Cheap 3D pen actually works

I’m shocked to say this, but the cheap $20 knockoff “3D pens” from China actually work, at least as well as you’d expect such a thing to work.

These pens are basically little 3D printer heads in pen form that let you extrude PLA or ABS plastic in 3D space. It heats in about 30 seconds, extrudes with good consistency with controllable speed, runs on the same cheap 1.75mm filament as a printer, and the extruded plastic can actually stand up. It works best you have a fan going over the work area to cool the extruded stuff faster, and you need a bit of a blob for the base to keep it stuck, but you can actually draw into 3D space with it. At the base, getting adhesion is similar to 3D printing: masking tape (especially cleaned with alcohol) is a good surface.

I’m not sure how many 3D creations I’d make from scratch with this, but it seems absolutely fantastic for touching up or repairing 3D prints.

UPDATE: You can even make (very) light-duty brackets.

UPDATE 2: You can also use it to make fridge magnets of dubious artistic merit.


MPCNC: A relay-switched outlet box

On Thingiverse I’ve posted a model and schematic for a relay-switched outlet box. This will let you switch an outlet on/off with an Arduino pin. That’s nothing new, but it’s a box that puts all the components together in a neat and safe package.

The model holds a U.S. power outlet, IEC C14 power inlet (for use with common PC power cables), a cheap arduino-compatible 5V relay module, and a small Dupont connector for the control relay module’s inputs. The wiring diagram below shows how to make one outlet switched with the other being always on.

The intent of this model is provide a switched outlet for my Mostly Printed CNC machine (MPCNC). It’s designed to be narrow so it could mount on the side of the machine to (a) provide always-on power to the power supply and (b) provide switched power to the AC spindle motor. That said, this model is a general-purpose switched outlet, so you could use it for any automation of AC power you need.

See photographs below for assembly directions. Notes:

  • The faceplate is a standard one cut down to fit the width of the box; you could modify something like this if you had to print one.
  • Relay modules tend to vary in size — move the screw posts in the model if needed.
  • The relay control wire is just three double-female dupont jumper wires taped together and hot glued in place.

WARNING: This switches high voltage! If you are unsure how it works or how to build it, consult someone with electrical experience before proceeding! This isn’t hard to build, but it can kill you if you touch the guts when it’s live, and it can start a fire if wired wrong or with insufficient gauge wire (18AWG to probably not die, 14AWG to meet code).

2016-07-10 21.43.12 2016-07-10 21.51.02b 2016-07-11 21.55.37 2016-07-11 22.02.44 2016-07-11 22.09.19 2016-07-11 22.10.42 2016-07-11 22.21.58 2016-07-11 22.22.08 2016-07-11 22.22.14 2016-07-14 18.40.35 2016-07-14 18.40.59 2016-07-14 18.41.15 diagram



Mostly Printed CNC: IT WORKS

I strapped an incredibly crappy Harbor Freight Cutoff Tool to the MPCNC (related posts) thanks to this mount, and I was actually able to mill something! It worked! I crudly cut the hand-drawn letters “CNC” into the foam that the tool was packed in!

Now I just need to connect a power relay to automate the tool, add end-stops, learn to use the CNC software, learn to use good design software, possibly get better client software than Repetier Host, and add some kind of clamping mechanism to the table surface.


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2016-07-08 22_06_46-_cnc1.svg - Inkscape2016-07-08 22_06_41-Estlcam Version 8.507 cnc1.svg

Mostly Printed CNC nears completion

I haven’t taken many progress photos of the MPCNC because the build matches the assembly guide so well. It is MUCH better designed than the Prusa i3 design I fought with.

One difference from the stock guide is that I’ve mounted mine on a metal table with folding legs to make it portable.

Pics and videos:

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Little yellow robot in one day

2016-05-29 10.24.26bThe robotics team I mentor with, the TerrorBytes, decided to put on a robotics competition for local teams and guests: a one-quarter scale version of this years FIRST Robotics Competition game, Stronghold.

