Archive for the 'mikuvan' Category

 

All-Vans Quality of Life Patches for Fall and Winter; Going to the Jalopnik Car Show, and Infectious Vantruck Disease

Dec 12, 2017 in mikuvan, vantruck

Winter is literally coming. As time goes on, my ability to work on vans decreases greatly both for lack of daylight and lack of inside matters. In preparation for overwintering now two  vanbabies, I decided to make some repairs and mods that were becoming more necessary (or more necessary, if you get what I mean…). I like keeping my machinery in good functioning state, and Mikuvan was beginning to feel a little like a daily junker more and more. Meanwhile, Vantruck had some lingering bugs I wanted to address before my hands freeze off holding a wrench.

mikuvan

The most important thing was making sure Mikuvan could still pass its incipient Massachusetts state inspection. You see, since the day I got it running in 2013, the exhaust has been slowly shortening itself piece by piece. Recall that one of the earliest bits of mechanical work I did was to rebuild the catalytic converter flange. A year and some later, a part of the exhaust pipe broke apart, which I had a mechanic repair while it was on a lift already for a brake fluid change and rear drums inspection.

That was 2015. About a year to the day, before Dragon Con 2016, it breaks upstream of that repair. I threw together this patch in my classic weeaboo-redneck-engineer fashion

No beer cans here, only top quality RAMUNE BOTTLES. Three layers of them.

Several months later, that broke off, so I trashed the whole section from the bottle-hack back and replaced it with a 90-degree downwards bend with an exhaust tip on it, hanging on to the remaining muffler stub.

Well guess that, that broke the fuck off earlier this year, likely during the Detroit Maker Faire trip. I didn’t notice. I didn’t even care. It can rest in eternal pain and suffering somewhere on the side of the 401 in Ontario.

I just ran with the stumpy pipe out of the muffler which terminated well under the cabin, sounding vaguely like a ricer fart cannon but offering me nothing except exhaust slowly seeping into the cabin when I was at a stop or accelerated hard.

With the inspection date coming up, I had to do something.

Ah, good old New England Organic Loctite. It occurs naturally, regenerating from any exposed worthwhile metal in its vicinity. In the winter, it feeds off the gazillion tons of salt poured on the road and blossoms each spring.

I’d watched the catalytic converter slowly get smaller and smaller over time – even the new gasket I put on it quickly became one with the material. I actually dumped PB Blaster on this flange connection while it was still hot – that was quite exciting. It then took several seconds of impact wrench before I was able to free the converter bolts. Frankly, I was amazed they were removable at all.

Since Mikuvan is emissions-exempt in Massachusetts, I elected to not buy a new catalytic converter and just latch right onto the downpipe stub.

 

Time to measure up the exhaust path. I needed to clear the rear axle and end up at roughly the correct length to still put a muffler on. I decided to rear-mount the replacement muffler (which was also already rotted out at the bottom, so it wasn’t doing much muffling for a year or two at least) instead of mounting forward of the rear axle like it was before.

 

And two trips to Pep Boys later, I have all the ingredients! Several lengths of pipe, a flexible coupler, several rubber-mounting hanging straps, and a bunch of tubing adapters. All that is needed to get the right dimensions is an angle grinder!

What, you thought I was going to weld this shit together? Mandrel bends? Mitered joints? Nah. Clamps and impact wrench all the way.

It’s nighttime in this photo because I ran into issues with the downpipe stub – it was some odd metric size of course, and there was no adapter which fit cleanly either inside or outside. I ended up using a 1-7/8″ OD adapter slit and shoved into the downpipe stub, which had a matching slit to let it expand a little. It was then a dance to get the other end of that adapter (2″) adapted to 2.25″ for the remaining pipe. All of the new pipe is 2.25″.

Yeah, the slit is a built-in exhaust leak. Whatever, it’s past the oxygen sensor. Maybe if I feel enterprising I’ll TIG weld it shut (and ONLY it) later.

This section has a flexible coupling in it since the catalytic converter’s output also did, and I wanted to keep the same constraint architecture. The length of solid pipe from here back is hung at both ends while the flexible coupling goes from the adapter salad to it. Should I be required to reinstall a converter in the future, like moving to an emissions-strict area where they don’t just go by OBD-II diagnostics, I should be able to stuff one back in here.

Compared to the… exhausting… dance up front, doing the up-and-over was quite easy and enjoyable.

I decided to be cheeky and go for a SPORT MUFFLER instead of an OEM style one. What, you wanted to sound like a sports car all these year, Mikuvan. Here’s your chance.

This is a Cherry Bomb “Turbo” multi-chambered muffler, distinct from Cherry Bomb’s usual fiberglass packed ones. I don’t have a turbo. I don’t care. It was $28.99 on sale at Pep Boys, and a little of on-the-spot research told me that glass-packs would definitely bring out the ricer fart cannon sound, but would foul up quickly due to the engine consuming oil. Given that,  I was better off with a chambered type.

Anyways, this first attempt made it hang a little too low, so I had to cut the strap and bolt it in closer to the trailer hitch.

The final position. It’s not actually tilted much in real life, by the way – the perspective of this photo is a little strange, since Mikuvan’s rear lower quarter panels curve upwards and the trailer hitch is actually a little tilted upwards also.

So, how do I like the end result?

i regret everything in my life

Okay, the ricer sound was funny for about 24 hours. Between 1000-1500 rpm and 2500-3000 rpm, it seems to resonate the cabin, resulting in a constant mooing sound, a persistent droning. Guess which RPM bands get used the most during gentle city and highway cruising!?

Mikuvan sounds like it has 75 more horsepower than it actually does, which is a 75% improvement. It DOES have more low-end jumpiness, like the second after mashing it from a stoplight. Additionally, the power available past 3500 RPM improved noticeably – previously, trying to throttle past 4,000 didn’t do me much good, and it felt like the engine just hits a wall, but my gas mileage the week after took a complete dive as I was redlining everywhere all the time.

I think this is less due to a sport muffler than just installing the new system as 2.25″ pipe instead of the stock 1-7/8″ (50mm?) pipe for its majority length. I didn’t bother to check if the 0-60 changed. That’s not the point. The answer is still yes.

Realistically, I might toss an OEM style muffler on there after winter passes.  One Dragon Con and Franklin Institute with the Persistent Moo was fairly sufficient, thank you.

Anyways, let’s move onto the more important part of van maintenance: blinkenlights.  I replaced almost all of the small marker and dashboard lights with LEDs back in 2014. A few of them had begun dying, including somewhat important things like the previously chastised oil pressure warning light. That’s maybe a little important.

inexpensive chinese van lighting 3: the reckoning

I decided that enough time had passed to do a scan of the market again, so I hopped on good ol’ Amazon Prime. The market structure™ is very different now – in 2013 and 2014, a lot more of the LED widget vendors were China based. Nowadays, they (or their underlings) all have Prime fulfillment or US-based shipping.

 

 

What I noticed is a rise in these purely PCB-based LED units in small (T10, T5, 194, etc.) sizes. I originally bought several styles which were plastic former incandescent lamp shells containing discrete LEDs with formed leads. Those actually didn’t work very well in the end. The LEDs had no heat sinking and tended to burn out or dim quickly, and the formed leads pretending to be T-series shaped were flimsy.

Also, a lot of the LED clusters were unnecessarily bright, containing 5-10 devices. It’s a marker light, bruh, not a camera flash. The ones I found contained 3 or 4 little LED chips only and seemed to have a lot more PCB copper area relative to their size. An example captured from Amazon is bove.

I was curious about one more thing: Most of these products now claim to have “CANBUS error-free” features. After doing a little sleuthing, I discovered that it’s a New Car Problem (a.k.a I don’t care) of the LED bulbs drawing so little current that the ECU/Body control module will throw an error saying you have a bulb broken.

….so here is how the enterprising Chinese widget makers solve it. They drop a big power resistor across the input. To make it draw more current.

This is utter bullshit. Do not EVER buy a “CANBUS Error Free” LED bulb. If your car is new enough to complain, it’s new enough that you shouldn’t be putting questionable aftermarket glowy things on it anyway.  Get an old shitcan like these were meant for. Preferably a van. I like vans.

Here is what the typically 100-to-200 ohm power resistor does: It heats up.

It heats enough to some times desolder itself.

It’s also right next to the LEDs, so they heat up even more and even faster than if they were over-rated and over-driven. I burned one out on 14.0v after like 3 minutes of it just sitting on my desk. It was drawing 0.2 amps until the end – that’s 3 W of power heating up an object which weighs nothing. I think I know why so many of these products have bad Amazon reviews: sadly, people don’t know better.

I desoldered each and every “CANBUS resistor” on each and every one of the 50 white, miku blue, red, and amber LEDs I got. This did not take long, since I had a reflow cannon, but I was peeved to discover that my worst fears regarding inexpensive Chinese van accessories had come true again.

The white T10 units drew 0.05 amps after I was done. That’s more than enough.

The end result is real pretty though.

I changed the master illumination to the “ice blue” LEDs which is really clever marketing speak for my favorite color, Miku Blue.  I also restored all of the small indicators to pure white units so their original colors were back.

That’s enough for silly lighting. It’s still the case that if you want actually reliable LED units, you should still stick with a retail brand name like Sylvania or Philips. They’re going to be pricier, but unless you also have a reflow heat gun and a night to burn and are at least a little obessive like me, just get them.

More recently, I tackled a more reasonable silly old van problem of a broken sensor wire. While doing the fall-to-winter oil change, I noticed a loose wire.

This used to go to the oil pressure sensor (what is with the oil pressure sensor and light as a recurring theme here…) which is located on the bottom of the engine. Heat and oil had stiffened the old PVC-insulated wire until it just broke off inside the connector.

This wasn’t too epic of a fix. I replaced the original wire with a length of silicone-insulated noodly robot wire, up to where it enters the harness and was still quite flexible. This shows the joint and repaired connector before I sleeved it over with heat-shrink tubing and tucked it back into the wiring loom.

Back in place we go!  Excuse the grunge. That is Mikuvan leaking the correct amount of oil my self-applying undercoating system.

I additionally performed some mercy maintenance on the left side. My original body repair on the left rocker panel corners fell off earlier this year. I was kind of expecting this, since I was never able to get the holes in the front (behind the front wheel) fixed and so that repair only trapped water, causing it to fail eventually.

I decided it was better to just leave the lower panel holes open but seal-coat them inside and out. This strategy had been working (and continues to work) for the two holes forward of each wheel, which I coated in Eastwood Goo back in 2014 thoroughly.

So out comes the wirebrushes, in wheel and tooth form. I wire-brushed off all outstanding surface rust first, and reached into the panel holes to manually wire brush off the loose rust inside. Additionally, while I had it up on ramps, I used my slide hammer to try and pull down the damaged lower rocker panel and pinch weld. If you buy a derpy Japanese van, chances are someone’s tried to jack it up by the pinch welds and completely fucked over the metal in the area, I guarantee it.  I only take Mikuvan to mechanics I have talked to and trust for this reason: I don’t trust anyone to know it can only be jacked by the frame. This area came rusty and bent upwards, and had only been deteriorating more. I couldn’t get it completely flat again, but it at least looks better than it was.

Prior to the application of Eastwood Goo, I touched up the paintwork right next to the fuel filler door and immediately in front of the rear wheel. The former had been slowly dissolving due to gasoline fumes and accidental overflows, and was turning the whole area dark and ratty looking as well as causing some of my original bodywork to start chipping off. If I had to point to one thing which crossed my “daily junker” threshold, it was this. I haven’t found a rattlecan product which can completely resist gasoline, so this area will only become ratty again until Mikuvan gets a real paint job.

After the color and clear coat were vaguely dry – as dry as they could get in 40-something degrees, I drew a big fat line with the Eastwood Goo both on the outside here as well as the opposite side, using the extendo-straw to go well into the interstitial space of the panels on both sides.

Essentially I’m just preserving this area from further deterioration. Should I decide that dropping several thousand dollars on a full restoration and repaint is worth it in the future, I will source this body panel either domestically from the southwest/California, or internationally since this generation of Mitsubishi van is still (somehow) in production in various developing countries. Otherwise, an experienced body shop would just strip it all to bare metal anyway. Should I embark on an electrification project, I’ll likely start anew with a donor van in better condition from the same areas (since I assume that if I’m going ahead with cutting up Teslas and Nissan Leafs, that I’m well off enough to have my own garage and lift!)

So that’s Mikuvan’s history for the past 2-3 months. Interspersed with all of this was of course the comparative 800-lb gorilla and relatively white elephant of….

vantruck

Oh god why do I still own this device. It’s been a year, yet it still feels new and interesting.

As I had sampled a pile of LEDs again, one of the things I did immediately was to retrofit Vantruck too. The incandescent bulbs it came with have long darkened and were sort of miserable looking. The dashboard was so dim it was almost impossible to see even at night.

 

Well that’s no way to live! Luckily, it uses type 194 bulbs EVERYWHERE. Even the idiot lights. I had to buy another pack of T10/194 type LEDs to satisfy it. (Vantruck is the undisputed king of the phrase “I had to ____ another ____ to satisfy it”)

Naturally, all of the dash illumination went Miku Blue. This was also taken before its 77777th mile party, celebrated by Dane on the road to a Power Racing Series race. Without him realizing it. Hurray, Dane!

By the way, my friends have put more miles on this thing than I have. Since the fuel injection retrofit, it has somehow registered no less than three trips to the New York / New Jersey area and one to southwestern Massachusetts, plus the odd DUDE BRO CAN I BORROW YOUR TRUCK BRO moving trip around town.

I don’t feel bad at all. Buying gas is punishment enough for them.

Along with the interior lights, I also redid the running board lights and forward exterior marker lamps. They were….. you guessed it. 194 type bulbs. I changed the “I am a van” lights by the door handles to Miku Blue since I’m Mr. Vain. It turns out that the bed marker lights are a sealed non-replaceable type, but I can get new ones which are all LED. I haven’t done that yet. I didn’t do the roof lights either – they are fastened from underneath, meaning I’d have to take off the roof liner to access them, which I was not inclined to do.

Notice something else cool? Vantruck now also has LED headlights. They are the same type of unit I got for Mikuvan, except in the H6054 size. They are available in all manners of Chinesium – here’s one example. Just search H6054 LED and don’t buy the 15,000-LED cluster bombss or the fake projector types.

After the LED switchover, I noticed a particularly Vantrucky bug becoming much worse – the lights were flickering hard. LEDs have no thermal mass unlike incandescent filaments. Something was causing all of my lights to flicker, including the dashboard. When this kind of thing happens, there is generally one culprit: a bad ground connection. I dunno whose amazing idea it was to chassis-ground automotive electrical systems, but it’s horrible.

In conducting a test to verify the problem, I connected one end of a voltmeter to the negative battery terminal, and through an alligator clip of sufficient length, to various “grounds” of the electrical system, such as the negative pole of a headlight, the body metal right next to the dashboard where a bunch of grounds for switches and knobs come together, and right next to the battery on the alternator. With the engine running, I captured an incredible 1.2 to 1.5v between battery ground and most things. The worst was, as expected, to the dashboard and interfacing with the body lighting harness in that area. (The correct expectation range I found is usually no more than 50-100 millivolts, and the lower the better just from my electrical engineering intuitions)

Holy crap. Well that explains why the FiTech ECU screen always tended to read my battery voltage as 12.something or 13.something. I verified that from the alternator output to itself I was getting a pretty consistent 14 volts.

The culprit was right behind the alternator – that’s the engine block to battery negative ring lug. I don’t have before photos, but let’s call it “rather pitted and sad looking” and its attachment bolt entirely coated in rust.

My solution was just to epicly wire brush the bolt and the attachment face until they were shiny, and crimp a new terminal onto the 4-gauge cable which was still otherwise in reasonable shape. After retightening, I smeared dielectric grease around the entire setup.

I decided at this point to also give the thing new battery terminals which I had purchased a while back but not installed. I furthermore gave the body a dedicated 10-gauge wire running from the attachment point where (as far as I can tell) the headlight and turn signal harness is grounded.

