Filastruder Build … Electronics

After receiving my hotly anticipated Filastruder kit, I couldn’t wait to put it together. Starting with the mechanical build, completed over the course of a few afternoons, things seemed to be going smoothly. I had ordered the enclosure kit to go along with the Filastruder, and after a slight hickup with the interior fit of the upgraded v1.6 motor that Filastruder creator Tim Elmore helped me sort out quickly and efficiently via email, my small-scale home extruder was ready to be imbued with electronic life.

This was the part I had been nervous about from the beginning, and even more so as I read the sparse instructions included with the kit. While I have accumulated some experience with soldering PCB assemblies over the last year, and my Arduino skills are improving all the time, doing wiring on a much larger scale is not something I am totally comfortable with yet. I think mostly I struggled with visualising what the end product was supposed to look like – how the wires are held together (soldering or crimping?), how long the wires are supposed to be, how everything fits in the case with the motor. I found very little on this subject on the Solidoodle Forum, the first point of call for any Filastruder owner, and what I did find looked positively lethal and not something I would want to run unattended in my studio. I read on the forum that the extrusion process takes between 8-12 hours or even longer, depending on how much material you are extruding, and I felt that I needed to be completely comfortable with running the extruder for that length of time without worrying about electrical fires. So what to do?

The first clue I found when I finally had the time to get stuck into the electronics assembly were a few large crimp connectors that had been included to wire up the various switches. If you have been following my blog you will know that I have recently developed a bit of a thing for electronics crimping – albeit on a much smaller scale. Crimps are a great and very reliable way to form an electrical connection, and my interest in the huge variety of colourful larger crimp connectors had been stirred already during a previous visit to Maplin. Learning from my previous forays into crimping, I decided to make another trip to pick up some more connectors as well as the appropriate crimping pliers. If you are going to get involved with crimping larger style connectors, a pair of ratcheted pliers is absolutely essential – and not the right place to skimp; your wrists will thank you for using a decent pair that exerts enough pressure to form a secure connection the first time round. Armed with my new tools and an excellent YouTube tutorial on electrical crimping, I decided to tackle the switch connectors first:

Filatronics04After a few unsuccessful attempts and failed connections, the results of my crimping efforts were starting to improve and the wiring was beginning to take shape. The Sestos controller has screw terminals, so I attached ring terminal crimps on the ends of the wires to create a better connection than I would have by just simply attaching the bare wires. After a few more hours and some wasted crimps, this is what I ended up with:

Filatronics01The thermocouple posed another challenge – its two large prongs did not fit well into the screw terminals, and leaving it sticking out straight would have interfered with the case. I resolved this issue by attaching two more ring terminal crimps on one end and two small spade crimps on the other (hidden underneath badly applied heatshrink in the image):

Filatronics02The final adjustments I made was to use a JST connector terminal soldered to a small bit of stripboard to attach the fan and add female header crimps with housings (taped together with their male counterparts with electrical tape for a secure connection) on the heater wires, as I wanted these two elements to be easily detachable if needed.

Filatronics03I also made the decision not to ‘hack’ the original 12V power supply cable as suggested in the instructions but to use a screw terminal barrel jack instead as it seemed neater and more flexible should I ever need to replace the power supply.

At this point I would like to add that all of these modifications and build strategies were my own and should in no way be taken as gospel – if you do things in a similar way as described here when building your kit it is entirely at your own risk. I am still feeling my way around electronics and figuring out the best way to do things. Similarly, if you feel I made a mistake or want to suggest an improvement, please get in touch as I would welcome any constructive advice!

That’s my Filastruder fully assembled now, including cramming the finished electronics into the case. I have not had a chance to try it out yet, but I can safely say that I have finished the job to the best of my abilities. The Filastruder kit was certainly one of the more challenging things I have done so far, despite great email support from Tim. Can’t wait to get going now!!!

Filastruder…unboxing!

This week I finally got the shipping confirmation for my Filastruder kit. After a bit of wrestling with Parcelforce and paying the appropriate customs charges (don’t get caught out by these if you order stuff from the US – at the very least you’ll have to pay UK VAT!), I finally took my little brick of a parcel home. Unfortunately, it could really not have arrived at a worse time for me – between speaking at the Handmade by Machines symposium last Friday and giving a paper at XcoaX 2015 next week. So, having no time to put the ‘Struder together for another week at least, I thought I’d do a small ‘unboxing’ photoshoot to get it out of my system and inspect the contents of the package in eager anticipation…

Filastruder01

It might not look it, but this parcel packs a real punch in terms of its contents…

Filastruder02

…most of which I have yet to identify. Most intriguing bit spotted so far: a huge drill bit that has been filed down in order to create the internal lead screw of the extruder.

