Category Archives: Gadgets

Solidworks in 4K

I was recently awarded with a pair of 4K Acer B286HK monitors at work for my Solidworks workstation.  I was told there was an ordering mix up and they couldn’t be returned.  Not sure if that was the complete story but I was not going to complain.

Right off the bat, Solidworks looks great in 4K.  Assemblies look crisp and detailed, drawings appear sharp with annotations and dimensions crystal clear.  It took a few days to adjust to a higher DPI and I ended up making a few tweaks along the road to reduce eyestrain.  I wanted to share what I had learned to make things easier for other users going through the same transition.

First, adjust global scaling for Windows.  This seems like a necessity for all 4K monitors.  The actual text scale without increased scaling is a recipe for headaches and eye strain.  I settled on 175% after experimenting with a few different scale factors.  You can adjust this in Windows Display Settings – make sure you restart Windows afterwords.  This scaling adjusts text and program scaling globally but there are some strange scaling issues when programs don’t follow Window’s lead.

4K Display Scaling

 

Second, scale your Solidworks icons to make them usable.  I am a fan of the tiny icons without text but there’s a limit to how small I will go.  The adjustment for this is right at the top of the screen in Solidworks.

4K Solidworks Icon

 

Third, make sure both of your monitors are running at the same resolution.  The DisplayPort cables included with the new monitors were on the short side and one of the cables couldn’t reach from my desk to my tower on the floor.  For a week I was running the second monitor with a DVI cable and could only display a 1080p image through the cable.  The consequence was terrible graphics glitches in Solidworks due to the resolution mismatch.  My Solidworks viewport would flicker and have strange image buffer artifacts.

Lastly, buy longer DisplayPort cables ahead of time and avoid issue number three.

 

 

Ode to the TI-83

You were required by an algebra class in high school.  Vague equations were brought to life and visualized in your graphs.  You helped to make sense of newly taught concepts and fostered a connection between math and the real world.  You were a bonafide educational tool.

You were indestructible.  This alone is one of your most outstanding features.  You took countless drops to tile floors without the slightest hint of damage.  I can still recall the clattering sound you make after being pushed off a desk.  No other electronic device I had owned has ever taken this much abuse.

You taught me the basics of programming.  Crude games written in TI-Basic were open for anyone to tinker with.  I would manually enter games line by line from ticalc.org and slowly absorb programming concepts.  Modifying existing games quickly led to writing new ones.  You were a computer and you taught me program structure, loops, and logic.

You provided hours of entertainment.  Boring study halls were spent playing games that could be easily traded and modified with a little ingenuity.

You were useful into later years.  I had to replace your memory battery at some point but you did not falter.  Today your role is to perform the most basic arithmetic and you do so cheerfully.

TI-83, we remember you…

Review and Impressions: 32 oz Stainless Steel Hydro Flask

 

I’ve been using a 32 oz stainless steel Hydro Flask for a little over a year and I’m very pleased with its design.  I wanted to share my thoughts and long term imHydro Flaskpressions after a year of daily use.

First and foremost I use the flask exclusively for water.  People say it’s great for keeping tea or coffee hot but I don’t care and I’ve never tried it.  Keeping water cool is what I’m interested in.  I like to stay hydrated and go through about 5 liters a day. The flask is always within arms reach whether I’m at work or home.

I should mention that I primarily drink refrigerated tap water because it tastes so much better than luke-warm water right out of the faucet.  Letting a gallon of water sit in my fridge for two hours somehow radically increases its desirability.  Cool water is better any time of the year, summer or winter.

I used a wide mouth Nalgene for years prior to getting the Hydro Flask.  The Nalgene served its purpose well and was notable for being indestructible.  I was intrigued by insulation of the Hydro Flask.  I picked one up in the summer and was immediately impressed.  The water in my Nalgene would become room temperature within about 30 minutes and leave a puddle of condensation in the humid summer air.  I had coasters all over my house to prevent damage to desks and tables. The Hydro Flask kept water cool for hours at a time with no external condensation.  I was sold.

