The PrismaChron (not its first name, more on that in another post) has been in the works for quite a long time. Longer even than the Binary Epoch Clock. We’ve spent that time truly fine-tuning every little aspect of it in an effort to make it a fantastic little kit that we can be proud of. Being a clock that displays its time as color, getting it just right was very important to us and that meant getting the LED diffusion perfect.

Now, some might ask why we didn’t just use diffused LEDs. This was an option, but RGB LEDs are strangely difficult to source at a reasonable cost, especially of the diffused variety. Also, we wanted to give our customers to option of displaying the clock with the light from the LEDs reflecting off another surface, like a wall. This would require non-diffused LEDs, for maximum brightness.

But with clear LEDs, the colors don’t really mix together and they are far, far too bright to look at. I was seeing spots for days before finally making diffusers for the LEDs. So, to solve this problem of having a removable diffuser, we turned to some fun tech that we’ve been experimenting with… our 3D printer.

Our Replicator 2 made prototyping new diffusers from the comfort of Maniacal Labs HQ amazingly easy. But that doesn’t mean it did not take many, many tries to get it just right. The image below shows just some of the diffusers I tried before settling on the current version (shown installed on the PrismaChron on the left).

PrismaChron Diffusers

We started with clear, or “Natural”, PLA filament and tried a variety of shapes, thicknesses and infills1. Our initial thought was to go with a nice domed shape so it would look like a really large LED, but because 3D printers lay down the material in thin layers (around 0.1-0.3mm) the areas where these layers met caused more of a refracting effecting than a diffusing one. It looked better for sure, but you could still see the individual colors. We then moved to a completely flat surface in varying thickness, only to find that even up to as much as 3mm thick, the clear2 PLA was still far too translucent to properly diffuse the colors together.

This led us to realize we would need to go with a plastic that was much more opaque and simply rely on the fact that the LEDs are extremely bright to shine through. So we ordered some pure white PLA and printed off some of the designs we had tried with the clear. The domes were absolutely too thick to let a reasonable amount of light through, so we went back to the flat design.

Finally, we found that about 1mm thick, with 100% infill and a slight bevel around the top edge worked great. Also, by printing them upside-down, the top surface (which now contacts the build plate) is completely smooth instead of slightly textured, like the last layer to print always is. This design also worked out great because, despite the 100% infill, it uses a minimum of material and can be printed at 0.3mm layer thickness (the lowest on our printer) for extremely fast prints. It was actually possible to make the clear dome versions look good but only when printed at 0.1mm layer thickness and that made it take over 15 minutes just to print one! Our final version can be printed in under four minutes and we can print a large batch of 30 in under an hour.

We’re very excited to be using this awesome technology for a (hopefully) shipping product. Even for such a small, simple component, it would have cost many thousands of dollars to produce with traditional manufacturing methods.

So, if you would like your very own PrismaChron, please visit our Tindie Fundraiser page and pre-order now to help us reach our funding goal and make this kit a reality. We even have a fully assembled option!

1 Infill is how much the printer actually fills in the “solid” parts of of object. To save material this is often set to something low, like 10%, making it still structurally sound but without wasting material. Normally this is inconsequential because most plastics used are completely opaque.

2 It’s only mostly clear and in reality has about an 20% level of opacity.

Last month, Dan and I went to the Open Source All the Things event in the Research Triangle Park and had the pleasure of meeting Jason Hibbets of both Red Hat Software and OpenSource.com. Jason gave us a lot of great advice but also asked to considering contributing to OpenSource.com – which we, of course, couldn’t turn down!

So, if you’d like a little behind the scenes look at the beginnings of Maniacal Labs, head on over to OpenSource.com and check out our article!

Between the three of us, we have expertise in the fields of software, electrical, and mechanical engineering. And we all have day jobs in very much closed and proprietary industries. We would not be where we are today without the wonderful open source community and maker movement. One of the most visible qualities of these communities is their willingness to help beginners and experts alike. We’re not exactly beginners, but we’re certainly not experts. A few searches on the great StackExchange.com community uncovered a great deal of the process and pitfalls we went through while designing our first product. We were, are, and will continue to be learning along the way…

Friend of Maniacal Labs, Josh, is a huge Ghostbusters fan. How much, you ask? This much:

Ecto Mini

Why yes, that is a Mini Cooper Ecto-1.

A couple weeks ago, Josh emailed me asking if it was possible to get en Epoch Clock Kit with blue LEDs. Obviously, I was intrigued and asked him why. To which his answer was this video:

Yup, that’s a Proton Pack, the only problem with it being that it didn’t belong to Josh. He has one, but without the awesome, pulsing LED bar. His initial thought was that he could just install the blue LEDs in the clock in place of the red ones (while also changing out the 330 ohm resistors for 150 ohm). Unfortunately, after some measuring we realized that the 6.5″ long clock was a bit too long for the slot in his Proton Pack. But after a little brainstorming, we realized that if we reconfigured the LEDs to two columns of 32 an spaced them slightly farther apart it should fit perfectly. The original idea was to wire it all up on some perf-board but then he wouldn’t be able to get the desired spacing and, well, it would be somewhat of a pain to build. So I decided to see what I could come up with in terms of a custom printed board and this was the result:

ecto adapter front

So, now the plan was simply to solder female headers to the clock board, solder some more to the above adapter board, onto which all the LEDs go, connect the two with some ribbon cable, and reprogram the firmware a little to get the desired animation. The adapter was pretty cheap for three copies from the wonderful OSH Park so Josh ordered some and I got a kit to him with some blue LEDs that I picked up in a recent Mouser order. Then, today, Josh sent me this:

Wow I’d say that’s pretty spot on for the animation shown in the first video! Now I want a Proton Pack just so I have something to put one of these in!

Here’s some more close up pictures of the final build:

Once this goes in the actual pack, I’m sure it’s going to look awesome and will really add to the authenticity.

Want to make your own? As is our way, all the source code and board designs are completely open source and can be downloaded from the GitHub Repository. Just grab a kit from us, send off the adapter to OSH Park and load up the custom firmware!

It’s projects like this what really make us here at Maniacal Labs love what we do. When we designed the Epoch Clock we had a few ideas for alternate uses but it’s the projects that we didn’t think of that really astound us. We wouldn’t even be here without such a great community.

I just have one question for you! LAAAASERS?!?!

If you have cats, like I do, lasers are probably on their brain most of the time. My cat, Skeletor, has a severe addiction to lasers and is demanding of them every day. Recently, when my wife and I were going to be on vacation for a week, she joked that she wished there was something that would automatically move a laser pointer around a room and automatically turn on every few hours.

The first part was easy and I quickly found the FroliCat BOLT. But the second part was a bit harder; everything I could find turned off automatically but not on. Challenge Accepted!

Read on for instructions on how to hack a FroliCat BOLT to automatically turn itself on.

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Quick Tip: Is your MakerBot (Replicator 2 in our case) starting to make stringy prints, missing parts of layers, or failing to extrude all together? It could be a lot of things, but it might be that the extruder nozzle is clogged. There are a lot of varying suggestions on how to get it unclogged ranging from easy to scary but almost always you need to at least get something into the nozzle to push out the block. Problem is that it’s 0.4mm and I had a crazy time finding something small enough to fit in there to clear it out. So I broke out my trusty digital calipers and started measuring wire, pins, and whatever else I could find around the shop. Everything was too big until I grabbed a 1/4W resistor… 0.35mm! Sure, not everyone with a MakerBot is an electronics geek as well but I bet a lot are. So next time you need to clean out the extruder, just find the nearest resistor.