For solder sesh #36 we had a special guest from Australia, Steph Piper, join us! Steph is the founder of Elkei Education on Twitter and Instagram. We chatted about her experience in STEM and college, her intro into 3D printing and its application in bio-fabrication, her beautiful 2-colored solder mask PCBs, what it took to find a company to manufacture them, her 2-meter The Party Button art installation, and Arduino workshops where she teaches people to make companion critters!
She's on Twitter and Instagram and you can buy her stuff on Tindie and Etsy!
(1:49 – 9:54) STEM/3D Printers
Carrie: So, before we get into the specifics of the boards can you tell us a little bit about how did you get into stem in the first place and what was your path like there? Who encouraged you and gave you tools to play with along the way?
Steph: Oh yeah, so I always had a really strong love for science, and I had science as my number one career choice for a while. I had an epic science camp that I went to in high school and an awesome chemistry teacher who’d bring in a Barbie doll and she'd put it in the different types of acids.
Steph: Loved all of that stuff. I started doing a Bachelor of Science at Uni and while I was doing that, all the medical stuff around 3D printing started to come out and I was like, oh my gosh, this is the stuff, this is what I want to be into! At the time it was like, 2012 and it was prime Prusa Mendel era. So of course, I went and bought myself a little Prusa Mendel kit online, and I put it together and I started having a go at a bit of 3D printing in my room at college where I was staying in the university campus. The first time I fired it up I had a crowd of other students in there with me. We're all just sitting there like, oh my God. It was peak hype at the time. And honestly, it still is a little bit for me. I'll catch myself watching the machine being like, stares in anticipation.
Carrie: It is very Zen and fascinating. Yes.
Steph: Yeah, it is definitely. So, with that, I was able to go and approach a professor at another university who was working on bio-fabrication, and I was able to show him some parts that I'd made on a machine that I built, and he was like, “You’re on the team.”
Steph: Yeah, I got to work on medical 3D printing for a bit, which was pretty wild. It all sort of transitioned me into hackerspaces and maker spaces. I feel like 3D printing has been by original sort of excitement but being able to go off and do electronics and art and all kinds of other things has been a really fantastic maker journey.
Carrie: Cool. Well, before we get into electronics, I'm interested in what kind of medical parts you got to print or design or both.
Steph: Yeah, it's actually pretty funny, I was actually making breast implants.
Carrie: Wow, that is something I did not expect would be 3D printed.
Steph: So, I can explain.
Carrie: Wouldn’t it create hard points?
Steph: And that really was just the tip of the nipple of the project. But anyway, so the idea was that so if someone has breast cancer, they may need to go in for a mastectomy or lumpectomy to have that cancer removed. At that point they are sort of faced with a bit of a decision as to whether to just go completely without natural breasts at which point, they can be having some kind of self-identity issues, which is not good. Or they can go and get silicon or saline implants put in which are even worse, to be honest. The research around the terrible things that can happen with those and how painful they can be and how they need to be removed every 10 years.
Carrie: That was one thing I didn't know until a friend went through that, unfortunately, but talking to her about it, I was like, wait, what, breast implants have to be replaced? They don't just stay in there? I was completely unaware of that.
Steph: Yeah, yeah. Gosh. So, we were sort of working on an alternative where you could 3d print out a biodegradable scaffold and over two years it would biodegrade into just fat tissue in the body. You'd end up with something that was a bit more of a lifetime solution that still looked like a breast.
Carrie: That's super interesting. Would there be anything else behind the scaffold, like saline or anything like that? Or just, just the scaffold?
Steph: Yeah, it would just dissolve away; you'd have seated fat and connective tissue in there. It still remained to be seen whether the project actually would work in practice. We were doing animal trials and it was a pretty wild project, to be honest. I feel like I'm not sure if I would want to test out that project at all, but it was a great trial run to actually test it out and use a whole range of different 3D printers that we had in the lab. Which was what I was all about.
Carrie: Very cool. Awesome. So then how did you get into circuit boards and electronics?
Steph: Yes. That is a good question. I think seeing circuit boards and electronics has always been a little bit of magic to me. It's been that next thing that like, if you can perfect coding, you can figure out how to add cute blinking lights to everything, you know? I was pretty keen to try and challenge myself and figure it out. My first electronic stuff was with Arduino, and I managed to get in and have a crack at some Arduino by doing a, expensive workshop. Which I sort of wished that I had someone who was able to sit down and teach me. Even during the workshop, I sort of came across some casual sexism type stuff. One of the ladies in the course was like, “Oh, can someone help me, my female brain can understand this.” And yeah, I feel like I've sort of come across that a few steps along the way. But now I'm able to actually teach Arduino workshops and sort of bridge across a lot of the barriers that I faced when I was trying to learn. Which feels really good to get the community on and make sure that people do know how to do this in an affordable and free way through the Uni.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely. So, was that then still while you were at Uni when you did that workshop and started into that? What was the majority of your coursework in, out of curiosity? What did you end up with a degree in and things like that?