Fast forward a year and the Hydro Flask is still my primary water source.  The stainless steel finish is attractive and relatively robust but I did dent it after dropping it on concrete.  Overall the Hydro Flask is much more attractive than my old Nalgene which would accumulate scratches.  Durability is great, especially compared to similar aluminum bottles.  My only complaint is that the rubber band wrapped around the cap has started to slacken and come loose.

The Hydro Flask is similar to my Nalgene and other bottles in that it is difficult to clean.  The bottle tends to accumulate crud over time and requires a thorough scrubbing and rinsing every week.  The upside to the Hydro Flask is its opaque nature, it presents a clean outside finish even if the inside needs some work.

My only other knock against the Hydro Flask is that is louder than my Nalgene.  It makes a distinct ringing noise if I bang it against a table or desk and it makes a lot of noise if you unscrew the cap. This is mostly an issue for when I’m at work, I try to be a little more cautious so I don’t make a racket in meetings.

Overall the Hydro Flask has been a great improvement over my Nalgene and I’m happy I made the switch.  If you’re interested in an insulated bottle for water then look no further.

Pros

  • Insulated and keeps water cold!
  • No condensation
  • Attractive finish

Cons

  • OK durability – will dent
  • Noisy

Buy at Amazon

Best Tools for a Mechanical Design Engineer

Every good engineer knows the right tool for the task at hand.  In my work as a mechanical design engineer I have found myself using the same small set of tools on a daily basis.  All of these items are within an arms reach at my desk.

It’s rare that I find a comprehensive list that includes all of the items below.  This list has been generated through years of experience and all of these items would make great gifts for seasoned engineers or a new graduate.

 

Hex Keys

Hex Keys – A complete set of these is invaluable.  You’ll never know when you’ll need to adjust or disassemble something.  Tuck these away in your desk drawer and never search for a missing wrench again.

 

6" Ruler

6″ Stainless Steel Ruler – Great for quick measurements and small enough to fit in your pocket.  This is one of my go-to tools at my desk and in the shop.  I use it for reverse engineering parts and measuring raw material stock sizes. This is a two pack, you’ll lose one eventually.

 

6" Digital Caliper

6″ Digital Caliper – When you need a finer measurement look no further than an inexpensive digital caliper.  If you have deep pockets (or are a machinist) go for the Mitutoyo otherwise this will get the job done.  Great for measuring hole sizes, determining fits, and a great reality check for figuring out part clearances.  This is the best tool for figuring out what a .010″ gap looks like or if a 15 mm hole is large enough to stick your finger through.

 

Machinerys Handbook

Machinery’s Handbook – A wealth of information available for a go-to reference.  You’ll maybe use .5% of it.  I use it as a quick reference for weld callouts, GD&T symbols, part fits, material properties, and pipe sizes.

 

Tape Measure

Tape Measure – Boring but useful at your desk and in the field.  Measure footprints for existing machinery, aisle-ways, and raw material lengths. Or use it to determine what a 45″ work surface would look like or how high to mount an operator control panel.

 

camera

Camera – Great for taking photos of equipment out in the field or of parts sitting on your desk.  Inexpensive, small enough to fit in your pocket, and a good macro mode for getting parts in focus.

 

Metal Clipboard

Clip Board – Invaluable for taking measurements in the field.  Makes it easy to sketch measurements while juggling a tape measure and a camera. Trust me on this one.

 

ti89

TI-89 Calculator – A reliable workhorse, this mostly handles basic arithmetic but it’s a great reality check for calculations when I try to remember all the calculus I forgot.

 

 

Laser vs Inkjet: The Printer Debate

brother2

I’ll make this easy, you should go ahead and buy a laser printer.  In terms of reliability and stress-reduction laser printers are light-years ahead of inkjet.

Price comparisons and price per sheet costs don’t concern me.  Laser is close enough to inkjet that it’s not worth worrying about.  You’re going to spend a little more upfront and a little more on toner but it in the long run it’s going to be close.  You’re going to spend more on coffee than you will on printing this year.

