Arduino-compatible Quirkbot lets kids build robots out of straws

One year ago, a simple and very cool construction kit for children came out; called Strawbees, it lets kids develop their inner engineer by making all kinds of structures out of ordinary drinking straws and cardboard. Now, a spinoff project has emerged: a “toy to make toys” called Quirkbot.

Quirkbot is a small 8MHz microcontroller with an Arduino-compatible bootloader that can be made part of a Strawbees creation without any need for soldering or breadboarding. It has light, distance and sound sensors and can basically be used to create moving, drinking-straw-based robots called “Qreatures.” Squeeze-on electronics can add sounds and lights to the mix.

Bot & Roll concertIt’s even possible to make a game controller using the thing. Quirkbot has a microUSB port for charging and for loading programs, which kids can create through a browser-based visual programming interface that allows for the sharing of projects.

This is a really nice educational idea – the Strawbees-compatible system makes it easy to quickly try out new ideas. The Swedish Quirkbot team’s Kickstarter campaign launched on Tuesday with the package of Quirkbot microcontroller, Strawbees Maker Kit, light sensors and motor costing $69 or $59 for the first 99 early birds.

Pricier kits come with features such as Midi out, speakers and LED lights, and with distance and sound sensors. The estimated ship date is August this year.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a2LIR4TEiaI&w=560&h=315]

Parts search engine and SnapEDA buddy to make making easier

As more people attempt to turn their ideas for connected devices into actual products, the maker movement is turning into a serious business. And the companies that serve makers are getting their chance to build serious businesses as well. Thus, SnapEDA, a company that provides a design to manufacturing service online has signed a partnership with Octopart, which offers a library of commonly used electronic components.

It’s akin to providing the startup maker community with a more reliable view of the supply chain for the most used bits and bobs they need to build their products where they are designing them. This is obviously handy because it’s it’s time-consuming to design a board on the computer and fit pieces around it, only to find out later when you shift it to a manufacturer that the Wi-Fi radio you chose isn’t in stock. That means it’s back to the drawing board for you and likely means you’ve lost a few hours, or even a few days, of work depending on how complicated your project is.

With the emergence of startups like the Toronto-based SnapEDA or the YCombinator startup Octopart, we’re seeing the evolution of hardware development that aims to be a bit more like software. Faster, more iterative and more responsive to the needs of a rapidly-changing marketplace. We won’t ever get to the speed of code, but it’s awesome to see the agility that’s common in software creeping its way into the hardware world as much as it can.

New MakerBot 3D printing materials imitate stone, wood and metal

3D printing is slowly moving out of plastics and into, well, anything. MakerBot got in on the shift Tuesday at CES with the announcement of four new filaments built to mimic maple wood, limestone, iron and bronze. They will ship in late 2015.

The materials are actually composites, which means stone, metal or wood are combined with plastic to give them the ability to melt into a nice oozy goo and then solidify — important qualities if they are to run through a 3D printer. MakerBot is advertising that you can still polish or stain your finished products to make them more life-like.

A pot 3D printed with MakerBot's bronze filament.

A pot 3D printed with MakerBot’s bronze filament.

We don’t yet know what the new filaments will cost (MakerBot’s spools of 2.2 pounds of material range from $48 to $130), but we do know that buyers should expect to make another purchase: more print heads. MakerBot announced three new printers at CES last year, each of which included a new feature known as the Smart Extruder that allows users to quickly pop the print head on and off. Now, we know that MakerBot is developing Smart Extruders tailored to each type of specialty filament.

Hobbyists and small startups have been tinkering with printing wood and metal for years now. It’s great to see MakerBot, which is owned by international 3D printing corporation Stratasys, pour some serious money into it. It’s obvious that people are interested in printing materials other than plastic, but bringing the million-dollar metal 3D printing machines into the home is, at this point, not only expensive but dangerous. MakerBot and the other companies behind desktop machines are demonstrating that there may be another way.

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WunderBar sensor kit gets notifications app for broader appeal

The open-source WunderBar kit is a distinctive attempt to get app developers to shift their attention to the internet of things. It takes the form of a chocolate bar, the individual pieces of which can be broken off, with each piece containing different sensor functionality, such as temperature and humidity, sound, light and proximity, and motion, and with low-energy Bluetooth tying the system together.

Whereas other systems like Spark and LittleBits are more geared toward people who like to fiddle around with little wires, WunderBar firm Relayr specifically targets app developers who are only starting to think about hardware. The system comes with software development kits (SDKs) for Android and iOS, and months after launch there are already interesting ideas springing up, such as InsulinAngel’s temperature-sensing capsule for the kits diabetics have to carry around (you don’t want the insulin to spoil) and BabyBico, a system that uses Wunderbar’s accelerometer and sound sensor to monitor babies’ sleeping patterns.