Steph: Yeah. So, I ended up with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and I did my honors year in vaccine development, which I didn't enjoy as much, and then went on to that PhD project and I ended up only lasting about a year there. While I was doing all that, I got super involved in the Brisbane Hackerspace, which is the biggest hacker space in Australia. I used to go out there pretty regularly on the open nights and go hang out there. Soon enough, I ended up becoming president out there for two years. Just managing the space out there and seeing all the fantastic projects people were working on was just constant inspiration for what was possible. I really adored the show and tell times where people would be like, “Yeah, I built this weird contraption, check it out!” That was definitely the inspiration; it was around then that I started to get really excited about what's possible with electronics.
Carrie: Cool. So, electronics wasn't specific coursework that you pursued in Uni, but it was around that time and after.
(10:36 – 17:50) PCB design
Carrie: Tell us about these circuit boards. One of the first things that I noticed, in particular being somebody else who makes circuit boards, is that I'm like, “Huh, she's got at least two colors of solder mask going here.” Two colors of solder mask, which you've kind of created different tones by making parts of it over copper. So, this part that's a little bit lighter I can tell is over a copper pour. Then this part, which is a little darker is probably over the bare fiber glass.
Carrie: Then definitely the face is bare fiberglass, which I'm assuming that's where the light shines through maybe, but you also have blue and I'm guessing that the white is actually silkscreen.
Steph: Yes, that's correct.
Carrie: Okay. Yeah, but still two colors of solder mask, that is not a typical thing. Can you tell me about how you got board houses to do that for you? And did it cost arm and a leg to do that? Because that's, of course, what I would assume.
Steph: Yeah. That's exactly right. We wanted to do something that was pretty unique and different and stood out as something that is obviously not your standard green, classic boards, which are, to be honest, fairly uninspiring. I feel like, this kind of board really shows the power of having diverse thinkers in your design team to actually make something that is so different from the norm. Anyway, to make this, so to wind back a few steps, Elkei came out of a startup weekend competition. I pitched the idea of electronics for girls at a startup weekend, formed a team and met my business partner there. We ended up pitching on that weekend and winning that weekend in the local competition, and we got to move on to the international competition.
Steph: So, we got to pitch again and traveled to Bali to the international finals which was epic and pitch again against teams from China, Malaysia, Brunei, Japan – all kinds of places. We ended up winning that one as well, and we thought, “Wow, maybe this idea has some legs.” Through many failed and tried ideas on what we could actually make as a company, we settled on your minimum viable product that we probably should have picked in the first place, which is just a small soldiering kit. We ended up traveling to Shenzhen; we went to China and visited a circuit board expo to try and get an idea of what was possible and who could do what. We had a translator in tow and we're walking around this huge, expansive, ridiculously large facility with hundreds of circuit board factory contacts. And we're asking each one as we go, can you make more colors on a circuit board?
Carrie: Right, more than one.
Steph: Yeah, more than one. Two colors. Every time the translator would come back and be like, “Ah, okay, so they've said, why would you want to do that? Circuit board is for function, not for pretty. Circuit board goes in box, goes in enclosure, why you put nice things on circuit, no one looks at circuit boards, fool. What are you doing here?”
Carrie: What year was this, out of curiosity?
Steph: This was like August 2019. A bit terrified on the scale of COVID.
Carrie: Oh yeah. I didn't even think about that, terrifying for that for sure. I would have thought that at that point in time, there were definitely more, at least I feel like I was seeing more, interesting artwork on circuit boards by that point, and it was a little more common place.
Steph: Yeah, badge life is definitely a thing. That's definitely what inspired me down this path. I knew it was possible; there's a big badge with a face on it from, I think, Mr. Robot, that has skin color solder mask on it. So, I knew it was possible, I knew they could do weird things. I was like, I know you could do it if you tried. Anyway, we managed to find one factory that would actually do it and when they said, “Yes,” we were like, “Are you sure?” They're like, “Yeah, we'll try it.” And I was like, do you understand what I meant?
Carrie: Right, you realize I want two colors, on the same side, too. That's another thing I would have expected. Maybe they would be like, oh, we could do one color on the front and one color on the back or something. Interesting.
Steph: Yeah, they managed to say yes, and I just had to specify to their customer rep which sections on the board should be which color and where, and it was done.
