Thursday, August 11, 2011

Online CNC and Laser Cutting

Well, my efforts to make my own CNC (computer numerical control - a computerized machine shop) has stalled for the moment.  I orginally planned to make a Dremel CNC out of 3/16 board using my Dremel or my handtools, but all my wood and Dremel is in Augusta.  Then the rest of the plan was once the CNC is complete begin making robot parts for myself (eventhough I still have not settled on a robot yet).  With me joining the AHRC, I am starting to get the build-it bug.  So to occupy my time and maybe take a quicker approach, I started looking for online CNC/laser cutting options. 

A few months ago, I originally found an online CNC operator and REPRAP 3D printer in Atlanta that turned me onto Google Sketchup (which has been the main 3D CAD graphic software that I use now) who happened to also be a member of the AHRC.  I asked about him at the meetings but it appears he has not shown up for awhile.  Too bad, I would have liked to go through a local source.  Unfortunately, I cannot find his website again. 

Luckily, I found a new site called which is a growing CNC/Laser cutting service with online retail store front and support that operates on 3 different continents.  It has been recognized in several bigger name papers and online trade mags by pioneering the Personal Factory concept for individuals and businesses that do not have their own equipment.  In addition, the Personal Factory enables  faster prototyping for a cheaper cost than most CNC shops.  For 3D orders, Ponoko also use Google Sketchup and for 2D laser cutting, they require Inkscape.  Fortunately, Inkscape is free, but it is yet another software that I will have to learn because it is not as intuitive as some of the other programs I am used to interfacing.  There seems to be several tutorials out so it should not be that hard.

If you are curious about Ponoko check out this blog post.

Here is another blog encouraging the Personal Factory movement:

So using the Personal Factory Concept, I could use some of the files uploaded by other robot enthusiasts to build parts.  Here are some of my wish lists (I know that some are not the correct format and some include the REPRAP, but conversions should be possible):

Spider legs ; ; ;
Tank treads
Mecanum Wheels
Marble caster
Drag Chain
Cable Chain ; ;
Brain Gear (multi-wheel)
Sarrus Linkages
Ball joint

How-to for gears ;
planetary gears ; ; ;
gear reducers
helical gears
elliptical gears ;
square gears
spring gear
bevel gear
gear box ; ;
Mini gears ;
Chatterbox gears
Leveling gears (screw bolts)


Line Follower
Spider-bot ; ;
Robotic Arm ; ;
Robotic Hand ;
Walker ;

COOL 3D Kits


**NOTE ADDED** I just found this site

Monday, August 8, 2011

An Idea for Atlanta Mini-Makers Faire

Coming on Sep 10, there will be a mini-Makers Faire at Georgia Tech near downtown Atlanta. From the list of attendees, it will definately be small and the local robotics club (AHRC) has signed for a space.  So I volunteered as a helper but since this is the first one for Atlanta, the organizers of the mini-makers faire may not have a clear idea of their agenda or requirement per booth. 

The plan so far for the club is bring their robots and show them off.  This is a good start, but I am thinking that an interactive display may be needed.  Hopefully, a project that is quick to build, easy to operate, and appeals to the masses.  So far, I brainstormed and came up with a simple candy crane.  Afterall, everyone loves candy.  I will have to run it by the club to see if they are accepting of this.

With a candy crane, there are two types that I already have plans available for (see the earlier post titled Robo Crafts for Kids): the radial arm and the overhead crane.  Both of these projects should be easy to be done in a month. 

In addition, I can probably repurpose one of my child's construction toys to help out.  Hopefully, it has enough torque to lift up candy and turn.

Now if I can do two different cranes, I might be able to set up a "Hungry Hungry Hippos" type of battling game, but with candy.

