Friday 29 August 2014

New designs always take a bit of revision

Despite recent successes, it was only a matter of time before we screwed up a design. And, of course, it had to be one of the more adventurous designs that got messed up.

It's only when fitting these miniature buildings together that you realise where the 3mm thickness of the mdf has been left out of the plans. In this case, we had to hack 3mm off the bottom of the front and back panels, in order to get everything to fit together properly. We also seem to be missing a couple of little bits of roof trim. And the roof doesn't quite meet in the middle at the very top (it's off by - you guessed - 3mm).
Although the model actually goes together (with a bit of hacking), compared with our other buildings, it just looks a little, erm, scruffy. Or maybe badly designed. It matches the source photo we were working from, it just doesn't look as nice, on the tabletop, alongside the other buildings.

Our small building was also less than successful. It looked great, right up until the point where we added the ridiculously over-sized canopy. Then it just looked horrid. Maybe a few stickers might have improved things, but we gave up on the canopy idea and knocked it off completely.

Replacing the canopy with a little hanging sign, and it looks much better! What's not immediately obvious is that we actually spent a bit of time making the inside of this one quite nice - complete with roof trusses. The roof lifts off, so the building can be used for "regular" wargaming terrain too, allowing the player to put their playing pieces inside, if necessary.

The windmill was a mixed success. The 0.8mm birch blades looked great when glued into place. We placed them at a slight angle, meaning each one had to be glued individually onto the centre circle. And that's where it got a bit tricky. Because only a tiny edge of the birch is actually in contact with the glue, the blades are very, very delicate.

The photo above shows the windmill after having ten of the twelve blades glued into place. The only problem was, one slight knock, and half of the blades simply fell off! Perhaps a solution might be to laser cut the blades and a centre disk all joined together, and somehow twist the blades to a slight angle (after seeing this, the blades absolutely have to be twisted - they can't just sit flat!)

The only model that went together easily was the water tower. The barrel is made from strips of mdf, wedged together inside a few tight rings - just like a real barrel is made. We really like the effect - but this means we've a dilemma about stickering it up. Bare mdf just looks nasty. But if we wrap a sticker around the barrel, we'll lose the "planked" effect, which looks so good.

When making the barrel body, we lined up all the planks into a strip, and joined them with a strip of sticky tape on the back. This made it easy to simply curl them into a ring, and place inside the barrel hoops. Maybe one answer might be to apply one continuous sticker at this point, and slit along each vertical edge, to allow it to fold around, leaving each plank with it's own individual sticker on the face?

All in all, it was a mixed night of success at BuildBrighton last night. Some of the buildings went together easily, some not so well. But at least we now know where we need to make revisions to the plans. And we did get to drink plenty of tea and talk plenty of nerd. So overall, it was a pretty good result, after all.

Thursday 28 August 2014

More laser cutting 28mm terrain, wild west buildings

We've decided to have a bit of a push with our wild west terrain (if only so we can get it done and move onto the next massive laser-cutting project, a football stadium, but more on that later!)

We've already got a few "standard" building shapes, which can be mixed-and-matched to create a variety of different buildings. But if we simply repeated our few building designs over and over, we'd end up with a pretty boring looking wild west town! So we've been getting a little bit more adventurous with our designs.

All of our building designs start out like this - a reference photo and lots of overlaid, overlapping parts, drawn to try to give some idea about how they all fit together. Then we produce a "cleaned up" version of the drawing, and send it to the laser cutter:

Given we've had such a miserable "last-bank-holiday-before-Xmas" and the summer seems to have deserted us even before August is out (thanks, Hurricane Bertha) we've spent a bit of time stuck indoors. But it's not all been watching New Tricks and Great British Bake Off. No, we've been busy designing loads of "interesting" looking buildings for our wild west town.

And last night, managed to spend a good few hours at the laser cutter, cranking out kits for our miniature buildings. As yet they're untested, so it's likely that we'll have to amend the final designs. But so far, things aren't looking too bad....

