Category Archives: Blog

Kodama Trinus 3D-printer upgrades

Kodama Trinus 3D-printer/laser engraverAt work, we recently got the Kodama Trinus combined 3D-printer and laser engraver. I’m pretty happy with the overall quality of the printer so far, but for our use I immediately identified some areas of improvement:

  • No power switch – the only way to turn the printer off is by unplugging the cord.
  • No lights inside the enclosure – we got the additional enclosure, but it came without any lights inside.
  • No network interface – you have to connect to the printer via USB directly or go get the SD-card. Also no way to control or monitor it remotely.

So to fix this, I wanted to put a switch on the back, put in some lights and add a Raspberry Pi with a camera and Octoprint inside the printer. I started by printing a faceplate for the hole in the back of the enclosure:

Trinus back plate

This was then fitted with a switch and a DC jack for the power supply. (Make sure their rating is higher or equal to that of the power supply!) The jack lets me split off power to the Raspberry Pi and also fixes the slight annoyance of having to reach in to the very back of the enclosure to connect the cable to the printer.

Trinus back plate

I then soldered and crimped some cables to wire the switch in series with the DC jack and connected two Wago cage clamps for distributing power to the multiple things on the inside of the enclosure. I also mace a short DC cable to connect to the printer. The face plate has a flange to keep it from moving around in the hole, and is less than half the thickness of the enclosure wall, so I printed a second copy of it, put one on from either side and simply secured the whole thing with the locking nut of the DC jack.

Trinus back plate mounted

Next, I added some LED-strips on the sides. Note that the enclosure is laying upside-down, so they are actually in the ceiling.

Trinus LED-strip installed

 

The power supply gives out 12 volts, which is fine for connecting to the printer and the particular LED-strips that I had. The Raspberry Pi however, requires a 5 V power supply, so I wired in a step-down converter and a micro-USB cable.

Trinus 5 V step down converter

Finally, I put the enclosure back on and connected the DC-jack and the Raspberry Pi. Here is what it looks like in the back of the printer now.

Trinus installation complete

Trinus upgraded backside

For now, the Raspberry Pi is just laying inside the enclosure and the camera is simply stuck to the back wall with double-sided tape. I might come up with something smarter in the future, but it works for now.

Trinus with Raspberry Pi and camera

The LED-lighting made a huge improvement! It was also completely necessary  for the Raspberry Pi camera to be useful.

Trinus LED-light upgrade

To sum up, these improvements took less than a day to do in total and were fairly inexpensive, but provide a huge step up in usability. We can now upload prints and monitor the progress from our desks instead of going to the printer all the time. Octoprint also has a Cura plugin so that you can simply upload STL-files directly without the need for everyone to have a slicer installed locally. This also means we can have optimized settings on the printer and not have to distribute settings to each individual using the printer.

One caveat is that the Trinus LCD display does not work with Octoprint, meaning that you cannot stop the print or use any of the other features on the front panel but have to run back to the computer to stop a failed print. I might replace the LCD with a small touch screen connected to the Raspberry Pi instead and/or wire in an emergency stop button to the GPIO pins. Also, the LED lights flicker quite a bit as the printer draws more or less power, probably due to the poor-quality power supply. I might try to fix it with some decoupling capacitors and/or a new power supply.

Let me know if you did similar upgrades, have some good ideas for the Raspberry Pi and camera or if you just want some pointers on doing this to your own printer!

Edit:

Uploaded the faceplate to Youmagine.

Alarm Clock v0.1.0

Alarm clock prototype

We wanted to try banning phones from the bedroom (you should try, I recommend it!). Clearly, a suitable hardware replacing the alarm clock app was needed. Having thought about building my own alarm clock for a while, I quickly determined it was not a viable option to just go buy one – there simply did not exist a model with all the features I had thought of and now needed to have, like for example:

  • Weekly schedule (no alarm on weekends)
  • Smarter snooze (configurable and longer)
  • Integrated with wakeup-lights and the rest of the appartment
  • Configurable from other devices
  • Programmable/extendable with future ideas

Alarm clock prototype parts

For the first prototype, I used some parts I had laying around:

  • Raspberry Pi A+ with USB wifi dongle
  • 1.8″ TFT display (check Ebay for “HY-1.8 SPI”)
  • Some prototyping board, connectors and pushbuttons
  • Small speakers with 3.5 mm jack

The firstAlarmclock wiring step was to connect the display. The one at hand communicated over SPI, which all Pi’s support, and hooking it up was not too difficult. Then, however, I spend quite some time trying to make the Pi recognize it as a screen rather than handling the SPI commands to it directly in my code. (Doing that would mean the interface could be a webpage for example, which would make it easier to develop.)

