Archive for the 'Stuff' Category


Big Chuck’s Japan-o-rama 2014: Tokyo, Akihabara, Robots, and Vans

Jan 11, 2015 in East Asia 2014, Stuff

Update! I’ve been notified that seg-thingie was featured as a new product at CES 2015 [1] [2] [3]. Hurray! But you saw it here first on Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse!

Continuing my tour of East Asia beginning with Shenzhen and stopping over in Beijing, Tokyo is the last stop on the way home. Originally, as I said, this trip was only going to be a Beijing stay, but I decided to take the opportunity of being in the neighborhood (for very, very broad definitions of neighborhood) to finally see the two places which I will allegedly never return from.

this is it

The place everyone and their thrice-removed Facebook friend has told me I have to go. The place I’ve been told is full of My People™ and that I will never want to leave. The origin country of Miku, vans, and mikuvans (and by extensions, Chibi-Mikuvans) alike.

Needless to say, I’m really hamming it up there for dramatic enhancement, but I was deep down quite excited about visiting Tokyo to get the ‘on the street’ story for myself, past the  “Weird Japan” websites and stories from friends. Not only that, but I tend to avoid tourist traps or the ‘usual stops’ on international trips – though there will still be some of it here because it’s friggin Tokyo – and try to get the story of the local maker scene and tour some of the industry instead. That’s just my personal preference, and I think reporting on what maker environs are like the world over will help us all gain some more appreciation of the unifying force that is making, hacking, & building.

I’m going to make no pretense of this report being some kind of review of or introduction to Japanese culture. It’s going to be shamelessly specialized towards maker folk with otaku tinges who are more into vans than they should be.  So perhaps, in a way, this is my own “Weird Japan” page that will join the ranks of others’ trip reports and photo albums on the matter, but hopefully with my own personal twist and much less hexadildopods (Don’t say I didn’t warn you…)

This is most definitely going to be another one of those ridiculously long posts that I will have to split into parts beforehand so it can be navigated. I have no less than 120 photos lined up for this page. That’s more than I typically take for an entire project build, spread over five days of running all Gaijin Smash like around the city.

  1. Day 1 (12/29): Visiting Tokyo University; a backstreet run around Akihabara; DMM.Make
  2. Day 2 (12/30): Comiket 87!
  3. Day 3 (12/31): Tokyo Sky Tree
  4. Day 4 (01/01): the Meiji Shrine; Harajuku
  5. Day 5 (01/02): Tokyu Hands
  6. Vans. Thousands of them.


What is Engineering?

Jan 28, 2014 in Stuff

Winter is Coming.

Dec 16, 2013 in Land-Bear-Shark, Stuff

Beyond Unboxing: How to Take Apart a Ford Fusion Hybrid Battery While Minimizing Death for You and Onlookers

Nov 13, 2013 in Beyond Unboxing, Stuff

Alright everyone, it’s time to get serious! This is the first of most likely several engineering posts directly relevant to Chibi-Mikuvan (see its introductory post here), in which I’ll delve into the parts that I’m intending on using in the build.

No, I was not kidding one bit.

・ω ・

It’s the hallmark of this whole thing.

Anyways, recall that most of my recent EV-related builds are in the interest of pathfinding and trailblazing. Taking a stab in the dark at a potential useful part for makers and builders and seeing how it works out, some times involving a little bit of science, and possibly incorporating it into my personal go-kart kindergarten. That, and ultimately looking silly. With this build nominally trying to fit under (or at the least, not outrageously around) the PPPRS $500 parts and materials budget, I’m intending to try several new tricks at once, and all of them will be exhibited here.

This post in particular will focus on the one pivotal strategy that I explained in the post-Maker Faire post – cracking apart a second generation hybrid car traction battery and using the internal cell modules. These modules are typically NiMh chemistry; this was before everyone switched to lithium ion batteries this and last year. NiMh lends itself to highly favorable energy density over lead-acid batteries. Being several years and tens of thousands of miles out, you can find these batteries sold by auto recyclers for between $300 to $500. For people looking for huge capacity in less weight, I think the cost per watt-hour of energy of a used hybrid car battery is the best you can get.

In fact, my final cost in this investigation was $300 per 2.15kWh, or $0.139 per Wh. This beats out even Hobbyking lithium polymer batteries at 33-50 cents per Wh (which aren’t allowed in the first place in the series!) and most lead-acid battery options short of ‘found objects’ or purchasing at heavy discount. This is now on record as being possible, which, really, satisfies me even if I don’t end up build my own entry with it.