So I’m not sure if this is an Old Van Problem or is still present in newer vehicles, but it seems strange to me to ground everything to the body and frame yet only give the battery a cable to the engine block. Is the return current supposed to find its way back through to the engine block, jumping through things like bolts and bearings and chains and driveshafts? That just seems extra bad.

I mean, it’s clear there is enough metal contact for it to work for most everyone. Even Mikuvan only has 1 epic ground wire going to the battery from an anchor point on the engine block and nothing else that I can see. Unless I’m missing something, it seems like a dedicated ground wire for the body is really beneficial. It could be that in both cases, there is an actual connection somewhere else on the block to the body, but it’s buried so far in there I have not been able to find it.

Anyways, the moral of this story is wow, I didn’t know all of these lights could be so bright. The ECU display now reads very steady and the correct voltage – 14.4v right after starting and 13.6-13.8v idling when warm. The dashboard is almost comically bright and I had to turn it down with the dimmer for once. Cranking is much faster and less arduous. I should probably go inspect the status of the ground lug on Mikuvan at some point.

By the way, after resolving this issue, I completely reset the FiTech ECU and had it ‘relearn’ the fuel maps by driving around a bunch in mixed regimes. The stable and higher voltage power supply probably helps with a lot of things, so I gave it a chance to re-adapt. Regardless of any other changes behind the scenes, it definitely idles more stably now, so I experimented with leaning out all of the air-fuel ratio targets so it wouldn’t chug gasoline as hard – maybe a few percent less.

Well, over a long distance, that sure matters, because I’m going to a CAR SHOW!!!

the Jalopnik Car Show for Great Justice or Whatever

Delayed once due to being rained out and with the full force of Internet irony behind it, the Jalopnik car show was held the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This would be the first road trip that I myself will get to take in my own vantruck. It would also be the first car show that I actually signed up for. I’ve been to others, including smaller local ones. Everyone has to remember that I am not actually a “car guy”, just a “this one particular silly van” guy.

It was going to be 4 hours on a Sunday in Newark (uhh), which alone is too short of a stay for me to want to drive 55mph the whole way there and back. So I turned the weekend into a general New York City excursion.

With this thing.

If there is some poetry in having a big-block V8-having 9-miles-a-gallon-getting emissions-exempted 21-foot long 65-tons of American Pride occupying a Tesla supercharger spot, I missed it for the funny photo opportunity.

The two Tesla drivers who came in and out while I was hanging around uploading this photo for peoples’ amusement didn’t say anything. Not to me, not out loud. They didn’t dare defy the embodiment of all that is America.

And here I am poking out of a parking spot in Flushing! I’m backed all the way up to the green wall. Actually, it’s pushing the green wall back a good 3 or 4 inches. I felt the contact, and kept shoving a little. Sorry, wall. Sorry, whatever was behind the wall.

So before getting here, I actually drove it straight into lower Manhattan and the Financial District/Battery Park area to try to find…. a location where I could take a photo of it with the Statue of Liberty in the background.

‘murica

Sadly, that part of Manhattan is too busy and blocked off for any of that to happen. Through friends, I was told that I’d have better luck in Jersey City or parts of Brooklyn. I decided that was out of scope for the day and retreated to Flushing to gorge myself on noodle products by performing a rolling Denial of Service attack on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Bright and early the next day! They said to show up early. I assumed people were going to start lining up an hour before it starts, so I hustled out of Queens and got into Newark around 10:30. It turns out the organizers had barely even gotten there, so whew.

Well, at least now I have one clean and recent photo of Vantruck before everyone else showed up.

 

Hey! I brought Chibi-Mikuvan along for the ride, and it was extremely popular. I did some promotion of Power Racing Series, but only when asked.

Originally, I wanted to trailer Mikuvan down, but decided it was simply too much of a production for a 1 day event, and dealing with a now 40-foot long assemblage of vehicles in New York City was a little excessive. If Jalopnik chooses to do a weekend festival of shitboxes or something, I’d happily organize a carrier battle group rollout.

The closer we got to noon, the more interesting things became.

 

It’s 12:30 now, and we’re starting to have serious traffic problems. Got it – so that’s what “show up early” means!

 

A Mitsubishi Pajero appears! This thing with a Mikuvan bolted to it is the international 4×4 Delica Star Wagon. They share a powertrain and running gear, whereas the 2WD Delicas (Mikuvan included) share more parts with the 2WD pickup truck.

 

This Pajero was indeed the turbo-diesel version, and a recent Japanese import. jdm

 

itp: hipsters

By 1PM, they had to commandeer the neighboring parking lot for all the Chad-come-latelys.

i have money watch me spend it

Okay, okay… that’s harsh. I am sure the owner of this McLaren 720S is a swell fellow. I think what I found endearing about the Jalopnik Car Show overall is that the variety was so not car show, by design.

I’ve been to ones which were Camaro-Mustang-Corvette-Lambo-Stance-Stance-Revolution where every entry was meticulously detailed and shiny and hardly looks like they’re driven. I don’t believe in trailer queens personally – despite keeping my machinery in good running order and generally sound cosmetic shape, they’re not perfect because I use them daily.

In the same vein, I’ll repair and upgrade but never restore Bridgett or Taki-chan, because you create a machine too clean and shiny to be used. Someone else can do that. I don’t want to be hit with regret every time I drop a piece of stock, much like I prefer to be fearless with Mikuvan and occasionally push dumpsters a few feet when the hauling company can’t be buggered to place it back such that it doesn’t block the loading dock.

tl;dr don’t hand me a nice thing

Hey, another truck-like thing! This Ford Bronco is of the first body generation, prior to Vantruck’s year range.  It was one out of only 4 or 5 SUVs/jeep-shaped objects, counting the Mitsubishi Pajero.

And another pickup truck, what a relief to see.

Overall, Vantruck was the only van/conversion van of any type (not counting CMV, of course) and one of only three trucks present, and literally only van-truck of course. Counting CMV, I also had the only van, only cab-over van, and only electric van.

Hell, it was the ONLY electric ANYTHING. If I had one thing to be disappointed about this show, it was the lack of electricity. Surely someone thought about coming with a Model S or a Chevy Bolt or something? Nope.

AAAAAANGRY HEADLIGHTS

My other takeaway from this show besides my aforementioned desire to never own a nice thing is that even show cars aren’t all perfect. Again, my only experience with car shows prior to this is ones where everything has an aura of perfection and polishedness along with a nose-in-the-air presentation vibe. So I had a skewed perception of “car people gatherings” as a bunch of perfectionist snobs. I had never wanted to bring Mikuvan to a show since it’s full of my mechanical cockups and bodges.

I think overall going to a show like this was a good confidence booster. Hell, even the Monkees replica car (1st photo, behind Vantruck) had clearly patched and painted over spots where the bodywork had cracked or deteriorated, and a lot of the more nicely finished modified/tuner cars had stuff just hanging off them and random dents and paint chips. However, again, that to me is more honest than a perfect display piece and ‘matching numbers’.

malignant vantruck syndrome

About two weeks ago, I was making my usual patrol rounds using my pre-generated Craigslist searches…

Yes, I have a couple of those in places I often go. Vantrucks show up not that uncommonly – I’d say once or twice a month. But generally they’re either extremely beat up & have sat outside for 20 years, or pretty severely overprived for the condition they are in (e.g. literally over $9000).

This one popped up, though, and it was in a near perfect combo of condition according to the seller whom I talked to on the phone, initial price, and closeness.

So naturally, I had to go and check it out. Portsmouth is but 50 minutes away, or an hour and 15 minutes in Vantruck speeds.

 

 

DOUBLE VANTRUCKS! The cause of global warming is right in front of you, ladies and gentlemen.

This one is indeed in very respectable condition. The owner is a retired engineer who has had four of these things throughout recent history. How do I know this? He had a dedicated photo album, each photo laminated and in a pocket, of all of the repairs and modifications he’s done to all of them. I want to say “wow, this guy is like me but with real life pictures” but the magnitude of things is so different I can’t begin to use myself as the reference point. It was, though, very inspirational to see how excited he was about all the ones he’s owned and the customization work he’s done.

Anyways, the best crusty old vehicles are usually owned by dedicated retired owners. This one had a slew of mechanical work and replaced components in the past 25,000 miles that I won’t bother listing here. I did some sleuthing underneath to determine the state of the frame and other bodywork. The interior is immaculate and all of the coachwork is original.

So you might think that I went ahead and expanded my aircraft carrier fleet. Well, kind of….

The trip was actually a scouting mission for a robot buddy, Alex of Wedge Industries, a long time northeastern robot competitor. In fact, me versus him was the Franklin Institute finals in the 30lb class. So now this thing is in the robot family… and Motorama 2018 is going to be certified dank.

I was going to Double Vantruck to go meet him for pickup, but the heavy snowfall on that day caused me to rethink that plan and I instead headed out with someone else who had 4×4 and a not 70/30 weight distribution. Here, Alex stops over in the shop after getting a trailer to tow his own car back with. Have fun with your 9 miles a gallon all the back to Pennsylvania :p

I now leave you with this.

 

A Return to Inexpensive Chinese Van Lighting: LED Sealed Beams Update

Apr 27, 2017 in mikuvan

Boy, I’m all up on that chinesium recently, what with Chinese machine spindle drivers, the inaugural Chinese ~120lb Middleweights tournament which I helped transcribe results for, my Chinese production run of RageBridge 2sChina China China China. I love China. China is where all kinds of interesting things spawn from, some of which make you wonder who approved the push to production.

A while back, I broadly sampled cheap automotive LED products in an effort to convert all of Mikuvan’s auxiliary lighting to LED. That writeup is here. I’ve been pretty successful on this front, only having to replace one of the dashboard lights and another running light since then…. so they definitely don’t not work, but I’ll probably do another round of upgrades to the next price tier soon and see how the Market Structure has changed.

What I want to go back to is LED headlights. When I made that post, LED headlights were still quite a novelty, and very expensive. What generic products existed then were limited to these kinds of things:

I discounted them pretty heavily because they looked simply too Harbor Freight flashlighty for me – there’s no way you can aim those things properly. Just like a cheap LED flashlight, they wouldn’t have any meaningful beam pattern, and instead just be a soft wad of light. I wasn’t in much of a hurry to get real GE Nighthawks obviously, so I let the matter fall aside.

Until a few weeks ago.

While campaigning for Vantruck parts on RockAuto, my automotive opioid dealer, I noticed these under the headlights section:

Hmm, well that’s interesting. They look exactly like the GE Nighthawk units. I’d not researched the 5×7 H6054 sealed beam size before since I never had to; the 4×6 H4656 type didn’t have any LED listings on RockAuto, probably because everything sucks.

Well, now I’m beginning to think there’s a pattern. I looked in some other palces for H6054-sized LED lights, and….

 

That one is from TruckLite, which carries them along with other annoying Brodozer lighting products. For the record, this is a GE Nighthawk 5×7:

The problem? They’re all expensive as hell. I’m really not in the mood to pay $180+ for a single headlight unit, especially if I don’t know if they’ll work well.

Well, now I see the pattern. One axiom of Chinesium product finding is a corollary to the Law of Chinese Product Packaging Inertia, which states that if the products look alike, they most likely function alike in all but the most trivial ways. This has been my guiding principle for finding Chinese motor controllers and mechanical products for years.

If you turn that around a little, it becomes if multiple U.S. vendors offer the same looking product, there is likely a generic Chinesium origin. It’s something like that old quote that goes Behind every great man is a woman, except made of phthalic acid plasticizers and artificially manipulated currencies.

So I went AliExpress hunting. That didn’t take very long:

 

Score! I had what appeared to be the same kind of units as the first hit. Even better, the top 3 hits were three different approaches.

This is what always pleases me about the wild world of Chinesium: Nobody knows what they’re actually selling, so unlike Western product development culture where everyone focuses on one or two strategic approaches, the Chinese philosophy (if there even is an organized one… I don’t think so) might be spam the SHIP IT button . Recall my post about finding a new coolant pump for Chibi-Mikuvan, and how I found 3 different styles of water pump on Amazon in a few minutes.

So we have the Nighthawk clone on the left, what appears to be some kind of optometry examination device in the middle, and the “compound fly-eye” LED grenade on the right. Pretty much all of these listings, by the way, have random images of American pickup trucks or heavy duty trucks in their descriptions. They know. Since I know the Nighthawk style exists in the US as a baseline, I decided to spring for a set to try out.

While on Aliexpress, though, I got curious about the state of the 4×6 market. The styles are much the same, with most products being the LED-spam approach and some of a hybrid projector design like the aforementioned middle 5×7 product. Which, by the way, seem to be rather trashy for aimability also based on Dane’s analyses, as his Jeep XJ also uses the 5×7 size.

There was a style which was different , a combination of the LED-spam and the Nighthawk style divided high-and-low beam reflectors. These things used significantly fewer LEDs, so there might be some hope of the beam pattern being reasonable. I found a set from the same seller as who I was planning on getting the 5×7 size from:

 

By the way, don’t be deceived by the suggested transit time for the shipment. Often, you can pull down a little menu under Shipping which might reveal a very cheap DHL or Fedex/UPS option. For $14 I had all 4 headlight units in one week. I can barely coerce a shipment across the US in that time!

Fast forward a few hazy days where I think I remember some Brushless Rage work, and….

Nondescript Chinese gift boxes! Hurray!

The boxes are completely blank – presumably, resellers will have their logo and other information printed on them.

Here’s the 4×6 unit. The front cover is an unknown clear plastic; while it was advertised as a UV-resistant anti-scratch-coated polycarbonate, who the hell knows. I didn’t feel like taking a torch to these to sniff them just yet.

The casing is a very solid feeling cast aluminum with heat dissipation fins. Cooling, for the longest time, was the biggest issue plagueing LEDs and preventing their use in high-powered lighting. There aren’t any provisions for forced air or active thermal management (some modern car LED headlights are maintained by a Peltier solid state device), and I think they’re just counting on sealed-beam sockets on older vehicles being pretty open air. It’ll be interesting to see how these fare in a hot environment.

Let’s power it up! This is Low beams mode:

You know, I was honestly surprised at the beam definition. I pointed it across the dark warehouse and it wasn’t bad at all.  While looser than a modern xenon setup, it was still defined.

High beam lights up the top row of 5 LEDs, and boy is it bright. The bottom 4 still stay lit, however, so the difference between the centers of the beams is not as defined as for my current set of high-brightness halogen lights.  You’ll see this pattern change in the installation photos later.

 

The funny part was powering on what I called the “goat lights“. There’s a cute little LED strip in the middle behind a angular diffusing lens which is separately powered. They’re present as running lights. The extra wire emanating from the connector is so you can tap them into an existing DRL circuit.

So, overall I’m so far impressed. They don’t seem to be shitty. Let’s move onto the 5×7:

So this thing is interesting. Low beams shoot out the top half of the assembly, while high beam turns on the lower half while keeping the upper half lit.

It took me a minute to accept that yeah, this is also legitimate. The reflector on the top half is tilted slightly downwards, and the lower reflector is more straight-on. Actually desirable behavior for headlights. It seems like this one had some more R&D or engineering put into it. The beam pattern was even more concentrated than the 4×6 model since there is only 1 giant emitter per side, and there was more discernable shift between the high and low beam levels. I like it a lot actually! Unlike the 4×6, this type does not have a running light or accent. However, that style is also available in 5×7.

Alright, it’s install time. Since Vantruck is still mechanically indeterminate, I pitched the 5×7 units at Dane, so you might see them on his website soon. For now, I was going to install the 4×6 onto Mikuvan to see what the difference is like.

I set up the test in a parking garage, center-aligned with a spot marker line pointing at a wall about 25 feet away. I set up my camera on a tripod in the middle, immediately in front of the bumper aligned with the marker. I then tried to not move the camera for the entire test, including installation and aiming. The shutter and aperture speed were changed to a setting I liked and then they were not touched for the testing.

First, my regular old low beams. These are Wagner Britelite increased-brightness H4656 bulb modules. I’m not sure I can recommend them – as much as I like the light spam, I get maybe a little over a year to about 18 months out of them consistently. They’re advertised as having less lifetime, though, so I’m not even mad, just a little Disappointed Asian Dad.

Two defined spots, slightly biased low and to the right. The left light was recently replaced and I couldn’t be arsed to aim it properly, so it’s sitting a little higher and not quite as right any more.

