Acrylic Lights: Infinity Mirror

I’ve played with putting lights in my 3D-printed creations for glowing illumination effects. There were limits to what I could do with 3D printing, though, because printing with a clear filament does not result in a clear object. In contrast, acrylic is clear and works as a light guide with a lot of possibilities.

I’ve noticed a few attention-getting light effects in my acrylic projects to date, most of them created by happy accident. The acrylic box with external fixture made good use of external light. The Portable External Monitor version 2.0 was built from stacks of acrylic sheets: its fluorescent back light reflected between the layers like an infinity mirror.


This effect was on my exploration to-do list for the future, but I moved it to the top of the list after seeing surprisingly good results on the FreeNAS Box v2 enclosure.

I had planned for it to have the standard PC status LEDs: one for power, and one for disk activity. The acrylic plate for motherboard mounting spacer also had two cutouts for 3mm LEDs along the center line. The red hard drive activity light is to be mounted high, and the blue power light mounted down low. The idea was for the blue light to illuminate the top edge of the plate. When there is hard drive activity, red LED will light up the center of that edge, and it should blend to purple with the power light. Both LEDs were blocked from direct view by the motherboard, so all we should see is a nice soft glow emitting from behind the motherboard.


That was the plan, the reality was different. The red activity light worked as expected: when there is disk activity, the center of the top edge had a little red glow.

The blue LED decided to ignore my “nice soft glow” plan and put on an extravagant light show. It didn’t just light the top edge, it lit every edge of that acrylic sheet and had plenty of extra light energy to throw on the surrounding shelving.


Here’s a close-up of the sideways illumination.


The many rays visible in the side illumination, as well as the lines making up the top illumination, indicate infinity mirror action going on inside that sheet. It wasn’t directly visible, and probably very difficult to photograph even if so. Without internal reflections, the blue light would have just gone straight up. But with the smooth surfaces and edges of the acrylic reflecting inside the sheet, the light of a single LED bounced around, found different angles, and was emitted in many more directions.

This LED illumination effect warrants further investigation. It is a happy accident that I fully intend to learn from, and put into future acrylic projects.

I want every acrylic project to look this awesome!


FreeNAS Box v2: Construction Fixture

One of the problems with FreeNAS Box v1 was that I designed it with tabs and slots to fit into each other. While it made the box easy to assemble, the slots severely weakened the structure of the box.

For FreeNAS Box v2 I avoid the tabs and slots. But I need something else in their absence to help me during construction. The answer is a fixture: Something I design along with the box that helps me build it, but not part of the end product.

Building the box will start with bonding all the major vertical pieces together. Once the cement has set hard enough for them to stand alone, the fixture pieces can be removed. The resulting assembly will then be self-supporting as the remaining pieces are attached.

The fixture pieces sit top and bottom. Pretty much where the largest horizontal pieces would eventually go, but are distinctly different from those pieces.

FreeNASv2 Fixtures.JPG
Initial assembly (gray) with assembly fixture (yellow)

The top fixture has two slots for holding two of the vertical sheets of acrylic. We’ve already established such slots are bad for the structural strength of the end product, but it’s perfectly OK (and quite useful) to have them in a fixture.

Both the top and bottom fixture have round cutouts in the corners and in the mid-span T-joint so that they stay clear of any extraneous acrylic cement that might leak out. This way we avoid accidentally cementing the fixture to the product.

Each of the fixture is made of two layers of acrylic, a main layer and a secondary layer whose shapes helps keep the box pieces in place. The small round circles visible in the picture is sized for M4 screws to fasten the fixture layers together. Using screws instead of acrylic cement allows us to later disassemble the fixture and recycle the pieces as scrap acrylic in future projects.

FreeNAS Box v2: Airflow Design

Designing the system airflow for thermal management is a huge consideration for the FreeNAS box design. The two fans in the system have been oriented for easy inspection first and then the airflow was designed second to work with natural convection flow. Lacking skills to use sophisticated thermal modeling and analysis tools, this design is mostly based on intuition.