I didn’t have much time to work on a side project, but I was able to clear one day’s schedule, so I woke up early and queued the music. I built just a “toaster bot” (meaning all it can do is drive — no other mechanisms), but the drive system is fairly nice, and it came together well. I’m going to make this a very quick overview post on the design and fabrication of the bot. Apologies, but I took zero pictures of the build process. Also, I’d show you a video of it, but I drive it my phone, which won’t record and let me drive at the same time. You can spot it rolling in the competition highlight video at the end of this post, though.


2016-06-19 21_16_56-wheel-free-v2.scad - OpenSCADThe chassis and wheels are 3D printed. It uses a pair of gearmotors I got from Ax Man Surplus a while ago, which directly drive the main wheels. These wheels have a strip of mouse pad hot-glued to them for fantastic traction.

The secondary wheels are also driven by the motor via a GT2 belt; both wheel models include a GT2 pulley as part of their design. I found a way to fuse bulk GT2 belt into the necessary loops; I posted about that here.

The secondary wheels house a 608ZZ bearing held by a 5/16″ bolt. This is a neat trick that exploits the fact the 8mm inner diameter of the bearing is basically equal to 5/16″. The bearings allow the wheels to freely spin with little resistance or wobble. The sides of the wheel are rounded to allow these wheels to skid better during steering, and the gear-like pattern was to grip into irregular terrain.  I originally had all four wheels covered in mousepad material, but it was impossible to turn, since this design relies on two of the wheels skidding horizontally. As to their construction, the main wheels are single pieces, with some diameter subtracted off to account for the mousepad material. The secondary wheels are two part — an outer wheel with a space for a bearing, and a pulley that screws into the wheel and also holds the pulley in place. 

2016-06-19 21_15_07-wheel-free-v3.scad - OpenSCADThe secondary wheels are mounted into slots in the chassis, allowing you to tighten down the bolt and nut at varying degrees of tension. I found that having a tensioner was essential to dialing in correct performance, especially when I changed motors later on (see below).

The design of the chassis wasn’t very amenable to 3D printing, as the large flat area had a tendency to warp. One thing I added in anticipation of this were horizontal threaded rods for structure stability. This allowed me to correct any chassis flexing and add lots of rigidity cheaply.

I designed the chassis in Sketchup (which is definitely NOT the right tool for the job, but I know it well, and I haven’t made time to learn something better yet). The wheels were designed in OpenSCAD, as I needed to model the GT2 pulleys with correct geometry, and I was able to adapt existing code for this. I spent a fair bit of time modeling the motors, as it was a little challenging getting the hole placement using just digital calipers. In the end, I was able to get it exact with a little trigonometry.

2016-06-19 21_14_15-Babybot2016-1.skp - SketchUp Make 2016I made proper standoffs for the electronics boards to screw into, but I had to abandon most of them since i didn’t account for the length of bolt on the secondary wheels. I ended up breaking off all my nice standoffs and just screwing the board into drilled holes. It holds just fine. The battery pack is unfortunately two-sided, so I couldn’t just bolt it down. It’s held in with a twist tie so I can get it loose to replace batteries when needed.

Once it was finished, it worked, but the motors were woefully underpowered. I was about to give up and leave it as-is until I found that the gearmotors I was using were apparently somewhat standard, as I was able to find strong 60RPM ones on Amazon with the exact same form factor and screw holes. I ordered them, and a drop-in replacement transformed it from an underpowered baby to a slow, methodical, but unstoppable beast.


It’s a fairly standard Arduino robot with some tweaks. First, I somehow didn’t have ANY Arduino motor controllers when I went to build it, and no time to wait for shipping. I did happen to have a single L298 motor control module from back before I understood shields, so there was some additional manual wiring of the Arduino to the motor module. On the plus side, this module is rated for way more power than the shield, in case I need it.