Stock high beam halogens, unified spot high and a little to the right. Mikuvan’s 4-headlight setup means in high beam operation, they’re ALL on – it has two dual-filament H4656 type bulbs for standard low beam operation (which the LED units will replace) and two H4651 dedicate high beams.

Install was simple. I modified the marker light wiring harness on each side to plug in the “goat lights”, and here they are. Very goaty.

The main power connector, though, is actually an H4 type, not a H4656. This is some stupid automotive U.S. vs. The World standard I don’t understand, but it just involves a fast pin change on the connector to be compatible. Seriously, people, this is stupid.

After a few attempts at aiming, here’s what I came up with.

Damn. This was, again, taken with the camera in the same spot using the same shutter speed and aperture. I’d describe this as a curtain of light. The beam is so broad that I could barely aim it enough rightwards – I just about bottomed out the adjustment screw on the left headlight. However, it has a fairly sharp vertical cutoff, so that’s good for not glaring people.

Now with all 4 lights working in hi-beams mode, you can see how far rightwards the left headlight has been moved. This was all in an attempt to get it vaguely centered on the halogen lamp’s spot. I had to compromise here, as the difference in level between high and low wasn’t as drastic. I erred on the side of keeping the low beams lower to the ground, rather than broadcasting my lane change clearance to Mars.

I went on a run around the block to test everything out, and I must say it’s an immense improvment. My only concern was if it was significantly glare-inducing to someone oncoming because of the sheer width of the beams. I just vaguely tested this by squatting in the street at roughly the driver’s head height of the Honda Civic next to me. Result: Not any worse than what I get daily from people with modern HID setups, or even worse, from those HID retrofit kits that never aim correctly.

Here’s a test video I took shortly thereafter on a deserted road in Mexico showing the beam appearance. The scatter means it lights up distant road signs ridiculously well, much better than the halogen units.

So what to do after I have 2 of them? Now my headlight colors are mismatched, so I gotta…

Upgrade! See, now that the Chinesium base product has been hunted down and interrogated, I grabbed this set from a US seller instead. The box was exactly the same, just printed with some fancy letters and numbers and whatnot. The product? Also exactly the same!

DOUBLE GOAT MODE ACTIVATE. This photo is retro-futuristic as hell. EXPERIENCE THE AESTHETIC

You know how I can tell these were the same product by different manufacturers? My headlights are still slightly different colors. The color temperature of the two purchases is barely not the same.

Alright, so what have I learned here? The current low-cost aftermarket for LED headlights seems to have some viable products now. I did not crack open any of the units to inspect the components inside – maybe I’ll do that down the line if one dies, or I pick up another one. The units, both 4×6 and 5×7 type, seemed to be built well. My only concern is really longevity and ambient temperature tolerance. That’s something only operating these for a while will reveal.

Here’s a caveat though. With all 4 units running in high beams mode, it’s a ridiculous amount of light. I light up highway signs from like a quarter mile away easily because of the beam spread. I actually am concerned about it being unsafely bright when I use high beams to signal someone, like acknowledging a turn. It’s like a camera flash, but even worse. I’ve worked into the habit of briefly blinking the running lights on and off instead of flicking high beams to counteract this. A little bit of a damper on something otherwise very great so far.

If you go for a set, the general trend based on my own tests and reading reviews and discussions is aim them lower than you think you should. The light spread counteracts the lower spot with standard halogen lights, so aiming lower covers more of the road in front, and also makes sure you don’t glare people.

 

 

The Chronicles of Vantruck 2: Not-Yet-Electric Boogaloo

Jan 12, 2017 in mikuvan, vantruck

sigh

It’s a new year, and somehow I’m outside, in the middle of winter in Massachusetts, at night, fixing a van.

Again.

As I’ve said before, imagine if I ever exert this much effort doing something socially beneficial or self-improving.

I’ve been sparse lately, though, due to a similar kind of exertion that is called “working for yourself”. When you’re me and you take contracting work, you begin to adopt everyone else’s malformed, premature project embryos as your own, and raise them until they can walk on their own, often into a wall. The upside is that I can pick my battles and choose my projects, but the caveat is that I was never good at time management anyway, so it’s sort of easy for me to get lost in work. Overhaul has been living under a table and Clocker 4 hasn’t been repaired from Franklin Institute yet. Please make #season3 happen ):

I am, however, signed up for Motorama again, and you know what this means:


WE MEET AGAIN

 

This time, I will be unstoppable. I will be a worthy opponent!

But first, to get to that point, Vantruck has to be legal to operate in the state of Massachusetts, among other things. So time to get to work!

I have a habit of buying something and then doing research on what it is I just bought. This is why targeted internet advertising never works on me, because it’s too late to show me Ford truck ads now, guys.

To this end, I went ahead and picked up a copy of both the Chilton’s and Haynes service manuals, as well as copy of the Official Ford E/F-150-350 + Bronco Player’s Guide on CD, since I like information. Also, I’ve otherwise never owned a vehicle that had been worth writing an aftermarket service manual over. When one book can cover almost 30 years of one model, or SEVEN MODELS AT ONCE, that’s when you know that 1. it’s good, and 2. it’s why we need globalized diverified economies.

Okay, I’ll take number 1 back. These manuals suck. They’re definitely very “old school car guy” centric, but perhaps it’s just the ones written for old vehicles. The section on how to rebuild your carburetor or adjust the bands in the automatic transmission? Awesome! Checking all engine bearing, cam, and valve clearances? HUGE!

Electrical?

YES, THERE ARE WIRES (1978 F-150 W/ 6-302 ENGINE SHOWN; OTHER MODELS SIMILAR)

I’ll be up front, the only thing I know about carburetors is that a unicorn lives in each barrel and it decides how much fuel to mix with the incoming air. Vantruck’s Ford 460 engine has a 4-barrel carburetor, meaning it has 4 unicorn-power. At least 1 of those unicorns is slacking off when it gets below about 30 degrees, since it will only hold idle with a little bit of throttle application for a minute or so until it warms up. I am told the unicorn has to be choked to whip it back into shape, and the mechanism that does this might be sticky.

Whatever. I don’t care about carburetors. Maybe one day in the future I’ll write the Haynes manual on how to rebalance your future solar-powered bubblecopter’s main lift motors in excruiciating detail and some young hotshot will tell me that nobody uses electric motors any more and that all new bubblecopters manipulate the electroweak force to spontaneously decompose atoms in front of where you want the propellers to be.

So let’s see what I’m dealing with here…. Remember, the goal is to get turn signals and reversing lights working again!

Alright, so the circuit I’m interested in is protected by Fuse 10. I confirmed that yes, no matter how big a fuse I put in, it immediately blows on any turn of the key, so it’s a hard short to ground somewhere. Referring to the wiring diagrams in the manuals (which all say the same thing in slightly different line widths and wiring label mnemonics), I see that there is a combination switch on the transmission that directly controls the reversing lights.

Given that the hazard flasher still works, and the turn signals do flash with them, I suspected a hard short somewhere along the body harness for the reversing lights. The turn signals are on a different path and therefore not affected by the short, but it will blow the fuse and cause power loss to both.

Interesting fact: No matter how large the nose on a full-size American van, there is still an access port for the engine on the inside, and it’s the same for Chevy/GMC and Dodge too. This thing really has less lateral legroom than Mikuvan does, and it’s because the engine is slightly ahead of you, not slightly behind. You’re still basically sitting on top of it.

Why can’t you be a 1960s Econoline instead? They even made pre-truckified versions!

Here I am popping the doghouse off to inspect the wiring harness going to the transmission switch.

 

And I find the culprit immediately: A very fried and rotted wiring connector and harness that was touching the engine block. It seems to have been routed in the valley of the engine next to one of the cylinder heads – so I can only surmise that it’s gotten very hot, accelerating the decay of the legendary 80s US-made plastics. This connector shell basically turned to dust when I tried to open it, and the wiring insulation flaked off in large pieces.

 

Yeah, I picked the scab for a few minutes and separated the wires where they were exposed in order to make sure nothing was shorting,  I cut the harness wrap another few inches in both directions to look for additional shorted locations, but this was the only one.

And here we go – turn signals are back!

However, there were still no reversing lights. I metered the circuits and discovered the transmission switch’s reverse position had failed open – perhaps due to the shorted harness. So that’s a few bucks on eBay for another transmission switch!

Meanwhile, I moved onto excavating other wiring artifacts, playing such games as “Where the hell does this bare-ass connector go?”

I couldn’t find any mating end for this bare terminal; it’s on the same circuit as the power supplied to the transmission switch and is allegedly part of the ignition interlock (for no starting in-gear), but I can find no mention of it anywhere in the manuals – probably an aftermarket mod that was later removed. I taped it off for the time being.

Then we have this rare example of an American Wiring Kudzu:

Someone please tell me this is not OEM. Compared to Mikuvan’s “all in one extravaganza” wiring experience, this is borderline unreal.

I couldn’t identify what the leftmost and uppermost components (with rusty terminals) were, but one of the right hand side relays seemed to be a headlight relay and the other one a horn relay. If you know what those other things are, please let ME know. I just wire-brushed and dielectric-greased the terminals and called it a day.

Following the horn relay caused me to discover a very long-dead airhorn compressor buried near the front radiator supports. Since the plumbing seems to be in place, maybe I’ll try hooking up a new airhorn compressor at some point…

Flash forward a week and the new transmission switch has arrived. This is a photo of removing the old one – it was a very straightforward procedure, and I actually did it “by the book” as recommended.

Interesting fact: The orange tube seen in the first ‘doghouse’ photo is actually a linkage that connects the throttle body to a small lever on the transmission selector valve. Its termination is shown here. Not only is it actually a linkage, but it’s actually the connecting link in a 3-dimenional 4-bar linkage and moves in a circular arc centered somewhere inside the engine. It’s the transmission kickdown linkage, and when you hit the gas pedal hard enough, it moves outwards at the throttle body, translating through that circular motion into a downward motion at the switch here.

It doesn’t stop there; EVERYTHING IS LINKAGES. The throttle itself is a linkage, and the main gear shift selection lever also toggles the leftmost brown bar as a linkage. The parking brake linkage seems to move on the same set of pins this whole clusterfuck moves on, connected to the frame.  AND EVERY ONE OF THESE LINKAGES IS SLOPPY.

I legitimately don’t know if I should be horrified that someone thought this was a good idea, or amazed at the ingenuity that went into packaging everything.

Whatever. You’re all leaving for a sack of electrons in the next few years. I cleaned up the area and regreased all the pins and clevises for now. I should just pack everything with JB-weld so it fills the slop!

As the first wiring repair a few days later, I started with the most critical issue, the transmission harness. Here it is repaired with a few more inches to spare ; this extra length will let me route it up and over the hot part of the engine, over the air cleaner lid, and back down towards the transmission.

Alright, with my turn signals back on and the reversing light circuit showing continuity, I still had no reversing lights. Well, time to go see what other wires could be broken. The wire emerging from the transmission switch which allegedly goes straight backwards to the reversing lamps did not show continuity to ground, meaning it was broken somewhere along the way. First, I checked the light modules themselves, which meant starting at the back…

Bad mistake.

Judging by the aging of the various nylon splice connectors AND A WIRE NUT. WHO THE HELL USES WIRE NUTS HERE I think at least 2 jackasses have been here before me, making me the third ass. Several aftermarket trailer devices have probably lived and died here, and there were not only stubs of wires (some of which I might need) but splices like this rare Shadtree Wiring Octopus living in the back bumper area.

Speaking of trailer accessories, here’s a quick side story.

Since the beginning, Vantruck has had a magic switch installed on the underside of the dashboard. Neither the seller nor I nor my truck-buddy Dan who I blame for this whole thing could tell what it did, or where it led.  This magic switch had a yellow and a brown wire coming off it, with the yellow going directly to 12 volts at the fuse box. The brown wire, though, disappeared into the abyss.

As long as I had the dash and other panels off hunting for the transmission switch wiring, I decided to follow the brown wire.

From the switch, it runs downwards and follows the rest of the body harness out to the front driver’s side of the engine compartment. It’s definitely aftermarket, since it’s just stuffed into the bushing there, not part of any wrapped bundles.

Inside the engine compartment by the front left wheelwell, it makes a U-turn and dives under the frame. It runs allllllll the way back to just ahead of the rear axle, upon which it terminates in….

 

NOTHING

That was….. anticlimactic.

Oh well. I ripped this wire all the way out, along with the entire magic switch, and some of the wiring stock ended up making it back in the form of taillights.

At this point, I looked up and discovered this creative arrangement of fuel lines and seemingly a vestigial fuel-system switching valve. The seller had made it clear that the dual tank system doesn’t work. There is another switching valve to the right, a few feet closer to the front driver’s side, which is about equally disconnected.

Since it’s silly to have such a huge truck with less range than a Tesla Model S, this fuel system will be the focus of my next adventures. I’m just going to replumb everything from scratch – I don’t even care to detangle this right now. More importantly though, the fuel gauge sensor is faulty in the rear tank (left) and of unknown vintage on the front tank (right), so they are a higher priority than being able to cause 2 forms of global warming at the flick of a switch.

 

By the way, the yellow end of the magic switch ended in a wire nut by the fuse panel, which has a connection via a 30 amp fuse to….

…a wrapped bundle somewhere in the body harness again.

You know what, fuck it, I quit. I just removed all of the splices, trimmed the unknown broken wires, and put it back together.  Currently, power windows only work if I alligator clip the door harness to 12V, so I’m pretty sure one of these things actually went to them, in defiance of the manual telling me what color wires are supposed to do what. I’ll address this later…

Since I had to get access to the rear wiring anyway for the lights, and it hadn’t gotten that cold out yet, I decided to rust-treat the rear bumper’s inside cavities while it was off.

This thing was unexpectedly heavy. It’s made of mostly 1/8″ and 3/16″ steel with stamped brackets holding it to the frame with 5/8″ bolts.  I keep forgetting that I am working in a realm where everything was designed by and for much larger and manlier men than myself.  This is good – it keeps me on my toes, and makes it even weirder to everyone else around when I pop out of it at Motorama.

The treatment consisted of a wire brushing and air-blasting the rust powder off, then treating the remnant surface rust with converter, and a few layers of clearcoat over it once it dried. Probably overkill for surface rust on the stern of the Titanic, but hey, it’s iceberg season and I had work to do while the substances dried.

Getting it back on again was an even more hilarious adventure. dem gainz

Long story short, I basically rebuilt the rear harness using the shop books as a guide. I removed several ill-conceived marker lights, seen as shadows above the wiring loop. Clown #1 or #2 had just drilled a tiny hole through the sheet metal and shoved the wire through, un-bushed and liable to being torn on any one of those holes. I’ll do my own marker lights later if I feel like adding to the already gargantuan collection of LOOK AT ME I’M A TRUCK lights present.

Finally, after shaving most of the yaks living in this region, I pulled out the taillight modules and began playing hunt the wire. Here is another Shadetree Wiring Octopus habitat. The sheer number of splices on this length alone are mind-boggling, and make me suspect the taillights are not original.  I played a game of alligator clips trying to find out what was supposed to go to where – at this point, none of the colors lined up with the shop book, so I only had intuition to help along.

And an hour or so later, the corrected harness with rebuilt areas and 99% less splices emerges.

Luckily, the other side was actually in good shape, but this was the master side where the brake light, turn signal, and reversing light body harness came in, so it was the side which mattered. Everything was e-taped together, bundled, and shoved back in.

And there we go!

Those are some bright taillights… In fact, they’re the same ones I use on Mikuvan, the so-called 10W LED “buttheadlights”.

I discovered that beyond just hacking up the wiring, Clowns #1 or #2 had in fact installed the entire wrong bulb into the right side reversing light. They somehow stuffed a type 1157 dual-filament bulb into the socket for an 1156. Nothing made contact, and so that light didn’t work initially.

Not having direct replacements for the type 1156, I suddenly remembered I bought like 3 packs of those LED things and decided to just switch over right now to LEDs. I did not have 1157s for the taillights in LED, though, so that will come another day.

These are the “buttheadlights” in question, and I can vouch for their niceness.

Buttoned back up!

