Unknown Domain

Found images…

Today I tried out an application called Lost Photos which is free today only, it retrieves images from your email account that you may have lost.

I thought I would have a go at it and it found 2,500 photos! Rummaging through them many I have already posted up here, however I found the first set of images I was ever sent of a real unit, from a member of staff at Network Rail, Tom Chaffin, for some reason I wrote about my email to him, however never posted the images…

Split-flap design…

Another day, another split-flap display project, the streets of Ginza, Tokyo, Japan now feature an interesting animated window display by design agency Drawing and Manual for client ISSEY MIYAKE INC. a clothing retailer.

Source: CreativeApplications

Omega

Until today I had only discovered two manufacturers of the split-flap displays of days passed, Solari and Krone. Today I have another, Omega, the departure boards and track signage for Grand Central station has recently been overhalled by a restoration firm called Olek Lejbzon & Co. this firm replaced the old split-flap displays with new LCD units while refurbishing the existing (listed) housings.

The firm have been gracious enough to send me a bunch of photos of these split-flaps and I am in the process of negotiating the purchase of one or two of the units. They are very old by the looks, the design is much more rudimentary than the Krone split-flap displays featured in my post about Jave.de’s project.

For more info about Olek Lejbzon & Co.’s restoration of aspects of Grand Central Station, take a look at these two pages:Hutchinson Track Indicator Restoration, Other. Thanks again for the images…

Circuitry

So for the past couple week’s I have been working on building up the circuitry, previously I designed, ordered and built up the RS485 board as shown on the right.

The board worked first time thanks to my careful testing and after some debugging of my own stupid mistake which I made not once but twice it worked like a charm.

To test it I hooked up three Arduino’s in a daisy chain with the three identical RS485 boards in Receive mode, and hooked up a USB to RS485 adaptor I bought on eBay, the code was simple, if it gets a 0x00 byte it turns off a LED, if it gets 0x01 it turns on the LED, and surprisingly it worked!

You can see in this diagram how the process worked, and the above image shows the CAT5 cable passthrough connection which means the devices daisy chain easily.

The interesting part of RS-485 is that it uses differential signalling, put basically as you can see on the right the two signals are opposites of each other, which means that the signal is more resilient to noise as the idea is that the two cables are twisted pair (like CAT5) and so they both experience the same noise but are polar opposite signals so the binary output can be determined by looking at the difference between both, this eradicates noise issues.

The board I have been working on this week and a bit of last is the standalone Arduino circuitry. As I am not a micro controller or electronics guru, I want to stick with what I know which is Arduino, however these boards are quite expensive and offer more than I need. My intention is to build a basic Arduino into the circuitry of my project. To do this I needed to do a lot of research and understand what parts are essential.

I have designed and tested on a breadboard the schematic for a basic Arduino and today sent it to be manufactured like the last, I hope it works as well as the last PCB I made so I don’t have to wait another two weeks to get it back, however the idea of making multiple smaller boards that are modular is I will combine them together in one design at the end to make one unit which means it should just work rather than having to mix multiple parts together that might make it harder to debug.

Here’s How To Save Maplin

Today I was on the bus home and found a link to a Forbes article on how to save Radio Shack and it resounded almost exactly with what I have been thinking and saying about Maplin Electronics for a long time now to anyone who will listen, so I had to write this article…

A micro history of hobbyist electronics retail in the UK
For the uninitiated amongst us Radio Shack is the American equivalent of Maplin Electronics. In 1999 Tandy (a.k.a. Radio Shack) shut down UK operations and sold their locations to what is now Carphone Warehouse, some continued on under the brand T2.

Before the sale of their stores, Tandy/Radio Shack and Maplin were competitors selling various ranges of equipment for home hobbyists in the electrical category. Items such as radios, telephones, audio and visual equipment, PA and DJ equipment, and most uniquely electronic components.