Working as a network attached storage device is not a very computationally intensive task. Plus the CPU has its own fan, so thermal control of the processor is not a primary concern. The power supply also has its own fan, which I assume can take care of itself.

That leaves the hard drives as the primary thermal concern. Lacking their own cooling fans, the airflow design of the case will put them first in line to receive the coolest air. This meant placing them right at the intake. The v1 intake was on the bottom, so that’s where the drives were. The v2 intake air from the side, and again that’s where the drives were placed.

After the intake air has met the hard drive, the warmer bits should flow up and over the top of the hard drive, carried by convection towards exhaust. The cooler bits should head towards the rest of the case, helping to cool the motherboard and the CPU.

The motherboard and the CPU is in its own chamber. Cold air comes in the bottom and sides of this chamber and the top of this chamber has holes to send its warmest air into the power supply fan for exhaust.

If this proves to be inadequate cooling for the motherboard, we have the option of cutting an air intake hole directly in the front door panel of the case.  The CPU fan can then pull in cool air from the outside. This will reduce the amount of air drawn in past the hard drives, though, so I wanted to see how well it works before I start cutting holes.


FreeNASv2 Thermal Flow 2

FreeNAS Box v2: Additional Goals

We’ve just established all the problems exposed by the v1 prototype that we want to address for v2. In addition to those issues, we also want v2 to cover a few things that are no fault of the v1 prototype.

First one is relatively obvious: actually build a complete and usable case. I knew I was trying new ideas in v1 and that something will go wrong, so it wasn’t really complete. Even if everything went right (I knew it wouldn’t) I would have had to build a v2. For one example, I didn’t bother to design an access door.

We then have a few separate items that relate to improving space efficiency.

When I placed v1 on the shelf where I expected to keep my FreeNAS box, it wasted a few inches between the back and the wall due to the angle of the power cable. I want to rearrange things so that the back of the box can sit flat against the wall.

Cooling path in v1 started with air intakes on the bottom of the case. This was part of the tribute to the Apple PowerMac G4 cube, but functionally unnecessary while consuming vertical space.

Also contributing to the vertical space consumption was pointing all the ports downwards, like the PowerMac G4 cube. This made the ports difficult to access. It would be good to align the direction of all the plugs, so power and network cables can be in parallel.

Out of all the requirements listed here and in the previous post, the greatest impact was the “make sure all fans are visible for easy verification they are spinning” goal. It meant rearranging the components so both fans face forward. This made for an interesting design challenge as it is against common convention of computer case design. Once I got that set up, the configuration was then further refined in Fusion 360 to satisfy all the remaining requirements until we have this: my FreeNAS Box v2.


FreeNAS Box v1 Problems

FreeNAS Box v1 was a good learning project for acrylic construction. Here are the issues with v1 I want to address for the next version.

  1. Non-orthogonal joints: The laser cutter only cuts right angle edges. v1 had a few joints that were impossible to cement because the edges didn’t align at right angles.
  2. Tab and slot construction: To help align joints, I designed v1 with tabs to fit into slots I had also cut into their mating surfaces. While this made the box easy to build, it destroyed durability of the end product. The sharp corners of the slots are where acrylic starts cracking under stress. I had known about the dangers of sharp internal corners, but I thought acrylic cement would bond everything together eliminating the weak point. This idea has now been proven false.

    Stress cracks that started at corners of slots.
  3. Unappealing tangle of wires: The v1 box design placed all of the wires up front, which turned out to look pretty ugly, and all the components (hard drives and the motherboard) were hidden under the mess.

    Yes, there’s a computer under the tangle of wires.
  4. Difficult access to components: Besides looking bad, the mess of wires up front also blocks access to everything else. It would be difficult to perform maintenance such as replacing drives if they fail.
  5. Cooling fans vulnerable to jamming: The wiring paths were such that, if some wires should misbehave and bend slightly out of position, they would impinge upon the blades of cooling fans stopping them from turning.