The story doesn’t end there, however. As long as there was a gaping hole in the fender, I couldn’t get an inspection sticker to be fully road-legal. At this point, I had plotted and schemed for 3 weeks on how to fix the hole, but the weather no longer permitted any outdoor work that involved curing or drying anything – and I did not have any place left to pull it indoors.  I finally decided to throw it in and took Vantruck to Richie’s Automotive in Waltham, a shop highly recommended by Dan which dealt a lot with trucks. This timed well with a spontaneous New Years trip to Atlanta, so I was able to leave it there and ask for the Have At It treatment.

And here we go! After I returned from driving vans for 3,000 miles, I was totally done with vans, so Dan got the privilege of piloting the battleship back to port. The fender patch is backed with sheet metal and all the damaged brackets were also repaired; I also had them go ahead and replace the exhaust system from the Y-pipe back since it had substantial rust holes in the muffler and other spots.

So that’s why it was so loud. I thought large American V8s just sounded like that all the time.

Finally, they threw in repairing all of the marker and trim lights, including all the little ones in the running boards which were out and I didn’t care enough to do with the other wiring, as well as the ones eviscerated from the fender. It’s great to have a shop well-connected to the industry, since I am definitely not knowledgeable on Giant American Truck things.

The current outlook is to replace the malfunctioning fuel gauge in the rear tank, which reads half when full and empty when about 5 gallons down out of 22, so it’s not helpful at all. I’m perfectly content having only about 250 miles of range on one tank, since that places it on the same refueling interval as Mikuvan. I’m therefore not inclined to actually repair the fuel tank switching valve system, but maybe just join the two tanks at the bottom with a hose or a transfer pump so I have use of both tanks, just not alternately.

After all, if I make it too good, I might be inclined to keep everything running…

In other exciting van news, however, this latest trip to Atlanta did result in Mikuvan rolling the grand ol’ 200K, in the most unromantic possible location: A few hundred feet from the entrance of the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut.

Hopefully I’ll captain this Space Battlevan-ship for many more parsecs to come. I’m eager for the weather to improve again so I can continue preparing it for the inevitable decals.

Baking the Roll Cake, and How I Failed to Save Private Überclocker This Time: The Dragon Con 2016 Adventures

Sep 11, 2016 in Bots, Events, mikuvan, Roll Cake, Überclocker 4

Oh hello everybody! It’s a few days after Dragon Con and I’ve finally woken back up. Where the hell am I?! What is this metallic coating all over my face? Why have I gained 20 delicious pounds?

Here it is, the Post Dragon Con 2016 recap. I didn’t get a change to put out another update before leaving for Atlanta, and then it was a mad pre-convention dash. So this update will cover all of the construction of Roll Cake, as well as get started on the Bot that Charles Forgot – Überclocker 4.0, a.k.a “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Overhaul!”.

Amazingly enough, there were no van shenanigans on the way down. I’m staying in Atlanta a few days later again, so the return trip is still clouded in the ether, but at this time (Boston to Atlanta and now a few hundred miles locally) there are no issues to report.

Alright, I lied a little – at some point a few weeks (months???) ago, the rearmost portion of the exhaust pipe decided to fall off. It had a hanger at the very back of the frame, so did not fall completely off, but just rattled haplessly.

I think it was due to the bend passing over the rear axle being repeatedly struck by said axle when Mikuvan is loaded heavy – such as the trip to Detroit Maker Faire. So anyway, all it manifested in was things being a little louder, but at times due to the exhaust being trapped under the body and in my 3-mile-long wake vorticies, exhaust smell would creep into the cabin. This is not something I wanted to deal with for the long trip down, so I repaired in the best WEEABOO REDNECK way possible:

None of this BEER CAN bullshit… only the best Ramune bottles will be used for MY hoodrat repairs!

This held all the way until South Carolina. When I rolled into town, one of my pre-convention stops was the local Advance Auto Parts to pick up a patch pipe. The whole system is definitely in need of replacement, though. Who wants to hook me up with D U A L   F L O W M A S T E R S?

Anyways, without further ado, here are the sections of this roman noir de robots:

  1. Finishing and testing Roll Cake
  2. Designing and building Überclocker 4
  3. Robot Battles and Dragon Con recap

 

Icing on the Roll Cake

So this is where we build up to that ‘preview picture’ I posted last time.  One of the first things I did as soon as I put the frame pieces printing on the Mark Two was go and do basically the only machining thing, which was make the drum.

For this, I brought back an old friend. One of my first major tool purchases was this little indexing head, which made its first appearance here in a LOLioKart build report. It became my most prized possession for some time thereafter, but I left it in the shop when I mostly scuttled off to main campus and upstairs into the IDC for graduate school nonsense. With my departure, it began becoming decrepit under usage by random newbies. One of the dividing plates was lost, and one of the tilting locks was also lost after someone cranked the locking bolt too tight and sheared it off.

Every once in a while, someone does find it again and use it, so I knew it was still operational. I gave it a once-over cleanup and adjustment before starting here.

The drum blank was carved out on New MITERlathe before being transferred to the indexing head for feature drilling. I originally specified 6 bolt holes. But as it turns out, 8 holes is easier to use the indexer for, since it didn’t involve going in partial circles using the dividing plates. Just 5 cranks of the handle… So, 8 holes it is.

Next up, putting the big 1/2″-13 threads in for the cap screw “teeth”.

One tricky operation was broaching the 8mm bore for a 2mm keyway. Since Roll Cake is being built from Banebots P80 parts, so it must be compatible with an 8mm keyed shaft. I could not get a 8mm bushing & 2mm broach in time – nor did i want to spent dozens of dollars for the honor. So I did what, I guess, I would do, and carefully hacked at it with a 1/16″ endmill until I got a 2mm slot with a bit of radius at the end.

Precision! Craftsmanship! Finesse! We strive to be the opposite of this at Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse. Zero sigmas, guaranteed, or I’m keeping your damn money anyway.

 

The frame parts have finished printing from the new Onyx material!

Well, hold up a little… These are extremely hollow prints that were solely to test for dimensional correctness. Things like “Does the motor fit in this hole?” and similar.

Here is a mock fit with some of the parts. I used a paint marker to pinpoint locations which needed rework – generally increasing slop or tolerances in the CAD model to get a better fit in real life.

Another arrangement of “DO NOT USE THESE FOR REAL” parts, which all had X marked on them so I was not tempted.

The two main frame halves are actually made from regular nylon for the most part, with carbon fiber loops in the center of the bot to strengthen the area. Otherwise, the regular nylon is tough and a bit flexible, which will hopefully help against some impacts.

A little pile of wheels with grommet-tires installed…

I next synthesized these planet gears from spare P80 4:1 and 3:1 planet gears. The 4:1 gears were bored out and cut to half a normal pinion length. Then the 3:1 gears were machined down for half their length, and then promptly shoved into the 4:1 hollow half-gears. The shoving first involved lining one tooth with one valley between teeth on each gear. As mentioned in the design post, these compound gears require the correct phasing of teeth to be assembled succesfully. I was probably off by some fractions of a degree on each gear.

THAT’S WHY WE HAVE A PLASTIC RING GEAR

The ring gear itself has also been reprinted in carbon fiber back Onyx (a material we came to call RMCC – Reinforced MarkForged Carbon-Carbon). I made the number of engagement dogs lower to guarantee the servo being able to reach between them.

Assembly for realsies begins with the bolting together of the sides. On each side, three #4-40 cap screws with washers and nuts retain the sides to the center U, and at the very rear, a #4-40 threaded rod with 4 nuts provides last-ditch backup if those front fasteners fail.

The ‘flaps’ are waterjet-cut 6061 aluminum 1/16″ thick sheet, which are bent up at the edges like so:

Well, that’s how it’s supposed to work. I really need to watch some tutorials on how to use a box-and-pan metal brake correctly, because I clearly can’t do so, ever – and it probably doesn’t help that I make sheet metal parts infrequently enough that the shared machinery is never in the same condition twice (or some times working at all), so I have no clue how it’s supposed to behave. Anyways, no two bends on this thing are alike in location and alignment. One side is workable, the other side is very twisted… Oh well, we’ll fix it in post.

Time to solve the never-quite-solved wiring problem. I made access tunnel paths for the hypothetical wiring through the back end of the U-bracket that makes the center of the bot, but physically doing it was another whole issue. “Haphazard” and “ad-hoc” are two words that each don’t quite describe Roll Cake’s wiring on their own.

I basically had to make three long cables, fish them through the two wire tunnels, and then wire everything in-place at the ends and cut them to length. These cables were the main battery, left side drive motor, and firing servo cables. The right side drive motor also passed through the right tunnel, so really it was 4 cables.

For this purpose, I used the thinnest wire I could find for the drive motors, which was some 30 gauge blue wirewrapping wire.

Everything in the bot could run directly off 11.1v – the drive ESCs (VEX controllers), even the Hobbyking TR6Av2 receiver believe it or not – you can run basically every new receiver from battery voltages since they have onboard regulators for the microcontrollers. However, the firing servo still needs 5 volts to not go crazy and burn out.

Therefore, I made a super small in-line 5V regulator from two Chinese’d  LM1117 parts.

Don’t give me no “that’s racist” bullshit – you and I know this happens on a regular basis.

This 5V line then feeds the receiver, and the servo cable is a 3-pin custom cable which comes from that. Essentially as if I were to plug it in without hacking anything.

After the electronics are installed, I made the orange roundbelts and started closing everything up. The round belts are measured using the hypothetical pitch line in the belt circle drawing in the CAD model, then shortened about 10% to accommodate stretching.

The final act is to install the linkages. This is done using long M3 bolts cut down such that their unthreaded shoulder acted as the joint pin, but I could still put a locknut on the end.

Here is the finished bot from the flappy end.

And a photo from the ‘business end’.

So how does this thing work? Well, it doesn’t really.  The serpentine roundbelt drive has too much friction for the Fingertech motors to overcome. While Stance Stance Revolution used two 22:1 Fingertech motors, they were direct driving small wheels. Each pulley adds some friction, since the belts need to be tight to transmit torque and the pulleys do not have rolling bearings, just nylon on shoulder screws. Roll Cake therefore could not move at all. I’ve built some pretty damn immobile bots, but this is literally the most immobile thing I’ve ever made!

You can hear the motors strain to move, slipping on the belt, and occasionally it scoots forward a fraction of an inch. That’s about it. In doing this, I actually burned out one of my 22:1 motors.

I began making arrangements to get some 33:1 motors from fellow competitors down in Atlanta, which should help the torque problem, and also began the search for small timing belts. MXL and 2mm timing belts come in 1/8″ wide / 3mm wide, so I could redesign the pulleys to that tooth profile. Then, the matter becomes if the Mark Two can hold the kind of tolerances needed for the tooth geometry to work out. I decided to leave that to Atlanta.

While the driving test was a bust, I did get a few flipper tests in with the drum going full speed. I’m glad to say that this part seems to work great. The servo engagement is clean and predictable. Here’s a test against a roughly 3.5 pound empty toolbox. Note that I don’t have anything springy or elastic that’s preferentially loading the linkage closed, so it depends on good firing servo timing to bring it back down.

That was actually the second test. The first test was against a heavier (4.5 pound) aluminum rail – coincidentally, the unmachined blank frame rail for Uberclocker 4. On this test, the deceleration of the drum was severe enough that the bot rotated forward against the linkage… causing the drum to strike the ground and hilarity to ensue.

Well, truth be told, that was the part of the bot I cared about. I packed all of the parts up for Roll Cake anticipating needing to do some re-engineering once I was on site. Just prior to leaving, I ordered two sizes of timing belts from SDP-SI based on the existing pitch length and what was closest to it – two 155 tooth 1/8″ wide MXL belts, and two 160 tooth ones. At least one of these will be close enough after I redesign the pulleys to be timing belt profiles with roughly the same pitch circle.

 

Überclocker 4.0

No fake-outs with wheels this time! This is the real deal now.

I’d been MEANING to retire Clocker version 3 (Überclocker Advance) since after Motorama 2015. Then came Dragon Con 2015…and then Franklin Institute 2015. After it won handily at FI, I decided to force myself to retire it, leaving the broken actuator unrepaired. Clocker 4.0, which has no witty Engrish name, was meant to be designed much earlier in the summer, post #season2.

Well that clearly didn’t happen… I actually started working on the design on and off in mid-July, but some contract work was keeping me entertained at the time – so designing didn’t start in earnest until August. That’s one side of being “funemployed” is that the work you do pick up is often stuff you like to do, meaning you adopt it as your own, meaning certain death if you have zero time management ability like me.

The first thing I designed up was actually the custom cast wheels that I talked about last time. I decided to use Clocker 4 as a smaller-scale experiment to try out the technique and different materials without wasting a bunch of money. The wheels were made with a 3/4 hex hub, which Clocker 3 uses and which I intend to carry over to the new bot. They were made in two sizes – 3 inch and 2 inch – to reflect the needs of the new bot.

So let’s go through the design of the bot now! Keep in mind through all of this that the principal design constraint was “Is this dimension about 50% of what it would be on Overhaul 2?” and is definitely a departure from my usual tactic of letting the part placement drive the robot. In fact, you could argue that both Roll Cake and Clocker 4 represent me trying to “design to look like something first” – Roll Cake being an old robot vision from years ago, and Clocker 4 being a scale model of Overhaul.

Just like with Overhaul 2, I began with a sanity check sketch to make sure the dimensions aren’t impossible. In this picture, the only things fixed are the wheel sizes and chassis height. Much like OH2′s design phase, I was going to let the length of the frame be malleable in order to fit components. But it should end up somewhere around 30″ in the ideal case.

I focused a little more on the pontoons first. The rectangles shown are a size of wubbie that is the closest to 50% scaled down from the type used in OH2.   While their final shape and dimensions is not settled by this sketch, I just wanted to factor them in to get an idea of the size boundaries.

Bringing in more geometry into the mix now by playing with lifting fork lengths and the height of the arm towers.

Probably the terminal stage of The One Sketch has the 2.5″ square DeWut motor profiles imported, the length of the frame adjusted, and the first pass at the upper clamp arm also drawn. Most dimensions line up with OH2 within 10% or so, which is fine. Nothing truly scales directly in robotworld, and I figure so long as the visual is complete, nobody else but me will notice!

The beginnings of the 3D design went much the same way as with most of my bots,  Overhaul included, with the generation of frame rails. You have to start somewhere, so I usually start with the back or left side, and everything sort of grows off that.

I imported the One Sketch and aligned it with the bot as a reference.

Moving on ahead a little bit, here is a more complete drive side. The front wheel is inset significantly into the plane of the front endcaps which hold the rubber shock mounts. I wanted to do this to maximize the wheelbase. Previous Clockers have had the “reactive outriggers” up front to maintain front traction when an opponent gets picked up. This version is relying solely on the rubber shock mounts deflecting, and it will be riding on the front edge of the pontoons thereafter. To maximize the chances of retaining traction in that scenario, I wanted to push the front wheels as far forward as I could.

This does open up a gap in the otherwise fully constrained tab of the frame rail, so here’s hoping that spamming the region with cap screws will make up for it.

Frame rail service for Clocker will also be a little harder harder than Overhaul. In this design, to pull the left frame rail, the pontoons and three of the six shock mounts have to be removed, and there is now more than 1 bit driver size needed. However, you could argue that OH2 also needed two bit sizes – 7/32 for the pontoon screws and 5/16 for the frame bolts.

Cloning stuff to the other side…

A very difficult step came afterwards. I now had to fit the DeWuts from Clocker 3 into this frame (I SOLEMNLY PROMISE DEWUTS WILL BE BACK IN STOCK SOON) . This presented a very serious problem, which is well summarized by NO.

You see, the average Featherweight, full-contact 30lber is generally much smaller than the Sportsman class bots, since they’re built denser with thicker materials to take KE weapon impacts. Clocker 3 is very large for a 30lb bot to begin with, at 20″ wide and 27″ long end to end, it’s almost the footprint of some of the denser 250lbers like Poison Arrow.