The problem with Maplin
Unfortunately if you look at Maplin today their shops are full to the brim with crap, poor quality, overpriced, junk. The vast majority of this crap in Maplin falls into a few select categories all served by other companies or sectors…

  • Batteries
    Also served by supermarkets, Argos, Pound Shops and everywhere. 
  • Security
    Also served by security specialists, DIY stores and Argos. 
  • DJ/PA
    Also served by DJ stores. 
  • TV
    Currys, Comet, Dixons, PC World, supermarkets, etc..
  • Computer Equipment
    PC World, Staples, supermarkets and online.

There is one area of Maplin which doesn’t have a UK high street competitor and that is this hobbiest market, while you have stores like Hobbycraft who sell bits and bobs for artistic, craft and hand made consumer needs, there isn’t a equivalent for the homebrew electronics, maker movement out there.

Bruce Upbin’s solution
The main thrust of the aforementioned Forbes article is that Radio Shack should sell up all their tiny corner shop locations and invest in staff and refitting existing larger stores to become what is known in America as a TechShop, or in other words a hacker/maker space. For me the idea of converting these places into this kind of gym for makers is not ideal as it requires people to subscribe and come along. For me I have a different take on the same principal for Maplin.

The new Maplin
My vision for Maplin, should they choose to accept it:

  • Rebrand
  • Refocus
  • Refit
  • Retrain

Rebrand
The brand identity of Maplin today is misleading, boring, tame, and uninspiring. The meaning of the brand is even worse. This needs to change, and I wouldn’t rule out a name change, however as I am bad enough at remembering names, let alone coming up with new ones I will stick with name as is, Maplin Electronics (focusing mainly on Maplin).

IDENTITY
The identity of the Maplin brand as I said is misleading, they call themselves “The electronics specialist” but sell nothing specialist, or special. If you take a look at other brands who get this right in this area such as Sparkfun Electronics a true electronics specialist in America, or the Arduino project you can see they have equally clean designs but convey meaning through their branding.

The name ‘Sparkfun’ is exciting and conjures up ideas of playing with electronics and tinkering. The ‘Arduino’ name is a little more obscure but the colour and imagery are highly communicative, the colour speaks of PCBs and the icon is of electronic signs and looks perhaps like an abstract of a the top of a PP3 9V battery or something similar.

I think the rebranding of Maplin needs to be major, the choice of colour is a strange and unfortunate one, perhaps this is more my opinion at this point however it only cheapens the brand, while the rich and vibrant colours in these other brands really adds a punch and makes them memorable. Then the simple nature reinforced with a small icon really pull it together.

ETHOS
Another key issue with Maplin is that it doesn’t stand for anything, no one knows what Maplin actually sells, why they do what they do and what they aim to achieve. I can hear some of you screaming PROFIT! and you are right, they are clearly a faceless money making machine, but in todays day and age that simply isn’t enough, and this is especially true when you look at the bizzar range of crap that they sell at present, no one would care if Maplin closed its doors tomorrow and forever.

Maplin as a company needs to grow a culture, passion, a vision, a set of beliefs. If they could adopt a hacker/maker friendly open source ethos that supports this community and helps to educate and grow the community I think Maplin might get somewhere. Looking at their corporate website and reading their history, and similarly reading their history on wikipedia you get a sense that this ethos is where it all started and this would really be returning to its roots rather than changing the habit of a life time. It seems that somewhere in the 70s and 80s they began to loose their way and in the preceding two decades it all but disappeared.

Refocus
There is little to no point in rebranding if you don’t refocus what the company does otherwise this is just another lie to the consumer. This aspect of my vision is the most radical for Maplin and I must admit not being a business expert I couldn’t tell you if it would work, however other companies do this so I guess it’s possible.

Maplin need to drop the crap, and I mean all of it. Leave cheap Chinese imported tablets,  CCTV cameras, computer accessories and DJ equipment to eBay where it belongs. Instead they need to focus on having a quality, and broad range of components on par with RSFarnell or Rapid but on the high street, online and with business. This may mean partnering with these companies, merging with or buying one.

The new range would be presented in store as loose components organised in a roller shelving system full of parts bins stored in parts bins labeled, barcoded and indexed on a computer system that can recall the location and price of parts. This means not only can more items be kept in store but customers can literally pick up the item and test fit in their projects before taking it to the checkout where they can buy what they have to hand or order a larger number for bigger projects to be delivered to home or store.