Someone else can totally take the torch from me right now! I’m certain somebody’s already dropped a hybrid battery into a custom project, but this is where I declare pics or it didn’t happen. Otherwise, feel free to scoop me on actually using these, because I’m sure I’ll never get around to it at this rate.

So here’s how it went down:

Initial reseach

The first step was hopping around on Wikipedia, hybrid owner forums, and Google Images compiling a list of battery candidates. I had a few in mind after a day’s worth of looking around:

  1. Toyota Prius, 2003-2009, or the “Gen 2″. This was the duh option – millions of these are on the road, so their parts are bound to be the most plentiful. The prius battery is a block of 28 “blades” composed of 7.2v modules, each 6.5Ah. The total battery energy of the car is  302V and 1300Wh (total, not useful – there’s a distinction). I was particularly interested in the Prius at first because the 28 blades could be arranged into a 28.8v, 45.5Ah battery by putting four 7.2v modules in series, and seven of those in parallel. 28.8v happens to be near the maximum voltage rating of many inexpensive R/C power system options.Along with the Prius, other same-gen hybrids like the Camry Hybrid and Toyota Highlander hybrid share the power system.
  2. Ford Fusion Hybrid, 2009-2012. This option was familiar to me because the MIT EVT chopped the powertrain out of a 2009 Mercury Milan Hybrid and converted it to full battery electric. The car’s advertised battery is 275V, 2.1kWh. We took apart the large hybrid module about 2 years ago, long before I had any delusions of using it on a small go-kart (since we were, and still are, up to our nostrils in donated A123 cells). I knew already that this battery was composed of 28 9.6v, 8Ah NiMh D cell modules, which can be arranged into a 28.8v  72Ah battery. Similar year Mercury Milans and Lincoln MKZ share the same powertrain.I also briefly looked at the older Ford Escape hybrids (2004 to 2008 years) which used a higher voltage, lower capacity (330v 5.5Ah) 1.8kWh battery, but I did not find many for sale, and the familiarity with the Fusion pack meant I focused on it harder.
  3. Honda Insight and Civic Hybrid, first generation, 2000-2006. I knew little about these except that they had 7.2v, 6.5Ah modules arranged in a 144V battery pack, which means they came in at a clean 1kWh. These are getting rare, however, and I did not find many for sale that weren’t very expensive.

I found an interesting price curve when studying eBay’s listings. Well known hybrids like the Prius commanded high prices because you know people are going to need parts, and will pay for them. Rare hybrids like the Insight command high prices because of the few people who are still keeping them on the road. It was the hybrids that nobody really cared about, like the Civic Hybrid and Fusion Hybrid (and relatives) which seemed even remotely plausible. Since I knew what was coming in the Ford Fusion battery, I decided to focus harder on it, and still keep options open by inquiring about the Prius.


I was aiming to get $300 or less for one of these units. This was the number that I decided would make sense for a PPPRS entry – you take the battery, split it in two to obtain 28.8v and 32Ah so you can have two of them to swap out between, and each battery half will only count for $75 on the budget under their accounting rules: $300 purchase price, $150 budgetary price, and half of that running at any time.

I began by scoping out these batteries on auto yard listing websites such as, to identify potential candidates. The plan was to get a handful of leads, then call the yards themselves pretending to be an instructor for a MIT electric vehicle design team whose students are carrying out a project where they want to utilize a hybrid car battery, and would you happen to have any as-is, repairable, or core return batteries we can use?

Only 10% of that sentence was bald-faced lying through my teeth, so I felt clean!  The hope is that someone would drop their price for such a noble cause. You might call this unethical, but it was also a good probe of how open these yard operators were to the idea of makers and hackers (mis)using their parts, especially young ones. If you weren’t actually going to put it on a car, the yard doesn’t have to worry about a warranty or whether or not the part is damaged or not functional to OEM spec. Even a worn out battery from an automotive perspective is most likely still useful for small vehicles. Hence my emphasis when I called on these packs being rejects in some way.

This was an adventurous roughly 2 weeks. I would call to find they have no stock, but be told to “call back next week in case” – so I did. So many of these were “Call this number and ask for Billy” type situations, which I frankly love. Here is a sample of the text file that I was compiling:

Chuckran’s 508 697 6319  x

Robertson’s (800) 551-7000 x

Linder’s 800 521 8000 ($900 07 Prius ) ($700 09 Fusion) Jesse sent you

D Richards Jack 800 776 0459 $300 ! 10 Fusion

Tom’s 800 255 6656 (left my info)

A-rite Auto 800 874 7116 $700

LKQ 800 500 8733 Candia NH call back next week JC

Bishop’s 860 346 2336 x check later

Goyettes 800 640 7548 fax 508 207 1546 x

Self-Serve Used Auto Parts 1-508-763-4442 Check in a week

Route 128 Used Auto Parts 780-980-0025 (calling back soon?)