In order to make weight, as well as stay roughly true to Overhaul’s dimensions, Clocker 4 needs to be around 16″ wide. However, this utterly precludes the use of the DeWuts. I would need to make the bot at least 18″ wide to use them. That means proportionally more weight to cover the additional width of the bot, as well as a lot of inside space that’s kind of wasted lengthwise since more components would be able to fit next to the motors. This isn’t a bad thing by itself, but two DeWuts back to back kind of forces a different shape robot than what I was pursuing.

So I began working on the inevitable: going brushless with the drivetrain to save volume. I studied a few options which all revolved around a handful of AXi motors I picked up a few months ago (get yours today!). I borrowed a BaneBots P60 model since Jamison had already played with mounting P60s to the AXi motors. I also investigated stuffing the AXi motors into my spare P80s from Overhaul.

In the name of expediency – namely, that I had the spare P80 drive motors on hand, the AXi + P80 combination won. The 4:1 Overhaul P80s combined with the AXi motors at 7S (26v) ought to give a top speed of about 17mph, which is plenty.

The downside is extra weight. While the P80 and AXi combo weighs less than the DeWut, it weighs more than the P60 equivalent which would handle the motor power just fine. For Robot Battles where I won’t need extensive armor, I figured that letting the drive motors have 2 more pounds is fine.

However, I might actually swap these out before FI 2016 for modified P60s, since having the armor weight back would be nice.

Now importing more components – the space inside the bot is filling up fast!

I devised this quickly-3D-printable-from-Onyx mounting bracket for the AXi motor. A new pinion with a 6mm bore will be crafted out of spare 4:1 planet gears, which have 4mm bores I can hollow out.

So the AXi drive will solve the issue of width in the bot. I’m now toying with placement of the internal components. To start with, I’ll be using two of the spare DLUX 160A controllers I took out of Overhaul before the Season 2 tournament began, with a possible upgrade to Brushless Rage later using a 6-FET board (think Brushless HalfRage)

I settled for the two DLUX controllers up front mounted to a (not yet modeled) non-structural interior bulkhead, and the RageBridge in the rear corner to handle lift and clamp, also with a yet-unmodeled bracket.

Let’s begin on the fork tines now. I traced out the basic shape of Overhaul’s fork, but unlike Overhaul which uses a dead (fixed) lift shaft, I’m keeping the live life shaft of Clocker 3 since it’s fairly easy to attach to. The force transmission will be using clamp shaft collars made into hubs. There won’t be a central tube structure in the fork – both will just be held together with standoffs. The forks should, like in Overhaul, never be taking direct impacts unless I messed up horribly.

After I imported the quick fork model, which is still missing specific details like standoff mounting, I also began playing with the clamp actuator. I imported a few older Clocker actuators to check size and placement.

For this edition, I really wanted to move back to a full 550 motor actuator. This should actually give the bot a clamping force of several hundred pounds, which I wanted to have since most Featherweight class bots have negligible top armor.

The issue wasn’t so much weight (it would weigh around 1 cheap drill motor) as space. It had to fit in between the side plates of the clamp arm, first of all, and then anchor itself in a useful location that won’t impede the fork travel much. Overhaul has some issues with this which I would like to remedy for #season3 – so in a way, this is once again using the small bot to pilot something for the big one.

More details have been modeled into the fork plates now. The cross holes will have standoffs like good ol’ Clocker, not just to hold the fork sides together, but keep them level between arms. Overhaul has no such crossing feature near the tip of the arms, only the base. This was the cause of the forks becoming cockeyed during the Beta match when it got a good boop in on one of them, and I’d definitely like to solve this problem.

I decided to pursue the full 550 motor actuator at all costs, so I made one similar in construction to Clocker 3′s final actuator. The motor and gearbox? Just a 12 O’Clocker spare motor! The gears will be purchased from Vex, then modified – one to a 12mm bore, the other bored out to shove an Acme nut into.

Not shown in the above image is an “anti-buckle” MarkTwo printed piece that bridges the two thin plates and cradles the leadscrew for more of its travel. The actuator sides are in tension when clamping, but will be subject to sudden compression shock if the bot lands upside-down or I try reversing out of a grab, so I didn’t want to count on JUST 1/8″ aluminum plates.

Here it is loaded in place and showing placement. The upper anchor point was open to negotiation because the clamp arm sides hadn’t been designed yet. The lower anchor point for the leadscrew will just be a pin that is shoved through the first hole in the fork side plates, closest to the pivot point. The neat thing is this is somewhat adjustable for leverage ratios if I choose to use another hole instead.

I generated the fork side plates based on the dimensions of the One Sketch. It, too, will be held together by a bunch of standoffs – no welding here. This drawing shows some possible standoff positions. I was going to alternate inside and outside circles as I moved from left to right, like so:

The standoffs used are just some big McMaster-Carr 5/8″ hex aluminum standoffs, which for some reason are almost half the price of the neighboring sizes.

Actuator placement was a compromise between “How far does the motor stick out the top?” vs. “How far does the motor stick into the grabbing region?” since I could make the leadscrew as long or short as I pleased.

About this time, I threw Clocker 3 into the CAD model. The size different is almost comical, and at this point I wondered if Clocker 4 could pick up anything at all without falling on its face. Definitely will have trouble with the average 30SC sized bot, but again, 30lb Featherweights are smaller in general.

Anyways, moving on.

One of the next mods I want to make to Overhaul is what I call the “Anti-Cobalt System” – in other words, putting something between the frame rails so this doesn’t happen again. For Overhaul, I’ve been mentally designing it as a top and bottom plate fastened together in the middle, to close off the box and transfer sideway forces more rearward in the bot.

Since Clocker will now be competing in a high-energy class, I decided to implement the ACS for the most part on the bottom of the bot. This also acts to keep the drive chains above the plate, so they’ll be less vulnerable. I could still see this having a failure mode where in a very energetic sideways hit, the frame rails will deform in a parallelogram between the ACS plate on the bottom and the angled endcap on the top.

I’m now in the stage of generating top and bottom plates as well as random spacers. MarkForged spacers for everybody!

The single tooth will be made from some left over 1/2″ AR500 steel – good enough for the task.

I began the process of making the armor pontoons using the same method as on Overhaul. I made a master 2D sketch that represents the front face, and then a series of 3D Sketches thereafter, then defined surfaces using the sketch lines as their bounds.

The geometry for Clocker 4 is a lot simpler. There are no vertical forward-facing or side-facing wubbies, just the six widely spaced ones on the angled face. In a future revision I may consider adding forward-facing ones like Overhaul, if this decision comes back to bite me.

One major difference with these? They ride a lot closer to the ground than Overhaul’s. In fact, I will most definitely have to finish-grind the bottom edge to get enough clearance to not get hung up on them.

This is a good thing, because it resolves the other weakness of Overhaul that was clear during the beta match – the pontoons were simply up too high to be helpful, being designed to take a whomping instead of be good foot-in-the-door implements.

An overhead view of the bot basically done – you can see the standoffs between each pair of fork plates, the tie bar between the forks, and the tube which acts as the anchor for the leadscrew.

I added tabs and slots the same way as on Overhaul to prepare the pontoons for cutting and welding.

Here’s the finished bot minus cat ears!

The ears don’t seem to be necessary on Clocker 4, but it just doesn’t look right, man. I will probably design a pair up to be printed in RMCC which will bolt to the topmost hole in the clamp arm.

I left design of the internal brackets as an exercise to be done in Atlanta, since by this point I was running up on the last week available for fabrication. Hot off the CAD presses and into real life we go!

Man, it’s been a LONG TIME since I’ve done a one-shot epic waterjetting session to pop out a robot. Pictured above is the “Clocker kit”… or some 10 gauge mild steel, 1/4″ 1/2″ and 3/4″ aluminum, and some 1/16″ FR-4 laminate.

Sadly, in my cruftiness, waterjetting is no longer free – this is probably around $400 of machine time.

To prevent the FR-4 from delaminating, I brought back one of my tricks of cutting the outer profile only, and using another material as a template. So here’s how this part went – I routed the parts manually to ensure it does all the interior holes first, then the outer profile.

I laid a piece of plywood in the machine first and had it cut only the holes. Then I clamped the FR-4 on top of the plywood and continued the toolpath to cut only the profile. The 1/2″ plywood pieces then become drilling templates for conventional drilling of the holes later, which otherwise might (WILL) delaminate since they’re piercing close to the edges.

While the design was slow-cooking to completion, I continued casting wheels, making 4 of each total. I’ve basically gotten this process down, so the next step is to try out different materials.

Here, I’m readying the frame rails for countersinking and counterboring. It’s built in the same style as Overhaul, and also many 30lbers and 12lbers. The frame rails will need machining to key into each other slightly too.

One of the last operations I was able to pull off before having to depart for Atlanta was the coring of the large lift gear. This was done using MITERlathe and like 5 different tools. MITERS didn’t have a spoon-type boring bar to make a plunging face cut easy, so I had to make do using a few different types of insert cutters, switching left-hand and right-hand tools to clean out the blind pocket.

Sadly, Monday the 28th of August was upon me. I actually spent more time in the week preceding finishing Roll Cake, since I cared a lot more about perfecting that mechanism, so Clocker 4 fell by the wayside. Clocker traveled to Atlanta in kit form, shown above. I needed to do some (lol) work on it in Atlanta, such as milling the frame slots, before it could be assembled.

And that’s the bot half of the story. Next, what about the convention!? I came this far for something, I think. Whatever is causing all that noise next to the robot events, dammit!

Robot Battles & Dragon Con 2016

So before we get to the convention proper, let me interject with a proud announcement that…

…I finally got pulled over for speeding.

You didn’t think it was physically possible, right?

I’d like to thank my parents, uhh… Boston area highways…. and, of course and Smooth Automotive for the Accidental Engine Rebuild of 2015 which has restored Mikuvan’s former power so much that I legitimately now can speed. I mean, it takes a little while to get there, and no hills please, but otherwise, I can cruise at 75mph all day – just enough to get in trouble in Virginia when the speed limit drops to 60mph for an upcoming work zone and I ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY MUST PASS THIS ONE LAST MOTHERFUCKER ON THE RIGHT HERE and… Dammit.

He got me fair and square. In fact, he didn’t even mention how I Boston’d someone immediately before the orange construction barrel forest began. So thank you in that way, Virginia State Trooper. I’m not even going to look at this ticket until I’m back in town now, because Virginia sucks.

Alright, enough of that. As I mentioned at the beginning, there were no van shenanigans to be had. I got into town around 4:30PM Wednesday, and immediately began plotting robot finishing tactics. The first order of business was getting Roll Cake its timing belt setup, which I designed quickly once I settled in and put on print. What?

Yes, I dragged the Mark Two provided by my lovely sponsor MarkForged along. Hey guys, how’s about some hot and humid weather testing?!

The SDP-SI timing belt order arrived on Thursday afternoon, so I could test the fit immediately. More importantly, though, on Thursday…

I busted into Dale‘s shop like the good ol’ days and basically took over his entire workbench. On deck were finishing some milling and turning parts for Clocker 4. I machined the axles, finished off the wheel hubs, and made the motor pinions, among other unfinished business.

The big rear chamfer for the frame rails was also cut by tilting the head of his CNC mill 30 degrees.

Friday bot work was mostly done at the GT Invention Studio. I primarily worked on Roll Cake, doing the final installation and tuning of the timing belt drive:

The pulleys were sized by how close they were to the pitch line defined in my belt loop sketch. The difference was then made up by changing the motor pulley tooth count until the tension was reasonable (just going from 21 tooth to 18 tooth in one try was enough).

This worked….. a little. Roll Cake’s movement was still extremely strained. There was no binding of the drivetrain anywhere I could see, just that there’s too many moving things for the 22:1 Fingertech motors. It moved slowly and quite arduously, and still could not turn.

Well, there wasn’t much else I could do to alleviate this problem except swap to the 33:1 gearmotors which I was able to pick up day-of MicroBattles from Mike Jeffries. Before the event started, I went ahead and did the motor transplant.

Operating sheets and all! This was so I didn’t get any abrasive/metallic grunge into the bot while cutting down the motor shafts.

The end result? I got Roll Cake to move somewhat reliably on the floor, so I went ahead and decided to put it in its first match anyway…. against Kurtis’ Black Adder.

Dammit, Kurtis.

Unfortunately, in the arena, it moved all of 18 inches or so before farting out again. It at least managed to flip Black Adder over with a chance collision. At this point, I stopped caring, since watching the mechanism test fire was more important to me than the rest of the bot, so I just kept flapping until the end.

Poor Roll Cake. It had such a bright future.

 

Okay, not really.

So the flipper mechanism kept working up until the end, even though I technically never got a direct shot at Black Adder.

That’s okay – I’m already out to rebuild this thing correctly such that it’s mobile. Roll Cake 2 will just have two brushless gimbal motors for drive, as hub motors, with the same Afro30 SimonK-enabled controllers driving them. It will have 2 larger wheels up front like a classic drumbot, not this 6WD business. Since Stance Stance Revolution could basically drive upside-down on its two discs, I’m much more confident in this setup working.

So that’s it for Roll Cake. Now back to your regularly scheduled Überclocker:

In the same work session as finishing out Roll Cake, I assembled all of the modules within Überclocker – the actuator, both drive motors, wheels, and the DeWut for the liftgear.

On Sunday afternoon, I returned to Dale’s shop to make a mess one more time. This time, to carve out the giant pocket that is in the back frame rail, formerly solid 6061 aluminum. Final weight estimates showed that I did need around 1.2 pounds out of the frame rail, so I calculated the pocket size needed, gave it some more oversize for weight tolerances, and went to town.

The next operation in Dale’s shop was putting some pilot holes into the end-tapped frame rails. I figured I could run with 1 bolt in each frame rail for now, and then drill them later once I had access again to a large drill press back at Artisan’s Asylum or MIT.  This let me put most of the frame together on Sunday evening.

After I went back home, I did what I could using the remains of my high school workbench, which contained a small 10″ drill press, hand drill, and jigsaw, plus the hand tools and cordless tools I brought down, and a few kibbles of tooling that I didn’t take up to Boston with me originally.

The above was…. basically all that I could do. Mount the shaft collar to the big lift gear using a counterbore I brought. I didn’t even have any clamps left, and by the time I got back home, all of the hardware stores and home improvement stores were closed for Sunday night. I tried drilling and tapping a few of the frame screws by hand, which was an arduous procedure. I basically called it quits around 6AM Monday after trying to work on putting it together all night, and not getting much further than 10 or so drilled holes.

Basically the most important part of having tools is having consistent tools. Maybe these tools were enough for me during high school, but I also built bots in completely different ways to accommodate them (e.g. making things from UHMW plastic). Designing for tools that are not consistently available, or totally unavailable, will just end in disappointment. I realized no matter what, I could only hack Clocker so far in the remnants of my parents’ garage if it depended on a full service shop to be put together.

So here is the assembled husk of Clocker 4 next Overhaul at Robot Battles on Monday, showing what could have been if I didn’t kick my own ass… or as Will Bales puts it, Will Balesing.

By the way, shoutouts to Matt and Dan of Chaos Corps for taking the pieces of the pontoons from me on Friday and returning them completely welded on Saturday. Not just welded, but all ground and wire brushed. I owe you guys a small water balloon filled with argon!

But wait! The story doesn’t end there!

I also brought 12 O’Clocker along, figuring that I’d be able to run something in the Monday event at least. 12 O’Clocker was working fine after Momocon, so I basically packed it right back up with some spare motors. The clamp motor on it was a little baked, so I reached out to the group for spare Kitbots/1000rpm-style motors.

It actually got a few matches in and entertained the audience immensely.

In the rumble, the lift sprocket got bent hard enough to pop the lift chain off. Otherwise, 12 O’Clocker takes no damage once again! Gosh, maybe I should just scale this thing UP instead of Overhaul DOWN, right?

So no prizes this year, and not a very good Dragon Con for robots. I’m going to continue finishing Clocker 4 in the interest of Franklin Institute Robot Conflict 2016, where I hopefully will get to play with some of the big energy bots. I never had a strategy for Overhaul against vertical weapons like drums and discs (e.g. Hypershock, Witch Doctor) – besides Don’t Get Owned, I mean. I hope the Featherweight class, which is full of vertical spinners, will let me fine tune how to approach bots like that better for #season3.