    Several wires in this bundle poked into the fan grill where it does not belong.
  6. Cooling fans are out of sight: Compounding the problem of blocked fans is the fact that despite the clear acrylic exterior, it was not easy to notice the fans were blocked.

I had to physically build FreeNAS Box v1 before I knew known any of the above are problems. Some I had thought about and didn’t think would be a problem, the others I just hadn’t thought about at all.

FreeNAS Box V1 Design

FreeNASv1_CADOnce the components are gathered, we start thinking about designing an enclosure for them. The tool of choice is the Tux-Lab laser cutter. The material of choice is acrylic sheet. The objective of the exercise is to learn how to build with acrylic and ideally create something novel and unique.

Since my mind is already on acrylic, it was a short jump to think about the Apple Power Mac G4 Cube. A landmark of industrial design. Obviously what I make won’t be as pretty, but it’ll be my homage to the cube. Here are the two main design considerations in my FreeNAS experiment #1.

Hard Drive Cooling

Airflow along the sides has small surface area.
Airflow lengthwise has large surface area, but will be obstructed by data and power cables.


Airflow crosswise has large surface area and will not be obstructed by data and power cables.

Since the goal is for low power, low noise, and small size, I didn’t want to add any fans. The small fan on the processor and the large fan in the power supply will take care of their respective components. That leaves the two hard drives without their own cooling, so the enclosure will have to utilize airflow created by the power supply fan.

We desire the maximum cooling surface area that presents the fewest obstructions to the air stream. And we want to work with (instead of against) natural convection forces. Evaluating the possibilities, the best choice is to align cross-wise airflow to be vertical by sitting the hard drives on their long sides.

Power Supply Spacing

PSU UprightFollowing the lead of the G4 Cube, air intake will be on the bottom and the power supply (with its fan) will sit at the top to work alongside natural convection and exhaust hot air.PSU Tilted

With the power supply sitting at the top, and the hard drives sitting on their sides against the bottom, that leaves a fairly large piece of unused space. The wires protruding from the power supply is also a concern. We either have to force those wires to make sharp downward turns to reach the system components, or we have to increase the depth of the enclosure to give the wires room.

Our experiment #1 tilts the power supply downward 30 degrees to utilize the available space to relieve the wire spacing issue.

Will these ideas work? Let’s build it and find out…


Luggable Frame Experiment #2

Catleap2The second iteration of the luggable frame experiment addressed the failings of the first version by relying less on acrylic and more on aluminum. The first iteration was a good experiment to see if acrylic was strong enough for the work. Once V1 conclusively proved the weaknesses, it’s time to fall back to the known quantity.

The following changes were made for version 2:

Extrusion upgrade: In the interest of greater rigidity, the extrusions themselves were upgraded from Misumi HFS3 (15mm x 15mm cross section) to HFS5 (20mm x 20mm). The smaller extrusions seemed to be doing the job but they did exhibit some flex. And we had HFS5 conveniently on hand so let’s use it!

Connection upgrade: In V1 the extrusion T-joint at the base of the frame was held together by the side pieces of acrylic. Though it seemed to work, V2 went with a stronger solution by using metal connectors for the joint. (Misumi HBLFSNF5).

Handle upgrade: The V1 handles were part of the acrylic assembly. With the reduction in acrylic usage, there wasn’t enough left to carry the load of the whole frame. So the handle became another aluminum extrusion.

Catleap2-RearPC tray upgrade: This was the first acrylic thing that failed in V1. The PC is now held in place by aluminum structure instead of an acrylic cutout which makes it quite secure. Three of the extrusion right-angle connectors were re-purposed as “claws” to keep the PC case in place.