In addition to offering small electronics parts, casings and tools the stores would also offer a range fabrication services in-store. This could include 3D printing, laser cutting, and PCB milling.

Refit
I believe Maplin stores need to be at the heart of a community, a community that extends to local schools, hacker/maker spaces, and hobbyist clubs. This community is formed in the way the store is laid out and the facilities and events it offers. The first major difference as previously alluded to will be the product range offered in-store.

Traditionally Maplin stores have had a large proportion of their store filled with low height shelving that displays products on hooks and in set places, larger stores have a small sliding shelving system or counter at the back tucked out the way with various small components bagged in ziplock bags stapled over with a cardboard hanging hook showing the Maplin brand and a barcode with the item number. This packaging is a waste as it prevents the customer from holding the item and testing it, and it just gets thrown away eventually.

PART BINS
New Maplin stores would have a large open parts area with a rolling rack system that contains hundreds of labeled parts bins showing the item, price and a tracking barcode. Items in these bins are held loose and can be hand picked by customers to allow them the freedom to test fit, with their project in hand. Navigation of this large library will be through multiple processes.

  1. Selecting isle, then looking down the isle (like a supermarket).
    All stores will locate components in the same order but may have smaller or larger ranges.
  2. Mobile app
    A store app will allow you to browse the stores product catalogue, select items and get a picking list of the exact address of the desired components or send it to the store staff for later collection.
  3. Online
    Just as the store app allows you to browse the store catalogue you will be able to select the items for staff picking, or print a list at home to take to store.
  4. Catalogue Terminal
    Much like the Argos experience, there will be a number of customer product catalogue terminals for customers to do quick on the spot look ups, this will then provide the location or offer to print a compact picking list for the customer.

To aid in picking parts customers will be provided with ziplock bags and a small shopping basket that can be mated into the shelving system allowing them to rest it at a comfortable heigh without bending over or holding it all the time. Each bin will also have a sticker dispenser to allow customers to identify parts in their ziplock bags, and to allow for customers who don’t have a picking list and are simply browsing.

TOOLS
Another area of the store will be setup with a wide range of tools and available in packs for the beginner. Tools in this area would be offered at multiple price brackets to allow for beginners and professionals. Smaller hand tools and such like would be hung on pegs however more expensive test equipment like multimeters and such like would be secured on a counter where the customer can try them out, with a demo circuit for probing, meters might have probing points for a voltage, currant, frequency and resistance reference. Scopes may have basic function generator probing points to demo their features, other tools would hopefully have equally useful demo circuits.

WORKSHOPS
A new area to the store would be the workshop which is an area where customers can come and learn, the workshops would be a mix of free drop in workshops designed to be taster sessions for the paid for workshops that teach all manner of subjects ranging from weekly lessons in electronics that build up knowledge in a curriculum over a period, to one off introductory classes. The workshop space is laid out much like a class room with a lectern and screen/white board and student workbenches where they can work independently. The workbenches would be kitted with all the standard electronics tools and can be moved around and reconfigured for round table teaching, and moved aside to allow local clubs to book the space for meetings and such like.

THE FAB
The final part of the store is the fab, a space where specially trained staff are able to help customers develop their projects by offering a fabrication service. The machines here are staff operated, and include:

  • Basic woodworking – Paid by the hour (pro-rata)
  • 3D printing
  • Laser cutting
  • PCB milling
  • PCB pooling service
The Fab, Workshop, Part Bins, and Tools are the four key zones to the store, fitted in a raw industrial style with an open airy feel. The staff focus on creating a community around the store by helping customers and referring them to other staff and resources where needed.

ONLINE
In order to open the store community to a wider audience there would be an online resources too. These would include a blog looking at customer projects and events happening on a larger scale than single stores, online forum for customers to chat and share ideas and ask questions, several regular YouTube videos/podcasts by different HQ staff on the latest products, follow along projects with kits in store, weekend projects, and learning/tutorial videos.