By the way, there was a trip to the new Atlanta McMaster-Carr warehouse to pick up last-minute hardware. This place is

…kinda big.

Okay, REALLY REALLY BIG. Douglasville and the surrounding west Atlanta area is kind of a new target for development, and besides industrial plazas and The McMastergon, there were plenty of housing developments. What could be better than stumbling out of bed and over to Will-Call to pick up your last night’s blurrily-assembled orders? Or hell, just wheel the robot over and work on it in the Will Call parking lot. It’s like working on your shitty car in an Advance Auto Parts parking lot! Who the hell’s ever done that… not me! Nope, never.

So wait… wasn’t there an ENTIRE CONVENTION going on besides just me working on robots? Absolutely… so let’s see how that went.

As usual, I’m too lazy to put together a worthwhile costume, so I went lazily all days as “me”. Just the Overhaul team shirt, and also wearing the Axent Wear headphones around.

I got stopped way more times than I expected.

Shown above is the crew of Jamison, Cynthia, Hannalin, and Lucy, formerly all of JACD last season. This year’s group is Overwatch. Overwatch is a video game. I haven’t played a video game with any degree of seriousness since Descent II Vertigo. I assume this is all legit. Wait until you see the construction Cynthia put into the giant bow…

There was a massive Overwatch photo gathering which took us an hour or more to get out of. Pictured above in the group are Pizoobie and Bonnie.

I generally haunt costumes which have had a lot of work put into them, especially very large and unwieldy ones. I swear at some point I will make an overly complex and elaborate costume. You could argue that Overhaul is in fact such a prop.

This was cool, too. These guys were cruisingly slowly around the convention. P I P E S

Okay, I don’t even know what’s going on any more. Overwatch players, I assume this is something you’d understand.

Alright, I usually don’t give a spare minute for Kantai Collection because it’s utterly destroyed my favorite genre. But I will make exceptions for well done ones. Behold, the U.S.S. Iowa.  I watched her being “assembled” on the spot, and before that, I followed the ant trail of battleship parts being carried high overhead down the packed street by her pit crew. Her drydock workers?

Good ol’ Kancolle, ruining “girls & machinery” since 2013.

If you know who this U.S.S Iowa is, let me know and I will gladly add links and creedits.

Now here’s how to properly do it. Besides Overwatch, Cynthia, Lucy and Hanna also teamed up for something else. Shamelessly stolen from the BattleBots Instagram, it’s….

BattleBots cosplay at @dragoncon with Lucy, Hanna and Cynthia. Zachary Ernst

A photo posted by BattleBots (@battlebots) on

I’m telling you all, #season3 will be one big weeb convention. Everything is falling into place, exactly according to keikaku. Cynthia is the designer of Haru-Chan, so it was only natural that she also sketched up plans for Sawblaze and Road Rash.

Now for the event recap!

MicroBattles this year was bigger than ever. With the insect classes (1s and 3s) being the easiest and cheapest to start in, the newbie and first timer proportion this year was immense. We ended up getting over 40 robots!

Sadly I actually missed a lot of the action getting Roll Cake prepared, but here are some of my favorites.

Here we have the wild Killer Colsonbot, which is believed to have evolved from escaped Domestic Colsonbots.

That’s Pvt. Slicer, or what happens when Mike gets ahold of the Colsonbot CAD. The cage is made of layers of waterjet-cut 4130 steel carefully welded together. It had friction drive reliability issues, but it somehow won 2 matches as round pushybot. When the cage met a vertical spinner, it died.

Representing the “meh” department of Dale’s Homemade Robots, this is Noodles, a 4wd pushybot. Besides all brushless drive, steering gyro, and a crafty urethane-sheet-mounted steel plow, it has pool noodle wheels which caused a bit of controversy because in the final a piece of them came off and jammed Black Adder’s drum.

Now, unintentional entanglement is allowed in the rules for the precise reason of a part inadvertantly coming off and getting stuck in something (as opposed to intentionally throwing things into a weapon to jam it), but there was still a fair bit of “Who do you think won this match?” talk.  I actually think repeatedly hitting the ceiling against Black Adder and coming back each time is a mark against the effectiveness of Black Adder’s weapon in this match.

It’s big bot time! After being forced to run 12 O’Clocker only, I had more time to go around and appreciate the 12s and 30s. The newbie count was great at this event also – I think probably 25% first or second events.

Pictured above, The Magical Lipo-Fire or…. something or other. The build looked great! Sadly only one match however, and fortunately did not live up to its name.

First time 30lb entry “STICK A FORK IN IT!” which was having some DeWut clutch issues this event. Hey, people, read the manual! Tighten down your DeWut clutches before using!

Team JACD Season 1  principal cheerleader Andrew brings Pusheen-Bot, a pushy-bot. It’s laser-cut out of wood, so naturally it faced a chainsaw first match.  This thing actually has two 50mm outrunners in it. It’s basically BurnoutChibi in a 30lb bot, so-illustrated by Andrew riding the bot around the room before (and during…) the event.

Another new 30lber with some heavy inspiration from Clocker and megaRon (under whichever moniker Jamison decides to run it at Robot Battles…)

There were obviously a lot of bots that I skipped, and you kind of get the idea. With the return of BattleBots to a mass audience, so the hobby grows! Robot Battles, fortunately, is one of the lowest barriers-to-entry competitions there is.

12 O’Clocker all set up and with spare clamp motor installed, ready for its first match. I had immense fun in its match with Dingleframus – it was the hardest physical driving match I’ve had in a little while, and in the end, a missed charge basically caused it to hover off the stage.

Here’s “Metric Brushless Hipster 12 O’Clocker” LiftLord, a Xo creation but shown with optional interchangeable Aaron module.

12 O’Clocker ready for its first match against Abrasive Personality, a design I really want to see more of – it has a belt sander running the length of the bot, with a backstop and all. I think this kind of design needs exploring. Putting more horsepower behind it and using a super gritty belt might actually result in some serious unconventional damage.

So what the hell are those blue things on the stage that have been appearing in every video so far?

They’re my secret weapon: 3D printed model set screws. I printed about a dozen, then another dozen or so followed me to Atlanta courtesy of RocketProps. Some local folks contributed a few more…. and suddenly, a stage full of giant set screws. Robot Battles: serious business since 1967 or whatever.

Not sure what I was doing here – probably double checking the chain drive after the rumble where it was derailed due to the main sprocket being physically bent. 12 o’clocker went 1/1 plus hanging around during the rumble, which was hugely entertaining.

Well look who’s on display!  I’m told that Witch Doctor & Hypershock were also going to be present. Lies! I didn’t see any of y’all this whole weekend, so Overhaul had to have all the fans to itself. Such a sad day.

That’s a wrap for Dragon Con 2016. Once again, I’m staying a few days extra in Atlanta, and will diffuse back up north some time this week. On deck for robot work is finishing Clocker and a quick revamp of Roll Cake before FI in about 1 month. Otherwise, I’ll be hopefully creating more problems for myself with van work soon, since I want to re-winterize a few spots before things get cold (e.g. in 2 months or so). Some of my earliest rust repair is starting to come apart finally, and I have better weaponry against it now. Further down the line is word about # s e a s o n 3 and starting Overhaul….overhaul…. work in earnest. This will ideally occur over the coming winter.

 aaayyyy

Dragon Con 2015: The Before, During, and After; Stance Stance Revolution, Überclocker, and Operation STRUGGLEVAN

Sep 25, 2015 in Bots, colsonbot, Events, mikuvan, Stance Stance Revolution

I’m back yet again!

The flurry of RageBridge 2 development in the past few weeks was primarily to make sure I had a few demo units ready for folks going to Dragon Con 2015. Basically, I sent a batch down ahead of time to be integrated into some bots that were going to compete at Robot Battles, as well as prepared some for a few new local builds. There were some other things going on also, including Clocker repairs and upgrades, and yet another entirely new random beetleweight. Oh, and the harrowing tale of having Mikuvan’s engine accidentally rebuilt before departure, and the followup shenanigans!

1. The world’s first dual counter-rotating 45° spinner, because why not?

2. Überclocker’s front leg upgrades

3. The convention and Robot Battles report! Plus, panel information.

4. Operation STRUGGLEVAN; Followup from Post-Detroit Maker Faire to “How many times did I pull over to replace something this trip!?”

Stance Stance Revolution

First, we start with a heavy dose of what:

Oh no! Which way is it facing!? Which way does it spin? How does it move?! Don’t worry if you’re getting a headache looking at it. This is entirely by design.

What you are looking at is the world’s first counter-rotating 45 degree spinner! An answer to a design question literally nobody saw coming.

It all started, really, after the debut of Plan X on ABC BattleBots, with its primary weapon that spun downwards (really it could spin either way, being reversible). For the next little while, every time a new robot was presented, everyone would ask which way it spun. That led to many joke Facebook Group threads, including a snippet of this one…

 


Featuring Near Chaos Robotics

Well I ended up not calling it Double Helix, because shortly thereafter, I had an epiphany… the blades would have some demon camber and it had an uncanny resemblance to Counter Revolution, so…


Logo courtesy of Cynthia!

Already, I’ve taken this joke too seriously.

I sat down with a blank CAD screen to decide how I wanted to do this. It was literally going to be Counter Revolution deformed through its center axis. I planned for a beetleweight, to act as the dopey-cop counter to Colsonbot. So it was probably going to be a 3D printed unibody, like Colsonbot, for convenience so it could be put together quickly. After all, heaven forbid I take this joke too seriously.

Let the Eschering begin… I created this mockup a day or so later and posted it to great fanfare and cries of “MY EYES!!!”

The blade design was a simple porting of Jamison Go‘s DDT, for which he had several spare blades. I played around with them, but ultimately decided to go with a custom blade design.

Creating those 45 degree struts meant a whole lot of messing with reference planes and other reference geometry. I first created a rotated, offset plane from the center axis of the robot, the blade tower midplane, then made an offset plane from THAT to set the width between the towers. The towers were brute-force mirrored across the midplane, then the parts which stuck out the bottom cut off flush. This is a look at the finished frame – all these steps were taken in the first few features, as seen on the left.

The bot as seen from the front. With the midplane method, it was easy to adjust the blade “offset”. The blades aren’t shown in their final positions either, since at this point I hadn’t looked at how to drive the blades. I decided to try and push the blade “exit point” from the frame as far to the corners as possible so it was easier to aim – “Try to hit with the corners” was going to be the strategy.

After some debate, I decided to just go simple and use pancake-style multirotor motors in a direct drive configuration. My last vertical KE weapon bot, Nuclear Kitten, used a custom-machined hub motor. These days, the flat multirotor motors are much the same form factor. I didn’t expect this configuration to live too long, because those motors are not built to take direct impacts from solid steel things. Direct drive sort of went away as the energy levels present in small bot contests went up. But it would live just long enough to make everyone’s heads spin!

Shown above, the “blue” motors are some Quanum 5208 multirotor motors. I was looking for motors which had the same stator diameter & size as NK’s old motor. However, they were ultimately too heavy.

Stepping down a pay grade (or stator diameter range) were the Multistar 4822s with 40mm stators, and which were nearly 80 grams lighter. It became apparent to me while shopping for motors that putting what is basically two full size weapons for a beetleweight in one bot was going to be difficult. The 4822 motors weigh only 98 grams (less with their long wire pigtails trimmed).

Luckily they were available in a U.S. warehouse, so I was able to get them in a few days to fully model them up, as shown above.

Here’s more brainfuck for you. It might actually hurt a little more to look at from underneath.

The underside and drivetrain was going to be a contortioning game. I planned to use two 22:1 Silver Spark motors – it wouldn’t be quick, but would provide basic maneuverability for the weapons platform. The question was where to put everything else. Even simulating component placement using bounding boxes, I knew it was going to be impossible to stuff everything inside. The weapon ESCs have to go outside, mounted to the blade towers, as you’ll see.

Some finalizing work, and here’s the design. With ripped off logo and all!

A 1/8″ diameter shoulder screw forms the idler axle, and the Fingertech switch is mounted awkwardly outside one of the two symmetrical cutouts permitting wire access to the weapon motor controllers.

CAD family shot next to Colsonbot! I guess Colsonbot would be the Captain Shrederator of the world of perverted miniaturized BattleBots 2015 entries I’m making here….

I wanted to use the MarkFrog to make this frame out of nylon with fiber strands, but unfortunately it was too big in every single dimension. To make it in Nylon would have mean better impact strength, but GUYS GET ME A BIGGER MACHINE PLEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEASE! Jamison’s new DDT is all printed on this machine and it did excellently at the event. Maybe I should have scaled this to an antweight instead…

Thus, I popped the frame out in ABS plastic.

The Multistar motors arrive, so it’s time to design the blade. From looking at their product photos, I decided to make cutouts in a blade with a large inner diameter such that they sat on the endcaps, instead of being supported only by the shaft. I was also intending to use the prop adapters (which bolt on) in an external bearing to offer some semblance of double-support. Now, the aluminum these things tend to be made of is so soft I don’t think it even matters (How do they even machine it without it bending?!), but it made me feel better.

I was able to finish out the blade design and cut it out of prehardened 4140, the same plate that I made Nuclear Kitten’s blades out of all the way back in 2008! 4140 prehard isn’t THAT hard – Rockwell 30C or so, so it’s not the best choice and far inferior to a heat treated blade… but something about taking jokes too seriously.

The blade centers were dished inward a little to sit on the motor can.

Retainment was through a big aluminum machined washer. This bolted through the prop adapter, necessitating longer screws – which… GREAT! Because the screws that come with these motors are suspiciously soft for looking like black oxide cap screws. 10.8? 8.8? Probably more like -1.8.

Blades mounted. The outboard bearing is some small 6mm bore flanged bearings I had, from some unknown appliance which died valiantly (and probably chaotically) for the cause.

Remember when I said the weapon ESCs had to go outside the bot? They’re nestled in the blade trench, a half inch away from whirling death. I put in an indentation and cable tie anchoring point specifically to use a zip tie to hold them together. The motor wires are cut super short and soldered directly to the controllers.

I’d like to pause for a bit and discuss these controllers. They’re the “Afro” series from Hobbyking, and besides making me wonder how they came up with that name, I also really enjoy their extensibility. You see, the DIY multirotor community has been working on a better firmware suited their needs for years. They now have a massive database of upgraded firmwares for many of the ATMega-based brushless controllers. the Afro line evolved out of this community’s needs, and in fact contains a bootloader onboard such that you can upload new firmware using only the PWM wire – no need to try and find the programming pins on the boards. The firmwares offer many configurable options, including reversing.

Hmm. It’s piqued the interest of a few robot community folks, one of whom put together a guide on how to update the firmware to a “bot compatible” one. I performed these mods on my ESCs and did a demo video on how it affected a relatively high inertia load like a blade. The result was stellar. I dunno what Mr. SimonK did with the state estimator part of the sensorless firmware, but I can hard-reverse repeatedly without killing the ESC, and it will try to keep track of the motor all the way down to zero speed. The starting routine seems far more robust. A Hobbyking controller with stock firmware would have died instantly.

The best part is, there’s a guide on how to find the pin settings for your ESC – which opens the realm up, if I feel like exploring it, of putting it on one of these. A few builders have already done brushless drive experiments using this, and the results are far better than a stock Hobbyking car ESC with reverse functionality. Only a few bots have dared run brushless drive before now, but I suspect the smaller classes will see an explosion of ESCs of brushless drives, saving weight to get the same performance.

It also means that Brushless Rage is obsolete ;_;

 

Here is the real-life contortioning game. The receiver also ended up having no place to live because of the battery wires. So it gets piled on top of the battery! Luckily the battery (which is shared with Colsonbot) is short enough….

A final weigh-in… just barely under the 3lb limit!

SSR leaves very unique 45 degree impact marks on testing subjects.

Here’s a testing video showing a few hits on the empty Dimension cartridge. As you can see, it flies. One issue is the blade hitting the ground since it swings so low. I suspect in an arena with a wooden floor, it could dig in and send the bot flying, which would be most excellent indeed.

Another interesting behavior: When it hits, it tends to twirl around. I kind of want to practice the “one-two” of hitting with one blade enough to spin it around to hit with the other. This is a result of the blade having a horizontal, downward component to its impact. In this case, the rear counterrotating blade is spinning the correct direction to twist the bot opposite the direction of hit-induced turn, keeping it upright.