(what's with the half-uploaded files, Google? There are more than just a couple of photos turned out like this in recent weeks)

As well as our standard, 3-inch-wide buildings (tall and short) we found a photo of a tobacconist, squeezed between two larger buildings, so set about creating a super-small building that we could use as a trading post, a telegraph office, tabacconist and so on, by simply changing the top part used to display the signage.

To add a bit of character, we even created a windmill and a water tower for our miniature town.

We've got a jail building on the maker-table too - made entirely from lollipop sticks, to simulate a log cabin (it's hard to create an interesting looking textured surface out of flat, laser-cut planes) so we squeezed some jail bars onto the relatively small windmill section

After cutting out the pieces, we thought that the windmill blades looked far too "chunky" for the model (in truth, the uprights don't look quite right carved out of 3mm mdf, when the design was built for 2mm stock, but it'll do, as a test piece). So we quickly transferred part of the design onto some 0.8mm birch

As we'd run out of "laser-friendly" mdf, we started using some cheap-n-cheerful 3mm mdf from Wickes. Unlike the laser-friendly stuff we got from an online supplier - which has an almost fluffy, untreated surface - the Wickes mdf was really nasty to work with. Both sides are really smooth and shiny, and left a sticky yellow film over everthing - the surface of wood being cut, the cutting bed, the insides of the laser cutter - it got everywhere!

Just before finishing up for the evening, we quickly hacked out a toilet/dunny from a piece of scrap!

With about five "structures" (a few of buildings, a windmill, a water tower and a dunny) bagged up (to keep the different parts separate) we set about cleaning up. The sticky yellow film took quite some removing on its own, so we ended up resorting to some Mr Muscle.

Hopefully this hasn't leaked under the bed. And if it has, let's hope it doesn't do anything drastic like make the belt perish!

After about two and a half hours of lasering almost non-stop, it was time to give the laser cutter a rest and bring our home-made Airfix-a-like model kits home. As each one takes anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour to assemble (including glue drying time) there's probably a full day's work in putting them together. So, softly, softly, over the next few nights, we might actually make some progress....

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Wild west 28mm terrain water tower and windmill

With the miserable wet Bank Holiday, the wind rushing in off the sea, and the severe weather warnings for the South Coast this weekend, we decided to stay indoors, nice and warm, slurping tea and designing some more buildings for our Wild West town.

Water towers were quite a common feature of towns in the Old West. When the railroads came, they were vital for topping up the steam tanks, and so were generally quite high structures, dominating the skyline, even if they were not the largest of buildings.

Our water barrel is made just like a real barrel, with vertical strips of wood arranged inside some barrel hoops. We're undecided whether or not to put a sticker around the outside of the barrel, or use the natural wood appearance from the laser-cut mdf.

Although water towers (obviously) carried water, some towns also had pumps, to draw water up from the ground. Many of these water pumps were served by windmills.

Not like the european windmills that had massive sails, and loads of torque for moving enormous millstones to grind flour - these windmills were relatively small, but with loads of fans, to easily catch some of the dusty desert winds passing through

Because the weather has been so bad, we've not had chance to get down to the studio and fire up the laser cutter. But the time has been well spent, preparing. So next time we're down there, we'll be able to crank out a few more (slightly amended) buildings, and add a bit of character to our wild west town, with a bit of tabletop eye candy.

Monday 25 August 2014

More 28mm wild west terrain buildings

Inspired by examples of laser-cut buildings, and given the (relatively) quick results we've had from cutting our own wild west themed buildings, and decorating with stickers (rather than modelling and painting them from scratch) we're going all out to produce a "town" of about eight different styled properties.

Which means, given that it's the bank holiday, more laser-cut goodness!

Our buildings are quite small, compared to some of the "proper" manufacturers out there (like 4Ground or Sarissa) but there's a reason for that: since we're building boards which are 6" x 8" and each playing square is one inch, we're trying to keep our buildings to about three inches across, and only sometimes going as large as four inches across.

