A New Direction

Or, Dreamcity.

Hello all,

As you can tell, I’m listening to Xe-None, the Russian cyber rock band, and it is quarter past five in the morning here. Since I’ve been taken off the heavy sedatives, I’ve found I only sleep five or six hours a night, and I have since found out this “bad habit” is one I share with my father, God rest his soul. I find it fascinating, I was never like this as a child, I slept at least eight hours.

So what do I do with all this spare time? Well, nothing right now, but let me tell you a story…

I’ve been asked to investigate stereo-lithographic plastic extrusion technique. Jason got himself a RepRap printer, and had downloaded the requisite software. Another triumph of open source hardware – what was $30,000 five years ago, with $5,000 software driving it, and another $5,000 every time you upgraded your OS in order for your big investment to keep working, is now $800, and Hell, its a kit you put together!

Tell me what the first thing I thought I could print was?

Thats right, model trains!

Turns out, yes, you can indeed print model trains. I have access to some 3D .STL models of trains, and some other .3DS models I’m hoping to convert (one is animated – the doors open and close… don’t think I can print that somehow). I have a Windows 8 tablet in order to do the 3D modeling work.

Uh huh, I’m full of surprises now – Windows!

I’m reserving my opinion on Windows, its just a tool. Like a screwdriver. Some tools I like, like soldering irons. Others, like saws, I don’t particularly like. Others again like power drills, I am afraid of. But at the end of the day, like them, hate them or fear them, they’re still an implement to do work with. So Windows. Oh Shane, what are we going to do with you?

I’ve had discussions about using acetone to “smooth off” the models I print – as I print models, I hope to experiment with this technique. And I’m building something special: a printer server for 3D printers.

I’m going to use a new embedded board called a pcDuino, which is a modification of a CubieBoard that has Arduino level pins – however, they are not in “shield format” (which is pretty much an industry standard now). When an adapter board comes out, I’ll be getting one of those too.

The server will perform a number of functions:

* Bluetooth control of the printers
* Bluetooth streaming of the GCode files to the printers (from a NAS)
* Z-Wave control of the printers power
* Z-Wave monitoring of power consumption
* Monitoring the power consumption of the rack which the server is in
* Webcam monitoring of the printers (with an Xbox Kinect)
* Monitoring two LiFePO4 batteries that are used as a “true” UPS
* Webserver for all the above functions
* SSH console for admin of above functions

As you can see, this is going to be a busy little computer! And it’ll draw 2Amps max, with a powered USB hub drawing 1Amp max. It’ll live in a rack with my VoIP and radio servers. If I get solar power, it’ll talk to the solar system as well! This servers focus is power monitoring and control, and monitoring and control of the printers. Solar power will not be mounted to the house, I have a concrete pad next to the side of the house I might be able to build a rack of metal tubing to support the panels on.

I’ve got to find a good NAS now with some good Samba support, and set up the tablet, the printer server, and my Macbook to use it. Macbook will be used for admin, of course. That NAS will live in the rack as well, backed up off the “true” UPS. Most of the equipment in the rack is at Extremely Low Voltage levels, either 5 or 12VDC. Only three switches and a monitor will be at 240VAC, as well as any NBN equipment when the NBN comes to town. I’ll power the 240VAC gear through a 600Watt inverter.

Now, I’m not an electrician, but I’m the next best thing: a licenced cabler! That means I have a legal right to play with ELV gear, mostly in the context of telecommunications, but this power application is well within my reach. And in the future when I’m making some money, and Grace is here, I’d like to take my solar designers accreditation. Andrew said he’d help me with the solar stuff in the meantime, but it would be nice to be able to design stand alone and grid connected solar systems.

The printers, of which I plan to have eight, are RepRap Prusa Mendel type printers. And I plan on getting a desktop 3D scanner as well, made by a company called CADScan, who are based in the UK, and are holding a Kickstarter event. The 3D scanner scans directly to .STL files, which can be “sliced” into GCode from there.

Of course, there is a downside – I have to put away my train layout for the time being while I make plastic objects, not only trains, but other things that Jason and I are designing. However, I am certain that Jasons ideas will make money, and having a way to make plastic objects without an expensive mould is certainly tops! I’m even going to be using the bio-degradable properties of PLA plastic!

This is only early days yet for this project, and it needs a bit of funding yet. Some of the parts haven’t even been made yet, but I expect them to, or I might be able to make them myself. The returns though, I’m guessing, are going to be quite good. I have sources of Buhler train motors, NEM couplers that fit into KaDee coupler pockets (some Russian modelers prefer NEM, like me, others prefer knuckle couplers – I’ll have both with my models), I can print parts of the mechanisms such as the gears, and I have a friend in Melbourne who might show me how to air brush the models, especially if I take him and his missus out for dinner.

So as you can tell, its all happening! This plan is clear in my head, as with the NBN education plan (which stalled because I found out the education I was going to do wasn’t NBN accredited) I know where I’m going and what I’m doing. There is no doubt in my mind anymore.

I hope to be able to write up my experiences with OctoPrint, and my power monitoring soon enough…!

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About rackingwoes

In a time and a place outside of what you consider reality...
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