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Laser-Cut Case Experiments

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While I continue experimenting with 3D-printed case designs for Floppy Emu, I’ve also been working on revisions to the existing laser-cut case design. These new laser-cut cases retain the same overall mechanical “box” as the original, but use a variety of materials, engraving, and opening cuts to give them new styles. Maybe one of these will become the new standard case, or an optional alternative. I’m interested to hear from readers about their opinions on these, so please leave a note in the comments below.

First, let’s review the existing case design that’s included in the Floppy Emu “deluxe bundle”. It’s transparent acrylic, and is great if you want to showcase the Emu’s inner chips and circuits. It looks like something an electronics fan would use with an Arduino or Raspberry Pi. The opening for the SD card is rounded, so you can reach in with your thumb and index finger to extract the micro SD card. The overall style is pretty spiffy, if I do say so myself.

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One drawback of the clear acrylic case is that it’s practically invisible. It’s 100% transparent, like looking through glass, so the etchings on the case appear superimposed on the contents inside, creating a visual mash-up that’s sometimes hard on the eyes. It’s not a huge problem, but maybe a modestly-tinted acrylic case would be better than full transparent. This one is about 25% gray tinted, which is fairly subtle. The tint is obvious when it’s placed side-by-side with the clear case, but less noticeable when viewed by itself. The opening for the SD card on the tinted case is also slightly different, with a more squared-off look.

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The clear and tinted cases both have a gloss finish, giving them a sort of future-tech look. Unfortunately the gloss finish also makes fingerprints stand out clearly, which is a bit annoying. But even if you don’t mind a few fingerprints, not everyone loves the see-through look. If you enjoy showing off the geeky internals, it’s great, but some people prefer a functional case that looks more like a standard peripheral than a science exhibit. To that end, I made two more case designs using matte acrylic that’s mostly or completely opaque.

The first of these is built from a “matte clear” material, which really isn’t clear at all. It’s like frosted glass, and you can vaguely see a blur of color through it, but no details. If hiding the internals is what you’re after, this will do it. The matte material has a very pleasing texture, and doesn’t show fingerprints at all, so the case always looks clean. This case uses the same squared-off opening for the SD card.

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The final case is built from a matte white material, and is my attempt to create something that looks more like a miniature Apple disk drive, using Apple’s “Snow White” design cues. It has a series of parallel grooves on the top plate, like the Apple IIc and IIGS and the Apple 3.5 inch external drive. The front opening even has a fake status LED and disk eject hole engraved in it, to make it resemble the front face of a real external floppy drive. The squared-off opening for the SD card is intended to give the feeling of the drive door from a 5 1/4 inch drive. This matte white case does a pretty good job of matching the style of the 3D-printed cases I posted last time, but is much faster and cheaper to make.

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The major drawback of the matte white case is that the engraved areas are difficult to see. It’s white engraving on a slightly different shade of white background. You can see from the photos how subtle the grooves and other engraved details are. Depending on the angle of the light, they may be slightly more or less visible, but they never really stand out. The title photo displaying all four cases was actually photoshopped to make the top grooves stand out better, but the other images of the matte white case were not retouched. Overall I think it’s still a direction worth pursuing, but I definitely wish there were a way to give those engraved areas more contrast.

An alternative that just occurred to me is to actually cut the grooves and fake front details all the way through the material, instead of engraving them. This would certainly make them visible, but then you’d be able to see through to the Emu board inside. That’s not really accurate – you can’t see the Apple IIc logic board through the grooves in its case, for example, because there’s a second layer of plastic under each groove. Hmmm.

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3D Printed Floppy Emu Case Experiment

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My clear acrylic laser-cut case design for Floppy Emu looks sharp, but doesn’t match the visual style of classic Apple II or Macintosh systems. It’s also a bit tedious to assemble. A few people have suggested a Floppy Emu case that looks more like a retro 3.5 or 5.25 inch Apple drive, with Apple design details and a beige/white color. In that spirit, my friend Allan recently did some experiments with a 3D printed white case for the Floppy Emu, and the results look promising.

3D printing has the advantage of making any shape possible, instead of being constrained to interlocking 2D pieces with laser cutting. This enables the case to be built as just two pieces, rather than the six pieces needed for the laser-cut version. It also enables the button plungers to be built directly into the top plate, so they can’t fall out, making the whole thing easy to assemble. If you’ve struggled with the button plungers in the laser cut case, then you’ll appreciate this.

With 3D printing, it’s also possible to approach the appearance of a retro computer accessory. The case can be matte white, instead of glossy acrylic. 3D grooves and other small details can be modeled directly into the case, instead of being limited to 2D etching. Nobody will confuse it with a 1984 Apple peripheral, but at least it will be a lot closer.

I’ve mostly avoided 3D printing until now, because I’ve found it to be slow, expensive, and imprecise. Each one of these test prints required many hours of printer time and baby-sitting. The large time sink wouldn’t an issue if I used a commercial 3D printing service instead of home printing, but initial estimates are that a 3D printed case would cost perhaps 3x as much to manufacture as the current laser-cut case design. Maybe that would still be OK if the improved appearance and ease of assembly made it worth the extra cost to customers, but it’s a lot to ask.

