Wednesday 16 April 2014

Internet of Things 2014 Forum

I got to spend yesterday at the IoT 2014 forum, in Cambridge, listening to some fantastic speakers and getting to meet lots of really interesting folk starting up, building businesses and engineering new technologies.

Having made the epic move of developing a fresh business plan, and focusing solely on a new product, our web store ( and paring back all our services to just those we love (i.e. to just autonomous systems) - the process has felt really daunting, but it was greatly reassuring having spent a day with IoT investors and entrepreneurs alike.

I've been involved with IoT projects in some form or other, on and off for over a decade now. From networking animals to building-integration projects, it feels like I've been there, done it and earned the T-shirt. Having spent 14 years explaining to people the connection between web applications and physical devices - whilst I'm still having to explain it to the majority of people I meet - there is now an ever growing community who I don't have to explain it to...

Though really, is it such a big stretch to see the connection between web apps, networked devices and network platforms? I recall a meeting with a software company back in 2006 - they couldn't understand why we were working with embedded hardware, we built web applications, and - like this one was really difficult to understand - operated a network platform.

To really confuse these people, now we have a store for makers. So we write code, sell widgets and have a network. Mind. Blown.

It's only been in the last 12-24 months that the community has really been tagging projects in the industry with the term 'Internet of Things' (a term I suspect will continue to evolved and changed over coming years), in place of the disparate terms often used, ranging from those as vague as 'connected' to others as equally vague as 'networked'. As was highlighted yesterday, people aren't looking for randomly connected devices, but things that solve or simplify a problem.

Somewhere around 2008-9, we retrofitted a datacentre with networked power distribution and monitoring along with network environmental monitoring (temperature/humidity probes, door sensors etc). It had taken nearly a year for the board and IT staff to even understand the benefits it had for them, luckily it took the new COO about a week to understand and convince the board otherwise. From a web dashboard, the IT staff can reboot a dead machine, monitor power at server, rack and suite levels, and track the movement of staff and visitors through the building.

As a toolset that's pretty powerful, but once you add logic and automation into the fold, things get really interesting. The system can now control the cooling systems dynamically, adjusting as system load increases or decreases. Whereas once the cooling was set to 'max' with a frosty 16C in places, with networked sensors, the system can determine the cooling needed in each cooling zone, allowing the temperature to be raised closer to an optimal 25C - massively reducing power consumption in the process.

I think the most vital thing is to educate people to the benefits of connecting things together - whether you have an application or use for the data now or not. Once you have it, you'll always find something to do with it...

I know this is a departure from my normal making/breaking things blogging, but in my mind all these things feel linked, so seems a good a place as any blog.

Expect posts of me making and breaking stuff later this week.

Monday 14 April 2014

3D Printing Server Parts

With some of the chassis we have in our datacentre, the majority of drive bays are designed for 3.5” HDD, so it’s a pain when we need to configure a lightweight server or appliance with an SSD.

Whilst the chassis can be upgrade or modified to take 2.5” drives, with the prevalence of big and cheap 3.5” drives, there’s no real cost justification. The other frustration, is that the majority of off-the-shelf (aka “the eBay special”) adaptor plates don’t do what we need, or place the 2.5” drive in the wrong location or have expectations for particular mounting styles.

So, what to do?

Yeah, let’s just jump to it (anyway, the title was a bit of a give away). We're now 3D printing all the custom brackets and widgets we need - on-demand and to specification. We're building a library of parts as we go, so if we don't have something exact, we can modify and tweak existing ones. Need a cable slot? Added. Need a zip tie anchor? Done.

Any downsides? As the internal temperatures are nowhere near the melting point of the plastics we use, that issue can be discounted straight away. We've not used any to electrically insulate or where it might bridge terminals - I still need to dig out material datasheets to check the dielectric properties of the plastics, but given how many Pi cases we make and use, we've not seen anything bad happening so far and not likely to in a server case either.

Volume? Well, if the brackets are designed well, then volume isn’t normally an issue. A hulking chunk of plastic is expensive whether 3D printed or mass-produced - if the general practice is to screw an HDD to the chassis plate, then the standard is already set pretty low. Getting the design right is organic, so you start by solving the immediate problem and iterate forward as you go.

As I write this, I’m just waiting for a new bracket to print. We’ve got a number of custom network appliances, which whilst designed to take 1x 3.5” or 2x 2.5” drives, has a bracket that needs a 3.5” drive to hold it together. Pretty dumb really.