Catleap2-SideVESA mount upgrade: The worrisome flex in the Catleap monitor enclosure was traced down to the metal threads inside the Catleap enclosure that were longer than the thickness of the enclosure plastic. This meant when the mounting screws fully engaged, there was still a bit of space between the VESA mount plate and the monitor’s rear surface, allowing movement. A spacer plate was added to fill that gap. Now the VESA mounting plate on the frame is fully pressed against the monitor’s rear surface, greatly reducing the flex.

All this additional structure added up to a very secure frame for carrying around the Yamakasi Catleap monitor with the HP Z220 computer. Unfortunately it also added weight which was a concern even before the frame came into the picture. The heft means this is probably the end of the line for the Catleap + Z220 experiments. Frame V2 will serve as a perfectly good workstation albeit not a very portable one.

The idea of building a Luggable PC around a commercially available monitor will continue, with the focus shifting to using smaller and lighter components.

Fusion 360 Foundational Concepts Tutorial

foundational-concepts-iconI went back into Autodesk’s Fusion 360 learning resources for a refresher and to set myself up to learn the Fusion 360 CAM modules. The last time I went through the tutorials, I had skipped the CAM functionality because I had no machine tools and were not likely to get time on anybody else’s machinery. Now that I might be able to access Tux-Lab fabrication machinery, I wanted to make sure I won’t break the machine from doing anything stupid in Fusion 360.

Before I got to CAM, though, the “Foundational Concepts” section caught my attention. I either didn’t see it the last time or it made no impression on me at the time. I went through the set of short videos and they were surprisingly informative. Most tutorials for Fusion 360 (and most other software packages in general) are happy to tell users how to accomplish their tasks. This is a slightly different twist – the foundation concepts talk about why Fusion 360 is the way it is. About how they tried to restructure a CAD package for the cloud-based future, about how they restructured the workflow to take advantage of today’s level of computation power at our fingertips, so on and so forth.

I come from a software engineering background and I’m all too aware of the fact that the end user typically has no idea what the software developer had intended as they built the piece of software. It can be argued that the end user doesn’t need to know anything about the intent if the software is sufficiently well-designed. But for something complex like a CAD package, I believe there is value in learning the motivation behind the design.

And even if the user doesn’t need to know, sometimes the user is curious and wants to know. I appreciate the Fusion 360 user education team for putting this information out there available for those who want to know.

Luggable Frame Experiment #1

Catleap1The dimensions for my Luggable PC project were determined by the components within. The width and height, specifically, were dictated by the LCD screen module. Even though I made the CAD files public for anybody to build their own Luggable PC, in practical terms only people with the exact same LCD module would be able to use the files without modification.

A friend who saw the Luggable PC was interested in generalizing the concept and create a frame for lugging a (not disassembled) screen alongside its (also not disassembled) PC. Relative to my project, it would be easier to build and less specialized to the components within, with a trade-off in larger size and heavier weight.

I thought it was a great idea to explore and joined in the experiment. We each came up with a design, and we built both of them at Tux-Lab to see how the ideas translated into reality.

This blog post is a brief summary of my first experiment.

The Components

The monitor is an Yamakasi Catleap monitor, built around a 27″ IPS panel with 2560×1440 resolution. The specific dimensions don’t really matter, as it will be mounted via the standard 75mm VESA pattern on the back. Any large monitor with 75mm VESA pattern would fit as-is, and only minor modifications would be necessary to accommodate monitors with a different mounting pattern.

The PC is a HP Z220, small form factor PC from the HP business line available with a range of components to trade off processing power against price. For the purposes of this experiment, the important details are its height of 331mm and depth of 100mm. Thought not a standardized dimension, many small form factor PCs are roughly the same size.

The Construction

The core of the frame are built from 15mm aluminum extrusions (Misumi HFS3) for strength and the remainder of the frame are made from 6mm laser-cut acrylic fastened to the extrusions via M3 nuts and bolts.