But Berlin-based Relayr, which has an international distribution deal with German electronics retailer Conrad, wants to broaden WunderBar’s appeal. To that end, on Thursday it released a new app called TellMeWhen, which makes it easy for WunderBar owners to get simple notifications when, for example, the proximity sensor is activated, or when the accelerometer and gyroscope detect movement, or when the temperature sensor’s environment gets too hot or cold.

WunderBar kit with "chocolate" casing

WunderBar kit with “chocolate” casing

“The goal of TellMeWhen was to provide immediate value for both developers and non-techies,” Paul Hopton, Relayr’s chief engineer, Paul Hopton, told me. “We have had a lot of interest from people who are not developers and would like to learn to program to be able to solve simple problems in their life with the WunderBar. We hadn’t expected that. We designed the TellMeWhen app to be able to deliver immediate value for these people. We are also reworking a lot of the documentation to cater for people who are absolute newbies.”

The app will work on any Android phone running version 4.0.3 of the OS or higher. Initially, it’s just doing direct notifications, but Hopton said Relayr hopes to fully integrate the platform with IFTTT in the second quarter of 2015. “Depending on feedback, we may also add some simple features like tweeting in the next major version of TellMeWhen,” he said.

I’ve been playing around with the WunderBar kit and a beta version of TellMeWhen and, as someone who doesn’t have the first clue about coding and breaks into a cold sweat at the sight of a breadboard, I very much like the concept. I found the WunderBar “onboarding” process – getting the system set up on my home Wi-Fi and fully communicating with the separate Relayr management app – a little shaky, with a fair amount of logging out and in again to get it to work, but once it was working it did what it promised to do.

Having recently bought a Raspberry Pi as well, I’m also glad to see that the WunderBar kit’s bridge module will plug into that (I need to get more into tinkering.) The bridge will also connect Wunderbar with the Grove and Arduino systems. With a field as new as the internet of things, and with so many low-cost toys to play with, compatibility is a definite benefit — particularly as the Wunderbar kit isn’t so cheap itself, coming in at just over $200.

This article was updated at 8.35am PT to change “Android 4.3” to “Android 4.0.3”.

Robox review: This 3D printer is great for beginners but lacks in print quality

I’ve spent the past two years waiting for a 3D printer that a beginner can unbox and just start using. The CEL Robox wins the award for the first printer I’ve used that actually does that.

It does so with smart features like an auto-leveling print head and print bed that requires no extra help to keep prints firmly stuck to its surface. It’s relatively fast and friendly, and for $1,499 it’s competitive with the cheaper printers on the market.

Unfortunately, it has some disappointing flaws when it comes to print quality. Here’s a look at how the printer performed over a month of tests:

My best print. The layers are so fine you can hardly tell it came off a 3D printer.

My best print. The layers are so fine you can hardly tell it came off a 3D printer.

Setup

The Robox has the fastest setup of any printer I have ever encountered. It’s ready to print out of the box; all you need to do is download software and install the filament spool.

The spool is proprietary. That’s generally irritating because it makes it difficult to use inexpensive, generic-brand plastic. CEL’s filament is extremely expensive — $59 for 1.54 pounds, compared to the $30 you pay for 2.2 pounds of cheap plastic.

However, CEL doesn’t take any measures to prevent you from winding your own off-brand of filament around the spool. It’s annoying to have to rewind filament, but potentially worth it for the benefits CEL’s system brings.

The Robox's spool sits flush with its side. It contains a chip so it can be recognized by the printer.

The Robox’s spool sits flush with its side. It contains a chip so it can be recognized by the printer.

The spool sits snugly in the side of the Robox, where there are also two holes for feeding filament into the machine. You insert the filament into the hole and the Robox pulls it the rest of the way in. It’s easy.

And that’s it. You are ready to print.

The software

CEL’s software, Automaker, is not exceptionally well-designed or smart. But it gets you through what you need to do relatively intuitively.

The program’s home screen displays the printer. Its parts are interactive: You can tell the printer to move its bed forward or backward or even change the color of the light illuminating the print head.

The home screen also displays the temperature of different parts of the printer. A pullout screen has advanced features such as nozzle calibration.

New print jobs are opened in tabs. You can have multiple tabs at once, which I found very useful for deciding between different prints and saving models for the near future. When you open a tab, you are presented with a rotating view of your model. You can scale it, duplicate it and move it around with easy-to-understand buttons.