KITS
The final part of the puzzle are kits which is again nothing new to Maplin, in their past they made kits of their own, and they sell kits now but they are a stagnate range that has no progression or consistency. I imagine a range of kits that support the in-store and online curriculums but are not dependent on them, they act as value added for the paid for workshops, sales opportunities for the free workshops and videos, and standalone products in their own right.

MARKETING
Stores will market themselves locally with a small budget held by the manager to invest in local events, and clubs, this might be a robotics team, radio club, hacker/maker spaces, etc… Stores will be able to sponsor these types of events or buy into them to have a stall or such like. Similarly on a company level larger events like Maker Faires and radio ralleys will be sponsored and the company will also push the technology education agenda with the government to increase participation and improve teaching of technology and DIY skills in schools.

Retrain
To coincide with the new stores, staff would need to have extensive retraining to allow them to offer advice and information that can help customers. Some staff would become specialists in running the curriculum, others in the fabrication area and general staff helping with sales.

Summary
My vision for Maplin is radical and probably/unfortunately not something they are likely to adopt. A few years ago Maplin was bought by some investers hoping to turn a profit by growing the business and floating it on the stock exchange. Clearly this hasn’t happened and I can’t help but think that their current strategy, if it is actually a strategy is broken, they are just trying to sell crap products no one really needs for a high price then put them on special offers to sell them.

In the UK, like many countries the maker, DIY, hacker culture is growing in part as a reaction to the sealed black box nature of todays products, and partially because of the growing prevalence of tools available to tinker. I for one would love to see a company as large as Maplin invest and engage with this culture and I think there are big rewards to be had in return.

Maplin, if you are listening, please don’t cherry pick my ideas, give me a job and let me work with you to see if this crazy vision can be a profitable one?

Review: Mobile Solar Chargers

Recently I was emailed by a company asking if I would review one of their products, usually I would say no or ignore such requests but on this occasion I was being asked to write the review, provide my opinion rather than some pre-formatted crap. Additionally the post didn’t require that I write anything more than my opinion and I got to keep the items at the end so I signed up.

The products are made by a company called Mobile Solar Chargers (MSC), and are by no means a premium product, i.e. they aren’t expensive, and aren’t built from stainless steel, aluminium or anything fancy like that but they do the job. Tim at MSC sent me two different units to test from their range:

As these products are so similar I will review the key features then summarise them separately at the end:

Battery
The battery on these two units are great, realistically it’s unlikely any portable sized solar panel could be used to power a smart phone, so this allows you to save it up like a buffer for when you need it. The average smart phone has a 1,500mAh battery, with these two units that means you should get 1–3 full charges depending on which you buy and which phone you use, for me that would equate to an additional day or two of use. Great if you are on holiday or caught short on a trip away like my recent (soon to be blogged day trip to Manchester Mini Maker Faire).

Note: One minor issue is that the battery in these products does not seem to be easily replaceable, this means you’d have to buy a new one if it ever wore out, which Lithium Ion batteries will do over time and use, I would not therefore expect the products to last more than about three years based on experience with Li-ion batteries over the years.

Solar Panel
I have to be honest here, when they said they wanted to send me a solar charger I thought “Great, can you send the sun too?”. I am still not convinced now, although I haven’t tested the charge time, the manufacture themselves admit the charge time to be a whopping 28 hours under ‘full sunlight condition[s]’ (for the 3000mAh unit).

In perfect conditions “full sunlight condition[s]” is definitely not more than about 8–10 hours a day, that means this product will take at very least three days to charge in the sun, and the battery being rated for 3,000mAh means it could only charge a normal smart phone about two times. The 1,500mAh unit has no such specification on the website that I can find, however the panel is rated for a slightly higher output and the battery is half the capacity this means it will probably charge in less than half the time of the 3,000mAh unit above.

Being honest here I don’t think the solar panel is really what makes these products. Green or otherwise, solar technology isn’t good enough to be portable and charge these types of devices even in the best of conditions and I cannot deny that my smart phone only lasts about a day on charge so it would take several days to charge a phone for a days use, hardly worth it.

Build Quality
The 3,000mAh unit comes well packaged, no blister packs or scissors here! It looks like an older design of iPod but has a cheap plastic finish and the back cover has an unpleasing inward bulge, like someone sucked all the air out. It’s like the when you are washing a oven tray and it pops inside out. the back should really be nice and flat but it’s not.