Do we want to have custom metal adaptors made for these? We’d need to order circa 200pcs, plus the design and engineering costs for the prototypes. Since we need only 5 sets, don’t think that’s economical.

In 20 min, I’ve been able to draft and model a part to exactly fit the brand of drives, the bizarre mounting points in the chassis and sufficient space for cabling. And 10min later, I have a prototype screwed to an SSD and into the case. Marvellous.

Well, I exaggerate. That’s my second prototype, as I found I placed the SSD mount holes 1mm off axis. That’s an “oops” now, but if it were a box of 200 metal brackets, thats an “Oh f**k sticks, I've just wasted a bundle of money. Arse.”

In an effort to reduce the number of ‘vanity’ parts used in the data centre, we’re printing lots of different pieces in lieu of expensive plastic (or metal) components, to do things from holding LCDs and LEDs to mundane cable management and hard drive mounting. The main rule, is to keep the part functional - I like to think a well designed and engineered item looks good anyway, voiding the need for vanity parts from the outset.

I suppose this just highlights the beauty of on-demand fabrication and manufacture - instead of wasting days and weeks on rather pointless 'projects' (I use the term loosely), in under an hour I can identify a problem, develop a robust solution and be onto the next task. Nice.

Edit: on a side note and extending the idea of on-demand fabrication for production not just prototyping; Google's new modular concept phone, Project Ara, would be 3D printed using production grade machines they're designing.

Friday 11 April 2014

Bad blogger! Bad!

Yeah, I've been a bad blogger. No posts since November?

I have, however, been busy with lots of lovely projects - many I'll try to post about over coming weeks. I've caught up with a few projects, shelved a few and started too many new ones. One that's taking pride of place, is my 3D printed InMoov 6ft humanoid robot. It's amazing how people start bugging you less, when you have a humanoid robot standing behind your chair, facing the door and occasionally shaking it's head.

Thursday 14 November 2013

I'm still here!

In the effort to break my 6-monthly posting, I'm going to start documenting my projects a little better and get some posted.

I'm planning some mini-projects, redux of old projects and finishing some big projects...

With access to 3D printers at work (, I've been able to accelerate lots of projects and get things designed and built within a matter of hours. So, lots of mini-projects already done and dusted - plus many more to come.

A few projects have taken a back-burner; mostly the RC projects as the weather is a turn-off for anything outdoors. I'll probably get into them around spring-time, in time for a summer completion. A real nuisance with the weather is delays for quite a few model kit conversions I'm working on, as I have nowhere dry to spray paint. Falling short of building a spray area indoors, I'm having to wait for low winds and dry weather to get primer and base coats done. I've built quite a few models as far as is possible without painting, so stuck there.

Model Making
- 28mm Model Building/Painting
- 4mm Plastic & Card Models (1/76th aka OO) plus lots of on-track plant models
- 4mm Layout (1/76th aka OO)

- Train Control System (LCB)
- Train Control Panel (DCC/Traction)

- RC Platform (aka UAV/Rover)
- RC Hovercraft Rebuild
- RC Boat Rebuild (set back due to rebuild/painting of hull)

Mini Projects
- 4mm Faller Car System Conversions (3D printing chassis and steering to adapt 4mm models for self-driving)
- 3D Printed Servo Mounts (90% complete, just some mechanical tweaks)

I promise my next post will be within a week and will be a project report, complete with pictures!

PS in my defence, I've drafted lots of posts, but for one reason or another never publish them - normally lack of pictures or wanting to make more progress. Dumb, I know.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Busy, Busy, Busy

The last few months have flown by - hard to believe it's nearly the end of May...

So, having part-written countless blog post drafts, I've not had the time (nor inclination I suppose) to finish them. Suffice to say, I probably should.

Having had my Birthday recently, I'm now inundated with lots of bits I've been wanting for ages and claiming was imperative for my 'making' needs. Highlights include tonnes of buckeye couplings, a couple of new locos, a Faller car system kit, a loco kit and some DCC gear.

I'm pushing forward with my model rail layout at the moment, with the awful weather I've not really bothered with the R/C vehicles, though I have sorted most of the electronics out for the projects I'm working on. What is mostly outstanding now, is time to design and 3D print the parts I need to complete those projects and some time to paint/finish them.

The rail layout is naturally growing and evolving far beyond the original plans, but it is moving forward. I'm working on the design at the moment and a little stuck with it, but over the next few weeks or so I should be laying track and roadways. I'll be visiting Miniature Wunderland in Hamburg as well very soon, so hopefully that'll also give me the inspirational shove I need to finish the design.

My workbench is also getting busy, with a number of model conversions on the schedule, in addition to the electronics and 3D print projects I'm working on. Pictures will start flowing shortly, I promise.

Finally, head over to and check out what I've been working on since January - we'll be officially launching really, really soon, but in the meantime we're 'beta' launching with a smaller set of products. Sign up to the newsletter and you'll be in the running for our prize draw as well.

Okay, back to the workbench...

Monday 21 January 2013

Building a 3D Printer

Much has been happening on the 3D printing front. A few delays in sourcing parts (as will be explained), but otherwise things are going smoothly.

After some research and help from the donor of the seed parts, I chose the Ecksbot as the basis for my first 3D printer. Even before completing the first, I've got plans for an OpenBeam-based printer with a larger print area and finer print resolution.

I initially thought the electronics aspect would be the cause of the delays - I suspected I'd get it built and it would gather dust as I desperately tried to source the electronics and wire the thing up. Not so (so far), the biggest delay has been on a couple of the mechanical parts.

From the outset, I wanted to source parts from good businesses with great products - a combination of British, German, Japanese and even US-made parts. My aim is to find as many manufacturers in the UK and EU to source my parts from for all projects. Of course, if I were to be an utter purest, none of my projects would come to fruition, so I have been forced to source from China for some bits (the electronics at the moment being the sole parts for the printer).

Seed Parts
Printed in British-made extruded PLA, all are the standard parts (the majority of the Ecksbot parts are already are based on the improved versions of the RepRap's parts) with the moving parts in orange and static in black.
Mechanical Hardware
The majority of fasteners are A2 stainless steel hex cap-heads some of the M3 are rounded heads, similarly the threaded rods are A2 stainless steel. The smooth rods have been the hardest to source, even at the time of writing, I've still not found a company able to supply them to me for a realistic price - not to mention the majority of suppliers have neither responded nor acknowledged me.
Looking around at the available hot-ends, it proved easier to get it straight from Eckertech especially since they engineer and test each one to high tolerances. Plus, their pre-sales support was helpful in selecting a nozzle size. I plumped for the standard 0.4mm nozzle, even though I will want finer printing in the future, it's best to start with a standard construction and work from there.
Electronics & Motors
Settling for a RAMPS 1.4 platform, PCB heatbed (with custom made aluminium heatsink) and a set of upgrades including the LCD panel and SD reader. Not much to say here until it's built up and I get to grips with the pros and likely cons of the RAMPS platform.
Once I can source the remaining parts, I'll be able to complete construction. I've built up as much as possible (working around the missing parts when the structure permits), so I'm keen to get these last few parts. The shopping list now; hobbed bolt, smooth rods, T2.5 belt and stepper motors. The hobbed bolt will also be coming from Eckertech, the belts and motors I just need to collect, leaving the smooth rods to procure.

Next update should hopefully see construction complete and the majority of electronics connected.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

New plan. Build a 3D printer. Simple.

As a redux of a plan I had in May, I'm now back on track with building a 3D printer. Spurred on by the release of MakerBot's awesome Replicator 2, it was either saving up and waiting until later next year, or hacking my own together now. Being impatient, the latter seemed appropriate.

Part of my logic is that I can quickly solve problems and technical issues with projects I have outstanding, by virtue of custom-making the parts I need and hopefully producing a better finish all round.

It also means I can quietly add to my stack of projects, but claim they're just sample print pieces when they fail or languish.

I also joined DEMU, a great resource for information (and detailed technical data) on diesel and electric traction, with a great deal of information on the on-track plant equipment I find myself drawn to (probably being bright yellow and a definite appearance of function over form).

I'd already heard of DEMU, but seeing them at the Warley show on Saturday and some amazing samples of printed parts (a pair of incredibly-massively-amazingly EMU detailed bogies) was just the shove I needed to join. I plan to make good use of their drawings for accurate modelling and printing of vehicles I've been trying to find desperately.

I've started sourcing parts for the printer, so it's probably time to start writing up the build in more detail. Even at this stage, there seems to be a whole range of technical issues to contend with before I even get hands on with building it.

I'm not sure how a 3D printer will solve my problems, but I just know it will...

To quote the Underpants Gnomes;
1. Underpants
2. ?
3. Profit