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!


Portable External Monitor 2.0: Stacking Plates

Enclosure2_CADPortable External Monitor version 2.0 (PEM2) explored a different construction technique from PEM1. Instead of building a box by assembling its six side pieces (top, bottom, left, right, front back) the box is built up by stacking sheets of acrylic.

With this construction technique, it is much quicker to place components in arbitrary locations in 3D space. Control along the X/Y laser cutting axis are trivial. Control in the Z axis takes a little more effort. The components can be aligned to the thickness of the sheet of acrylic, but if that’s not enough, it is possible to use engraving operations to precisely locate the component in Z.

In contrast, when we want to locate components inside a box at a specific coordinate, we’ll have to design additional pieces – supports and brackets – to mount the item at the appropriate location in the box.

It is also very easy to assure alignment between the parts of the box. Cut a few fastener holes at the same location across all the sheets. After they are stacked up, inserting the fasteners to align all the sheets.

The downside of this approach is that it is very wasteful of material. Each layer will consume an acrylic sheet of the overall X and Y dimensions. And if we only cut away the parts we need for the components, there is potential for a lot of unnecessary acrylic in the final assembly. They add weight without usefully contributing to the structure. Putting in the design time to cut away those parts reduces the time savings of this technique, as it starts approaching the work needed to design supports and brackets in an empty box.

If there’s an upside to the wasted material, it is the fact that this glue-less technique can be easily disassembled. When we’re done evaluating this prototype, every sheet of acrylic can be reused as material for future (necessarily smaller) projects.

Lesson learned: This “stacking plates” construction technique offer a trade off of reducing design time and effort at a cost of reduced material usage efficiency.


Thread Tapping Failure and Heat-Set Threaded Inserts

Part of the design for PEM1 (portable external monitor version 1.0) was a VESA-standard 100 x 100mm pattern to be tapped with M5 thread. This way I can mount it on an existing monitor stand and avoid having to design a stand for it.

I had hand tapped many M5 threads in 3D printed plastic for the Luggable PC project, so I anticipated little difficulty here. I was surprised when I pulled the manual tapping tool away from one of the four mounting holes and realized I had destroyed the thread. Out of four holes in the mounting pattern, two were usable, one was marginal, one was unusable.

Right: usable #6-32 thread for circuit board standoff. Left: Unusable M5 thread for VESA 100 monitor mount.

A little debugging pointed to laser-cutting too small of a hole for the tapping tool. But still the fact remains tapping threads in plastic is time-consuming and error-prone. I think it is a good time to pause the project and learn: What can we do instead?

One answer was literally sitting right in front of me: the carcass of the laptop I had disassembled to extract the LCD panel. Dell laptop cases are made from plastic, and the case screws (mostly M2.5) fasten into small metal threaded inserts that were heat-set into the plastic.

Different plastics have different behavior, so I thought I should experiment with heat-set inserts in acrylic before buying them in quantity. It doesn’t have to be M5 – just something to get a feel of the behavior of the mechanism. Where can I get my hands on some inserts? The answer is again in the laptop carcass: well, there’s some right here!

Attempting to extract an insert by brute force instead served as an unplanned demonstration of the mechanical strength of a properly installed heat-set insert. That little thing put up quite a fight against departing from its assigned post.

But if heat helped soften the insert for installation, perhaps heat can help soften the plastic for extraction. And indeed, heat did. A soldering iron helped made it far easier to salvage the inserts from the laptop chassis for experimentation.

Portable External Monitor 1.0

LCD Enclosure 1 piecesOnce the LCD panel and matching frame had been salvaged from the laptop, it’s time to build an enclosure to hold it and the associated driver board together. Since this was only the first draft, I was not very aggressive about packing the components tightly. It’s merely a simple big box to hold all the bits checking to see if I have all the mounting dimensions for all the circuit boards correct.