Looks like I will need some clear acrylic and wood as an arena.  I will keep the blog posted with progress.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Quick and Fast Arduino Instruction

Gave another quick demonstration/instruction of the Arduino again.  This time the demonstration was to a junior high school age kid (roughly 6-8th grade).  His family was checking out the club.  The kid had experience with robotics camp and his parents bought him the Lego Mindstorms which he brought to the meeting.  Now there are lots of various reviews about different microcontrollers and kits available and one of the more recent ones given by Make Magazine cites that the Lego Mindstorms is fairly easy to begin and operate, but it is not cheap (Lego Mindstorms link).  All-in-all it is a fairly versatile platform with programming package. 

Although from speaking with the kid, he seemed to have hit a plateau and wanted to DO more but felt like he had to BUY more.  For instance he stated "line following" and he could do it but wanted to buy the line platform.  I might be over thinking our interaction, but my impression was that he needed to explore his set a little more which I encouraged him to do.  I state this based on my child's experience with Legos because in Legos there are two personality types: the set builder or the free-form builder.  Set builders (like my kid) build a set and dont like deviating from it; a firehouse or vehicle can never be anything else. Sometimes they have the tendacy to want to buy a new set or items versus using the versatility that Legos bring.  On the other hand, free-form builders use the Lego blocks to make elaborate designs from the child's imagination and will often recycle parts for something new.  I believe the kid I met at the meeting leaned toward the set building type.

Now there are different methods to curtailing the consumer impulse and keep buying more sets.  One is to join a competition to use your set in a new and interesting avenue to explore its capabilities which a Lego club (or robotics club) can help in.  Another method is to join a Lego club (in this case robotics club) and find a common interest with other people to maintain your enthusiasm for the sets you have or play with other people's toys/sets.  Unfortunately, this may also have the adverse effect that someone may be more compelled to buy the latest newest hotness. 

Anyways, I am hoping that he may be happy with the Mindstorms he has got and decides to explore it more.  I did show him my Arduino and explained some basic electronics.  So here is the basic formula that seems to work with showing the Arduino on a one-on-one setting with someone that may or may not know basic electronic symbols:

1. Show and describe the Arduino.  It's a versatile microcontroller with an easy to use interface and programming language.  Describe the parts of the Arduino (both analog and digital pins with PWM) and the solderless development board.
2. Draw a simple circuit and describe the symbols (in this case, I drew a + pin of Arduino going to a LED to a resistor to ground).
3. Describe the LED, its function, and which leg is Pos.
4. Describe the resistor and the meaning of the colors referencing the color wheel.
5. Have the beginner assemble Circuit 02 with a twist.  Note: Bend the pins so that they overlap the side.
6. Describe the Arduino IDE.
7. Copy and paste the sketch. 
8. Describe the parts of the sketch. the basic elements of the C# code (initialize the pins, define the pins, set defaults, begin loop action), and simple editting using copy and paste to change the direction of blinking lights (used // to ignore lines of code and copy-paste a line of code or variable).
9. Go through the process of loading the sketch.
10. Have the beginner edit and load the sketch.

So far this formula works, but it still takes me an hour to do it all.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Robot Crafts for Kids

I recently a joined a local chapter/club in robotics and attended a meeting. One of the topics brought up was providing an activity area for the children so that the robot competitors wont be distracted by children during the upcoming robot rally. The example given was during last years rally, the robot competitor allowed some younger attendees to operate his machine because everyone wants to operate a robot. Before the competition was about to begin, he had to chase the young attendee down so that he could have his Bot back. Luckily, nothing was broken, but it could have affected his outcome. As discussed, if an activity area is given with robot themed entertainment, this might mitigate any damage to Bots while still encouraging interest from the children that may attend.

I can simpathize with their concern, I have a Kindergarten age kid who is interested in Legos and robots but he must be entertained before he loses interest. To encourage his interests, we had him attend the local Lego store classes that are offered and a Lego summer camp which constantly challenges him.