Imprecision has been my biggest concern with 3D printing. Using my own budget printer, it seems half the prints I make come out badly deformed. Even the “good” prints always have a smooshed corner or deformed detail or other minor problem. It’s not terrible if you’re making a prototype for self-use, but I’m not sure it would be acceptable if making hundreds of them for sale to customers. Allan’s first case experiments showed some of the same types of deformities, although he was able to improve it somewhat in later iterations by making adjustments to his printer settings. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

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Note how some of the grooves at left aren’t clean and even, and there’s a diagonal texturing across the whole surface that’s visible in some areas but not others. It’s hard to see in the photo, but the text and icons also have a slightly uneven appearance.

What surprised me was a test print made in Allan’s friend’s high-end 3D printer: it’s much more professional-looking, with very consistent print appearance across the whole case. That’s the print you see in the title photo above. I don’t know exactly what model of printer it was, or the cost, but I’ll try to find out. Here’s a close-up of the case from the better 3D printer, for comparison (click the image to see a high-resolution version).

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A question to readers: would a 3D printed “retro-style” Floppy Emu case interest you? What features do you think would be most important? What do you think would be a fair price for something like this?

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DB-19: Resurrecting an Obsolete Connector

Oh man, this is good! You’re looking at the first DB-19 connector to be made in the 21st century:

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This is a happy story about the power of global communication and manufacturing resources in today’s world. If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, then you’ve certainly heard me whine and moan about how impossible it is to find the obscure DB-19 disk connector used on vintage Macintosh and Apple II computers (and some NeXT and Atari computers too). Nobody has made these connectors for decades.

I’ve got a disk emulator product called Floppy Emu that attaches to an Apple DB-19 port, so I need a steady supply of these connectors to build my hardware, and that’s a problem. Over the past couple of years, I’ve scrounged what seems like every warehouse and basement on the planet, and bought up nearly the entire world’s remaining supply of new-old-stock DB-19 connectors. My last few product batches included DB-19s from some very obscure international sources. It was clear I’d reached the end of the road.

This wasn’t a surprise. The DB-19 shortage first became obvious to me about a year and a half ago, when a manufacturing error forced me to replace all the DB-19 connectors in a batch of boards, and replacements couldn’t be readily found. Since then I’ve written a dozen times about the impending DB-19 doomsday. I also made several attempts to design a DB-19 substitute using a small PCB and suitably-arranged header pins, but while they more-or-less worked, I wasn’t satisfied with the result.

The specific part in question is a D-SUB DB-19 male solder cup connector, sometimes called DB-19P. It’s very similar to the more familiar DB-9 (old style serial ports) or DB-25, but with a different width to accommodate the different number of pins. “But wait!” says the well-intentioned blog reader, “this web site over here has DB-19P connectors for sale right now!” They may claim to have them, but trust me, they don’t. Electronics parts suppliers seem to make a habit of listing available items that aren’t actually available, whether out of laziness or as an intentional bait-and-switch, I’m not sure. But if you call them or try to actually order the parts, you’ll find they don’t exist.

 
Custom Manufacturing

About 15 months ago, I first started looking into the idea of manufacturing new DB-19 connectors. So here’s the thing – how do you go about having something like this made? I had no clue, and it took me over a year. How do you find factories that might possibly build something like this, and then how do you find a contact person to whom you can explain your needs? Almost all the manufacturers that I talked to blew me off, or wouldn’t even talk to me at all. The US-based manufacturers weren’t interested, or couldn’t do it. In the end, I went through Alibaba listings for companies that make other types of D-SUB connectors, and emailed several dozen of them to ask if they could make a DB-19. Only a few even replied, and only two said they could, both located in China.

The estimated cost was eye-watering – a minimum order size of 10000 pieces and a total cost well into five figures. I had naively assumed that somebody might still have old DB-19 molds they could reuse, or that DB-25 tools could somehow be easily adapted to make DB-19 connectors. Nope. I did a lot of research into possible alternatives like 3D printing or alternate materials, but nothing looked viable. And given the tiny scope of my disk emulator business, I couldn’t justify spending tens of thousands of dollars for making new DB-19s.

So nothing happened. A year passed, and the DB-19 shortage grew more dire still. I made another attempt at designing a DB-19 substitute, but wasn’t satisfied with the results. Out of options, I reluctantly circled back to the manufacturing idea again. I tried to calculate how many years of future sales it would take before I could earn back my investment, and it was a depressingly large number.

But just as I was getting discouraged, good luck arrived in the form of several other people who were also interested in DB-19 connectors! The NeXT and Atari communities were also suffering from a DB-19 shortage, as well as others in the vintage Apple community, and at least one electronics parts supplier too. After more than a year of struggling to make manufacturing work economically, I was able to arrange a “group buy” in less than a week. Now let’s do this thing!

 
Let’s Build It!