This means that a board placed "long-ways" could have two buildings along it's long edge, separated by a single or a double square. Or we could place a 4" wide building in the middle of the short edge, leaving one square either side of the building (or two squares between buildings, if two playing surfaces are placed against each other, and a 4" wide building placed in the centre of the short-edge of each).

While not exactly huge, our buildings fit quite nicely with the 28mm scale that most miniatures manufacturers produce. We're not looking to make a massive playing surface - we just want a few buildings to make an otherwise plain-looking playing surface look a bit like a town from the wild west.

With all this in mind, and using various online sources for inspiration, we've managed to design, cut and assemble another western-style building in less than a day. This time, it's a hotel-like building, with a balcony around the second floor.

As ever, all the drawing and layout was done in Inkscape:

Our trusty LS3020 made short work of buzzing through some 3mm mdf (ideally we'd like to make the buildings from 2mm mdf, but we have a stock of 3mm so that's what we're using!)

We've decided to go a stage further this time - although we've no plans to use our buildings for anything other than a showcase game for our generic electronic board gaming system, a few people have already asked about having some of these buildings made up for their own gaming. And if others are likely to want to use these plans, then it seemed sensible to add in some extra little features:

Like a detachable roof, and removable interior floor for the two-storey buildings. It's a bit late for our early single-storey "stores" building (since the roof has been glued on) but we can always retro-fit a removable roof to our "hotel" building (and even add in some supports for a removable second storey floor). For this building, we've planned for them from the start.

When assembled, the lip going around the inside walls will allow us to drop a 3" square floor in through the roof - effectively creating two accessible, interior rooms where players can place their miniatures to indicate that a player is inside the building. It's not something we've coded for in our electronic games, but the if the buildings are used in any other game ruleset, at least we can accommodate this, should anyone need it.

Here's our latest creation (above) alongside the previous buildings, just awaiting some stickers to jazz it up a little. Since this building is in the style of a wild west hotel, we're probably going to have to change the signage on the other building!

Both of the two-storey buildings have been designed with detachable fronts. This will allow us to make a range of different building styles using a basic template for the building construction. It also means that, when used in a tabletop game, getting access to the miniature playing pieces placed around the buildings can be made a little easier, by removing the front canopy of a building.

An unexpected benefit to this approach is also the ability to "mix and match" different building fronts, onto different building styles

We're getting a little impatient to see our wild west building actually appear on the tabletop, so we may yet just cut another of each of our buildings to date, and have a simple, small town of just six or so (very similar looking) establishments.

Sure, laser cut buildings don't have the same detail as scratch-built ones. And stickers will never give the same impressive appearance as a properly built, painted, inked-and-drybrushed piece of terrain. But they are a pretty easy way of building a relatively large playing terrain, quickly. And for that reason, we need to focus on getting our wild west town finished, rather than worry too much about them not being "real hand-built terrain"!

Friday 15 August 2014

Laser cut terrain buildings - 28mm wild west contd

Steve had a great idea about our laser cut wild west buildings - CraftRobo stickers. We'd forgotten all about our trust little blue-and-white cutting machine; it's been sitting in a box in a corner for a while now.

Luckily it can import .dxf files as cutting lines, and accurately place these over a pre-printed image. So all we needed to do was create a series of jpegs (one for each section of the building) and place the cut lines over them (the same cut lines we drew in Inkscrape for the laser cutter, though modified slightly in places).

The most difficult part is resizing the jpeg images in the CraftRobo software; the only information we have about the jpegs is the height and width, as measured in pixels. The CraftRobo software, RoboMaster, only uses only millimetres as units for resizing images, so we had to do some quick conversions.