Using an SPI TFT as a monitor had been achieved already and made quite a buzz on Hackaday back in 2012 or so, but unfortunately it was not so easy to reproduce. At the time of building this in late 2016, most documentation I could find was still from 2012-2013 and talked about compiling the kernel from scratch and a frame buffer driver called fbtft. But, once I found its official Github repository, the first thing in the readme was (and still is) a message from early 2015 saying the driver has moved into Linux staging and that development there has ceased:

I could not find any signs if fbtft is now actually part of Raspbian nor any comprehensible documentation on how to set it up so I ran out of patience and decided to go with direct SPI control for the first version, meaning less fancy graphics for now. For direct SPI, finding examples was a little easier and by learning from the code on w8bh.net, I finally got something working.

The Pi now runs a fairly simple Python script, listening to the buttons and updating the display every minute, playing an mp3 file at increasing volume if it is wakeup time. The display shows current time and the time of the alarm (which only runs monday – friday). Two of the buttons are used to move the alarm time back or forth in 15 minute intervals. This can be used to change the alarm, snooze or skip it in the morning. The third button stops the alarm and the fourth toggles the Philips Hue lights in the bedroom on/off. The Hue lights are actually controlled via MQTT, from a Node Red server running on a separate Raspberry Pi,  acting as a hub for this and some other “smart home” features which might be a topic for a future post.

Alarm clock interface

All-in-all we are pretty happy with this first version, it has been in live use for four months now without any major malfunctions and basically it just needs an enclosure. It does lack some obvious features, like adding an alarm on the weekend and actually moving the time the wakeup-light starts along with the alarm time. Also, when I make a new version, probably I will add another button for starting the coffee maker as well. 😁

Autonomous RC Racing

Here is a project I have been working with on and off for about a year – Alvin the autonomous RC car. The robot is built to comply with the rules of two Swedish robot competitions, Robot SM and Stockholm Robot Championship, where the objective is to race three other robots around a track without any form of remote control. Rules vary somewhat, but each heat typically lasts until one robot reaches 7 laps, or for max 3 minutes. The robots are then given points according to the number of laps they have completed at this point. The participants can also signal the organizer to flip or turn the robot if it crashes or gets stuck, at the cost of one point.

Here is Alvin in action, racing some other robots from the Norbot team at a recent meetup:

Parts

  • Wltoys A222 RC car
  • Texass Instruments TM4C123G Launchpad microcontroller evaluation board
  • My own custom Launchpad protoboard booster-pack
  • Sharp GP2Y0A21YK0F analog distance sensors from Ebay
  • “10A Brushed ESC Motor Speed Controller for RC Car without Brake” off Ebay
  • A3144 hall effect switch, also from Ebay
  • Rare earth magnets (D4x2mm), Ebay as well

Operation

Since Alvin is built on a RC car, both the steering servo and throttle ESC have a maximum update rate of once per 20 ms, or 50 times per second. For the first implementation, therefore, the processor simply runs the algorithms for calculating new steering and throttle values once every 20 ms and then just waits in between.

For the steering, Alvin uses two Sharp distance sensors to measure the distance to the side walls and a third to detect obstacles in front. To stay in the middle of the track, it simply compares the distance to the walls and compensates the steering to make them equal. This rather simple approach could probably be improved a lot to gain more speed.

Since the track contains a hump, the power to the motor can not be hardcoded – it needs to increase in the uphill. To control the speed, a hall effect sensor is reading two magnets mounted on the drive shaft. The algorithm converting pulses from this sensor to a throttle setting has so far proven to be the hardest to implement, mainly because there are only two pulses per revolution of the drive shaft. This means there are normally just 0-2 new pulses recorded  every time the algorithm runs, making it hard to determine the actual speed. To work around this, the delta in revolutions is instead calculated 10 iterations back in time. The resulting speed value is then used as input to a PI controller which calculates the throttle.

Results

Alvin raced for the first time last year at Stockholm Robot Championship and I was very happy to finish 6th without ever tuning it on a full size track before! I have since worked on the throttle algorithm to make it as responsive as in the video above, so I think it could do even better today.

Future improvements

  • Extend front bumper to go around the wheels to avoid getting stuck against the wall.
  • Add a speed sensor with more pulses per revolution to allow better throttle control.
  • Add more distance sensors to enable a more advanced steering algorithm.
  • Add roll cage or body to protect the electronics and improve the looks.

Conclusion

Autonomous robot racing is a fun and fairly affordable way to put your combined engineering skills to the test, including both mechanical, electrical and software components. Being new in my city, it has also been a way to meet like-minded people and a reason to go down to the local hackerspace.

Finally, here is a playlist from Stockholm Robot Championship 2016 if you want to see some more action!