So here is a list of robot themed activities that I have compiled that may help the adults encourage children with an interest in robots:

1. Lego stacks - Building blocks are the easiest things that spark the interest of every kid (or kid at heart). Unfortunately, there are never enough Legos or special build blocks (axels, wheels, pivot blocks) for all the possibilities that may spring to a child's imagination. And Legos are not a sit-the-kid-down-and-go activity without providing some adult supervision. I am not talking about swallowing parts, but rather conflict control. Arguments over parts or outright destruction from the bully syndrome are some of the situations that must be stopped at the time of incident before it escalates. SO the best solution is have plenty of parts and have an adult standing by as the fair-and-good order police.

Some Lego Projects ;

2. Kinex, Vex, or Erector sets - More expensive than Legos but more capable of larger loads and torque. Requires a higher skill level than Legos. Excellent platform to expand on for more skilled robot enthusiasts.
3. Cardboard, Wooden, or plastic robot pieces -
There are not enough kits out that can be bought and built, but if someone has a CNC this can be cheaper to acquire than Kinex. And once built can be cheap prizes or donated materials that are excellent platforms for expanding on for more skilled robot enthusiasts.

Open source robotic arm
Wooden claw
Cardboard and duct tape arm

4. Paper Actvities - Coloring books, cut and paste paper robot themes, and sticker books are okay for 3-7 years of age. Luckily, my child is still in this group. Be sure to have plenty of each type of activity printed out, crayons/markers available, clean up supplies, storage containers, and parental control of the scissors.

Coloring book images

5. Pepakura and paper robots -
Do not underestimate the versatility of paper as a building material. The Japanese have dedicated an entire artform to paper folding and cutting beyond the commonly known orgami and it is called pepakura. Basically, pepakura is printed paper or cardstock that is cut and glued into working replicas of popular themes (people or anime characters, mechas, spaceships, and modern vehicles). And sometimes just like papermache, the paper is covered with fiber glass resin or less toxic epoxy to form costumes, masks, or even armor. The skill level required is more advanced than a normal grade school age child can accomplish and requires more effort and time, but the rewards and level of detail can be immense fun to accomplish. If trying to do this with a younger child, have them cut AROUND the pieces and glue one piece at a time while the adult does the trimming. Bring lots of patience and download the free Pepakura viewer.

a. Paper figures and robot sites ; ; ; ; ;

Blank Robot Figure

Poseable Robot

Blank Robots BoxPunx

WALLE (from Disney/Pixar) Mechas/Gundams

Canti (from FLCL)


b. Paper spaceships and vehicles




VEHICLES yamaha , harley davidson, tank

6. Basic Electronics and Gears- Great way to recycle leftover parts or cheap parts. Instruction led or written direction and schematics are a must.

a. Squishy Circuits - conductive play dough

b. Paper Gears -

7. Microcontroller activity - Higher cost and instruction led.  I recently used the Arduino to show a high schooler and we started with the multiple LED blinking (circuit 02 on followed by the switch (circuit 07).  We ran out of time before we could go over the motor shield.  I kept the programming of the Arduino simple by explaining the Arduino IDE, went over the steps to load the application, the basic elements of the C# code (initialize the pins, define the pins, set defaults, begin loop action), and simple editting using copy and paste to change the direction of blinking lights (used // to ignore lines of code and copy-paste a line of code or variable).

Monday, August 1, 2011

First Post and Mission Statement

This post is the start of my new site dedicated to updating the public with the newest and best in DIY robotics and autonomus toys.  This information will range from helpful how-to's or to new concepts in robotics and programming or the newest products offered from my ETSY store at .

A short description of myself, I am a tinkerer and parts hoarder.  I was the kid that always wanted to become a scientist.  I never received formal training from any major institutions, but I am versed enough that I can translate 'engineer speak' to the average layman (this particular skill is the means of my current employment) and can apply this knowledge for any particular circumstance.  I walk around with my notebook jotting down the latest idea, brainstorm, gadget, or mechanical observation that may occur.  And this site will be where I am willing to share my latest with the public.

Hope that this information can be useful to you.

Lyle Sloan
Founder of Build A Mecha