Our bitmaps/jpegs were created at 600dpi (to get the best quality printed output). So the size of the image in millimetres is: size of image in pixels / 600 * 25.4

Creating the A4 sized sticker sheets was a relatively quick process: create a jpeg and import into RoboMaster. Import a dxf with the original cut lines as sent to the laser cutter. Resize the images in Robomaster to their actual size (using the formula above). Place the cut lines over the correct parts of the images. Each sheet took less than half an hour to produce:

Our CraftRobo is the old-style blue model - one of the very first imported into the UK a number of years ago. As a result, it doesn't have particularly good downward cutting force - it struggles with anything more than even just thick paper. But for sticker inkjet paper, it cuts just fine.

Each cut goes cleanly through the sticker side of the paper, while leaving the backing paper intact - perfectly cut stickers every time!

Some of the stickers needed to be adjusted slightly to get them to fit onto the building, but for a first try, the results were surprisingly effective.

The 28mm playing piece shows the overall scale of the buildings in relation to a board game playing surface.

We're not quite sure how the buildings will work with stickers on the walls and our laser-cut roof shingles (and a mix of painted and non-painted parts) but the stickers seem to work well enough to use on other parts of the building - the roofs and sides of wooden planks on the building fronts, for example.

The plain wood coloured shingles look quite nice on the single-storey building. And the etched planks on the double-storey building canopy could be left as they are - the colour of the 0.8mm birch contrasts quite nicely with the wood-effect patters on the stickers

We'll have to try painting and dry-brushing the "textured" parts of the buildings, and see how they look with the stickered walls. But so far, things are looking very encouraging.

The overall scene will look all the more convincing once we've got a proper floor down, and maybe a few more buildings around the place. But, of course, the whole point it to furnish our electronic board game - so perhaps it's time to park little wild west buildings for a bit, and get on with actually manufacturing something!

Sending Bender over the air to a Nokia 5110 screen via IR infrared

Last night's BuildBrighton was an illuminating affair - not least of all thanks to Steve's impressive "Arcadie Pong Clock" demo. It used a cheap Nokia 5110 screen as the display (most pong clocks use two 8x8 LED matrices) which got us interested in using the screens in future projects.
The screens use a simple SPI interface to push 1-bit bitmap data to the screen. That sounds easy enough - write a simple routine to query the black-or-white status of a bunch of 8-pixels in a bitmap, and send it out as a byte value to the screen.

After a few tries, we could see that we were on the right lines, but not quite there - the screen was operating in "horizontal mode" which meant that the way the groups of pixels were handled was different to how we were sending them.

The screen is 84 x 48 pixels. But these are handled as 6 "banks" of 8-bits in the y-axis.
So each byte of data is effectively drawing a "column" of pixels.

Since the most significant bit is at the "bottom of the stack" we're having to read our bitmap data from the 8th pixel from the top, then read upwards 8 bits, to create our byte value.

Once we'd finally worked out the correct way to parse the initial bitmap image, getting an image  onto the screen was actually quite easy!

Steve christened our routine the Bender Render.
Messing about with pushing serial data into the screen was fun enough - but what we really wanted was to send Bender "over the air". The challenge was to send the serial data into one device, and have it send the data, using an IR LED, to another - and have the other device display the image on the Nokia screen.

Our bitmap image is 48 * 84 / 8 = 504 bytes in size. That's actually a lot of data to be sending over IR (which is usually confined to just a few command bytes and a checksum for things like TV remote controls). Undaunted, we stuck a 38khz IR sensor on one device and an IR LED on the other.

There are many different types, makes and sensitivities of IR sensor. Out of four or five we had available, only one actually gave consistent results. It may be that some sensors work only at exactly 38khz, and - perhaps due to timing/rounding errors, or interrupt latency or something like that - our sending IR LED isn't quite sending at the right frequency. Or perhaps we've just got loads of stray IR from the fluorescent bulbs at the hackspace, but for whatever reason, only one gave the results we were expecting.

In the video, the bitmap data is actually being sent to the device on the right, nearest to the laptop, and passed via IR to the device on the left, where the image appears

The refresh rate is much slower than sending serial data directly to the screen - we're running the IR straight into the hardware serial module, at about 2400bps. Normally we'd push the data at not less than 9600 and the screen redraws much more quickly. But, as a proof of concept, this worked pretty well.

We were even able to create some (pretty low-res, ultra-slow, slightly rubbish) animations, by redrawing one image over the top of another.

At the end of the project, we learned a few things about both the screens and sending data over IR.
Firstly, the Nokia screens, although simple to interface with, have a quirky graphics format - or, at least, if you're used to parsing binary data by reading a bit, setting the LSB and then bit-shifting from right-to-left (i.e. sending the data MSB first) then the pixel layout seems a bit quirky. This could probably be fixed more easily by changing the order we sent the binary data, but what we had - although a bit "hacky" - did actually work.

The other thing of note was how poor the IR data transmission was. In one of the videos, you can see a small tube, connecting the IR LED on the sending device to the IR receiver on the other. This was to shield the IR from stray, extraneous IR light. Without the tube, the range that we were getting consistent results was only a few inches!

Secondly, we're also aware that pushing more than 500 bytes through an IR based system, in just a couple of seconds, is probably a bit adventurous. We're drawing each byte straight to the screen as it's arrived, and because there's no buffering, there's no real way of handling errors - there's no point receiving a garbage byte and rejecting it (as you might with packets of data and ask for a resend) because the next byte coming in is the next sequence of pixels in the image; as the data comes in, it needs to be drawn to the screen - garbage or not!

It was also interesting to note how different IR sensors performed differently.
There's an assumption that one 38khz IR sensor should perform just as well as another; we're speculating, but perhaps some sensors are a little more tolerant of a carrier wave just outside the 38khz band. It may be that the sensor we used could allow for something like 37khz-39khz, whereas others work only with 38khz and nothing else.

We've no real proof of this, of course, only speculation after observing our own results. But, then again, given that there's no real-world application for a Bender Render Sender, the whole point of the project was to build something and speculate over the results. And for that reason, we're calling last night's efforts a resounding success!

Thursday 14 August 2014

Intel Galileo development board

A while back, I responded to an web post, asking people to give an outline idea of what they could make, with an Intel-developed, Windows-based development board.

Unlike a lot of sneerers and open-source devotees, I didn't leave a snarky comment about propriety software, or indulge in some cheap Microsoft bashing. I actually think Microsoft, over the last 30 years or so, have created some amazing software - bloated, unnecessarily complex and - let's be honest - expensive it may have been, but they produced some of the best software for actually being productive.

If you wanted to create a document quickly and easily, for years, MS Word was the mainstay. Outlook was for emails (and calendars if you had the full office version) and no-one created a spreadsheet on anything but Excel. These were (and, still are) great programs for getting work done.

In recent years, Apple's behaviour has made Microsoft look like the shining light of openness and transparency, while Linux - even today - is problematic when it comes to making anything but the most common of applications and hardware work properly.

So when Microsoft said they were interested in joining the "hardware revolution" I was genuinely intrigued. Of course, they're not the first to the party. They're not even a dedicated hardware developer, their programming tools are probably developed by a third party (or once belonged to a company long since bought out, as was their strategy in the early 2000s) and they can't compete with AVR/PIC micros on price. It looks like they're aiming more at the Raspberry Pi market than the 8-bit microcontroller market, as the Intel Galileo looks like quite a capable board - which would be wasted on a simple project for flashing a few LEDs in response to some button presses!

So here it is. It arrived today via FedEx:

I haven't had time to do anything other than take it out of the box. But it's BuildBrighton tonight, and I know a few others had expressed an interest in the dev board. So, if I get an early dart and arrive at the hackspace a bit earlier tonight, what are the odds of getting something - however simple - up and running on this?