The biggest selling point for me is reliability.  When I send something to my laser printer it just prints. The printer will whir for a few seconds and then smoothly spit out a nice warm page.  It may have been minutes since I last used the printer or it may have been weeks.  It doesn’t matter, the process is the same.

Compare this with inkjet.  The printer will grind to life, check its precious ink reserves, and clean the ink heads.  When the printer is sufficiently satisfied it will start to print at a frantic pace to noisily deliver a page with ink that’s still wet.

Inkjet cartridges are notoriously temperamental and your typical printer will require both a full color and black cartridge before it can print.  These are two glaring failure points and they effectively cut an inkjet’s reliability in half.

I should note that if you switch to a laser printer you’re effectively giving up color printing.  This is OK.  Let’s consider printing use cases.  The bulk of my printing needs requires no color – boarding passes, resumes, sports tickets.  These are things that I need to reliably print at a moment’s notice but are ultimately disposable.  The gate agent doesn’t care that your boarding pass is in color, they just want to scan the bar code.

Recommendations?  Anything Brother.

brother1

Brother HL-L2340DW Printer

Reliable, networked, and wireless.  Set it up and forget about it.

 

brother2

Brother DCPL2540DW Copier

I prefer the copier version, perfect for duplicating records.  Top feed scanner and it has all the benefits of the above printer – reliable, networked, and wireless.

 

After using an inkjet for so long I’m still amazed the laser printer just works. It’s such a smooth and reliable experience.  And who doesn’t enjoy warm paper?

 

 

Building the Ultimate Home Network

Home networks are tricky.  Most people buy a wireless router and end things there.  Some people add network attached storage.  Others are interested in file sharing and mitigating the associated risks.  A home theater PC needs smooth content delivery.

As your interests and requirements change your network will start to evolve and collect a variety of attached devices. That’s when you realize your home network is an important piece of infrastructure in your life and it’s something you may want to take seriously.

 

Wireless Router

router

ASUS RT-AC3200 Tri-Band – This is the heart of the network and it’s doing a few things here.  The router has been flashed with Tomato firmware which improves stability and adds powerful admin features such as VPN tunneling, quality of service, and a graphical bandwidth monitor.  The router the gateway between my ISP and the home network switch.

I’m using Tomato’s VPN tunneling feature to guard all of my traffic from my ISP.  It routes all my internet traffic through an encrypted tunnel straight to my VPN provider.  This gives me peace of mind for any file sharing or Torrenting.  Having the VPN configured on the router means I don’t have to worry about individual VPN clients or network setups on all of my devices.

The VPN encryption process is CPU intensive and for some routers the CPU could actually be the bottleneck for network traffic and limiting factor for internet speed.  The RT-AC3200 was selected for its speedy dual core processor and its ability to chew through the encryption workload.

Installing the new firmware isn’t difficult using Asus’s firmware recovery tool but there are a few tense moments as the firmware installs when you think you may have bricked your router.

Home Switch

switch

TP-Link 24-Port Gigabit Ethernet Rackmount Switch – The nerve center for your home.  You are wired right?  Fast gigabit speeds and excellent performance.  Stick this switch in your basement rack and plug everything in.  You’ll never need to worry about it again.

This is by far the best solution if you have a lot of Ethernet drops sitting in your basement.  You can move to a smaller switch if you less connection points but if your house was wired with Ethernet then you’ll need a big switch.

Network Attached Storage

nas

NETGEAR ReadyNAS 2120 1U Rackmount NAS – A pro-sumer NAS for all of your storage and file serving needs.  Stream movies, TV, and music across your home.  A central file server is invaluable for managing and archiving data.  This has some serious power but is easy to use with a friendly web interface.

 

Backpacking Gear – 2015

Every engineer should enjoy the great outdoors and after a recent backpacking trek I wanted to share my gear selections.  Backpacking can be a very expensive hobby if you buy top-notch gear across the board but its very affordable if you look at mid-range items.  There is a ton of gear available online and there are plenty of deals to be found on clearance stock.