Prepping to print.

Prepping to print.

My main gripe with the software was it gave no warning of errors. It wasn’t capable of recognizing the steep overhangs that can cause a print to fail. It couldn’t fix the models downloaded from Thingiverse that might contain errors.

Twice, I didn’t realize the filament was not fed all the way into the machine. There was no indication until suddenly the “print” button didn’t exist, for which no reason was given. At one point, the print bed was also homing itself at the wrong location, causing it to jam into the front and back of the printer and calibrate the print head incorrectly. The software never noted anything was wrong.

The machine

The Robox's cover lifts up to reveal the bed.

The Robox’s cover lifts up to reveal the bed.

Let’s start with the aesthetics. The Robox looks great. As I noted in my coverage of Robox’s $450,000 crowdfunding campaign, it feels a bit like the Apple iMac G3 — it’s candy-colored and fun. It’s also small and sleek, and has a profile shaped like an iMessage chat bubble.

The front of the machine has a transparent cover that slides up to give access to the print bed. The bed sits very low to the printer’s floor and is capable of moving forward and backward. The print chamber is separate from the machine’s electronics, allowing the chamber to be heated to a higher temperature and prints to cool more evenly. A few of my prints did end up with curled corners, which indicates that they cooled unevenly, but most turned out fine.

Bulbasaur and Charmander fresh off the Robox's unusual PEI print bed.

Bulbasaur and Charmander fresh off the Robox’s unusual PEI print bed

The Robox has an unusual print bed made from polyetherimide, a plastic that becomes sticky when it is hot. Most 3D printer beds need to be covered in painter’s tape, glue, hairspray or another type of gunky material in order for a print to stick nicely to them. Not the Robox’s bed. Stuff sticks great.

Once the bed cools down and loses its special heated properties, items are supposed to pop off easily. That was the case most of the time. But whenever I printed something flat, like a coaster or a keychain, it became a game of strength and will to get it off. So be warned.

The Robox uses two nozzles to get the job done.

The Robox uses two nozzles to get the job done. This print’s corners curled.

The Robox’s biggest advancement is its print head. It has two nozzles, one of which is dedicated to printing fine details and the other to infill. The infill nozzle puts out far more filament, which allows the printer to work faster. Considering I sometimes ran the printer for several days straight on a large print (which it handled with ease), it was a great option to be able to shave some time off printing the unimportant inside of an object. Every printer should have this feature.

Oh, and when CEL says its printer is auto-leveling, it really means it. Before every print the print head touches itself to the print bed several times to ensure both of the nozzles are at the right height. It’s a confidence-boosting display that the printer is in working order, and it always got the calibration right.

I actually worked with two separate Robox printers. The first printer worked well until it randomly would not turn on one day. CEL was stumped on the issue, and eventually the printer just resumed working.

My worst and best prints on the Robox. The Bulbasaur on the left is a victim of the oozing nozzle.

My worst and best prints on the Robox. The Bulbasaur on the left is a victim of the oozing nozzle.

The second printer arrived with two problems. The bed homed itself in the wrong location, causing the print head to calibrate incorrectly. It turned out there was filament wedged in the bed’s path. The larger nozzle also oozed small dabs of filament intermittently, which led to some terrible-looking prints. This was likely caused by a faulty spring in the print head, which only a CEL technician could fix.

The prints

Unfortunately, the quality of the prints that came off the Robox was inconsistent. They tended to have at least one error, if not more. The printer sometimes struggled with fine details.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

Charmanders printed at low, medium and high quality.

The Robox is actually capable of printing very fine layers — down to .02 millimeters in height. That’s unusual for a fused deposition modeling-style 3D printer. I was able to print some really fantastic-looking pieces with the Robox set at its highest quality setting. The layers are so fine that you almost can’t tell the item came off a 3D printer.

The takeaway

There is quite a bit to love about the CEL Robox. It’s built to be nearly maintenance-free, making it perfect for anyone more interested in making things than tinkering with a machine.

But it also had slip-ups, little errors here and there that marred an otherwise perfect print. For anyone who needs consistently good-looking prints, the Robox is not your printer.

Two prints with curled corners and inconsistent details.

Two prints with curled corners and inconsistent details.

Overall, the Robox almost makes my list of printers I would not mind owning. I loved the auto-leveling print head and confidence that every print would adhere to the bed. And it looks great sitting on any home desk. But the number of times prints came out with obvious errors was a deal breaker for me. That’s a shame because CEL gets everything else just right.