Laser Cutters and Crank Rockers!

It’s been a while since we last posted an update, but a lot has been happening!  First and foremost, we’ve started a new venture to open a laser-cutting shop.  Frustrated with long lead-times and archaic quoting processes for custom laser-cut metal parts, we decided to open our own shop and do it right!

We are a few weeks away from having a machine installed and operating, but once we have it, we’ll be able to iterate on new simulator versions in days, instead of months!

In the mean-time, we’ve revisited the simulator design in hopes of optimizing the system.  The large version 2 frame allows for a lot of motion freedom, and it is sized to allow for continuous rotation on every single axis.  Unfortunately, our drive system design had some issues, and we reverted back to the linear actuator drive solution instead.  So the frame worked out to be far larger than it needed to be, to allow for the rotation it was capable of achieving.

Version 2 VR Motion Simulator

We’ll revisit the continuous rotation idea again down the road, when we’ve figured out our custom motor design for a direct drive solution.

In the mean-time, we’ve shifted gears to produce a lighter, more compact, transportable system.  Rotation freedom will be reduced a little bit, but the lower cost, ease of assembly, and reduced size will be nice.

The basic idea is to use a crank-rocker (a type of four-bar linkage) to rotate the chair.  The crank rocker assembly directly replaces the linear actuators.  This design allows for less rotation freedom (+/- 20 to 30 degrees instead of +/- 50 degrees on the version 2 frame), but it is much more compact and easy to assemble.

We may also move the center of rotation away from the head and closer to the center of mass of the assembly.  In VR, rotation around the head is ideal for reasons that we’ve discussed before.  But rotating around the head takes a lot more torque, which increases complexity and cost.  Other commercial simulators avoid that cost and complexity altogether by rotating the base of the chair.  While that’s incredibly easy to do in comparison, it is also the worst possible solution for VR immersion, because it whips the user’s head around during motion.  You don’t even know how bad it is until you try it, and compare it with our system…

We think that there is probably a middle-ground.  Rotating around a point slightly lower than the head, but far above the base of the chair, may simplify the design significantly without breaking immersion.  So we’ll be giving that a try on this next variant.

The design is a work-in-progress, but it’s moving along!

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Version 2 is Up and Running!

Last night we mounted the chair and modified our simulation software to control the version 2 frame.

This frame is significantly more rigid than the first-revision frame, and it makes a big difference.

It’s interesting – when you try this new simulator and compare it to the first version, it is immediately obvious how much better it is.  The motion is smooth, the system responsive.  It feels so much more immersive.

But without being able to try both, the first-revision didn’t feel terrible on its own.  It still felt pretty neat.  It isn’t until you try something really good that you notice how bad the other experiences are, in comparison.

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Revision 2 Prototype Progress

Hey, it’s been a while since we last updated!  We ran into a few issues.  First, I underestimated the amount of flex in a chain drive system.  We were going to use a chain final stage to direct drive the axes, but it is way to bouncy.  Second, I seriously underestimated the amount of torque required to direct-drive the axes.  By a factor of 10.  Unit conversion error.

So it was back to the drawing board.    We took the linear actuators from the V1 frame and had some 3/8″ brackets cut to hold them on the frame:

V2 Frame with Brackets

The arms mount together with a custom shaft and bearing pack assembly:

V2 Drive Shaft

And then came assembly!  Here’s the yaw arm, mounted in the basement:

Yaw Arm Mounted

And the full assembly, all put together:

Version 2 VR Motion Simulator

How rigid is it, exactly?  *Almost as good as we want it.  The bearing assemblies have a little too much deflection.  We’ll fix that in the next revision.

And finally, here it is moving (it’s controlled by a joystick in this video):

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Outer Yoke Assembled for Stress Tests

Last night we mostly finishing welding the yaw, pitch, and roll gimbal arms, and then we bolted them together.

The axis bearings aren’t finished, so we can’t really build the complete assembly yet.  But bolting the arms together directly allows us to test the frame’s rigidity.

Above: laying out the roll yoke arm.

More work on the roll yoke.

Roll yoke side plates attached.

Pitch yoke assembly.

Almost there, just need to weld the inner ribs.

Above: Yaw, pitch, and roll yokes together.  Roll yoke was almost finished before we ran out of wire.

Above: A highly technical, sophisticated, scientific stress test…

Well touch this up with a grinder, have it sandblasted, and then powder coat it.  It’ll have a nice look, IO think.

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“What Motors Are You Using?”

I get asked this all the time, and it’s an understandable question.  Servo motors are the most expensive part of the machine, and you need a one for every axis.  I’ve seen forums where people talk about disassembling treadmills to repurpose the high power DC motors.  So… let’s look back and talk about the motors we’ve considered and used on this project!  I’ll talk a little about gearboxes and other mechanical drive parts.

Clearpath Servo Motors

The first candidate was the CPM-SDSK-3441P-RLN from Teknic.  Motor product link here.

CPM-SDSK-3441P-RLN Clearpath Servo Motor from Teknic, along with some other components.

Clearpath motors are great, and I can’t recommend them enough!  They aren’t the cheapest option out there, but they have a lot going for them:

  1. Their ratings are actually accurate, which is something that can’t be said of motors from many other manufacturers.
  2. Documentation is great.
  3. Price is pretty good compared to equivalents from other brands.
  4. Construction is solid.  These are well-built motors.
  5. Great support.  It’s easy to get on the phone with an engineer.
  6. Finally, these motors are really easy to use, with built-in drivers that are hardened and ready to go.