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Early on, it became clear they’d need more specific directions than simply “make it like a DB-9 but with more pins.” They wanted mechanical drawings and specifications for the part. Umm… They asked for information from my engineering department. Er… I was stumped by this for a short while, but then I found an old mechanical drawing of a DB-25. I photoshopped that sucker, edited some key measurements, and that was what they used for the very expensive mold-making process. I’m still kind of shocked that this actually worked.

Payment required wiring a Very Large Amount to a bank in Hong Kong – no PayPal accepted here. I’m sure the people at my bank thought I’d been duped by some kind of Nigerian 419 scam. Maybe it’s more common elsewhere, but transfers of this type are rare at US retail banks. In my case, it took the branch manager and 30 minutes of paperwork to get the transfer done.

Two months passed, and a round of prototyping. Progress was slow but steady, and I received updates from the manufacturer every few days. I kept waiting, eagerly anticipating this DB-19 bounty. At the end of May the product finally shipped, only to disappear into a US Customs black hole somewhere for a couple of days. Then at long last, after what felt like an infinite wait, I came home to find 10000 of these beauties stacked on my doorstep:

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For the moment at least, I have nearly the entire world’s supply of DB-19 connectors, stacked in my living room. I think I’m going to fill the bathtub and swim in them.

Next step: re-ship the majority of these DB-19 connectors to the other people in the group buy. They should start becoming available in small quantities at electronics parts suppliers in a couple of weeks.

Assuming Floppy Emu sales continue apace, I’ll eventually make back my investment in a couple of years. If not, it will at least make for a good story. šŸ™‚ Now, let the retro-hardware celebration begin!

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The End of Things

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After predicting the end of the DB-19 connector supply for over a year, it’s finally happened. I recently sent my last stockpile of new-old-stock DB-19s to the board shop for assembly of more Floppy Emus. I have two left that I’m keeping as souvenirs, and that’s it. I’m sure there are still a few left somewhere in the world, hiding out in some obscure surplus warehouse, but they’ve become so difficult to find that they may as well not exist.

This also means the end of the Universal Adapter for Floppy Emu Model A, because building one requires a DB-19. I think I have two or three left, and when they’re gone that will be the end.

My stock of Floppy Emu Model B boards is nearly exhausted as well. I still have enough of the older Model A for the time being, but I expect the Model B will be sold out within a week. If all goes as expected, it will hopefully only be a short sell-out, since I’m expecting a new batch of Model B’s from the board shop in a few weeks. But later this year when those are all gone too, things will get interesting.

I’m working with a group of other vintage computer collectors and parts dealers to manufacture a large run of new DB-19 connectors. As far as I’m aware, these will be the first new DB-19s made anywhere in the world in the past couple of decades! More details on this soon.

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Floppy Emu Firmware Update: Mac HD Menu

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I’ve added a new feature to the Macintosh/Lisa firmware for the Floppy Emu disk emulator: a menu for selecting disk images while running in Mac hard disk emulation mode. This is the mode that enables Floppy Emu to function as an HD20-type hard disk with compatible Macintosh models, with disk sizes up to 2 GB. Previously the hard disk image was always taken from a file named “HD20.dsk” on your SD card. If you had a few different hard disk image files, and wanted to select the right one for a given situation, you had to put the SD card into your Windows/OSX computer and rename the desired file to HD20.dsk. While this wasn’t a common need, it was not especially user-friendly.

Get the new firmware here: hd20-0.7F-F14.5

With the new firmware, the first time you run it you’ll see a hard disk image selection menu. The name of the chosen disk image file is saved in EEPROM memory, and will be used for all future sessions. If you later want to choose a different disk image file, the NEXT button will return you to the selection menu.

After choosing a new disk image for hard disk emulation mode, the Mac needs to be turned off and on (Floppy Emu will prompt you to do this), or you need to press the Mac’s hardware reset switch. That’s because the Mac doesn’t expect HD20-type drives to be removable media, and doesn’t recognize when the disk has changed. Without a reboot, it will blindly continue as if the original disk were still present, leading to unpleasant results.

I welcome your feedback on this change. Let me know if you run into any trouble.

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DB-19 Group Buy

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Holy cow, this is actually happening! After overĀ a year of searching what seems like every warehouse and basement on the planet to scrounge for DB-19 connectors,Ā I’m finally moving forward with the manufacture of new ones. As far as I’m aware, these will be the first new DB-19s made anywhere in two decades, since the days of the Macintosh II, Atari ST, and NeXT.

To make this work, weĀ need to place a BIG order. Right now that looks like 10,000 pieces. If anyone else in the vintage Apple, Atari, or NeXT communities might be interested in joining this group buy for a minimum of 500 pieces or more, please contact me by Monday, March 21. For a male DB-19 with solder cups as pictured above, the price will be about USD $1.41 each, plus or minus a few percent depending on the final tally for shipping and other fees. If you’re interested in a smaller number of connectors, or just one, stay tuned. Other participantsĀ inĀ the group buy will be selling individual connectors at retail once the manufacturing is done. More details soon…

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