Polargraph at the Edinburgh Science Festival 2015

Once again, the Polargraph Pro is featured as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival’s Making It touring exhibit, stationed until the 19th of April 2015 in Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre down the road in Leith.


Tricking the machine with smartphones

I was a bit nervous about having the machine presented in such a uncontrolled environment (it was in the National Museum last year), but it’s been remarkably low-maintenance during it’s first week.

Some better than others

Some better than others

For this year’s outing, there were a very small number of changes to the firmware, mainly to add a feature to support a button and an indicator LED on the circuitboard that is controllable via commands, and used to signal to the Science Communicators that it needs it’s paper changed.

The changes to the Polarweb controller software are a little deeper, and there’s now a visualisation video stream published to a browser so you can see what the machine sees, and what processing it’s doing. Worked pretty well, but taxed the original laptop a bit much (it was an Atom), so the machine has been upgraded.

Other upgrades:

  • Minimum face size, so only people close-up get recognised and drawn
  • Path sorting to make for more efficient drawing (I hope to pull this work into the general Polargraph Controller some time soon)
  • Except for changing the paper, there is no manual intervention required during operation
  • Tracing controls are available in the interface to change posterisation levels, minimum path length, maximum path count and smoothing
  • The pen lift servo wire is routed more neatly, and uses spring-loaded retractable cable spools rather than the coiled cable that got stuck all the time
  • Drawing sequence can now fixed bottom-to-top so that pictures can be cut out and taken home as soon as they are drawn

How to make a PolargraphSD

Just thought it might be interesting to see the steps that go into making a PolargraphSD. I’m curious about this kind of stuff, and I love work-in-progress pictures. So I assume you do too.


Apply solder paste.

Starting with the PCB mounted in a jig made of other PCBs, I use a plastic stencil, and a card to squeegee on the solder paste. This can be messy, but it’s very fast, takes less than a minute for each one.  I have taken to making up batches of 10 polarshields at a time, it takes a reasonable weekend, or a long day from beginning to end.


Sometimes bits get missing, or I accidentally rub off the paste during placing, and I use a little syringe to do touch-up stuff. Afterwards, there’s these nice little pillows of paste on all the pads.



Pick and place

I’ve got all the parts I need in little boxes, and empty out about the right amount of parts, sort through the pile and turn them over and line them up with a pair of tweezers. I used to use tweezers to place them too, but have recently got a cheap vacuum pickup tool that makes it a bit quicker.



Using magnifiers and good lighting, dealing with these tiny parts is much easier than I thought it would be.


I place most of the ICs with tweezers, because I get a bit more control over their orientation – they have a tendency to swing around a bit on the tip of the vacuum. The really big parts (electrolytic caps and the inductor) are just placed with fingers.

Soldering / reflow

I’ve got a hot air gun (Atten 858D+) that I used to take 8 minutes to melt all the solder paste on each board, and I still use that for touch-up and fixing. The last couple of batches of Polarshields have been soldered with a little home-made reflow oven though. This is a mini oven, retrofitted with a Zallus temperature controller. The temperature controller was a Kickstarter I backed at the end of last year, and it seems to work really well. Though the whole contraption looks like junk – but that’s my fault.


The boards go in two at a time, and cook for 6 minutes, releasing all kinds of (probably deadly) fumes. I only use lead-free solder in all my stuff, so it’s not the nice smell you get out of rosin-fluxed lead solder. I miss that. My old tutor told me that eating plenty of jam would help ward off the poisoning that we would all get off the solder fumes. I like the story.

Now comes the really boring bit.

Through-hole soldering

There doesn’t seem to be any way to short-cut this one, just got to cut lots of parts to length and solder them all in. Using the kind of small iron tip that is useful for touching up SMT work makes this an absolute misery, so use a big clumsy chisel tip instead to whizz through.


There are 156 points of through-holes to solder. During soldering, I sometimes spot things like this:


There’s a solder bridge between the first three pins of the IC. This is irritating, but out of 10 shields, there’s normally four or five bridges like this that need a touch-up. Fix it with some solder braid. In this case, I noticed the IC was a bit skew-whiff on it’s pads too. I am not sure if it is something about the heating profile, but it seems like the parts don’t always get “pulled” onto their pads by the solder tension during flowing. At least, not as straight as I saw when I was using the heat gun. So with this IC, I reflowed it using the heat gun, and just nudged it to straighten it up. Afterwards, I wash the board with Techspray Flux remover to clean it up. Add stepper drivers and LCD, and it’s ready to test.


Upload the latest version of polargraph_server_polarshield and see what happens. Well, I just got a white screen. So I took another look at the board and spotted another solder bridge. Fixed it.