I ended up calling 18 yards in increasing distances from Boston, gathering prices and references (When a yard didn’t have stock, I asked for a recommendation on other businesses to call). Several of them led me to each other by accident. The price was slowly falling the further I got from the metro area – this made sense, after all, since I’m sure not only the cost of doing business is higher closer to an urban area, but more cars means more wrecks and more throughout and more people needing their car back on the road; all leading to higher prices. I started breaking into Connecticut and New Hampshire.

Ultimately, my lead came from Burlington, Vermont. So one Friday morning a few weeks ago at 5:30AM sharp, I blasted out of Boston and ended up 45 miles from Canada about 4 hours later, collecting no maple syrup or moose in the process.

Or bears. As I wandered further up I-89, the “_____ Crossing” signs got more and more hardcore. Bears? What’s next, T. Rex?

I must say, if I spent my life here, I’d be a nature hippie too. Burlington is pretty damn beautiful, especially down by Lake Champlain.  I wanted to pull down by the waterfront to get a Vans Next to _____ picture (the VT-NY ferry was a good choice), but the area was blocked off and full of tour buses. I decided against pushing my luck.

The yard itself was about 15 minutes north, in a small town called Colchester:

D. Richard Automotive was the name of the place, and I didn’t exactly look out of placed parked amongst their selection of used cars. A few what the hell is that questions were received from some of the customers and staff, to my amusement. Apparently Mitsubishi vans just never quite diffused evenly throughout the country.

The owner, possibly Mr. D. Richard himself, was very receptive to the idea of student-built EVs using these packs, and I made some idle chit-chat with him about 2.00gokart and the Makersphere while his… Ninjas? Cronies? were retrieving the part from stock. It’s a little far to drive every time something good comes up, but more links in the network, the better!

This is the thing. If they made Hybrid Mikuvans back in the day, I’m guessing the battery will go in a not dissimilar position in the rear. It weighs about 150 pounds (judging by my non-ability to lift it). Check out those bullet connectors.

A four hour drive back home and some Bro Assist got this patient on the operating table. The T-square is to illustrate how big this is – about 20″ wide by nearly 4 feet long. By this time, I was pretty much worn out from driving totally randomly into 3 different states to get a part for a silly go-kart, so I passed out. The following pictures were taken some time after the fact.

That thing above the battery is a cooling fan that pulls air through the cells and exhausts it to the side.

These are the side vents in the case, through which you can see the cell modules.

The fan shroud is held on by a handful of small hex head bolts. Use a 8mm socket (5/16″ works too) to remove them.

Before I totally took the fan shroud off, I decided to have a look at the fan itself, since it’s a brushless fan for long life and greater efficiency. What was it – a really hardcore Hobbyking controller driving it? Could I turn it into a hub motor?!

The fan pops out with the same little bolts, three of them. Under the big white sticker are 4 little Phillips head screws, and after you remove that:

Holy hell, it is a Hobbyking controller! A really, really hardcore one…

This thing appears to have its own DC-DC converter in line with the power input. Judging by the 35V output capacitor, it probably modulates the speed of the fan only through this DC voltage, either raising it past 12V or lowering it, commutating the phases fully on or fully off at all times. This architecture is called a current-fed inverter, and it saves you from having to PWM all the 3 phase bridge FETs, cutting some losses and complexity.  I would have literally lobbed a HK controller in this, startup beep and all. I guess this is why I am not working for a car company.

(If I had it my way, everything would have a V8 made of Melons in it.)

Once you pop the retaining ring on the back side off, the rotor dismounts:

It’s a copier motor.

I literally burst out laughing uncontrollably when I found it. It is the exact same dimensions as a typical 68mm copier motor I’d harvest from some poor Xerox to use in a scooter hub motor. Hey, this winding might even be fine as-is for a hub motor, since it’s a fairly high voltage motor!

Some larger Torx screws also hold the lower fan shroud on. A T25 Torx bit is the proper way to attack these. With the fan shroud tossed aside, it was time to start cracking the battery itself open.