The 1,500mAh unit although more basic and with no special finishes actually looks and feels better because it has a nice smooth matt plastic finish rather than a cheap metal, and glossy plastic finish. Overall I prefer the build of this unit, however the button on the reverse seems oddly placed, and the design slightly illogical, why not just have a bar graph like the other one?

The accessories with both units are the main downfall, they all use cheap Chinese connectors, while they work and don’t feel like they’d fall apart there is no carrying pouch for them in your bag, and they don’t even feel as good as the main item. I guess most people would probably just use the normal charger they got with their phone.

The Range
Mobile Solar Chargers come in seven different varieties at present ranging from a meagre 1,000mAh to a whopping 6,000mAh battery life. As a range of products nothing could further from consistency, they are all different colours, and sizes, have no consistent UI, or markings, LEDs and charge indicators are different for each unit, looking at these items they look more like a range of imported OEM items being sold under the MSC brand rather than products that are unique to MSC. As a customer this doesn’t really matter but as they clearly are trying to make something of the solar charger I would expect some kind of consistency in design, this means that customer’s won’t feel invested in the brand.

Green
Green is the big buzz word, everything is energy saving, cost cutting, green, low emissions etc… So why is it that these products are not sold for their green credentials? There isn’t any mention of these products eco credentials anywhere on the website, in fact the greenest thing on the website is the sage pay logo in the top right. They really are selling these products on the basis that your every day device needs more and more power and they are offering a way to boost that along, which is probably a wise idea given the fact that portable solar panels don’t have the gumption to power these power hungry beasts even in the brightest of conditions.

Summary

MSC Classic 3,000 mAh Mobile Solar Charger (£29.99):
As I have said all through this review, the product is essentially a backup battery for a smart phone with a solar panel tacked on as a gimmick, when you buy online you get a free USB mains power adaptor, something which really drives the stake in the grave as regards to the solar abilities. It works, and thats good but it feels like a lot of companies they should have concentrated on the core features and left the gimmicks by the wayside. If you are thinking of buying this product, I would recommend it, but not for it’s solar charing but as a backup battery.

MSC Trifid 1,500 mAh Mobile Solar Charger (£24.95):
I can’t start the summary for this item without asking why on earth would you name it ‘trifid’, of all the names to pick for a product why would you name it after a fictional plant that takes over the country and kills the inhabitants? Perhaps there is another meaning, however for a product sold in the UK I can’t help but feel this is a bad idea.

Other than that this is my favourite of the two products it hasn’t got the battery life of the other one and the (previously unmentioned) LED torch isn’t really something I would need, however it has a nicer finish and it’s cheaper. Again, I only wish they had focused on the main feature of a backup battery rather than a solar charger, and LED torch.

Final word
The products are well priced, include free delivery and they do what they should but I wish the extra spent on LED torches, and solar panels had been used to make a decent quality case, a USB wall wart in the box, and some kind of clever cable storage and better cables. I would happily recommend these items to friends and family.

If you have a product you’d like me to review send me an email, me@tomlynch.co.uk and I would be more than happy to discuss this.

Plastics

Today I got two sample packs, one from VitasheetGroup which had the wrong stuff in, it was two sheets of the stuff I bought from Pullengers Epsom, and two sheets of white 0.5mm PP with the G01 finish, it’s great because I have something to check the finish is right against, however it’s no good from the perspective of thickness, additionally I can’t really order it because no one sells small quantities anyway.

The other sample was from Saffron Plastics but turned out to be a plain finish i.e. no finish, which was no good and it was 1mm which just seems a bit too thick.

Stephen Webster didn’t answer my email so I called them and a nice chap gave me some quotes for what I want which is ViPrint G01 Black 0.8mm, MOQ was 1775 sheets at 880x440mm, the price per sheet was 84p which is adds up to £1,491 + VAT & Shipping, this would be about a 500 KG of material!