Periodic Python Scheduler

Since the days were getting  shorter, I thought it was about time to set up the wakeup light in my new apartment. This got me looking at the code and wondering about improvements. One of the first things I wanted to fix was the ugly way it handled fading the light by setting a new intensity once per second:

At work, I have spent some time programming with TI-RTOS lately. Like any RTOS, it has the ability to set up periodic tasks. TI-RTOS calls them clock objects and the idea is pretty simple; you assign the clock object a period and a callback function and just start it. Clearly there should be a way to do this with a single line of Python? Not that I could find! There is one way to do it, apparently, in something called Celery. Some comments on Stack Overflow convinced me that it is way overkill for what I am trying to achieve though, requiring setting up ques and handlers and stuff.

Python does provide the event scheduler sched. It can schedule a single event to happen some time in the future. Another Stack Overflow comment pointed out you can use sched to recursively schedule new events and thus get a periodic scheduler:

I went with this idea and added a few features to it. First, I wanted the task to be able to stop itself if it wants to. Second, it should also be possible to stop the task from the callers context. Third, I wanted to be able to schedule only a specific number of periodic events. Fourth, I wanted it to be non-blocking. Sched can run in a non-blocking mode since Python 3.3, but I was using 2.7 so I resorted to wrapping the scheduler in its own thread instead. Here it is (only 44 lines!):

Now I can define a task and then run it three times with a 1 second interval in a single line of code(!):

I thought this might come in handy for other projects, so I put it in a separate GitHub project. The next step will be to include the scheduler in the wakeup light code. It will probably require adding some more functionality, like separating creating the task and starting it so that it can be re-used, we’ll see.

Learning Proper Coding: For-loop optimization

“Whats wrong with this code?”

As it turns out, I will soon start working as an embedded software developer.  It seems then, now would be a good time to start learning how to program properly. I’ll be putting up some tidbits here for my own reference and hopefully others to learn something as well!

Several months ago, during a (the) job interview, I was told about reverse loops. Supposedly, computer scientists will scoff at this, but since I never learnt about it until interviewing for my first job after five years of electrical engineering studies and even more time doing hobby-level coding, I thought I might just put one more mention of it on the internetz.

So, if you find yourself writing code for a system with heavy resource constraints, it would seem the school-book example of a for-loop above has some room for improvement. Assuming the loop body does not depend on  i  incrementing upwards, it would be better to do this:

Why? It all depends on what instructions the code compiles down to. When evaluating whether or not to stay in the loop, the processor has to first put the number 10 into a register, then do a comparison to see which one is larger. The comparison in its turn is usually implemented by subtracting and checking the sign of the result. Since most architectures have a designated “zero register”, the reverse loop may skip loading the value to a register and go straight to comparing. Before we move any further however, there is one more thing we can do:

Since the loop criterion has to be fulfilled in order to stay in the loop, we are looking at the zero register (Z) to find out when to break it. This means we might as well use the decrementing itself as the loop criterion, saving us the whole compare instruction altogether!

Sweet! I was nearly going to leave it at that but of course you should not have to take my word for it. Lets try to verify this on an MSP430 using msp430-gcc. First, lets implement the three loop variants:

 

Next, I compiled the code and fed it through msp430-objdump to get the assembly output. Note that compiler optimizations were set to the lowest level with the  -O0  flag and variable declaration inside the for-statement was made possible with -std=c99  (let’s not get into that today):

Now this is where it gets interesting. Watch what happens in the relevant parts of the output:

See that? The most optimised loop, loop3(), has the most instructions! How can that be!? Lets try again with -Os for size optimization:

Sorry, loop3() is still loosing!!

So what have we learned from this exercise? Unless I’m missing something, this seems to be a typical case of what shall henceforth be known as “the-people-who-wrote-the-compiler-were-smarter-than-you”. Even on the lowest optimisation setting, the compiler is already reversing the loop, as it detects the loop variable is not used. Supposedly, a more complex loop body would change this. Still, I’m not sure why they don’t all compile down to the same code then. Maybe one day I will have become smart enough to fix it!

While the theory behind the reverse loop as I presented it above seems sound, it appears the compiler optimizes the “normal” code best anyway, at least on this one platform with this one compiler. Until I actually have a resource constrained system to shoehorn into a low-power device, I’ll just keep writing my loops as I used to. This also has another major advantage: readability. A traditional loop statement is simply easier to understand. Also, I don’t feel like explaining that my loops are not broken, but brilliant. Especially when they are, in fact, not even brilliant.

 

 

 

 

Hi, I’m Albert

This is where I post projects from the past and present in the hope that someone else (my future self included) will find them useful. Also, one day I really would like to be featured on Hackaday and become internet-famous. You can contact me on social media, or at “mail” on this domain.