Category Archives: Engineering

Open Circuits

I’m very pleased to announce my forthcoming new book, Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components, co-written with Eric Schlaepfer.

Open Circuits is a coffee table book full of cross-section photographs of electronic components, along with photos of those components in context, and descriptions of how they work. It’s coming this fall from No Starch Press, and is available now to pre-order.

Book cover for Open Circuits

From the rear cover:

Open Circuits is a photographic exploration of the surprisingly beautiful design waiting to be discovered inside everyday electronic devices. Through painstakingly prepared cross-sections and stunningly vivid close-up images, the book reveals a hidden world full of elegance, subtle complexity, and wonder. From simple resistors and capacitors, to cutting-edge circuit boards and retro Nixie tubes, the authors’ arresting imagery transforms more than 130 electronic components into awe-inspiring works of art that will delight engineers, artists, designers, and photography enthusiasts alike.

My co-author Eric Schlaepfer has been our regular collaborator on projects such as the Three Fives and XL741 soldering kits, as well as the MOnSter 6502 and our Uncovering the Silicon project.

Open Circuits is coming this fall in hardcover, and is available now with a pre-order discount and early-access PDF from No Starch Press.

It’s also available to pre-order at your local bookstore — who we sincerely encourage you to support — as well as Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other major booksellers.

The AxiDraw MiniKit 2

AxiDraw MiniKit 2

Today we are introducing a major refresh of the smallest member of the AxiDraw family of pen plotters: the new AxiDraw MiniKit 2. The AxiDraw MiniKit 2 is our special compact DIY-kit version of the AxiDraw lineup.

AxiDraw MiniKit 2

Versus the original AxiDraw MiniKit, the MiniKit 2 has been redesigned for easier assembly, better precision, and higher performance. The key change is that the long linear rail that forms the base of the machine — a custom aluminum extrusion in the original — has been replaced with a solid bar of 6061-T6 aluminum, machined in the same precision process as our top-of-the-line AxiDraw SE/A3, and then anodized to a satin-silver finish. This change simplifies a number of the assembly steps, but more importantly has a cleaner overall look and tighter manufacturing tolerances for improved precision.

AxiDraw MiniKit
In addition to be being “Mini”, the MiniKit 2 is also still a kit.

Unlike other models of the AxiDraw family like AxiDraw V3 and AxiDraw SE/A3 (which come assembled, tested, and ready to use), the AxiDraw MiniKit 2 is a machine that you assemble yourself.

We’ve taken great care in designing a kit that is rewarding to build, own, and use.

AxiDraw MiniKit

The new version is also heavier than the old one, which helps it to stay stable on your desk at higher speeds and gives it a small boost in effective speed, in addition to the upgrades in precision. Small but sturdy, The MiniKit 2 is built with machined parts, just one custom aluminum extrusion now, attention to detail, and care.

An EggBot Brunch Party

Eggs in basket
Photo by Raka Mitra

Heather Seeba wrote in to let us know about a gathering she has hosted around the EggBot.

EggBot set up for Brunch
EggBot set up for Brunch: Photo by Heather Seeba

The EggBot brunches have been big hits with my friends. Seeing the fascination and excitement showing new people my EggBot has to be my favorite part of playing with it. The inspiration came when I took the ‘bot to my (engineering) office so colleagues could make eggs for their kids: people were skeptical then couldn’t stay away. Thus for an EggBot brunch, invite awesome nerdy people over, feed them, and gather round the EggBot.

Heather told us about her events earlier this year, before the advent of physical distancing. Many of her suggestions can be adapted for family groups living together and we’ve added some suggestions for remote attendees as well.

Egg with flowers
Photo by Raka Mitra
Flower pots as backdrops
Photobooths for Eggs: photo by Heather Seeba

Some recommendations for an EggBot brunch include:

  • Print outs of suggested (speedy) designs will engage interest quickly.
  • For in-person attendees, buffet and easy lap food works better than a sit-down meal so the focus can be on the drawing.
  • For remote attendees, have a camera set up pointing at the EggBot so they can see their design being drawn.
  • Print some outline designs in advance and let folks color eggs if they like.
  • Make a photo shoot station for guests’ creations. Flower pots with herbs and blossoms are a great example.
Eggs in the herbs
Photo by Raka Mitra
Eggs in grass
Photo by Heather Seeba

The photo booths can be used even for eggs decorated without the EggBot!

The 555SE and 741SE surface-mount soldering kits

555SE and 741SE kits

Today we are pleased to announce the release of two new soldering kits: the 555SE discrete 555 timer and the 741SE discrete op-amp.

Both of these new kits are surface mount soldering kits — our first surface mount soldering kits — and we think that you’re going to love them.

555 kits, big and small

You might be familiar with our Three Fives discrete 555 timer and XL741 discrete op-amp kits. Both are easy soldering kits that let you build working transistor-scale replicas of the classic 555 timer chip and the famous µA741 op-amp. Those two are constructed with traditional through-hole soldering techniques and are styled to like “DIP” packaged (through-hole) integrated circuits.