Gearing up for a multi-day trek can be cheaper than a plane ticket somewhere. Backpacking can be a very inexpensive vacation when you start considering the travel and hotel costs of a traditional vacation. What’s better, a week backpacking in the mountains or a short weekend at an Orlando Holiday Inn?

Here is my loadout for a recent venture on the Black Forest Trail.

Backpack – Kelty Pawnee 55 – A great and well rounded pack that has unfortunately been discontinued. The mid-size volume is a nice fit for most backpacking treks.  I would consider the Osprey Exos 58 as an alternative.

Boots – Montrail Fluid Trailrunner – A bit of a misnomer here, these are trail running shoes and not hiking boots.  Very capable for almost all treks – you’re trading the ankle support of a heavy boot for lightness, flexibility, and improved traction.  These shoes have extra sticky patches on the sole that latch onto rocks and provide confident footing.

Trekking Poles – Komperdell Shockmaster – Essential gear for back packing, trekking poles provide stability and reduce knee impact when going downhill.  These are lightweight and have a cushioning system to reduce overall impact when descending hills.

Tent – ALPS Zephyr 1 – Inexpensive, freestanding, and relatively lightweight.  Plenty of internal room and overhead space.  The zipper pulls are functional but leave something to be desired.

Ground Pad – Tyvek Sheet – Lightweight, strong, and waterproof.  I custom cut mine to fit the Zephyr footprint.  Very noisy until you give it a good crumple and introduce creases.

Sleeping Bag – Ledge Sports FeatherLite – An Amazon bargain, this is comfortable and inexpensive.  Compresses well too.

Sleeping Mat – Klymit Stativ V – Worth every penny.  Lightweight and packs in a tiny stuff sack.  Extremely comfortable after a long day of hiking.  The center of the pad near the top has a nice triangle section that works well as a pillow.

Stove – Etekcity Ultralight Stove – This is a lot of stove for $10.  Works great although you may want to consider an external stand if you’re working with larger pots – the stove has a small footprint and you need to carefully balance larger pots to make sure they won’t tip.

Food Sack – OR 20L Ultralight Dry Sack – Plenty of room for 4+ days of food.  Easy to hang if necessary (pesky bears) and the waterproof nature helps seal in most of the food aromas which should reduce animal attention.

Stuff Sack – OR 15L Stuff Sack – 15 liters is the perfect amount of room for a change of clothes, extra socks, and warm weather gear.  Keeps everything contained and makes packing much easier.

Underwear – ExOfficio Boxer Briefs – Amazingly comfortable, these are a vacation in itself.  Synthetic clothing is a must for backpacking and sweating, avoid cotton at all costs.

Socks – Darn Tough Merino Wool – Bulletproof and comfortable.  Fast drying for when you dunk your boot in that stream crossing.  The durability of these make them worth the money.

Flip Flops – Teva Mush Flip Flop – A trail luxury but completely worth it.  It’s nice to give your feet a break and kick off your boots any opportunity you get.  I like to wear these if I stop for a long lunch break somewhere and these are my primary footwear in camp.

Gaiters – OR Rocky Mountain Gaiter – Perfect for the high brush you’ll encounter along the trail or any situation where you need long pants but prefer shorts.

Jacket – North Face Momentum Jacket – This is made of a stretchy fleece fabric which makes it snug and extremely comfortable.  Great for chilly early mornings and works as a great pillow at night.

Rain Jacket – North Face Venture Jacket – The classic rain shell, everyone in Seattle owns one of these.  Lightweight, tough, and compacts nicely.  Inexpensive for the performance.

Food – Mountain House ProPack – Perfect backpacking food, I recommend the Chili Mac, Lasagna, Beef Stroganoff, and Biscuits & Gravy

Water – Aquamira Treatment Drops – If your water sources are of reasonable cleanliness I would recommend just using these drops, no filter.  Much better taste than Polar Pure.