Here’s where I pause for a second to say:

The following images depict opening up and messing with a 275 volt DC power system. It will be exposed, be unfused, and be extremely dangerous. If you touch the wrong spots, you will commit suicide instantly. If your metal tool touches the wrong spots, it will explode in a plasma cloud and deposit itself on your face. It is your responsibility to educate yourself on proper handling of, and safety-oriented behavior around, high voltage systems.

tl;dr be safe around batteries, kids. These pictures are for your reference and educational value only – I am not here to train HV electricians. As you’ll see, the battery pack is extremely well designed and anticipates service and disassembly, but it makes best practices no less necessary.

Now, onto removing the battery’s shell.

First, I had to remove the various other warts and boxes on the bottom of the battery. These include, from the left to the right, the main contactor set and output connectors, the orange  service disconnect, the battery charge monitor controller, and the battery computer which interfaces with the rest of the car.

These are all held on with nuts on studs, and I used a 12mm deep socket to reach them.

I decided to ruin the resale value of these OEM battery parts by prying them open and looking inside. (Seriously, I could have made $150 on each of these battery controller parts!)

This is the “Battery computer”, as it seems to be called . I’m assuming this takes battery voltage info from the other box (with the HV interfacing hardware) and pipes it to the car’s ECU. I’m not focusing on reverse engineering this stuff, so it’s here for visual stimulation purposes.

 The other box contains the high voltage interfacing hardware – check out that isolation gap! My guess is this has an array of multiplexers and ADCs to sample the battery voltages at the module level. That or a huge string of op-amp subtractors, Hobbyking style, with 400 volt opamps?

Some more prying and biting later:

Looks like the two theories might be combined. On the left board (the first module) are what appear to be several 14-pin, possible op-amp or comparator ICs. The part numbers are all proprietary – even though they feature logos like NXP and Texas Instruments, the etched numbers all seem to be serial numbers of some sort. The myriad passives on top and on bottom suggest to me a possible series of op-amp circuits.  The right board has a shoreline made of optocoupler solid state relay devices, KAQW216 (the chips are marked W216HC5). Most of them seem to eventually pour into (or out of?)  a large Analog Devices chip, an ADUM1401 4 channel digital isolator, surrounded by some quad op amps (AD8554).

Again, I’m not out to decompose the battery management system, since I won’t be using it and it’s surely very proprietary, so this is as far as I’ll go here – component staring and hypothesizing. My fan theory is that the 4 channel isolator turns on the solid state relays in a multiplexer fashion to select groups of cell modules, the top end and low end voltage of which flow into the op amps to be subtracted to get a voltage number; combinations of groups of modules being read will let you deduce the voltage of each individual module if you keep track of what is being read at any one time.

Moving on:

This is the contactor bank of the battery pack. There’s three separate contactors: one for positive, one for precharge (connected to positive), and one for negative. In vehicles, traction batteries are generally fully isolated when the vehicle is at rest. It’s not frame grounded like you would do for a 12V auxiliary system. It’s great to see all the systems my students typically build into a small or medium size vehicle (like the precharge circuitry) because I tell them to, being used on an industrial scale because you neeeed it in order for the system not to grenade instantly.

The set of two contactors at the top left control positive – one of them fills the HV rail through the precharge resistor (the big sand block resistor next to them). The single contactor at the bottom is the negative. The only thing that looks a little cheesy is the great big negative bus bar that spans the entire length of the thing.

Finally, the black hole that the positive busbar disappears into is a Hall Effect current sensor which, again, seems to be a proprietary part. Maybe I will take it apart in more detail and try to extract the functionality later.

Update:  The current sensor is a LEM DHAB-S/34 type, which outputs an analog voltage proportional to current. It has dual sensitivities – one pin for 40mV/A, the other for 10mV/A, so you can monitor low currents and high currents alike while minimizing quantization error and sensor accuracy error.

I decided to remove the back cover first to check if anything else needs to be removed. More 12mm nuts and T25 headed screws hold this on.

The yolk of this egg is beginning to show. Twenty-eight D cell modules, bound together by (non electrical) aluminum bars and plates.

I came around to the front again to disengage the service disconnect. Without this connector in, there is no voltage present on the contactor pack. I had to thread it through its panel hole to release the cells eventually, however. This also meant disconnecting the large ring terminals that fasten the battery to the contactor pack first – they’re at the very top, isolated by a plastic wall to prevent “mishaps”. A 14mm nut holds the terminals together, so I used a deep 14mm socket to extract them.