Testing involves plugging in a couple of steppers, a servo and an SD card and running a test script from the card. If the motors move smoothly and quietly, and the servo wiggles, and the LCD responds to touch, then it’s cooked.

IMG_0043_c_pFor full PolargraphSD kits (with the motors and cables), I do another test of the same routine before I pack everything up, to make sure the particular motors and the cables are correctly constructed, and they all work together.


The case is made up of 16 laser cut parts, and is fastened together with six M3 nuts and bolts, tab and slot style. I try to leave as much of the protective film on as possible during assembly.P1050604_c_pI enjoy peeling that stuff off when I buy a new product, so I assume other people like it too. It stops my grubby fingerprints spoiling it too. I’ve got white gloves and everything, for this bit.

So now you know. Tune in next week and I’ll show you something equally as thrilling, how I clean my oven or do the hoovering or something.



Huge Portland Design Week project

It’s great to hear from polargraph people from around the world, and I was especially pleased when it turns out they’ve had zero problems, and have added their own features to the standard kit.

IMG_1725You can see this is a big machine (12ft wide, 8ft tall), drawing some promo stuff for for an agency in Portland. Notice the extra pulleys that have been added to reduce the drop of the counterweights – liking that.

This isn’t merely a really big machine though: The makers, Olivier and Evan spend 55 hours drawing the motorbike above and decided they could do better, and came up with a very sweet little script that will read your optimise the saved command queue and … make it efficient!

motorcycle_originalAbove is what the original pen path looks like. No surprise it took 55 hours really. The path planning has never been efficient, and just draws the file as it reads it, from top to bottom.

Running an exported command queue (previewed above) through this Polargraph Optimizer results in:


Which I think we can agree is much more sane. Evan reckons this is 3 1/2 times faster, and I don’t doubt it. Brilliant!

Thank you to Olivier, Evan and Squishymedia for supporting the project, and for giving back too. I’m going to try and pull those algorithms into the Polargraph controller at some point, but until then, I’d recommend that anyone doing really complex drawings should have a look at this.

Most of the things I end up talking with folks about about are troubleshooting and helping get things working, and I feel endlessly guilty about putting you through all that. It’s really gratifying and refreshing to hear success stories – and when someone cares enough to contribute, it means a lot. Even if it is embarrassing because it shows up all the bits I never got around to finishing…

Source: Polargraph Optimizer on github


Finally introducing… PolargraphSD v2!

I wondered if I would ever get here to be honest. It was only the thought of dozens of angry Polargraphers chasing me into the town square with pitchforks that gave me fear hope.

PolargraphSD v2

I have stock! The first couple of machines will be being posted or collected during this week.

PolargraphSD v2

To the folks who have so far only paid a deposit: I’ll be sending you an email out when your machine is ready, and asking you to go and pay the balance. To those kind, generous trusting souls who already paid up front during the pre-order period: Thank you. Without that we wouldn’t have even got this far. I will drop you an email to confirm your delivery address (in case it has changed in the meantime), but unless I hear back in the next few days, your machine will be winging it’s way to you as soon as it’s built.

PolargraphSD v2


Seriously, thanks for being so patient. This machine is a much better product because of it, I have much more faith in it now than if I’d had to rush it out the door two months ago (eek, when I said I would). I really hope you’ll enjoy using it.

I’ll do a bit more of an “unboxing” guide in the future. There is a still a long waiting list for this machine, but now stock actually exists, it’ll be moving fast at least. It can be bought along at The Polargraph Shop.


Slow going

Slow going, but … going!


The hardware is working fine now, working with all kinds of SD cards, all servo motors and all power supplies, but I’m waiting for the full set of the new cases to be cut and sent.

The case is funny. Probably the ugliest thing I’ve ever made, but I quite like it.


Choice between clear acrylic and MDF – any thoughts? The clear looks shows fingerprints but looks pretty snazzy.


Parts are slowly rolling in

A big lovely batch of shiney stepper motors arrived today. My electronics parts came last week (£650 of ICs and connectors – that is always so disappointing to receive). I’ve got a pile of touchscreens, and stepper motor drivers, and a big bag of drive sprockets. A big box of MEGA2560 R3s. Red ones.

The first version of the Polarshield v2 was tested and found wanting, so I’m expecting the samples of the final version at the beginning of next week. The first batch of PCBs took a week to arrive, this batch has taken three weeks so far. I am looking for a new supplier.

So unfortunately, that has eaten up all of my contingency, and then some, and so I’m already behind before I’ve even started. Great!