Best Quadcopters and Quadrotors 2015

So you’ve decided to buy a quadcopter.  Congratulations are in order, you have decided to join one of the fastest growing hobbies.  The question is, where to start?

There are a multitude of quadcopters and quadrotors available and at first glance they all look the same – 4 rotors surrounding a center pod.  Upon closer inspection you will find the specs, performance, and size all vary wildly between models.  The good news is that there is a quadcopter to fit any budget, from toy to serious drone territory and everything in between.

The Toy

Estes

Estes 4606 Proto X Nano

A tiny but capable quadrotor.  A perfect entry point, this is great indoor fun.  Dip your toes into the quadcopter pool and learn how to control this stable yet inexpensive copter without ever leaving the couch.

Entry Level

UDI

UDI U818A

A real starting point in this field.  Capable outdoors, easy to fly, and it has a built in camera.  That’s the trifecta right there.  Tough enough to survive a few crashes so it’s perfect for learning to fly outdoors.  Learn how to fly in wind and how to avoid encounters with trees.  The camera is nothing to write home about but overall this quadcopter has amazing performance for the price!

Getting Serious

DJI Phantom

DJI Phantom 2 Vision

Now we’re getting somewhere.  This is a serious but approachable outdoor quadcopter that’s built for high flying and video taking. Not a toy but still easy to use and simple to fly. This is the perfect quad for the entry level YouTube video shooter – stable and a built-in auto-return feature so your high flying antics won’t get away from you. Excellent battery life too. DJI is a well known brand and has a wide variety of accessories and support.

Super Serious

DJI T600

DJI T600 Inspire 1

Ready to put your quadcopter to work?  Maybe you want some return on your investment?  Use the T600 Inspire to start shooting beautiful video. This is a professional level quadcopter that is still accessible to most flyers.  Gimbaled camera, 4K recording, and a 720p live video feed make this copter a serious video shooting package.  It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this.

Review of the Etekcity 8250 Infrared IR Thermometer

I recently saw the Etekcity 8250 thermometer online and thought it looked like a cheap tool / gadget / toy / distraction that might have some actual use.  A non-contact thermometer has a thousand household uses, right?  I can’t actually remember the last time I needed to measure the temperature of something but this will be a tool of curiosity.

I conveniently forget about the order and was pleasantly surprised when it arrived.  What’s the first thing you do with a thermometer?

Measure against a convenient and known standard, human body temperature.

Etekcity 8250 Body Temperature

Human body temperature – measured at 92.1° F

Hmmm, at first glance this doesn’t appear to be correct but skin temperature is not the 98.6° F core temperature that I was expecting.  Some quick Googling reveals a narrow range of expected skin temperatures with 90° F at the lower end.

How about some other known (and convenient) standards?

 

Etekcity 8250 Ice Temperature

Ice cubes – measured at 11.0 °F

Ice from the freezer?  Convenient and cold.  11 °F sounds about right.

 

Etekcity 8250 Flame Temperature

Flame – measured at 172.5 °F

Lighter?  Hot and tricky to measure.  Very difficult to get a direct flame measurement.  Core flame temperature is expected at around 3,500 °F.  The thermometer is measuring the outside of the flame and the thermometer maxes out at 482 °F.  Inconclusive.

 

Etekcity 8250 Temperature Comparison

Room temperature – measured at 69.3 °F

How about an independent standard?  My AcuRite 02023 indoor/outdoor thermometer is on par with the Etekcity measurement.  Seems legit.

 

In conclusion?  A capable thermometer to keep in my kitchen drawer. Easy to use and instant temperature readings. It seems capable for cooking and curiosity measurements but I don’t think I’ll be using this for hard science any time soon.

Acoustic Camera

This is a neat gadget that’s like an acoustic version of FLIR.  Technology like this is becoming more important as consumer products and stringent safety regulations are requiring more acoustic analysis.  This could be very useful to quickly locate and troubleshoot annoying rattles in an industrial plant.

Manufacturer page here

acam