266 volts from non-isolated negative (before the contactor) to the service disconnect.

After I removed the contactor pack and service disconnect, I needed to remove the handles to gain access to the side plates. These handles are held on by some 12mm hex headed bolts that also retain the upper two sets of structural aluminum bars.

The bottom set of bars have giant Torx screws holding them in – T45 to be precise. I only had this size in a ratchet drive.

And both the side plates pop off…

There it is – the delicious Roe of Fusion at the center. But we’re not done yet – I still need to take apart the pack module by module.

The battery modules are retained by these non-electrical aluminum bars (I keep wanting to call them busbars, dammit!). So really, I could have just removed both top and bottom cover (and contactor pack), then only one side plate removal was needed. I could slide the whole thing around at this point.

Little temp probes that contact the cells at certain distributed locations to get a pack temperature reading.

Some intern had a lot of fun designing this engraving, I bet. This bar is totally something you’d hand off to an intern to do. It’s a straight piece of metal with holes in it! There is no way it’s fuckup-able!

Here’s how the pack comes apart. The moment you take the end module off, the whole pack is split into two, so you can’t even drop something across the primary positive and negative. Furthermore, you can only remove one module at a time: the busbar retainers interlock and are retained by two adjacent modules, so you must necessarily disconnect a whole module and remove it before moving onto the next set.

This construction is quite ingenious and must have taken weeks if not months of engineering committee meetings to come up with. I and everyone present at the first autopsy of this battery have said that it’s best example of design-for-assembly and design-for-service that we’ve seen.

I would never, ever have the patience to design such a system.

The back side of the battery is one solid strip of bus bar endcaps, removed one at a time at your leisure. The module endcaps are M5 threaded, and all the heads are T25. Someone really, really loves T25.

The full disassembly would look like a messier version of this – a small mountain of cell modules being slid out one at a time from the main pack.

The busbars live in snap-in mounts and are 1mm thick copper. On the “front side” of the battery, they simply are friction fit in place – they slide right out.

On the other side, they are retained by little snap fits. Unsnap them to take them out if you want to reuse them.

THIS IS THE BUSINESS END OF THE PACK. To avoid having to deal with this at 275 volts, take apart the pack starting from the right side of the contactor pack, if you’re looking straight at it. That’s the way I have it done here. If you start from the left side nearest to the contactor pack, you get to disassemble 275 volts first. Have fun.

If even one module is removed from the right side, this connection is isolated.

The sticks are made of 4.8 volt strings of D cells, with (I think) a nominal capacity of 8Ah. As you charge and discharge them faster, the useful energy will decrease – I put these on an aggressive 1 hour charge, so they won’t read 8Ah. One that I left overnight on a slow near-trickle ended up at 8250mAh.

Here they are inside. The cells are held off from their cases by rubber insulators; this is so air can flow through the case and around the cells, allowing them to cool or heat using the fan.

I may delve into the contactor pack in a future post. I think it’s quite useful stock and as-is, so I did not take it apart. After all, it’s just contactors with wiring already built in, and a precharge to boot – it doesn’t care if it’s being run at 275 or 27.5V – the coils are all 12 volts.

The contactors are nice – way better than the cheesy relays the students rig up remote-power circuits with in my class (but then again, that’s all they need). They’re Matsushita (Panasonic) type AEVS contactors designed specifically for EVs. It’s hydrogen filled!… wait, isn’t that bad?! Hindenburg Relays!

I’m sure if you had to buy these they’re a hundred dollars or more alone, but you get three of them with purchase of a cheesy old hybrid pack. Limited time offer.

Since I did not need this pack immediately, I decided to not take all the modules apart. Instead, I put the end plates back on so the whole thing is rigid, and it currently lives on a handtruck in the shop. I left the rightmost ‘crossing busbar’ out so there’s nothing 275 volts about it in public.

I made an almost-accurate model of the Fusion Sticks and have uploaded it on my reference page as a Parasolid (x_t) file, which should import into most CAD programs. The dimensions are accurate to 0.1mm for the first inch of length on both sides. There’s a lot of little randomness that sticks up in the middle, including the aluminum structrual bar channels, that I didn’t model since I was planning on mounting them on their ends only in my application. You could, if you’re crafty, just saw the bars in half and arrange the stock copper pieces to your liking on the cells, then redrill the end holes and use the stock endplate and handles.

Each module weighs 3.66 pounds, so this full pack of 28 is 100 pounds. And 2.1kWh! Beat that in lead.