Polargraph Pro Preview

Hello, I’m getting excited about the new Polargraph installation that’s been eating up all my time recently. IMG_20140327_160058025_HDR This is part an exhibition called Making It, itself a feature of the Edinburgh International Science Festival, and it’ll be running in the Grand Hall of the National Museum of Scotland, here in Edinburgh, for most of next month (April 2014).


I’m just putting some finishing touches to the machine and the control software.

There’ll be more of an update when it’s up and running.

Pre-order PolargraphSD v1.8

I’ve just made a listing for the PolargraphSD v1.8, over at the Polargraph Shop.

The price of it is likely to be the same as the last round, but if you want to pre-order at a decent discount, you can put a 25% deposit down to hold your place in the queue as well as make cash flow a little more predictable. It’s a kind of micro kickstarter. I hope to have this ready for shipping in May, but it’s more likely to be June.

I hope to enlist an extra pair of hands to help me assemble this time around, and am having this semi-formal fund-raising period so that I can buy a few critical parts in a full-sized batch (ie 50), rather than buy them piecemeal over the run of the batch. That ended awkwardly last time, with delays and malfunctions a-go-go.

Edinburgh Science Festival Project

I’ve been asked to make an installation as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival in April, so that’s the project that’s eating up my time at the moment, and the reason for the halt to PolargraphSD manufacturing.

This thing is going to be great though: Two large portrait machines, continuously drawing faces from a kinect / webcam on rolls of paper.

I’m using a Teensy rather than an Arduino for this project, EasyDrivers and optical encoders to close the loop and keep track of position. This will make for a more robust, semi-automatic machine. I hope to have endstops too, and a good presentable gondola that can take a range of fat pens.

I also hope to be taking one of my machines along to the Mini Maker Faire that closes the festival at the end of April.


Pause for thought. And breath.

I’ve got half a dozen Polarshield PCBs left, but I’ve marked them as “sold out” in the shop.

I’m tired. I’ve had a few technical set-backs recently, that would be merely irritating if I was only make two machines a month like this time last year, but it immediately escalates into a full car-crash when I’m making a dozen a month – there’s just no room for mistakes, all the stakes are higher, and things move faster, sell out faster, need more careful management and delays cause more people at a time to be annoyed.

Not a bad problem to have? Well that’s true, poor me, boo hoo, there are worse problems, and I genuinely thank all my customers profusely, and everyone who has joined in on the forum and by email – actually by far the best bit of the project.

But I’m going to work to get this last problem sorted out (accursed SD cards and power management, I do bite my thumb at thee), and then pause my sales and manufacturing department (that’s what I’m calling my hands this week) for a bit to review the project as a whole.

I have an installation to work on in February, which will hopefully be presented as part of the Edinburgh Science Festival in April, and should be jolly exciting, and result in some neat new pieces of tech and software – encoders and a proper library at last! Right now I would not be at all disappointed if that was the last Polargraph machine to roll off the production line – the last of the V8 Interceptors, as it were.

However, let’s be realistic, I suspect the lure of the humming motors, the clattering of beaded cord and the pleasure of visiting my favourite post office lady will soon bring me back in, and … with upgrades.

External power input on Polarshield

Polarshields have always had a space for an external power input. This is so that you can have a high voltage supply to drive the motors, while letting your arduino, and all the logic chips run on a standard 5v, or USB supply.

External power jack on polarshield

I got this idea of running two power supplies from the Adafruit motorshield. In their case, the reason was that when the motors started sucking down the power, the voltage supplied to the arduino would drop below 5v for long enough to cause a reset.

I’ve never had that exact problem, but I don’t like running an arduino on a high voltage, when there’s also a high current (like when running motors). The voltage regulators get hot, and while they are within tolerances, it’s not right, and always makes me worry when I put my fingers on them.

The machines I sell are protected by the case, and I was overjoyed when I got a new batch of Freaduino Mega2560s through to use in them, because they are the only arduino compatible boards I have seen to use a high-current, switching voltage regulator rather than the hot’n’cheap linear regs used everywhere else (including the genuine Arduino). These little chips are efficient and stay cool under lots of current.

However, when you buy a Polarshield on it’s own, or in a vitamin kit, you can plug it into any old board. Because they are exposed, it is so much more obvious that something is getting hot. Again, it isn’t dangerous with the motors I use in the vitamin kits, and at low voltages, but if you want to use bigger motors or run at higher voltages, it will not do. The heat makes it clear that there is no headroom.


So the solution is to separate the two power circuits by removing the small blue jumper on the polarshield (just beside the power jack), and plugging your motor power supply into the polarshield power jack. The arduino should have it’s own power supply.

Historically, I’ve not soldered the external power jack in, but I have a bag of them and if anybody wants one, I’ll post one over. From now, all polarshields will include this jack, soldered in – unless you drop me a line to say otherwise.