because the polarity markings are not easily visible, and the orientation marking is often on the bottom of the unit.

Speaking of polarity markings on the bottom of SMT LEDs - see that big square pad on the lower right?  Coat it with solder, and it becomes a mirror, for easily inspecting the bottoms of LEDs for those markings!

For under $10 my only regret is that I didn't have one years ago.