On the plus side he did say they have 950 sheets of ViPrint White G01 0.8mm in stock at 1100x650mm for £1 per sheet which means I can get the right material in the wrong colour and go with that. He also sent a price guide for their stocked material which is all in the infamously crap G02 finish, page from the price list is here: Price List.

I’ve emailed them to see if there is a possibility of piggy backing on another customer who does make large enough order, and about getting 5 sheets of the white as it’s a good price even if it is the wrong colour.

Reorganising

Now that I am not at the Royal College of Art anymore, at least until the new academic year, and with a light schedule of work until graduation next year. I am getting geared up a bit better, my house mate and his girlfriend encouraged me to bring my main computer into the living room where he has his desk, we’ve created a floatilla of jubilee proportions in desk formation.

Luke’s desk, behind mine is a long piece of discovered kitchen work surface stretched across two builders benches. My desk as shown below docks into his desk but has a bit of a raised edge that leans on his. At the left of frame is the kitchen table and that completes the flotilla. This enables me to work in an office situation away from my bedroom which is all the rage in the so-called ‘real world’ and apparently better for sleeping patterns.

With the space left over I have reinstalled my original (came with the house) desk which is basically two battens across the wall, another spare piece of kitchen work surface and a corner support post. This is strangely too high to sit at but too low to stand at, must be an Olympic standard kitchen surface? Anyway I have reinstated it to make a space for my electronic’s and projects area. I will need to get a piece of wood to protect the surface when soldering but otherwise I think it will be a good solution for the foreseeable future.

Note the letter ‘T’ peeking over, this is the V2 prototype that I have yet to photograph, sitting on top of the larger V3 prototype (hidden by my fancy new, second-hand Phillips analog scope).

Plastics (again)

I called Vitasheet Group again and spoke to one of the staff there, she has gotten me an email address for the UK distribution manager and someone who can provide samples for checking which finish of 0.8mm black polypropylene I would like, the UK distribution manager is the previously mentioned Jed Brooks (jed.brooks@vitasheetgroup.co.uk) and the sample person is Stephanie Penin (stephanie.penin@vitasheetgroup.fr).

The person I spoke to on the phone suggested a few possible suppliers although she admitted she wasn’t involved with the PP side of things any more, all are new to my search so I will be investigating.

I will be getting in touch with these companies to see what they offer, hopefully I can get some of the G01 (smooth/smooth) finish rather than the G02 (smooth/textured) finish I have been able to find thus far.

Die cutting

One of the issues I have been facing is that the laser cut flaps cut quite well but the black finish is damaged by the high temprature gases that are formed under the cut material.

When the laser point hits the polypropylene it rapidly heats and vaporises the plastic, creating hot gas which pools under the material in the honey comb grill. This leaves a white smokey debris that can be cleaned off but also leaves heat damage.

For many materials this isn’t really a problem because the melting temperature is higher and many materials come with protective plastic stops scratching but also offers protection against this gas. Polypropylene however doesn’t come with this protection as 0.8mm thicknesses, additionally polypropylene has a particularly low melting temperature of only 150ºC which means at anything over 100ºC it can easily begin to effect the finish of the plastic.

The solution to this is to use die cutting, which would have been the method of choice for Solari, Kone and other manufacturers as it allows hundreds of flaps to be produced per minute and the cost of tooling a cutting die reduced the more you use it, while the laser cutter costs remain constant.

With this in mind I asked around some graphic designer friends who they used for die cutting and one came back and suggested Medway Cutters I asked them for a quote for a die cutter for personal use with my design as well as some small runs having them do the work, prices include VAT, exclude postage:

  • 1 up cutter = £90
  • 100 flaps = £96 (96p per flap)
  • 500 flaps = £222 (44p per flap)
I have asked them for a sample of the quality and how many flaps they expect the 1 up cutter would last, looking at these costs it is pretty expensive and doesn’t seem to run with what the cost’s I would have expected, additionally it doesn’t match the laser cutting costs:
Cutting time: 10p per flap (5 minutes x 75p = £3.75 for 36 flaps per sheet)
Material: 5p per flap (£1.63 per sheet ÷ 36 flaps)
Total: 15p per flap (£7.50 per module)

The flap design is probably going to remain the same now so here is the pattern: