Friday, April 29, 2011

Fabrication brings TinyChuck5 to life

After some time spent re-acquainting myself with circuit board manufacturing and laser cutting, my "TinyChuck5" project is complete, looking more like a finished product than a breadboarded mess of wires. Here it is, happily blinking away:

At the time of my last post, I had finished my circuit board design and had some boards on order. The circuit boards were manufactured overseas through the Seeedstudio Fusion PCB service, great for small prototyping runs of small boards. Thankfully my design just barely fit within the 5cm x 5cm maximum size. To get 10 boards for only $20 is a steal, much cheaper than just one board through most other services. They also have a 10cm x 10cm option for $40. Despite the low price, the boards turned out quite well, the only drawback being the long lead time. They also added some identification/serial numbers to the silkscreen on each board to keep track of the order, but that's hardly anything to be concerned over. I also ended up with some additional boards, 12 in all, with 8 of them tested (they promise at least 50% testing, 100% costs extra). All in all a perfect service for the hobbyist engineer.

With boards in hand, I headed for the workbench to assemble my first prototype. After much soldering and clipping of leads, it was time for the ultimate test... would it work? Was my circuit board designed correctly? With the programmed chip pressed into its socket I hooked up power through a couple alligator clips and viola! It worked! Blinking lights! Not terribly exciting I know, but it was personal validation for the work and attention to detail I had put into my little trinket.

Next step was to give this little piece of electronics a proper enclosure. I wanted to have it set up on my desk and look nice & clean. While the exposed electronics look was interesting in its own right, I wanted to take it up a notch.

Years ago, I was fortunate enough to have access to a laser cutter/engraver in my high school's metal shop, and I was appointed to be the resident expert and operator of the machine. I learned a lot that year and had fun cutting and engraving all sorts of parts and materials. Having access to that kind of creativity-driven hardware was a lot of fun. So when it came time to make an enclosure for this project, I wanted to laser cut something. Thanks to their partnership with SparkFun Electronics, I found out about a company called Ponoko, an internet-based "digital manufacturing" service that creates parts from digital files. 2-dimensional designs can be cut from a variety of materials, and 3D designs can be turned into physical parts using 3D printing technologies. They make it easy and affordable. In college I also got to use the rapid prototyping machine to "print" 3D objects, but that's a different story. Needless to say I love the whole digital fabrication concept, and the creative freedom it enables.

For laser cut parts, I simply had to upload my design as an SVG file, and choose the material I wanted. I opted to do my design work in AutoCAD where I feel most comfortable, having made mechanical drawings in the software for four years at college. I saved my design to an AutoCAD R13 DXF format, imported it into Inkscape, placed it within Ponoko's design template, and sent the design off to Ponoko to be cut from 3mm thick white acrylic plastic. Some time later the parts arrived at my door, and it was back to the workbench.

One thing I noticed after assembling my first unit was that my LEDs didn't all line up perfectly in their 4 x 5 grid. The holes in the PCB were bigger than the LED leads, so each LED had some wiggle room. This resulted in a few LEDs that looked "off" from the rest of their respective rows. I had some space available on my Ponoko design, so I had them cut me a template for placing my LEDs. I cut holes for each LED just big enough to fit the lens, and included mounting holes that lined up with the circuit board. This let me place all 20 LEDs in a near-perfect grid and hold them solid while I soldered each one. The results look much better than my first attempt, with perfectly aligned rows & columns of lights.

With soldering complete, I began assembling the new enclosure:

Here's a view of the back of the unit. The back piece included cutouts for my power cord (a USB cable), and for a small T-shaped button I made for pressing the reset button inside on the circuit board.

And here again is the finished product. These days it sits on my desk at work, quietly blinking away, occasionally drawing me into a hypnotic zen-state, and serving as inspiration for my next more ambitious project.