Now, in retrospect, I ordered this motor too soon.  It was actually underpowered, so I returned it.  Within the last year, Teknic actually released a new line of motors that ramps up the maximum power significantly.  Their higher power motors are more expensive, but are still a great deal compared to a lot of other options.  There are a lot of different models available.  If you can find one that fits your budget and power requirements, you can’t go wrong by using a Clearpath motor from Teknic.

We didn’t end up using Teknic on the first-rev. prototype because there were cheaper options, and at the time they didn’t have anything with high enough power output.  Now they do, but they still aren’t the lowest cost.

AC Servo Motors from China

I don’t know who makes these motors, but you can get them from a variety of places.  We experimented with a 1.8 kW AC servo, model number 110ST-M06030, shown below:

110ST-M06030 1.8 kW servo motor, purchased from FastToBuy.com.  Cat for scale… 🙂

This is a solid motor, and the price is unreal.  Seriously, you can get one of these, including the driver and controller, for $322 (USD).  We got them from FastToBuy.com.  They ship from China, so expect to pay a ridiculous amount for shipping.  And FastToBuy is an intermediary, so I don’t know who actually makes them.

Downsides?  Documentation is poor and inaccessible – it’s just a bad Chinese-English translation.  And expect to know something about PI gain tuning to get the servo operating like it should in your system.  If you don’t know how to do that, don’t let it scare you – you can figure it out.  But it isn’t going to be as simple as getting a Teknic motor set up.

Also, the driver needs 240V single phase, or 3-phase power (3-phase is better if it’s available.  Less ripple on the internal rectified DC voltage used to drive the system).  So you can’t just plug your system into a normal single-phase wall outlet.

But it’s hard to argue about the amount of power these offer at the price!  These are actually significantly overpowered, but that’s OK.  I can’t say a lot about longevity, since we haven’t run them for a long time.  So far they are doing well.

The linear actuators on the Version One 2-DOF prototype actually use an even larger 2.3 kW servo motor from the same manufacturer and supplier: the hefty 130ST-M15015.  It’s only $395 off the shelf, some $70 more expensive than its 1.8 kW counterpart.  We thought, “Hey, at that price, we may as well upgrade!”  These servos don’t even warm up on the 2-DOF prototype.  They run cold.  We haven’t even begun to make them work hard.

Caveat: We haven’t run these on a dynamometer, and can’t say that they are really 1.8 kW or 2.3 kW.  If I had to guess, I’d say “no, they aren’t that powerful.”  They are clearly more than enough for this application, though.

Gearboxes!

On the current linear actuators, we are using the 130ST-M15015 servo motor with a 10:1 NMRV063 worm gearbox, also from FastToBuy.  Had to get the speed down and the torque up!  The gearbox goes to a ~3″ diameter timing belt pulley, which moves the assembly.  It isn’t clear on FastToBuy’s website, but there are actually a lot of different gearbox sizes and ratios available, and the factory (whoever/wherever it is) can do custom shaft sizes, input and output flanges, etc.  FastToBuy sells smaller and larger gearboxes of the same type as well.  They can work with you to get the one you need for your application.

Linear Actuator with 10:1 NRMV063 gearbox and 130ST-M15015 servo motor, both from FastToBuy.com

Interestingly, this exact gearbox model, possibly from the same manufacturer, is also available from Automation Direct.  I know it’s the same because I just bought one from them. 🙂  You’ll pay more from Automation Direct, but it ships from the US, and it actually has specs available on the website.  You know, output torque, max speed, input torque, etc., etc.  Important stuff like that.  It’s a lot easier to work with, but there are fewer options when it comes to input and output shafts, flanges, and so on.

Pulleys and Timing Belts

We are using 1.5″ H-series timing belts and pulleys.  You can get them all over the place (McMaster, for example).  But you can get them for cheap from shop.polybelt.com.  They have lots of pulley and belt sizes, belt types, and so on.  It’ll be way cheaper there than from McMaster.

Motors for the Next Revision

We’ll most likely be switching motors for the next revision.  Why?

  1. In spite of the low cost, working with companies in China can sometimes a pain. :-/  Communication is difficult, supply-chain isn’t transparent, shipping is super expensive and takes forever, specs and documentation leave a lot to be desired, quality control is opaque, bla bla bla.
  2. We want to be able to run the 2-DOF simulator from single phase 120V AC.  It would be nice to just plug it into a wall, you know?
  3. We think that with the motors we are considering, we can actually reduce the total cost per axis.  Possibly.  It’s hard to say for sure until we have the solution completely figured out.

Here’s what we are looking at for the next version:

3/4 HP Brushed DC Motor from Automation Direct

This is a 3/4 HP, 90V brushed DC motor from Automation Direct (ironically… made in China, but at least Automation Direct handles the overseas issues). The math says that these motors should be fine.  The gearbox is a NMRV model basically just like the ones we currently use, but the ratio is much higher, and it’s available from Automation Direct, sized specifically for the DC motor.

The motor doesn’t have an encoder, and of course it doesn’t include a driver or controller.  That will drive up the price, so it might end up being a little more expensive than what we are currently using.  We’ll find out!  Encoder and servo drive are on the way, and I already know how we are going to get the encoder set up.

 

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