Filastruder03

And here are the contents laid out in all their glory. I ordered the whole enchillada, so what you see here are the both the Filastruder and Filawinder in bits, as well as a complementary pound of ABS pellets. I have already procured 12.5kg of PLA pellets for my research, and I can’t wait to feed these to the ‘Struder.

Another thing I was able to fit in between writing my paper for next week and doing the unboxing was to start printing the additional parts required to make the kit work. There are various ways to set up the Filastruder, and the design of the hopper depends on the way you decide to orient the extruder. My studio is starting to burst at the seams (especially since the Ultimaker entered my life) but luckily there is still a tiny bit of suitable wall space at the back, so I decided to print a vertical hopper mount that takes 2L bottles as hoppers from Thingiverse.

Filastruder04

I chose ABS and 100% fill, as this part comes under a lot of strain and needs to be able to take quite a bit of weight – it might have been total overkill, but better safe than sorry. Can’t wait to put it all together…watch this space!

The Wilderness of Micro Jargon or how I deciphered prototyping langugage

It has been an interesting week here at Smart Central, most of which I spent wrestling with the helpful language used on websites selling components and in their respective datasheets. Even though I have now been trying to get serious about prototyping for more than three years, some instructions given with regards to how to activate certain functions offered by components still baffle and confuse me deeply. So much prior knowledge is just assumed to exist on the part of the creative technologist by the authors of these sites and datasheets, and unless you happen to know someone you can ask what something means exactly, and more importantly how to execute a certain instruction, you run the risk of ruining your components. So I thought I’d write this post about my recent experience with the Adafruit Standalone Toggle Capacitive Touch Sensor breakout.

In theory, this is a beautiful component to use to Toggle Capacitive_1375incorporate a touch sensitive switch into your project – you can even replace the integrated touch pad with a conductive surface to make touch sensitive keys that blend in more discreetly with your project by soldering a connector into the pin below the touch pad. There is a momentary version of this sensor available, which is only active when contact is made, but for my current purpose the on/off toggle function works nicely. Now, because space is at a premium when working on a jewellery scale, even the tiny dimensions of this sensor (about 1.5cm x 2.5cm) were too big for my project and I decided to be daring and simply lop off the redundant integrated touch pad and status indicator LED with a jeweller’s saw. I don’t advocate this as the best way of quite literally ‘hacking’ a component, but in this case I felt the value of the learning experience outweighed the risk of ruining the sensor (I bought a spare just in case). However, much to my surprise the maimed component still worked perfectly afterwards – I made an educated guess about the connections I was savaging, and it seems to have paid off. Great – so far so good!

The next step is where things really started to unravel for me – I wanted to make use of the automatic timer function the sensor had to offer. I had read the following instructions in the Adafruit guide for this part (which covers all their touch sensors but none in greater depth):

It also supports a configurable time-out to turn off the output automatically after a delay. To select this mode, cut the ‘TIMER’ jumper and connect a resistor & capacitor to the TIME pin. For a circuit diagram and resistor/capacitor calculations, see page 13 of the datasheet.

You can also just connect TIME to Vdd and the chip will turn off approx 15 minutes after being turned on. Connect TIME to OUT and the chip will time-out approx one hour after being turned on.

Wow. There are a lot of assumptions of prior knowledge in that paragraph. What is the ‘Timer’ jumper (or indeed a jumper)? How do you cut it? Does the second part of the paragraph about the pre-programmed time-out function also require the jumper to be cut? Do you have to add a resistor/capacitor in that case? I decided to look at the datasheet to gain clarity. Unfortunately, the datasheet is not for the actual breakout board, but for the processor used on the breakout. It is highly technical. It did not address any of my questions, as it is clearly written for a highly specialised audience of electromechanical engineers, who know exactly what they’re doing. I was just about able to decipher some of the instructions relating to the timer function, but what I really needed was the map of the different connections and resistors used on the breakout board, also known as an eagle schematic. These I found tacked on at the very end of the guide thankfully, and soon things started to become clearer. Let’s take a look at the back of the board to start with.