Finally, you can see that with enough bouncing, it will self-right very easily, doing a barrel roll in the process.

This joke is ending up more hilarious than any of us could have thought.

And a final beauty shot, if you consider it a beautiful thing.

I ended up replacing the idler rollers with hard plastic ones. I tried to link the two wheels on each side with O-rings, but the o-rings would keep sliding off since they also touched the ground. It handled well enough with “corner drive”.

Überclocker

Alas, poor Clocker.

After Motorama, it was sort of in a heap with a broken off front leg replaced with a chunk of cutting board. I remade 2 of the stripped hubs before a demo session to high schoolers over the summer, but besides that it’s not changed much.

For this Dragon Con, I wanted to move back to double-supported legs. Basically, while the single supported version 3 legs worked well, enough bouncing around caused the attachment parts and hardware to start stress fracturing, eventually breaking off.

Clocker version 2 had double-supported legs, but they were built in such a way that it was very difficult to service the drivetrain… and if there’s one thing Clocker v2 needed, it was drivetrain service. The reaction to this led me to the single-sided legs, but now I think if I put a liiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiittle more mental energy into it, I could design the legs to use the same screw head as the drivetrain side plates, such that it doesn’t take forever to remove.

Wild idea, huh?

 

Growing the design from simple geometry. The legs pivot on a flanged standoff-like entity which is fully tightened to the frame. On the other side, I moved from single-shear to double-shear support for the spring.

 

Other side, with hardware loaded. The use of 1/4″-20 button headed screws allows me to use the same 5/32″ allen key driver to zip the entire outside on and off.

 Time to take the whole thing apart! I also ended up remaking the front axle standoffs and straightening out the inner side rails, because the single-point bending of the leg had also affected them significantly. The new legs slide right together (due to correct nozzle offset on the waterjet cutter – the one it defaults to usually leaves far too much material!) and bolt through using large standoffs. No more using the 1/8″ intermediate plate as the fastening device as on Clocker v2.

 Bolting together the springy-leg trunion side.

What the installation looks like after the flanged standoffs are installed. There’s one on each side. The inner side is Loctite’d to prevent rotation, while the outer side is free to be removed. The fit is deliberately loose to let it take some damage without binding.

 And a final overhead view of the bot. No, Clocker’s not running RageBridge 2 beta units. I leave that to my guinea pigs loyal subjects.

Dragon Con 2015

This year, I fell into a classic convention trap – doing so many panels and things with your fan track (Makers & Robotics) that you pretty much forget the rest of the con existed! I was involved in 4 panels and looked on at many more. In fact, analyzing my camera contents, I in fact only took one photo of Miku cosplayers.

That’s 99.18% less than the historical average.

First up, my Maker’s Resources panel, which was condensed down to ~1 hour (SORRY VAL!) and focused more on getting people set up with CAD. With Autodesk furiously pushing Fusion 360, it is in my opinion the current “missing link” for mechanical hobbyists and well-featured CAD programs. I got the hang of it a week beforehand, and was prepared to give a live demo, but sadly, showing off Inventor and Solidworks and Fusion 360 was too much for my computer to handle.

I was also involved in the Rapid Prototyping for Costumes panel with Chris Lee, Jamison, and Cynthia, who debuted her version3! RWBY scythe project to some dramatic fanfare.

Next up, a few of us from JACD took part in the Battlebots New Season panel with quite a few other competitors who ended up deciding to attend after hearing that the BattleBots organizers were going to be in town. Unfortunately, I had to miss the “Highlights and Memories” panel, but I told everybody to make fun of me as much as possible so I’ll await the video results from that.

Finally, I also took part in the Power Racing Series panel hosted by several local Southeast builders. We had a whole lineup of entries I was otherwise not used to seeing from teams and builders who have mostly gone to events in the region – I’d witnessed the construction of these cars on the PRS Google and Facebook groups, but they weren’t at Detroit Maker Faire. There isn’t usually much region cross-pollinating due to the races being spread far apart and the stakes not being (that) high (yet).

Luckily, this time I changed that. If forcing everyone on the New York Thruway to stare at me was bad enough, this time I trolled all of I-81:

After having rigged CMV enough times for New Yorks and Detroits, I figured that it had already traveled 1 Dragon Con or so of mileage, and therefore was eligible to be brought down to Atlanta. In 2014, I decided against this idea because there was no race and I questioned my rigging ability. As it turns out, if your load experiences several hundreds of pounds of load, or multiple G’s of acceleration, enough to break or unravel the straps, something very bad has already happenedWith this in mind, I was far more comfortable driving long distances with Chibi-Mikuvan strapped to the roof, distracting small children and tired vacationers alike. The green pallet wrapping is for bug splat prevention on the front white portions.

So this year, I signed up for the Dragon Con Parade…

PC: Jen Herchenroeder

The PRS racers got their own ‘block’ in the parade, and we (mostly) stayed together and showed off to the crowd. At the first major intersection, I decided to try something stupid and initiate some donuts. To my utter disbelief, this worked. I think it’s a combination of running in “infinity mode” (50A regulation fuse bypassed) and the rear tires being practically bald from the Detroit race. I proceeded to pull this stunt any time there was open space – most of the street intersections sufficed.

Dragon Con Parade

That is starting to look like some kind of old 16-bit racing game. Still waiting on someone to find video of it all, but with sufficiently worn-out tires, CMV can do powered donuts on dry asphalt. Hmm…. more moxie awaits at New York Maker Faire?

Immediately afterwards, we all TORE ASS DOWN COURTLAND AND PORTMAN STREET AND THROUGH THE MARRIOTT *ahem* maneuvered most of the karts into the lineup for the Power Racing Series panel.

From the evening before, a lot of the cars in a row at an impromptu car show in the Marriott. I didn’t bring CMV with me everywhere, so it sat this one out back in my mom’s garage.

Since I’ve basically been part of the Robotics & Makers panels since its inception, I’ve steadily watched not only the content variety grow, but also the skillset of the audience. This time, during my Resources talk, I’d say a strong plurality had designed something and either fabricated it manually at home, or had something 3D printed or used a makerspaces’ tools. When I polled for how many people had used CAD, a solid 75% of hands went up, and Solidworks in particular was something like 1 in 5. Damn, what do you guys need me for!?

I’m sure some of it is “audience self-selection”, but the strong gains each year in those who have tinkered with stuff on a hobbyist level impress me nonetheless. All the panels I led or were involved in were packed houses. I’m happy with anything which shows more and more folks are becoming involved in the Makerverse.

Stolen from builder Collin Royster, here’s a photo of the PRS panel. Chibi-Mikuvan is well-hidden behind the front table from this perspective.

 

Jim brought Nightmare up from Florida for the BattleBots panels and for general shenaniganry. I was briefly considering bringing Overhaul… sadly, it proved to be too impractical since it didn’t tessellate well with anything else, and I do not need 250 pounds on the roof. So there goes the prospects for the wimpy hotel room grudge re-match!

The staff of Big Hero 6 above are actually the three ladies of Team JACD: Hanna, Lucy, and Cynthia, who discovered their names are a great basis for their own team. Hence they splintered from JACD. I guess they were finally done with putting up with our bullshit. For Dragon Con, team HaLuCyNation built Destroying Angel:

It’s a 30lb rear-hinged lifter using 3 DeWut motors, a RageBridge, and a 6S lipoly battery. In other words, all parts that were hanging around. It was put together in little more than a the week prior (though designed for a month or more beforehand).

Moving onto Saturday evening, it’s robot time. Here, Colsonbot is getting a ‘body swap’ to the latest version of the frame. This version trims another half ounce or so off the weight by eliminating the front left and right chambers. There’s still plenty of electronics volume left. Hypothetically, this permits dual weapon motors, though I only brought the one.  There’s no other changes. I completed this swap in about half an hour, since it just entailed desoldering and resoldering.

microbattles

This year, due to a Certain Robot-Oriented TV Show, both Robot Battles events had record turnout as well as a flock of new builders. The schedule was pushed to the max, even with two small bot arenas running simultaneously. The tournament had to be single elimination for expediency. Yet I’m super happy, because the builder population had been stagnant for years. Just look at how much Clocker vs. Nyx vs. Dale’s Homemade Robots there have been for the past few years.

Colsonbot won yet another match mostly due to driving – the four 11:1 Silver Sparks actually make for a very nimble drivetrain for a spinner. In its first match against Moxxi, a (mostly) wedge with a small undercutting blade which was not working well, I lost the heat shrink “tire” of the 28mm NTM motor in like 10 seconds. Therefore, the rest of the match was a pushing contest.

I’m considering moving the motor size down one notch and actually running two weapon motors, due to the limited space there is to put a “tire” – what worked the best after that match was actually winding electrical tape tightly against the rotation direction (such that it did not put force on the tape’s leading edge) for a few wraps. In its rematch against Moxxi, it spun up quite well and knocked stuff around.

It then face Jamison’s Silent Spring twice. Once by draw (no knockout or hole-shot after 2 minutes) where both bots worked consistently:

The next match was a win when SS stopped working, but Colsonbot was too damaged to be repaired in time for its next match.

It was extremely vulnerable to Silent Spring’s under-cutting blade, which took out the weapon motor and its surrounding mount area. Somehow not a single drive motor, even though the wheels were missing bits!

At least it kept driving until the end. I suppose I could have ditched the spin and made Colsonbot into a pusher, but there wasn’t really a point in doing so and it would only add to the tournament scheduling chaos. So Colsonbot exits the tournament effectively 1/1.

As for Stance Stance Revolution…

Poor Stance Stance Revolution.

In an eerie replay of Tombstone vs. Counter Revolution, I drew Silent Spring as the FIRST! beetleweight fight of the tournament! And it ended about as fruitfully.

After a flurry of blade-to-blade impacts, the ABS unibody fractured at the places it was the thinnest, and SSR broke in half. Now, to be fair, both halves DO still work….

It was really meant to be made from Nylon (using the Markfr4ck), a much higher-impact and resilient plastic, but after looking at the section areas that broke, I need to reconsider some of those parts. I intend to bring SSR right back since it’s too hilarious to not keep working. So that was it for the little bots. Damn you Jamison – I shall exact my revenge some day, probably at Franklin Institute next month.

 

robot battles

It’s big bot time!

This time, I had no 12lber. 12 O’Clocker required quite a bit more work than I remembered, and I couldn’t fit it into the last week’s schedule before departure.

Then I remembered I had a 12lber back in my parents’ garage.

Ahh, good old Test Bot v3.

Now sporting two different kinds of ballast – the old nickel drill pack wouldn’t revive, and that SLA brick has been in there as ballast for as long as I can recall. A spare RageBridge 1 was installed, and a tiny little lipo pack which can source more current than either of those two old batteries ever hoped to. So now I have a 12lber! It’s actually still dramatically underweight at 11.1 pounds. How did this thing ever make weight?

I mentioned earlier that both Robot Battles tournaments saw record attendance and new entries. I’d say that there were around 10 totally new bots this time, in addition to veterans who left but returned and people who have built before, just not for RB at Dragon Con. Here are a few samples of the new entries… I hope they have staying power for tournaments to come.

 

This pair of 12lb wedges was built by a father-son team local to the area. Named “Busted” and “Rusted”, they actually got paired up first for the first 12lber match, which was hilarious because they were also both new bot drivers…. and the bots were slow. I’m not sure what drive motors they were using, but taking it easy doesn’t even begin to describe the slowness. Lots of potential from the design, though, so perhaps a simple motor upgrade is in order for next year….

Here is “Aluminum Box”, a valiant first bot effort with a set of fairly standard components – drills on 3″ colsons. It didn’t have a weapon, but could push pretty well if it got a grip. Since this kind of design can hardly go wrong, I suspect it will have more attachments and shenanigans if it returns in the future.

I have a bit of investment in this newbie bot since the high school builders not only came all the way from New York City by train (That’s a level of dedication I will never reach, and probably never reached), they’re using a set of donated DeWuts.

A 30lb pneumatic flipper bot that did more lifting than flipping, and which used a lot of Vex gear. The lid stays put – only the center arm pops up. Unfortunately, it lost after being unable to self-right. Bigger piston time?

Jim (of Nightmare) with a wholly new 12lber, ShaBoomBox, which allegedly was put together mere hours before departure. It’s literally made of P60 gearboxes, using them as structural blocks to bind top and bottom plates together. Hey, it works. Jim has had enough practice with this kind of design since he has an antweight, and heavyweight built off the same concept.

Terry, a returning veteran, shows up with the 30lber version of Ventilator. I remembered the 60lb Ventilator way back when Robot Battles was still running 60lbers on stage (basically, before they got too terrifying with new high powered parts). Pretty sure this is in fact it with a different hammer mechanism (with less swing) and without the big round shell…

HaLuCyNation gets some Dragon Con TV press attention before their first match.

Alas, poor Clocker.

The careful reader will notice that in its update section, I merely said “I remade the stripped hubs”. No, I didn’t remake them better, I remade them as-is. That decision pretty much ended the way everyone expected, including me, because no matter how loud I was screaming “This is going to be REALLY SKETCHY” at myself, I didn’t listen.

Clocker, therefore, did not do too much this tournament. It had two tournament, with 2 (effective) losses, and the only win being against HaLuCyNation. In fact, the problem first cropped up in the exhibition match where the organizers of BattleBots themselves(Trey and Greg) drove the bots. Gee, with that embarrassment, will I ever be allowed back into Season 2!?

Subsequent to the match against Destroying Angel, I ran out of drive options. I decided to throw it into the rumble as a stationary arena hazard, grabbing whomever I got shoved up against…

…and won? All of the “plate and standoff fork” robots briefly got tangled up, then something happened which made everyone else bail off the stage. I still can’t quite figure out what happened, but… Yay! Clocker won something by doing absolutely jack shit! Perhaps that should just be my strategy from now on, seeing as how I seemingly insist on shooting myself in the foot in terms of mobility every time. The hex hub system is nice…. if I can bother to do it right. Part of the issue is weight – Clocker is bumped right against the 30lb limit with the plastic hubs, but that was with the previous thick aluminum pole legs up front. I actually didn’t re-weigh it right before leaving. Most likely, I have the weight for aluminum hubs like they were originally meant to be.

This event was supposed to be Clocker’s Last Tournament™, but I refuse to let my machinery die of stupidity… so I’m just going to make the aluminum hubs for Franklin Institute ಠ____ಠ

Test Bot fared a little better for itself. I was quite out of practice driving it, and being underweight didn’t help pushing traction as much. It lost to Omega Force after a spirited pushing and driving match ending in a 360 degree flip (There were 2 halves to this match – after the first one, the unrestrained battery knocked the logic power inductor off the Ragebridge 1 board, which I jumped 5V to using an offboard BEC) It then won against Aluminum Box before losing to Test Bot v4. Actually, I meant Dolos, but I sold the TB4.5 frame to Mike, whose friend is operating it with modifications as Dolos! In other words… good, the newer version was better than the older one.

In the 12lb rumble, I sent Test Bot into the fray (after starting it in a nonsensical position because come at me) and lasted up until the end when I ran straight into the loving hug of Hypnos, which TB seemed to fit perfectly square into.

Now that I have Test Bot v3 back in my possession, I’ll probably keep it operational (and loaded up to 12 pounds) as a handy practice bot.

That concludes all the robot shenanigans this time. None of the bots I brought made a spectacular showing, and it might seem that I’m losing interest in them with my hurried repairs and modifications, but what balanced it out was helping so many new folks out with their bots. I think I’ve been around the block enough to “get it”… and seeing so many new builders this time, many of which I connected with online before and dispensed questionably-sagely advice to, in attendance at this event meant to me that I really built like 5 or 6 robots :p

Overall, the time constraints and preferred format of Robot Battles was showing its limits here this year. You can only have so many bots before the “show” is forced to become a tournament. The “two out of three” system really adds to the length of match times, and with the convention seemingly unwilling to allot more time to RB, some hard decisions about the future of the tournament might be needed if the popularity of BattleBots keeps up.

Operation: STRUGGLEVAN

Be prepared for the most action packed van adventure yet!