Our new 555SE and 741SE kits implement the same circuits, now with surface mount components, and are styled to look like smaller “SOIC” packaged (surface mount) integrated circuits, complete with a heavy-gauge aluminum leadframe stand. Side by side with their through-hole siblings, the new kits are exactly to scale, with half the lead pitch and a lower profile.

555SE kit for scale

The 555SE and 741SE kits each come with eight (tiny) color-coded thumbscrew binding posts that you can use to hook up wires and other connections.

You can also probe anywhere that you like in these circuits — something that you generally can’t do with the integrated circuit versions.

741SE kit close up

The new 555SE and 741SE circuit boards are black in color, with a gold finish and clear solder mask so that you can see the wiring traces between individual components. There are a few other neat details here and there, such as countersunk holes for mounting the board to the leadframe.

The surface mount components are relatively large, with 1206-sized resistors and SOT-23 sized transistors, and assembly is straightforward with our clear and comprehensive instructions. These kits are designed to be a joy to build, whether you’re an old hand at surface mount soldering, want some practice before tackling a project, or are introducing someone to it for the first time.

Family portrait

And here is the new family: XL741, the Three Fives, along with the new 741SE and 555SE.

You can find the datasheets and assembly instructions for these kits, as well as links to additional documentation, on their respective product pages.

Both new kits are part of our ongoing collaboration with Eric Schlaepfer, who we have worked with on a number of dis-integrated circuit projects including the four kits here and the MOnSter 6502.

Featured Artist: Vincent Pidone

An array of drawings featuring Moire patterns

Vincent Pidone is an artist particularly interested in Moire patterns, making the AxiDraw a tool well suited to him. You can find him on instagram, and he has a show opening this week.

I have a show of my recent artwork opening August 17th in Hudson, New York. The show will be up through October. All of the work consists of Moire drawings, some hand drawn, but most of them were done with my Axidraw. (Everything in the photo above was done with Axidraw.)

I am always intrigued to see artists building on each other’s work. In the piece above, Vincent took artwork from Justin Lincoln and added colors and layers with the AxiDraw to make it into something new. Here’s Justin’s original:

Vincent has also experimented with using his AxiDraw for dispensing paint.

He has shared the software and hardware details of the project on hackaday.io.


Vincent’s show, focusing on his recent Moire pieces, is opening this Saturday, August 17th at Walnut Hill Fine Art in Hudson, New York, and will be up through October. Even if you aren’t able to make it to his show, you can follow him on instagram.

MOnSter in a box

MOnSter 6502 in enclosure

For the past couple of years we have been working towards a public launch of the MOnSter 6502, our working transistor-scale replica of the famous MOS 6502 microprocessor.

One of the biggest pieces of the puzzle has been how to present it in such a way that shows off its beauty but also lets you see it in action. Here – finally – is the result of that effort: An elegant shadowbox frame with hidden electronics and integrated buttons.

If you’d like to see the MOnSter and its new prototype enclosure, this weekend is the perfect opportunity: we are exhibiting it at the 2019 Vintage Computer Festival West, August 3-4 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

MOnSter 6502 in enclosure

Where to go from here? If everything goes well, we’ll be launching the MOnSter this fall. Stay tuned!

The AxiDraw CLI and Python API

Following the release of our new AxiDraw software this week, we are pleased to announce the release of two additional software components that greatly extend the capability of the machine.

The AxiDraw software is now available in two alternate versions that may be helpful for developers or for anyone who would like to control the machine programmatically rather than through Inkscape: A stand-alone command-line interface (CLI) tool, as well as a full-featured Python library.

The AxiDraw CLI

The first new tool is the AxiDraw CLI,  a command-line API to drive the AxiDraw outside of Inkscape. Like the Inkscape-based software, its primary function is to plot SVG files. However, it is a stand-alone utility that can be driven from within shell scripts and other environments that make use of shell commands.

Once installed, plotting a file can be as simple as executing the following command:

axicli filename.svg

There are, of course, a breadth of different modes and configuration parameters available. We have written detailed descriptions of each of these options in our comprehensive API documentation. The CLI also supports the use of configuration files to quickly switch between different sets of parameters.

Since most common scripting and programming environments allow one to call shell commands like this, that allows the AxiDraw to be used directly within a wide variety of frameworks.

 

The Python API

The second new tool is the AxiDraw Python API. The AxiDraw CLI is written within Python, and we have both exposed and expanded upon that nucleus to create a flexible and powerful Python module, complete with its own comprehensive documentation.

Just like the CLI, the Python API can plot SVG documents; it can both read SVG files and accept strings containing SVG data.

It also has features that are not available within Inkscape or the CLI: It supports direct interactive XY control. You can use absolute or relative moveto/lineto type commands to control the AxiDraw from within your own programs. This is particularly useful for a wide variety of potential AxiDraw applications that are not writing or drawing, but otherwise making use of the AxiDraw as a low-cost motion control platform.