A ‘jumper’ I found out after much googling, is a short length of conductor used to close a break in or open, or bypass part of, an electrical circuit. This can be either a separate component, a simple wire or a printed trace on a PCB. In this case it turned out to be the latter – the toggle breakout indeed has two jumpers, one for the timer function and another for the LED indicator of the integrated touch pad (hacked off in my case):Adafruit Toggle 1375 Back modifiedTo ‘cut’ the timer jumper, I discovered, means simply to use a sharp scalpel and scrape away the small bridge between the two larger pads:Timer CutThis, according to the eagle schematic, changes the state of the timer pinout to ‘high’ (or active) by removing its connection to ground (which rendered it ‘low’ or inactive). It is apparently possible to undo this change by connecting the two pads with a blob of solder, but I haven’t tried this as of yet. It is then merely a matter of soldering a wire between the TIME pin and either the VDD pin (15 min auto turn-off) or GND pin (60 min auto turn-off). You can also set the auto turn-off to any interval you like, by adding resistors and capacitors of the appropriate value as specified on the datasheet, but for me 60 minutes will be just fine.

This may seem like a lot of work merely to figure out a single component, but in the process I have also demystified the language used in PCB instructions and gained more knowledge, which is always a good thing…until the next time!

Enter the Filastruder…

So, my birthday has been and gone for another year. Knee-deep in my various PhD research projects, my parents asked me what I would like for a present this year to cheer me up in these stressful times. Imagine their faces when I told them that I would love a kit to build my own plastic filament extruder – probably not quite what they had in mind!

I first read about the Filastruder on Kickstarter about a year ago, before I even owned a 3D printer, and thought it looked really intriguing if a little dangerous. Kickstarter is a great way of finding out about brand new things happening in the 3D printing community, but even though I have been known to back the odd project or two, and so far have not been too unlucky (if you don’t count the month-long delays – Kickstarter is definitely for the VERY patient), most things presented there should be taken with a pinch of salt. Even vastly successful projects like the Form1 often benefit from a period of beta testing, and if your priority is reliability rather than ‘being first’ it often pays to wait a year or two for the technology to get more established and for kinks to be ironed out.

As I have started to experiment a lot more with my printer recently, two things have come to my attention. Firstly, even though PLA is not terribly expensive to buy, the cost soon adds up as I found myself going through filament at a scary rate in the first few months, especially printing out vital components for my research. Secondly, the amount of waste filament also builds up relatively quickly, either from support material or failed prints, which even despite careful planning can and do happen. So, enter the Filastruder. A relatively simple contraption, it is a build-it-yourself plastic filament extruder sold in kit form by the original Kickstarter developers in the US. Since its Kickstarter days, the kit has built up a solid following of DIY filament makers, with some, such as avid blogger Grayson Galisky,  documenting in great detail their filament making experiments on the Solidoodle 3D Printing Community. Of course, since the Kickstarter campaign other filament extruders such as the Filabot and more recently the Protocycler have come to the market – and I am definitely keeping an eye out for the latter. For a UK based option, the Strooder looks promising – compared to the earlier kits those newer machines are definitely heading away from the DIY aesthetic towards a more consumer-friendly look. But for the moment, the Filastruder is the most economical option actually available on the market (the Protocycler and Strooder are both still in their pre-sales phases with release dates estimated for late 2015/early 2016). I have also opted for the spooling kit, as I have run into tangles with loose filament in the past, and the spooler makes the whole assembly much neater altogether.

Making virgin filament is relatively straightforward – buy PLA or ABS pellets or powder in bulk, add a carefully calculated amount of ‘masterbatch’ colourant to the pellets in the hopper of the extruder, mix and start extruding! The pellets need to be completely dessicated to get a great batch of filament, so baking them in an oven for a few hours will really improve quality levels (and of course storing them correctly afterwards). The masterbatch colourant is either sold with the pellets (Colourfabb do this) or you can devise your own methods to make it up – as far as I can tell from the forums almost anything goes, including the addition of powdered metals, wood etc to make exotic filaments. The possibilities that await!!! And it is a lot cheaper than buying ready-made filament. Depending on where you get the raw materials, you could save between 50%-80%.

However, another major appeal for a lot of people will be recycling their failed prints into freshly extruded brand new filament. And this is unfortunately a lot more complicated. The main hurdle to this is really getting your failed prints and waste filament to become tiny granules again – to work in the Filastruder, they need to be less than 5mm in diameter. Plastic can be a really awkward material to work with, and anyone who has ever tried to polish acrylic will know that using powertools of any kind will lead to rapid melting of the material. So apparently will putting PLA in a food processor to chop it up. Industrial plastic granulators are not only prohibitively expensive, but also incredibly bulky – unless you have a massive garage or outbuilding and get really lucky on ebay or a used industrial equipment auction, this will not be an option for you. The second option is using a special plastic shredder. Filabot last year announced the development of their own mini shredder, the Filabot Reclaimer, which looked absolutely lethal in their original promo video and has since been revised to be operated with a hand crank. Within the EU, there is FilaMaker, with their hand cranked mini shredders which look amazingly robust but are expensively handmade to order. These are probably the only viable options for 3D printing enthusiasts at this point – the Protocycler promises to feature its own built-in mini shredder, which would be a massive boon, but who knows if it is still around in a year? If you live in a city with a large industrial base, you might be able to find someone who is willing to let you granulate your waste PLA/ABS. But failing that, it’s really a question I have no answer for as of yet.

Anyway, I will write updates about my new toy as and when it arrives…

 

3D Printing Event at Napier University

Last Thursday I attended the 3D printing event held at the Merchiston Campus of Napier University in Edinburgh and organised by the Scottish Plastics and Rubber Association. The speaker was Ralph McNeill, founder of the 3D Print Works based in East Kilbride, a retailer of 3D printers and consumables and manufacturers of their own brand of filament, Elefilament PLA.  Ralph had brought an array of 3D printers to the event for demonstration purposes, and it was quite interesting to see some of models I had only been reading about online in the flesh, particularly a RepRap Rostock they had built themselves. While the talk was interesting, it catered to an audience completely unfamiliar with 3D printing, and a lot of it was just a reiteration of familiar facts for me. However, towards the end things became more interesting, when Ralph passed around samples and a prototype of a large scale direct drive extruder printhead they had been developing in their workshops.

Ralph giving his presentation - note the RepRap Rostock on the far right.
Ralph giving his presentation – note the RepRap Rostock on the far right.
The first generation, scaled up, FFF direct drive extruder developed by 3D
The first generation, scaled up, FFF direct drive extruder under development by 3D Print Works
A sample print of Ralph's first generation large Printhead
A sample print of Ralph’s first generation large Printhead

Sample 2Now that FDM, or more precisely, FFF (Fused Filament Fabrication) is increasingly moving into the consumer market, thoughts are turning to how to scale this technology to make bigger (read: more immediately useful) things. While everybody loves their ‘Marvin’ keyrings and PLA Iphone cases, these are consumer products of a non-essential nature. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could print tables or chairs with a giant 3D printer, or even whole housing estates as has recently been touted in China? Of the two obvious points of development that are being tackled in relation to FFF – quality of materials used and scale – the latter just has a more monumental, immediately impressive and immensely profitable ring to it. Imagine ramshackle shanty towns replaced by clean, cheap, 3D-printed housing! Imagine constructing structures that were impossible to even imagine a few decades ago in weeks rather than months. Free 3D printed furniture for all!

For anyone who has engaged with the ideas of Le Corbusier and his Urban Utopia, the rhetoric behind these ideas sounds awfully familiar. And the flaws become immediately apparent. While it is wonderful to imagine a world in which we all live in beautifully designed, open-plan housing developments featuring huge communal spaces and walkways in the sky (and anyone who knows me knows that I would love to do nothing more), these lofty ideals always get corrupted by the desire to either save or make money. While a future in which you custom design your own house complete with furniture and then take residence a few short weeks later when it has been beautifully printed by the contractors is immensely appealing, I fear that this approach will more likely lead to aesthetic abominations driven by a desire to cut costs and a race to the bottom. As of yet, scaling up the process of FFF comes with its own, very physical, realities – when increasing the nozzle size, you end up with thicker layers that tend not to blend together so easily.

Scaling resolution to achieve a desirable finish will be a huge issue – one the Chinese appear to have solved by encasing the 3D printed shells in layers of plasterboard in a very traditional fashion. But then, the question arises, what’s the point of 3D printing a house in the first place?

Barney…and Björk

As one of my all-time favourite artists I would definitely have to rank Matthew Barney. I was fortunate to see his Cremaster Cycle when it was touring the world in 2002, after he had finished the final part “Cremaster 3”. The exhibition actually opened in my German home town of Cologne, at the Museum Ludwig, which is where I saw it the summer before I started art college. I made my now-husband sit through most of all the films (we left half-way through Part 1, which was screened last, after nearly 6 1/2 hours in the cinema), and the experience has stayed with me since then. For me, being able to remember something you saw nearly 13 years ago in vivid detail is a sign of great art. My favourite part by far was Part 3, which was eventually partially released on DVD (unfortunately only 30 minutes though, which a) makes very little sense unless you have seen the rest of the cycle and b) doesn’t nearly scratch the surface of its visually complex narrative). I would love to see the whole cycle again in its entirety, but screenings are so rare and I am so bad at finding out about things early that there is practically no chance of that happening other than by some crazy stroke of luck. In the Cremaster Cycle, Barney seems to have achieved what many artists strive for – to realise a vision so compelling, visceral, complete and utterly original that it could not be anyone else’s.

Gooo....so much goooo
Gooo….so much goooo…

Of course, I was not surprised when it later emerged that Barney was in a relationship with Icelandic performance artist extraordinaire Björk. After seeing the Cremaster Cycle, it just made complete sense to me that two people with such unique creative vision would share a deep connection. Björk herself is high on my list of “People I would like to make a massive semi-unwearable piece of jewellery for”, and I admire her ability to completely re-invent herself in always unexpected ways for each of her releases. She really pushes the boundaries of what constitutes music, and the themes of her 2011 album Biophilia album particularly strike a chord with me. The MOMA New York is staging a massive retrospective of her work right now, which I am sure despite the mixed reviews is worth seeing at any rate, even if only for the amazing costumes. I love the outfit Björk is wearing for her latest album Vulnicura, as usual pushing the boundaries of wearability and blurring body adornment and fashion:

bjork-vulnicura-2015-press-billboard-650Vulnicura of course is a break-up album, conceived as a response to her recent split from Barney. Maybe that in itself was also an inevitability in the grand scheme of things.

My 3D Hub is online – Geotronic Collective

When I got my Ultimaker, a little card fell out of the package, advertising a website for 3D printing enthusiasts called 3D Hubs. Here, individuals can list their 3D printers and take orders to print out parts for others in their city. The customer uploads their model through the website, and the hub in return for a reasonable fee prints the model within a specified time frame. I think this is a brilliant idea, especially as it can often take weeks to get something printed from one of the main printing bureaus. As a student or hobbyist, sometimes all you want is a quick prototype for visualising what your model would look like in real life, working to impossible seeming deadlines.

So, I decided to set up my own Hub – Geotronic Collective – and I am pleased to say so far my experience has been very positive. I have just finished my first two orders, and hopefully made two customers very happy. It has been an interesting experience for me too, printing two things that are so very different from my own work, each pushing the limits of what the UMO+ can achieve in terms of print quality and especially fine detail. Here is a print of a Fantasy Creature I did for digital artist Agneta Miskiv:

Printed with 0.1mm layer height in Faberdashery Storm Grey PLA
Printed with 0.1mm layer height in Faberdashery Storm Grey PLA

Initially I was worried about the very fine detail features of this print snapping off, especially the fingers and spikes on the back of the head. Because of the complexity of the model, I decided against using Cura to generate the support structures, and instead used open-source software Meshmixer, which is particularly good at creating custom supports. This is one thing that has been bothering me about Cura – not being able to edit support structures at the slicing stage, and instead having to rely on the software to get it right. In Meshmixer, there are a lot of adjustable parameters as well as custom profiles, then the software suggests a network of supports that can also be amended by the user as they see fit. A perfect combination between automation and control. There is a great tutorial on how to use Meshmixer on blog Extrudable Me, as unfortunately the documentation it comes with is not particularly helpful. I have found that sometimes the support suggested by the program can be a bit overkill, but the structures snap off very easily, often in one piece, which is a big advantage for delicate prints in particular. Hopefully more orders will come my way soon so I can continue my adventures in 3D printerland!

Tools, Tools, Tools… part 1

In my quest to make this site somewhat of a resource for budding digital jewellery designers, this post will be about one of my favourite topics: tools. As a jeweller, I am absolutely addicted to nice tools – give me a lovely vintage hammer, an unusually shaped pair of pliers or a set of precision Swiss needlefiles and any birthday/Christmas/anniversary is a great one. Of course, when I started working with electronics this meant that I immediately had an excuse to stock up on a brand new supply of great, sometimes weird looking tools. Here is some advice about what to get that I wish I’d had along the way…

1) Soldering Station – not the right place to save money!

It’s the most essential tool you’re going to get for your electronics work. Scrimping on your soldering iron is just not a good idea – you’re going to do countless joints and maybe even attempt a spot of SMD. You might initially get away with using a cheap, single temperature soldering iron, but as your skills grow so will your expectations of what you might want to be able to adjust on your iron. There are many different models out there and I don’t think I have found my perfect one just yet – but after owning a simple non-adjustable plug-in one (Conrad), a cheapish analogue temperature-adjustable one (Maplin – no numbers were given on the temperature dial, just the categories of low/medium/hot) and a digitally temperature controlled one (Maplin again) I have only started to achieve satisfactory results with the latter. It’s great to be able to adjust the temperature down to within a degree, and it heats up super quickly. It did not break the bank either – it will be a while before I outgrow this one. In electronics, Japanese tools are very highly regarded (in jewellery making too, by the way), and I have recently read somewhere that the Hakko brand is the one to look for if you want to go deluxe, but you’ll have to pay for it (or take a chance on an ebay listing, usually sent from China). On my next trip to Japan (if it ever happens…) I will be flying out light and returning with a suitcase full of lovely components and tools by Hakko. Until then I just discovered that my soldering iron can take the very reasonably priced Hakko tips, and that will have to do. The only other thing I might invest in is a battery powered ultra portable soldering iron, to take to workshops and teaching sessions. Oh, and don’t forget to get one of these brass wire sponge soldering tip cleaners to go with your new iron – the little wet sponge you get included for this purpose is a nightmare and cools your iron down every time you wipe it.

2) Wire Stripper/Crimping Tool

Stripping the plastic casing off a piece wire can be a pain…until you discover this little gadget. Again, some really nifty Japanese ones (the Engineer brand is great) are available on the web and they can be very handy as you can crimp terminals, strip wire and cut screws to length all using a single tool. If you’re going to do a lot of crimping I would recommend getting this tool instead/as well, as the handy ratcheting mechanism will save you from developing repetitive strain injury in the long term and deliver just the right amount of pressure, although it does take some practice to get the hang of it. Working on a small scale means trying to get as little wire mess as possible, and crimping your own terminals is the best way to achieve this.There is an excellent and very detailed tutorial on YouTube explaining some of the different tools and crimping techniques – practice makes perfect! The hardest part must be figuring out and getting all the crimps and terminals you need to do the job at hand…

3) A Breadboard…or three

You want to start prototyping and you want to start now! Well, a breadboard is just what you’ll need. Designed to enable you to fit your components together in test circuits, the choice of breadboards is dazzling.  You can get tiny ones for on-the-go projects in all colours of the rainbow, small ones in a fancy tin, giant ones that hook together to make a mega-breadboard and the standard half-size version you see in all the electronics tutorials. I have been very happy with my breadboard for three years now – it even has some terminals to hook up a bench top power supply, which I initially thought would be mega useful, but have yet to try out! I would definitely recommend getting more than one, as otherwise you’ll be constantly dismantling ‘in-progress’ projects to make room for a new idea. Using a few tiny ones in clusters can also be very useful to keep component groups separated. To start with, one that has labelled rows could be a boon, as it is very easy to get confused what row you’re working in at any one time.

I have put together a suppliers list in the Vault section that I will keep adding to as I find more interesting sources for stuff!

Body Embellishment Exhibition

I am already getting very excited about the Body Embellishment Exhibition opening next month at the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina, where my Earconch will be on public display for the first time since my degree show at the Edinburgh College of Art in 2006. It will run from the 11th of April to the 6th of September – so plenty of time to marvel at the wonderful work on display. Fellow jewellers on display include greats such as Nora Fok, whose wonderful structural wefts with Nylon I have always adored. There is also a series of talks and events throughout the duration of the show.

I am so honoured to be a part of this exciting exhibition –  here is a little feature in the style section of the Charlotte Observer which includes an image of my Earconch. If only I could afford to jet to the opening next month!