It was also the first time I had the chance to try acrylic sheets in a color other than clear. There was a dusty stack of 6 mm green acrylic that I enlisted into this project. Since this is just an early draft project, I valued ease of construction over appearance or strength (6 mm is more than sufficient) and so I used the interlocking tab design for self-aligning assembly.

The resulting box was functional, but not very interesting from a design viewpoint. I just wanted to prove that all the components worked together before I proceeded to the next draft.

I did not design this enclosure to stand by itself. Instead, I had designed this enclosure with a VESA standard 100x100mm mounting pattern in the back and intended to tap those laser-cut holes to take M5 fasteners. Once so prepared, I can mount this enclosure on any existing stand that conforms to the standard. That little design detail – independent of the LCD panel and driver board – sent me off on a little side exploration of plastic construction techniques.

That is a story for the next update.

LCD Panel Frame From Laptop Lid

Drilling out plastic rivetsMy Luggable PC display was a LCD panel I had salvaged from an old laptop, which I’m doing again for this external monitor project. When I pulled the Luggable PC panel out of the old laptop, I left most of the associated mounting hardware behind. During the Luggable PC project I wished I had also preserved the old mounting hardware.

The first reason is dimension data. When I mounted the screen to my Luggable PC, I had to measure the panel and design my frame to match. A Dell engineer did this work years ago, and when I threw away the mounting hardware, I threw that away as well.

The second reason is strength. A LCD panel is fragile, but when backed with its sheet metal frame, it becomes quite a bit stronger. This is usually a worthwhile trade off against the increased size and weight.

The third reason, less obvious than the previous two, is to manage heat. The back light assembly across the bottom of the screen would get quite hot when the panel is just sitting by itself. However, when the panel is mounted in its frame, the frame served a secondary purpose as heat sink.

The metal frame I want to reuse is attached to the plastic outer cover of the laptop lid. The attachment is done via small plastic rivets: bits of the plastic lid cover melted into the metal frame. Pulling off the frame with brute force is likely to bend and damage the frame, so the assembly is put under the drill press. After cores of all of the plastic rivets were drilled out (above), the metal frame easily pops off the plastic lid cover (below).

Frame freed

The metal frame can now be used to build the rest of the enclosure. The frame can be cut, drilled, and generally manipulated in ways that I would never do to the LCD panel itself. And when I’m done with all the prep work, the panel itself will drop right in to the frame. This should be much easier than what I had to do for the Luggable PC screen.

Portable External Monitor Project

Panel and DriverThanks to a friend’s generous donation of a nonfunctional Dell Inspiron E1505, I have another LCD panel to play with. (And distract me from FreeNAS Box project.) The eventual ambition is to upgrade my Luggable PC to a multiple-monitor system but as a first step, I’ll learn to work with the new panel by turning it into a portable external monitor. If phase 1 is successful, it becomes an optional additional accessory I can lug alongside the Luggable PC. Then, if I’m feeling ambitions, I can move on to phase 2 of integrating everything into a multi-monitor Luggable PC.

The first order of business is to extract the panel and look at its specifications. Dell laptops around that vintage offer resolution as low as 1024×768, which wouldn’t even be worth the effort to resurrect. Fortunately, thisĀ LG Philips LP154W02 panel has a decently respectable 1680×1050 resolution.

Since the computer doesn’t work, next I have to see if the panel does. Off to Amazon to look for boards that claim to drive this panel. The first board (pictured here) was able to present all the right info to a computer, and it can power the back light, but no picture showed on screen. At this time I was worried – did I get a bum board, or is the display dead?

After some diagnostic chatter with the seller, I was pointed to another board they carried. The first board was computer-focused, the second board was more TV and media focused. The upside is that it worked. The downside is that it seems to have trouble preserving 1:1 pixel information at 1680×1050. I wonder if its media-focused nature meant it up scale all signals to 1080p and then down sample to the panel resolution. That would explain the minor visual artifacts.

The artifacts does take a bit away from the success. But it’s lit, it shows a picture, and that’s good enough to proceed.