Carrie: That's super cool and they did a fantastic job. I mean, these boards look awesome. The other thing that I'm really impressed with, and maybe, I might switch over to microscope view here to show this, but I was really impressed with the fact that even the silk screen kind of comes right up to the edge of your exposed copper. There’s barely any back-off or clearance there. I feel like most typical board houses will kind of automatically include a little bit of a back-off between silkscreen and exposed copper areas as a matter of course because on a functional circuit board, you don't want the silk screen overlapping in an exposed copper area because the assumption is that you're trying to solder to that area. It was cool that they even were very precise with that as well.
Steph: I didn't realize that. I just didn't bother changing it just out of ignorance.
Carrie: Well, it might be that they saw these and it was kind of obvious as to what your goal was with them. Since the normal rules didn't apply, maybe none of the normal rules apply too.
(43:39 – 53:15) Party Button
Carrie: So, tell us about some of the art things that you're doing these days. What made you start to do them and be interested in doing larger scale art projects?
Steph: Yeah, so last year, I had my first larger art sculpture on display called The Party Button and it's essentially a two-meter-tall polished, stainless steel, fake crosswalk looking thing. I can approach it and press the button, like an actual big crosswalk button, and it plays 1 of 20 randomized party tracks. You can do a little dance and the little characters at the top and little walking men will also do a little dance with you.
Carrie: Nice, nice.
Steph: Yeah. That was very cool to build. It began with a crappy prototype as all things do.
Carrie: Of course. Let's see if we can do a screen share really quick. I want to screen-share the party button because it's kind of amazing and you need to see photos of it in order to fully appreciate it. Cool. Oh, there it is.
Steph: You beauty.
Carrie: I know. That's really cool. I love how it's this whole thing and I really like the circuit board aesthetic on the bottom too. I think that's super cool.
Steph: Yeah. Hell yeah. The project began with one day, someone bringing me some real, walking men traffic lights that had been, I think, cycled out of rotation and replaced.
Carrie: We have some of those.
Steph: Yeah. So, I got this, and I was like, “Yeah, I got to do something with this.” I ripped out all the old green LEDs in it and replaced them with those rainbow LEDs.
Carrie: Oh, it was an individual LED traffic light. That's cool. Ours is a single, crazy bright LED in the middle with a giant lens around it.
Carrie: Yeah, but the individual LED style ones, which I don't know if we have any of the ones on the actual street around here –the style that I just described, which is the single one. All the ones locally seem to be the multiple LEDs per light. But that's cool that it gave you the option of replacing them with rainbows, because how cool would some weird rainbow LED traffic light be? Right. How would people behave at intersection?
Carrie: If it was purple in one direction and blue in the other, what would they do? Would it lead to disaster? Let's do the experiment.
Steph: Yeah, so I ended up putting it together in a crappy prototype, mounting it on a swivel chair base that had a PVC pipe through the middle of it. Got one of those Spark Fun wave triggers to play some music with it and zip-tied a bunch of stuff around this PVC pipe. Suddenly, you could press a button on it and it would play Darude’s “Sandstorm” and a whole bunch of main tracks I had on there. You could just walk up to the Makerspace at work where I had it on display and I would just encourage you to press the button and see what happens.
Carrie: I love it.
Steph: I ended up sandwiching all the electronics inside a couple of clear acrylic pieces so that you could actually see what the brains were and understand how the Arduinos took the button input and gave it to the wave trigger and different things happened.
Carrie: Awesome. So, I imagine though that for it to be on the street, you would have to have a reasonably powerful speaker driving it in order for it to be heard.
Steph: Definitely, yeah. So that was the crappy prototype and I applied for a grant to turn it into something real. I wrote in, and I said, “I can make this work, here's my prototype, it works. Let me do you a 2m tall version of this that's fully ready for outdoor display. What do you think?” I got a call back and they said, “Yep, we love your idea. Do you want to build two for twice the money?” Which was 30 grand in Australian dollars. I was like, “Oh God, okay. Oh lord, I have to build two now.” So, I ended up putting that together and we ended up using a full-on studio monitor speaker to go in the base and it’s pretty loud. Put it all the way up to 11.
Steph: Doing this project in the 6 months that they gave you to build it, it ended up getting cut pretty close. A bit too close for comfort to be honest, and trying to get the LED matrixes to do cool things in sequence with a button, and have randomized display; there wasn't any good code examples for that. I should have gone and done a bit more coding before I started this project. I was lucky that Larry the Optimizer, @fast_code_r_us on Twitter, pulled through and helped me with that one, it was an absolute lifesaver. A week before it was meant to go on display, I got a message from our engineers who were meant to certify it, instead say that you can't go on public display because you can't bolt it down, it has to be freestanding. Of course, something that tall is, liable to topple over if it's not weighed down properly. If someone's biking around on an electric scooter and clock into it, you want to make sure it stays there. They came back and said, “Look, we've gone and done the math on it and you're going to need to put an extra 350 kilos in the base.”
