Open hardware footbath

August 29th, 2013

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I’m in Japan for the first time, for the 9th annual fablab conference, this time in Yokohama. Some initial observations include that the Japanese never really outgrow the phase where they prefer 2d representations to be drawings rather than photographs and that they really love packaging. My hotel room came with some pyjamas for very short people.

The conference is partially sponsored by Roland DG, a spin off from the company that does the musical instruments focused on printers (large format, UV ink), vinyl cutters, and milling machines. Their MDX-20 milling machine and Camm-1 vinyl cutter are part of the standard fablab inventory. They have a booth in the conference hall where they have some of their concept work on display, though all my questions to the engineers standing by the machines have been all but lost in translation, so all I know is what I can tell from looking at the products, and some information I wouldn’t necessarily trust through the layers of interpreted language.

Large format 3-axis CNC mill

DLP SLA 3d printer.

So the concept mill is ‘arduino powered’, and they have the control board sitting out next to it, which is confusing:

Roland mainboard front

Roland Mainboard Back

The design is a huge upside down shield (or as they say in spanish, backpack), and besides the arduino, it has 4 allegra A4982 stepper motor drivers on it (which seems fine), and an STM32f103 board (which seems odd), and a sparkfun USB host breakout board (I suppose just for the Arduino?). From my limited communication efforts, it seems to be that the ARM-core is running some proprietary Roland DG software, which can be directed through an API accessible by the Arduino. It’s not like the JTAG interface isn’t there though, so you could also just reflash the STM32 directly, once you figure out which pins the stepper motor drivers are hooked up to.

In the spirit of being positive, I’ll start with pointing out cool parts of this whole ordeal: Roland is dipping their toes in open hardware! Unlike lots of other product designers nowadays, they implemented USB host! They used a processor for which we know the op codes! (Yes you non-infiltrants at apple, I’m looking at you.) They realize we may want lower level access to the digital fabrication machines we purchase for our homes/small workshops! All promising things.

Now the criticism: APIs to closed firmware are better than nothing, but still kinda lame on the spectrum of hackability. Also, this control board is the size of my laptop! (Ok this is a lie, I have a thinkpad w530 which could double as a tobaggon, but it is the size of my /aspirational/ laptop. One that has all the features of my w530 but weighs /less/ than a packraft. But I digress.) Is the arduino really necessary? Could they not have released a cross-platform IDE to reprogram the STM32 with, with sufficient encapsulation to make reprogramming accessible, but not powerless? STM32s all have native USB so the usb host shield would be unnecessary too, making the whole thing at least half the size. Perhaps they’re trying expose extra I/O pins through the Arduino, but if that’s the case then they might as well do that directly to the STM32 as well.

Anyway, despite my requests (which may or may not have been misunderstood) they didn’t give me one of these control boards to play with, so I won’t know how unfounded my whining is for the time being.

Roland DG R&D team

Here’s a photo of the whole Roland DG R&D engineering team waving our fablab visiting bus goodbye. Japanese hospitality is a whole new level of accommodating. I wish someone would make a compact camera that took less time to boot up so my photos would be less blurry.

Another board on display in the fab9 hall is this 32-bit RISC processor (RX63N) breakout board by Renesas called the Sakura board. It’s pink! And so Japanese! It has a web-based compiler so you never have to maintain your own toolchain, which I suppose could be both a good and a bad thing. They also have a tiny 16-bit processor breakout board, with the 100GJA or RL78 processor onboard. I played with it a little bit, but before investing too much time in learning more about their processors I wanted know more about the boards ongoing availability which seemed questionable based on the online documentation, which seems intended mainly for Japanese marketing purposes.

Sakura board

Sakura mini board

So besides Roland, Korg, Yamaha, and a few other musical instrument manufacturers are also based in Hamamatsu. Korg threw some kind of synth party in one of the Shibuya fablabs, so I went there and they gave me a PCB for their KLM-3116, and a print out of a down-sampled jpeg of part of the schematic. So ok, again, if you’re going to open something up enough that anyone sufficiently skilled in the art could reproduce your work (read: anyone in Shenzhen), why not do it right? No bill of materials, no pcb layout documentation? Basically useless plastic with some metal.

Open source hardware summit at MIT next week… hopefully not another echo chamber love fest. Drop me a line if you want to come over and play music. is by nadya peek. she'd love to hear from you.