Also, the motor control module features its own 5V regulator, which was useful once a short circuit during a demo killed the one on board the Arduino. I was able to snip out the Arduino’s dead regulator and just wire the 5V line from the motor module to the Arduino, and it fired right up. (I also soldered on a replacement regulator, but that’s just so I could reuse the Arduino later if I need to.)

Commands are received via a cheap HC-06 bluetooth serial module connected into the analog in ports. (I used the analog ports because this is based on a design used by the TerrorBytes with the Arduino motor shield; the shield only exposes the analog ports, as the digital ones are all used by the shield itself.) I didn’t bother wiring the bluetooth RX line, as control is one-way, so it’s unneeded. Also, the device claims to only support 3.3V levels while the Arduino is 5V, so it might kill it? I’ve seen others feed this module 5V signals without issue, though. Better safe than sorry.

I also threw a cheap voltmeter on to monitor battery levels. This runs off the voltage it’s measuring, so it’s really easy.

Power was originally toggled by plugging/unplugging the battery minus to the Arduino ground pin, but I discovered by accident that the robot can drive when flipped upside down, and the pin was ripped from the wire while driving upside down throgh grass. As a result, there’s now an actual power switch, and all pins are hot glued in place.

Power simply comes from the 8xAA case, providing 12V.


The initial version of the Arduino code was written by a TerrorBytes student; I simply adapted it to my wiring and robot design. The drive station software was initially a Python script designed to read gamepad values on a PC and send them over serial.

App Inventor

My “code” crammed into App Inventor

This worked fine, but I wanted to drive it from my phone, so I used Google App Inventor (now hosted at MIT) to make a simply joystick emulator. I ran into several issues doing this — App Inventor does not have any multi-touch support, so I couldn’t actually simulate two joysticks. Instead, I ended up having it do something that FIRST robotics calls “arcade drive”, where a single stick is used to input both steering (X axis) and power (Y axis). I actually ended up mining the control equations from wpilib, the library that runs on all FIRST Robotics Competition robots (see check_drive here for a python variant of the code, which I ported to App Inventor’s puzzle-piece coding system).


Because I only had one day, everything was pipelined: 3D printing of pieces was continuous and done in parallel with design. I started with the motor mount, printing just enough to see if the motor could go on. While that printed, I did the wheels in OpenSCAD. When the motor mount prototype finished, I started a wheel printing while I did a test fit. I worked on the chassis design while wheels were printed/tested iteratively.

giphyFinally, the chassis design was done, and I started the 2-hour print. I was concerned that chassis issues could sink me given how little time I had to dedicate to this, so I also designed a side-bracket variant of the chassis that I could bolt to wood; this would print faster if needed. In the end, however, I was able to cut and drill enough stuff on the initial printed chassis that I was able to make it work.

In the end, I was able to assemble all the bits and get basic movement by the end of the day. I had to wait overnight to be sure the belts I glued would cure, so I did cheat and spend a few minutes the next day mounting them.

Also, the drive software was initially a Python script designed by TerrorBytes students for use with a PC drive station. I developed the phone app for driving separately, taking care to design it to be backwards compatible with the Pythons script’s simple 4-axis protocol.


Here’s the final bot in all its glory:

2016-06-19 20.04.26bIt competed fairly well in the competition, making it to the first round of eliminations. Ultimately, it was defeated by robots built in more than one day…

See if you can spot it in the competition highlights reel:

Code and design files


AC power control without touching AC power

2015-11-04 10.49.30bIn this article I’ll show a simple 3D design for a servo mount to control a light switch for about $3, plus some electronics to drive it with a neat little interface. This article explains how I used it to regulate my air conditioner, but the basic bracket allows control of any U.S. standard wall switch.

I just moved into a new office and there’s a window-mounted air conditioner. There’s a remote control to set the target temperature, but the unit isn’t smart enough to turn off at night. Instead, there’s a physical wall switch so you can turn it off with your actual physical hands, like a barbarian.

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I’m not going to put up with a hot office in the morning, nor will I let the unit blow cold air all night and weekend when nobody’s around.  Instead, I will Build Some Crap.

Details after the break. Continue reading