Making the panels from laser-cut acrylic has the advantage of simpler modifications. Many of the critical dimensions in my Luggable PC 3D CAD file has the problem that, when changed, they trigger cascading changes that need to be reconciled. When designing for the 2D tool path of laser laser cutting, it is easier to keep modifications in mind so that a change in one sheet does not cascade to other sheets.

Example #1: The frame has a 331mm x 100mm hole to fit the Z200 case. This can be adjusted to fit any other SFF frame without cascading changes to other components.

Example #2: The monitor mount pattern can be changed, and the mount position can be moved up or down to adjust elevation of the monitor.

The Result

CompleteI had never designed for laser cutting before and was happy for the chance to do something on the Tux-Lab laser cutter. I knew that, having little experience with the material, my first few designs will have some amateurish flaws. So this frame #1 was fairly minimalist just to see what happens.

I didn’t have a good grasp how many fasteners I would need to hold everything together. I laser-cut roughly double the number of fastener positions than what I think I would need, as it is easier to have more options rather than less. For the assembly I only installed fasteners in every other hole.

The screen mount was surprisingly successful. We questioned whether 6mm acrylic would be suitable for holding up the Catleap monitor by its 75mm VESA mounts. When we found some worrisome flex, the suspicion went immediately to the 6mm acrylic but it turned out the Catleap monitor enclosure was the source of the flex.

When attempting to install the PC, we found that the case itself would fit just fine but the rubber feet attached to the side of the case did not. I added cutouts in the CAD file but it seemed wasteful to cut entirely new pieces of acrylic just for the little feet cutouts. For purposes of experimentation, a Dremel tool was used to cut gaps to clear the rubber feet.

After the frame was assembled with the screen and the PC, we started plugging in all the cables and wires and I realized I had forgotten to account for the cables. There’s no good place to coil up the excess so they kind of dangle and stand ready to catch on something inconvenient.

The entire assembly was built in a tiny fraction of the time of my Luggable PC and included a much larger monitor with a much higher resolution. The trade off was almost doubling of the weight. The handle, part of the acrylic assembly, appeared to be sufficient to manage the weight.

I carried it across Tux-Lab and quickly encountered the first failure.

The Failure

Lesson of the Day: Sharp internal corners are bad.

My amateur mistake was cutting a sharply cornered rectangle to hold the PC. The sharp corners concentrated the physical load of the PC into a small point in the 6mm acrylic, which protested the poor design by breaking apart.

The next experiment will incorporate this lesson.

Build, fail, learn, iterate, repeat.



OpenSCAD for Motion Visualization

Now that I’ve climbed the initial learning curve for OpenSCAD, it’s time to start working towards my goal for doing this: I want to visualize arbitrary motion between components as a rough draft to see how things move in virtual space.

This is not an unique capability in CAD packages. Both Fusion 360 and Onshape have ability to define object hierarchies and visualize their motion. However, they are both focused on the assemblies that have been mechanically defined in CAD. If I wanted to visualize a  hinge-like motion between two objects, I first need to build that hinge in CAD or the software would “helpfully” tell me I’m trying to perform an impossible motion in my design.

In contrast, OpenSCAD does not care. I can place a rotate() operation anywhere I want and it won’t care if there’s no hinge in the design. It is happy to let me rotate about an arbitrary point in 3D space with no hardware around it. This makes OpenSCAD ideal for trying out how wild ideas would (or would not) work in virtual space, before getting down to the nitty-gritty about how to build the mechanisms to implement those wild ideas.

This means some cool-looking ideas would turn out to be impossible to implement, but that’s OK. I wanted something with a lot more freedom than I can get in the CAD packages that limit what I can do for (in their view) my own protection.

But that’s still in the future. For now I’m still climbing the learning curve of moving objects around in OpenSCAD in a way that ties into the built-in animation capability and generating animated GIF to illustrate concepts.

As a learning exercise, I’ve re-implemented the motion of the Luggable PC hinge. Thanks to OpenSCAD flexibility, I didn’t have to spend time building the hinge before I move it!