Not that it’s a good thing. In fact, I’d strongly have preferred to not deal with any of it, but now that I’ve had to fix it before, during, and after Dragon Con, everything finally works great! Can I go to Dragon Con now?!!

The story begins during Detroit Maker Faire. I didn’t notice exactly when in particular, but at some point I stopped to refuel and noticed that hey, it sounds a little like an idling school bus. An idling pulsation that was steady, and which went away once I stepped on the throttle a little but which was noticeable when trying to accelerate at low speed. It gradually became worse and worse as the trip progressed, but I was at least able to make it back into town. While unsteady at low speeds, it was smooth on the highway despite noticeably lacking some power.

Thus began the teardown. I was thinking a fuel system problem, specifically perhaps a malfunctioning injector. Too bad the symptoms literally pointed to everything; from said injector or perhaps an ignition/spark plug issue, all the way up to blown head gaskets and cracked pistons.  Give that I had some time after Detroit Maker Faire, I dove in and did some testing as well as replacement of parts I had on hand.

I started with the obvious – using a timing light to double check that the spark plugs were getting voltage. I also just went ahead and replaced the plugs, since the ones that were installed were “Original-as-of-when-I-got-it-running” crappy plugs picked up at Autozone in 2013. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.

I next tried a vacuum test. It turns out you can deduce a whole lot about the state of an engine if you have a vacuum gauge and know a couple of other variables about the engine. It was easy to shove the gauge into the brake booster vacuum line and run it a few times. But to me, it showed nothing out of the ordinary either, besides the manifold vacuum being a bit short of normal.

Well, with a whole lot of physical things wrong with the vibrating metal bits of the engine seemingly ruled out, I decided to take an intermission to just also replace the fuel system parts.

The injectors are reasonably accessible, but to reach them, a few hoses, connectors, and surrounding components had to be disconnected. To not utterly fuck up on the assembly, path, I marked the steps with numbers. So clearly, if I have to do this again, I can just follow my own breadcrumbs!

In a “Well, I’m already this deep” moment, I swapped in a new ignition coil for the old one, because why not!

A kit of new Bosch spark plug wires also made it on. The ones in there were unmarked and of unknown vintage and quality, so why not!

All of this above effort, of course, did not affect the problem at all, which was persisting – not getting better nor worse, but staying just out of reach such that I could still trundle over to Harbor Freight but most definitely not to Dragon Con. Well, it was T-minus 3 weeks at this point, and that was not a preferred state of things…

One thing I noticed, especially during the latter half of the Detroit trip, was how much more quickly it was losing oil. Specifically losing – it wasn’t burning, but just puking everywhere out of every opportune area. For instance, this is what the oil cap area and valve cover looked like after a trip to Home Depot or something.

That oil vapor also looked really suspicious, though the Internet seemed to suggest some amount of vapor is normal. Regardless, the “oil being forced out of places” scenario seemed to support the crankcase being pressurized abnormally, since it is supposed to be constantly evacuated by the PCV System. The problem being “just” the PCV valve seemed unlikely, because why would it only run badly in one cylinder? I double checked and cleaned the PCV valve anyway.

The rabbit hole was beginning to get a bit deeper.

I borrowed a compression testing gauge to check those numbers. Really I should have done this first, because

  1. 182 PSI
  2. 180 PSI
  3. 32 PSI ಠ _____ ಠ
  4. 180 PSI

The number 3 cylinder showed very little compression. No matter what, at this point, the head had to come off. I pinged the good folks at Smooth Automotive (within hobbling distance, and with whom I’ve done plenty of business already) to get an assessment – yes, head gasket failures into oil passages (hence the crankcase) can happen, but it’s more likely to be between cylinders 2 and 3 (which was ruled out, because cylinder 2 had good compression) or into a coolant passage, upon which I would see effects in the cooling system or engine butter, neither of which were present.

What it effectively meant was that I was at minimum needing a head gasket and at most…. there’s no bottom to the rabbit hole until it is reached!

With Dragon Con departure being now 2 weeks away, I decided to throw it in, and let them work their professionlulz magic. You see, a more sane person would PUSSY OUT rent a car, perhaps, but that ruins more than half the point of the trip for me, so I was willing to play my Automotive Wheel of Fortune game for now.

I got to watch the process firsthand and pester them with “Ooh, what does this do?” questions. Here is the single overhead camshaft in all its glory. They got it to this stage within… oh, like half an hour. Gee, it’s almost like you guys do this every day or something. For instance, I didn’t even know that the giant octopus of wire harnesses and throttle cables just came off as a single block to be set aside.

Oh god. The head came off. WHERE IS THE HEAD? WHERE DID IT GO?

Right here. I can’t explain why there’s exactly 1 white valve, but everything else has been leaking oil into the cylinders – Mikuvan is well known for an occasional small smokescreen on a cold start, a classic sign of worn out valve guide seals.

Here is a “literally, leak-down test” in progress. What it showed was that cylinders 1 and 4 were well-sealed, cylinder 2 and 3 were less so. The difference between 2 and 3 is that this photograph was taken the day after, and according to them, cylinder 3 was gone within a few minutes. With cylinder 2 showing good compression when I tested, cylinder 3 became the culprit.

And there it is. At the end of it all was destroyed piston ring lands. This was unfortunate, because it took the better part of a week (of on-and-off work – I’m clearly far from the only customer) to get here, and now many parts need to be obtained. Besides the obvious such as new gaskets and seals, and a timing belt set, I needed at least 1 new piston and ring set. Nobody in their usual parts supplier lineup had any. I would not have expected any different, really, because who the hell stocks parts for an obscure model of 1980s van that was mostly sold in California?!

Fortunately, Rock Auto had 1 full kit of pistons in stock. I will forever love Rock Auto, because this post has been a rolling advertisement for them (all of the parts I replaced myself came from them at some binge-purchasing point…)

And here they are!

We decided to only replace piston #3 for now. The cylinder wall did not exhibit scuffing or other damage (….somehow), and since all the other cylinders showed good compression, and time was of the essence, it was the quickest way to get rolling. If the cylinder wall itself was damaged, that would have been the end of the game, and I would have better spent my time welding up a mounting cage for a Siemens 1PV5135 motor. Besides, now that I have witnessed this whole process, I can do it all myself! Muahahahahahaha. That will end splendidly.

None of it ended up being exceptionally difficult, but just in areas I had never been and did not want to waste time fucking around before a major trip. The pistons are easily accessible with the oil pan and cylinder head removed – the “big end” bolts are in the open, and they pop out from the top.

While this work was occurring, the cylinder head was also being rebuilt by an associate shop specializing in engine block and cylinder head operations, Arlington Automotive Machine. New valve guides and seals, reground valve seats, and new hydraulic valve lifters were in order since all of the (original?) ones had long died (This manifested itself in the classic “tappeting” sound when the engine hadn’t yet warmed up).

All told, this adventure cost me $1700 not including parts. But the end result not only worked beautifully, it also sounded way, way better. It also revealed where all the exhaust leaks were, because now that the engine was properly running and the valves were actually stiff and responsive, the rustiest parts of pipe and the most weathered of gaskets began giving way! Yay!

and we haven’t even left for dragon con yet

It’s Tuesday afternoon, September 1st, and it was time to leave for Dragon Con. Cynthia and I packed everything up and rigged Chibi-Mikuvan to the roof.

An old heater hose explodes before we made it to the highway. Oh, right, the water pump was also replaced as part of a front-end operation (“When you’re down this deep…”) and the newly healthy engine and increased coolant pressures made the old pipe very sad. That is a photo of the broken portion of the pipe drooling coolant, which I took from underneath on the side of Memorial Drive in Cambridgeshire.

I hobbled back to Smooth Automotive running air-cooled half the way since the coolant loop bled out very quickly. I was horrified at the prospect of potentially cooking my BRAND NEW HEAD GASKET to overheating like…. 2 days after getting it done, so when possible, I shifted into neutral to coast, and gently revved the engine to fan itself. This hose was in the rear heater core loop, so the quick hack applied was to bypass it entirely. I plan on un-bypassing it soon, since fall is approaching.

Next, somewhere in southern Connecticut, I lose the speedometer. Something felt a little weird, so I look down and was pretty sure I was not going 0mph.

What the f….

That’s the speedometer cable I’m holding, which attaches to the output of the transmission through a little worm gear. It has a collar which screws onto said attachment point. This collar seems to have loosened up and gradually backed itself out.

This is the only photo I have of the process…

No, I didn’t cut off the cable. The driving spline portion which mates the two haves is probably still hanging out on I-95 somewhere, but in essence, it’s a small metal key that fits into the slot in the cable end and has a mating slot in the transmission end. Just a simple peg with two keyed portions. So what piece of material did I have which could approximate the key?

I purchased those jigsaw blades on a whim from some hardware store years ago and they’ve been sitting in the center console since. It turns out the steel stock they’re made from is a perfect fit width and thickness-wise to act as the speedometer cable key.

So I broke off a chunk of jigsaw blade, dipped it in motor oil for lubrication, shoved it in there, and went on my way with a speed reading again. Maybe I was actually worse off for this, because I definitely drove with more care when I didn’t have a direct speed readout.

Fortunately, all seemed uneventful for the rest of the trip until I got close(ish) to Atlanta – around “late South Carolina-ish”, I started getting some intermittent power loss at high revs on the Interstate.

cue ominous music

Being extra paranoid, I scheduled a check-in with Suwanee Auto Repair, which appeared to be very reputable for my area, with focus on the fuel system since that’s what it felt like (highly scientific terms here…) They reported no abnormalities with fuel pressure, injectors, and filter, and also recommended I get some water remover for fuel (e.g. HEET) in case there was water contamination in the fuel system. With nothing else presenting itself locally, I was comfortable driving back up to Boston, but with one catch – I’d return to the I-95 route which I had sworn off, because it was much closer to civilization in general and I had possible bailout points and friends with trucks along the way. Just, you know, paranoia. Just because the van is working, it doesn’t mean everyone’s not out to get you.

The order of events on September 8th was:

be south of Richmond, VA

> can’t rev past 4,000

be nearing Richmond, VA

> can’t rev past 3000 or go past 55mph

be in Richmond, VA

> stall out in the middle of town for a good 10 minutes

gently hobble towards Advance Auto Parts

> barely keep up with 25mph local traffic, limited to basically high-idling

Something was not happy. Falling back onto the symptoms I knew well from last year, I was still 99.95% convinced it was a fuel system problem. But swapping in my “crash kit” fuel filter – which I now keep a spare of in the back at all times, because fuck the world – didn’t resolve the problem at all. It would simply come back after less than a mile. Something was causing a severe constriction in the fuel feed, worse than last time. And like last year, I couldn’t cross-debug anything else that was wrong, the ECU blinked no Hobbyking-esque codes, and even calling up Frank at Smooth Automotive for some heartfelt remote diagnostics ruled out anything else.  Once again, I was stuck in Virginia with a van of dubious functionality. And a town ending in “burg” was nowhere to be found, so what should I do!?

As I was low on fuel at this point anyway, I decided to grab a gallon or two more, in case I had to hobble to a shop or to a hotel. I didn’t want to get a full tank, in case I had to drain it at the side of the road.

> runs beautifully

This got me thinking. Something about just getting gas caused it to start running again. But not all the way – I could still barely rev past 4,000 RPM. Whatever is upstream of the fuel filter is causing the problem. It dawned on me that it might be the fuel pump itself, but I replaced that in 2014… before the Dragon Con 2014 trip which ended in me feeling gassy. But the fuel pump itself has a intake filter on it, the little sock-looking thing filled with fuel-resistant teddy bear plush.

I still am wondering why there is a filter on my filter and why these two filters can’t be 1. the same one and 2. outside the fuel tank. But the bottom line then was that I had to drop the fuel tank to investigate. Dusk was settling, and I faced a choice between finding a shop which could look at it ASAP or winging it to at least Washington D.C. where I had some cohorts summoned. The area of north of Richmond I was in (Google Maps tells me it’s called “Glen Allen”) was healthy with automotive services, but they were all booked and busy – the earliest opportunity being the next day, with no guarantees.

Therefore, I made a betting-man’s decision to try and drown whatever was causing the blockage with fuel. I went back to the same Shell station and filled completely up. I even rocked Mikuvan left and right by pushing on it while filling up, which probably made me look like a lunatic to everybody else. All to try and dislodge any material that was hypothetically in the fuel pump intake sock.

Using this witchcraft, I was able to cruise to Baltimore without significant trouble keeping up with traffic. By the time I got past Baltimore, the issue had begun to return, so I stopped to top off again. The problem was that the clog was clearly pulling itself back together quicker than I could run through fuel – which, with restrictions to begin with, I was getting spectacular gas mileage. This was utterly unsustainable – I was going to have to drain and waste a full tank of gas in the near future if this kept up, and if that is the case, I’d rather lose 1 day and have the fuel tank totally cleaned and inspected.

I decided to call ahead to my dad, who luckily lives in New Jersey right now,and explain to him slowly how his son has insisted on getting in trouble with his old broken truck again. The plan was to coast fashionably into New Brunswick and find a shop in the morning after some sleep. Driving 50 to 55mph on the New Jersey Turnpike is one of those things I strongly prefer not to do again.

In the morning, I rolled into E-G Tire & Auto Center in Dayton. The E-G part stands for Edison Generator, which is a way more badass name – I asked why the business changed names, and it seems that the owner simply spun off the car repair business when he sold Edison Generator-the-business-that-does-electrical-stuff. I’m quite fond of “old style” company names, because fuck stupid postmodern one-made-up-word startup names, and power to Big Chuck’s Robot Warehouse & Auto Body Center.

Oh, luckily they’re a tire shop too, because on the way there, this happened.

Welcome to New Jersey. Fuck you and don’t come back.

This was about 70% my fault and 30% Fuck You; I’ve gotten a bit careless with shaving curbs in Boston and Cambridge, admittedly, but New Jersey-class curbs are made of sharp stone mixed with some domestically-produced Fuck You. In fact, this happened across the street from E-G, but because it’s New Jersey, the nearest way to turn around to get to them was a mile away. Not wanting to risk driving and damaging the rim, I had to mount the spare tire in clear view of the tire shop that’s going to fix it.

In fact, they recognized Mikuvan by make and model, from my pre-arrival call, and had actually been watching wondering why I was just parked across the street highway whatever New Jersey calls its roads where you cannot physically ever make a U-turn.

E-G was a nice and friendly place to hang out while they dropped the tank and had a look. In fact, the chief tech’s son was a huge BattleBots fan, so I got to provide my first random celebrity moment, I suppose? No, that did not discount my labor rate.

Here is the fuel pump intake sock as-extracted…

You can’t really see it here, but if I squeeze the little bag, the whole thing turns black and it feels very, very mushy and most definitely not like a synthetic fuel-resistant teddy bear. This part was replaced, along with the main fuel filter again, just in case – they are fairly cheap, and as long as We’re This Deep and very paranoid….

By 3PM on the 9th, I was back on my way again.

I decided to save the old intake sock as a memento piece to my statistically improbable luck with fossil fuels. Here it is cut up to reveal the inner layers!

The observant might be wondering why Suwanee Auto Repair didn’t catch this as a problem. While I think they could have dug deeper or performed a more thorough test, I really only gave them Friday before Dragon Con to do so. With the understanding that I needed it back by closing time, they did not inspect the fuel tank because I asked specifically to check the filter and everything forward of that (e.g. injectors) – since that was what bit me in the past. Good quality repair work always takes time, as my experience with Smooth Automotive showed. Unless you literally know exactly what is going down, it is better to let theprofessionals you hire do their work thoroughly. If I had been wrong about the fuel pump intake, then my trip to E-G would also have been frivolous (minus the dose of good ol’ New Jersey Fuck You).

So that’s the story of how I made it back into town with 3 winter tires and 1 dorky all-season, an accidentally-mandatory engine rebuild, a piece of jigsaw blade embedded in an improper location, and a refreshed fuel system! Now that everything works incredibly well, I’m back making midnight speedruns to Chinatown! going to New York Maker Faire this weekend. All said and done, this trip cost a little north of $2100 for all the servicing and repairs needed.

See you at the side of the Milford service plaza on 95!