Earconch Web LARGE

Tiny little Arduinos…

So, in my quest to create fabulous wearable futures for jewellery lovers, I have come to a point where I have to bite the bullet and get deeply involved in the microelectronics side of my research. The arrival of the Ultimaker has pushed my material experimentation to a whole new level, and the moment has finally come to start creating first assemblies of both materials and electronic components for my symbiotic jewellery objects.

Since I started my research, a lot has happened in the world of wearable computing – particularly in terms of miniaturisation, but also to some extent functionality. There seems to be more of an appetite now for developers to release ever-smaller processors and exciting sensors to the hacker community, and more and more people are starting to use them. For someone like me who is just starting out with electronics (and even after extensive reading and research around the subject for the last three years I would still consider myself a beginner) this is a blessing, as a larger user base means more community support in the shape of blogs, forums and user guides. The Adafruit website has a humungous database of learning projects, starting from scratch with the very basics and ranging all the way to the sublime. Another great resource for getting started is the Sparkfun website, which has a great learning section as well as a user forum. If you live in the States either one of these are very handy for you – just choose a project and order the components to go with it directly from the supplier. In the UK, you have to go through third party retailers, but between them they usually have the full range of components available (including some more from other brands).

In my latest efforts to intergrate electronics into jewellery, I was delighted to find that since I last looked in 2013, not one but five new Arduino-based microcontroller boards had been developed in an appropriate size range for wearables. Brilliant News!…Now which one to choose??? For a previous project, I had dipped my toes into using the Arduino Pro Mini 328 5V and 3.3V boards, which are a great little option if you need a lot of output pins and a reset button. I still have two of those in the workshop, and I am sure they will come to be used in the near future for one of my larger, more elaborate pieces. But they are rectangular in shape, and a bit awkward to use within the more rounded, organic shapes I have been making of late. Also they are quite possibly processing overkill for what I am trying to (and capable of) do in terms of programming. They have a similar functionality to the much larger Arduino Uno, which is definitely a lot more than I need at this point, although I like using one for running prototype programs and test the wired connections.

An immediately appealing option for using in my projects were the Adafruit Flora and Gemma, with the latter being smaller, with fewer pins and no serial monitor capability. They are both circular, which is a much easier shape for me to incorporate than the usual rectangular geometries of PCBs. I ordered the Gemma (the Flora is probably a little bigger than I would like for my use), and it is a nearly perfect size for most of my jewellery projects, with the handy JST and USB mini jacks meaning programming and powering the controller is a doddle. However, I am as of yet struggling with the programming – the first example sketch  I tried to load onto it would not work (and we’re not talking Blink here btw), because of the lack of a serial monitor. I have not given up on Gemma, but I might have to postpone until my programming knowledge catches up. Another small controller recently introduced by Adafruit is the Trinket, which I have not yet had a chance to consider, but which is supposed to have the processing power of an Arduino Uno and looks really really neat and tiny…

…Which brings us to the last two new arrivals to the wearable controller market of late, the TinyDuino and TinyLily. Born out of a Kickstarter campaign by developers TinyCircuits,  these are whole systems of tiny microcontrollers and accessories. Essentially built around the hardware of the Arduino Pro Mini and LilyPad series, the TinyDuino is square in shape and comes with an array of development boards and accessories, while the TinyLily is round and merely the size of my thumbnail but still has 8 sewable ports (4 analogue/4 digital) and two power outlets to play with – plenty for my requirements. The input voltage on these two controllers is variable between 2.7V and 5.5V, so allows for use with a large range of sensors and devices. Here is a size comparison of the Flora, Gemma and TinyLily for reference:

Size Comparison TinyLilyWhile the TinyLily is slightly more awkward to program and connect, it has a definite size advantage over the other two that for making digital jewellery could make all the difference. It is slightly more expensive than the Gemma and about half the price of the Flora, but that seems about right in terms of functionality and processing power. Just for comparison, here are the Trinket, Trinket Pro and Arduino Pro Mini Boards:

Size Comparison Trinket

Sizewise they are perfectly suitable for wearables, especially if you need the advanced functionality and processing power – with Adafruit Neopixels for instance. Their rectangular shape makes them a bit awkward for me, but I could see how they would work in the right situation. Now, on to tackling the programming…