So there we have it – another episode of Charles Takes Something Apart for His Own Amusement at Great Personal Expense Beyond Unboxing! I would actually love to do a series of this just on hybrid car packs, but it might have to wait until I find another one such as a Prius module or Leaf lithium ion module for super cheap (or someone comes and drops one on my desk). Mass produced commercial things always have the potential to be low cost and highly functional, and I think the gradual increase in market share of hybrid and electric cars is a boon for the hobbyist or home builder.

Ask an Engineer References

Jul 14, 2013 in Reference Posts, Stuff

In case you didn’t know (and you probably didn’t, given how un-announced it was here), I was invited to be on the Adafruit Ask an Engineer webcast as a special guest.

Essentially it was aiming to be a quick highlight of what  someone could do in the realm of mechanical projects, since the usual target of the show is very much EEs and software folks. I gave a rundown of some of the projects (the entire build histories of which are to the left in the sidebar) and answered a few questions about EV technology. One thing that cropped up was where to start reading or joining if you want to build mechanical things, and I really couldn’t provide a good answer on the show.

I still can’t think of one – unlike the Ardusphere, there’s not really any well known big names that ‘unify’ the mechanical hobbies, such as what Sparkfun and Adafruit might do for the modern EE hobbyist, since the scope of these is so much larger than open-source electronics. You’d generally have to break it down further, like ‘modified electric bikes’, or ‘battlebots’ or something, which is why I suggested with only a bit of irony for people to google search the thing they want to build. For instance, there’s pretty much a community for every make and model of car in existence.

But here’s a classic-me onslaught of links which should help at least a few people get hooked and started:

General Knowledge

  • Instructables: search for your desired project. Here’s the ones I wrote.
  • Making Things Move is probably one of the best primers for basic mechanical concepts and parts I have seen. Highly recommended (a copy of this is in our shop library, by which I mean a pile on my desk)
  • Gizmology and RoyMech: Two of my favorites for some more in depth analysis of basic mechanical components
  • Fundamentals of Design: Still one of my all-time favorites despite the diabetes-inducing writing style, because it drills down deep into theory and concepts for many different machine components. Unfortunately, it seems the book is now behind a MIT certificate wall, so I’m hosting it locally here.



  • Big Blue Saw (custom waterjet and laser machining)
  • eMachineShop and FirstCut (custom 3D machining – $$$)
  • Shapeways (custom 3D printing) and its upmarket competitor Materialise
  • I don’t know enough about Ponoko to say anything about it besides Ponoko.
  • is for the more pro designers who want to hire out manufacturing of just about anything.


The part that we touched on the least, one of the issues limiting people from engaging in building mechanical things is the lack of a well known toolchain to do so – for example, Eagle or KICAD. Most CAD systems are proprietary and extremely expensive; $10,000 is considered quite cheap and there are a few recent systems that start at ‘only’ $1000 or so. The free ones tend to be gimmicky and limited in functionality. Given enough time and practice, of course, these limitations could be overcome.

  • Autodesk gives 1-3 year student licenses to those with a .edu or verifiable educational relation. This is how I keep running Inventor forever.
  • Autodesk 123D design seems to be the highest design software in terms of accessibility * usability product. Autodesk has been pushing hard into the hobbyist market recently, so this might explain that.
  • Alibre (now Geomagic) was a low cost CAD system which was bought by 3D Systems recently.
  • Sketchup (formerly Google) is popular with some folks, though I found the 2013 free version frustratingly limited.
  • Open Source CAD platforms: I haven’t kept up with these so much recently since they inevitably require you to be a Linux hacker to even run, but in case you are one already:
    • FreeCAD seems to be the most together in terms of a functional parametric CAD software (i.e. not just mashing cubes into spheres)
    • OpenSCAD: I am put off greatly by the thought of “programming” your shapes, but to each their own! Many of the models on Thingiverse seem to be made with this.
    • Some people do use Blender to design mechanical things.

Parts for Designing

  • Thingiverse, a repository of mostly 3D printable models
  • 3DContentCentral: Affiliated with Solidworks, many industrial suppliers
  • GrabCAD: Full of pretty design models, not so much useful individual parts.
  • One of the great things about McMaster is that they have basically every nut and bolt and sprocket and gear and everything else as downloadable solid models. 50% of any of my designs these days are just downloaded from McMaster, pursuant to the art of design-around-what-you-have-fu.

There’s also my own references page which I’ve gathered all my rather technical or design-heavy posts, or posts that use or demo one specific part. I also have some downloadable CAD models uploaded.