Given the level of productivity in recent months? About zero ;-)

Sunday 3 August 2014

Laser cut 28mm terrain buildings - wild west

A while back, we made some simple 28mm buildings for a wild west shoot out miniatures board game. Having turned our backs on the laser cut buildings that seem to be flooding the board gaming market in recent months, we decided to "scratch-build" our buildings from lolly sticks and coffee stirrers.

The results were quite nice, but the overall process took far too long. So we tried a half-way house - laser cutting rows of shingles for the roofs and cutting planks to make the walls of the buildings. Again, a successful trial, but still making a complete building - even a relatively small, single storey one - was tediously slow.

So now it's time to give laser-cut buildings a try. We know that scratch-building gives impressive results. Shingle roofs and plank-built walls look great when painted up and drybrushed, but - to date - we've nothing to compare them to. So we thought we'd at least put some buildings together, and compare them to our scratch-built ones.

Using photos of existing models on the 'net as "inspiration" we got busy with Inkscrape

We designed and cut a small, single story building (with 3 inch sides, 3 inches deep)...

...and a larger, two-storey building, again with a 3 inch square footprint:

Being impatient, we cut the doorframes and windows from regular 3mm mdf - ideally these would be cut from 2mm, as the 3mm gives them a slightly cartoon-chunky look

The pieces fitted together easily. Unlike a lot of mdf laser-cut buildings, we tried to keep the number of interlocking tabs to a minimum. We're using PVA glue to assemble our parts, which means putting a few sections together, then leaving overnight to dry before further assembly.

Superglue (the real stuff, not the nasty knock-off clone from Poundland) does a pretty good job of gluing mdf together, with the advantage of not needing to be left for a few hours to try before putting more pieces together. But it does suffer from "instant grab" which means you need to be pretty accurate when placing each piece.

Because we hadn't yet tried a full fit of all the pieces, we decided to stick with PVA - to give us time to slide pieces around if they didn't quite line up, first time.

The finished double-storey building looks pretty good. There are a number of first-time design faults that need to be addressed in the second version, but for a first time try, it looks ok.

For a start, things like the top plank isn't wide enough to sit on top of the decorative false-roof parts. This can easily be corrected in the next iteration. The window frames are too chunky, and we designed the canopy supports to line up when cut from 2mm mdf, not the thicker 3mm stuff we had to hand. But these are simple design problems that are easily fixed. The actual, finished building looks quite nice - and even though it has a relatively small 3" footprint, still looks a decent scale for the "heroic 28mm" (i.e. 32mm high) miniatures from Black Scorpion.

Unfortunately, it still looks like a flat, laser-cut building. We're going to try drawing (heavily) on the wood to create a grain effect, before painting over the whole thing with a primer and base coat, to give it a little more character.

 Perhaps a computer-printed sticker for the canopy sign and some posters to go along the sides of the building are the finishing touches it needs? According to some sources, advertising was just as prevalent, garish and clever as today's efforts to get people to part with their hard-earned. Except instead of pasting adverts all over the internet, they just pasted them onto their buildings!

Laser cutting leather on an LS3020

At the Boiler Room Studios, we're lucky to have a very efficient air extraction unit, which can pull stinky fumes from a number of points around the workshop - and, most importantly, from the back of the laser cutter.

Many people warn that laser cutting leather is a stinky old business, so we were a little reluctant to do more than cut a few test circles into some green leather patches, reclaimed from an old handbag, for one of the resident artists. Surprisingly, however, once the lining had been removed, and we confirmed that the leather did not have a polyurethane coating, it cut quite well.

Our usual settings of 16mm/sec, 15mA proved far too slow/powerful for this leather, and it scorched very easily. We wound the power down to 10mA and cut at a rather speedy 40mm/sec.

Although the reverse (the side that was cut onto) still had slight scorch marks, the front-facing side had crisp, clean cut lines. The cutting beam "spread" was so little that the pieces removed were salvaged and used on another project.

The result was a pleasingly clean cut, and we managed to avoid stinking the place out with the smell of burnt leather (which is rather unpleasant). All in all, a successful test!