Carrie: That's a lot of weight. Holy crap.
Steph: And I'm doing my own math here… If I go to in the store and get some flat plate gym weights the volume would be too large as it currently is. At the time I was like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do here? It's not going to get on display. I'm going to have to break into the defense base and steal some uranium weight. I’m going to be sneaking into the science department at night, grabbing some tungsten cubes. Like, how am I going to weigh this thing down?” Lucky for me, I called up my metal worker who built the whole outside of it and I said, “What am I going to do?” He's like, “I can just knock over some stacked, flat steel plates that are sort of in a bit of a ziggurat shape.” And lucky for me, he knocked it over the weekend before it was meant to go on display. However, that was a real close one and now I have these huge piles of weights that need to go with the art installation whenever it is on display somewhere.
Carrie: It's logistically difficult. How do you move the 350-kilo ziggurat around?
Steph: They're all stacked so you can pick them up individually.
Carrie: But still that's-
Steph: Painful. Yeah, if you're trying to pick them up all at once. Just have to hit the protein shakes.
Carrie: Okay, just good old brute force. Wow. That's a lot of work. That is like, literally, a labor of love.
(1:20:41 – 1:26:08) Russel Crow
Steph: I've got one more project sitting on my desk that I haven't talked about yet.
Carrie: Ooh, please show us.
Steph: So, this one here is a little bit broken at the moment, but he's a little companion robot. But he's been traveling too much, and he's been crushed in a bag.
Carrie: He’s like a little sort of fat little crow.
Steph: Yeah, a little birdy. Chubby little bird.
Carrie: Nice, so does it have a name?
Steph: Yes, Russell Crow.
Carrie: That is awesome. Hello, Mr. Russell Crow. It is nice to meet you. I had Russell Crow on my livestream. That's fantastic. What kind of animations do you have him do?
Steph: Yeah, so he's beak moves. It opens and closes. It doesn't make a noise there; I just make a noise for him. [Reads comment: A shoulder chicken.] Yes, thank you. Yeah, in difference to our Australian bin chickens that we have. His little eyeball turns on as well, a little red light that comes on.
Steph: But yeah, this little project was the prototype, like a demo bot for a workshop that I did. At the moment, when you sit down and you teach, when I teach Arduino, I've sort of been doing the same old blink an LED, move a servo motor type stuff for a little while, and it gets the point across but it's not quite as inspiring and fun. I feel like making your own project is a bit more along the lines of something people can actually see something cool come out of what they've done. More recently I designed an open-source workshop type thing where you can actually 3D print a range of different chassis types. So, this is the Peabody chassis that this is built around. See the little 3d printed skeleton under there?
Carrie: Cool, yeah.
Steph: There's also one that is designed to sit on your shoulder, and a couple that are a big and small desk style. The idea is that you can sit down and learn Arduino and make lights blink and motors move, but you can make something, a little creature, come to life as you're doing it.
Carrie: I think that that's super cool. I mean, really for anybody, I was going to say especially for kids, but I think the appeal of things that move and come to life is pretty universal.
Steph: Oh yeah. When you look at standard Arduino classes as well, for someone who's not traditionally interested in electronics, it's a bit of a hard sell to sit down and do complex things all day.
Carrie: It is, and it's hard to, I think, get the excitement across and without having like some sort of end project that is interactive, at least. Because if it's just moving a servo, it's like, well, okay but why would you do that kind of a thing, for people who aren't in this world already. The idea is to try to bring more people into this world and get that spark in their brain going and thinking, “Oh, maybe I could make this thing that's of interest to me.” So that's super cool that you're doing the companion bot things. I haven't quite gotten into that yet, but I want to and have some ideas there.
Steph: Yeah. It's I think one of the best examples of STEAM activities versus STEM activities, I suppose. Where you're actually getting a chance to be creative and make a creature of your own design while learning all this Arduino stuff along the way. I am really keen to teach more of these types of classes where people can build their own little creatures. The rest of the bot is pretty much just all crafting, really. All of this stuff is e-waste or industrial waste. So, the little fluffy front there is the off cuts from a car seat.
Carrie: Oh, cool. Where do you get these materials?
Steph: There's a lady in my town who runs a company called Junk Maid and she does junk workshops.
Carrie: That is fantastic. Wow.
Steph: She will give you junk in exchange for a donation to a local animal shelter.
Steph: Yeah. I was lucky that she just gave me four boxes of miscellaneous things that people could use. But as long as you've got like some decent selections of wire to build out a skeleton, little wire head here, and little wire feet. As long as you've got some wire that you can start to build some shapes and make the character start to be fleshed out, then this kind of thing is very possible.