There’s a couple of pieces of gear that I take with me to almost any shop or show. The tools I carry range from mechanical to electrical to networking, but each gizmo helps when setting up or troubleshooting automated scenery. It dawned on me that perhaps I should share the list. If you have a favorite widget that helps when working with our automation gear (or any automation gear), add a comment so I can add it to my toolbag.
This is a great little gadget that can turn any regular network cable into a crossover cable. Why is that cool? Well, a normal cable can only be used to connect a device to a switch, so to connect a SpikeMark laptop to a Stagehand you need to have 2 cables and 1 network switch. With the SuperLooper, you can connect directly from a laptop to a Stagehand without a switch. I used to purchase special crossover cables to do the same thing, but now I just carry a SuperLooper in my bag.
Sometimes I just need to test an encoder to make sure I solder the encoder correctly, or my cabling is good, or that my encoder is functioning. In those situations, setting up a Stagehand and firing up a laptop with SpikeMark to read encoder position feels cumbersome. This Encoder Display is a great little device for less than $150 that will just count and display encoder pulses. It’s made by the good folks at US Digital, who make a wide range of excellent encoder products. If you get one, make sure you order it with differential inputs.
Stagehands and SpikeMark communicate over plain-old Ethernet which means that you can use a WiFi gizmo to cut the cord between the computer and the Stagehand. The Asus WL-330gE is a fantastic little WiFi device. It can act as a router, access point, repeater, or wifi adapter. That means you can use to free your laptop from the wired network, or using 2 devices you can replace any chunk of cable connecting a Stagehand to the network switch. We use the WL-330gE in both scenarios.
Sometimes it’s great to be able to wander around the stage with a TabletPC running motors, and sometimes the show needs a wireless wagon with a Stagehand onboard and you have to transmit control signals from the wired network out to the wagon. For ~$40, this device hard to beat. As you can see in the photo, it’s roughly the size of an Altoids tin so you can throw a couple in your bag without any trouble.
Brake Circuit Tester
Even simple tools can be useful. If you suspect that a brake isn’t releasing on a winch, it could be that the brake is having trouble, or that the Stagehand isn’t powering the brake. This is a 240VAC neon indicator wired into a brake plug to make a dead-simple brake-circuit tester.
Which way did we rig that winch…? I’m a simple-minded guy, and rarely can I effectively think about two things at once. I hate having to think about encoder polarity wihle rigging a winch. Undoubtedly, I’ll get done stringing all the wire rope, run the motor and then discover that FWD on the motor is moving the scenery in the wrong direction. Flipping motor direction is pretty easy, but then you have to flip the encoder wiring to match. I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to break out the soldering iron during load-in. Instead, we make these 12” jumpers that flip the encoder wiring around to reverse the encoder counting direction. You can also use these do-hickeys to make an encoder polarity match a motor (of course, if that encoder and motor are going to spend a lifetime together I’d probably bust out the solder).
Alright, I kind of lied in the description of the Encoder Crossover above, I don’t really even like to muck around with motor polarity that much. So we make 12” jumpers that flip motor polarity too. When used with the Encoder Crossover, this jumper can make a motor reverse direction and maintain the correct encoder counting behavior.
Need to bypass a limit switch? Who doesn’t! This is a ML1 limit plug with the pins shorted together using a 4” piece of wire inside the connector body. Terribly simple, but truly effective. I have a couple stashed in each tool bag.
Need to bypass the e-stop? Why!?! Oh, alright, sometimes there’s good reason. This is a 24vdc wall wart with a 5-pin XLR connector soldered onto the end. Plug it into the wall, and plug it into the Stagehand and magically the e-stop is released on that Stagehand.
Last, but not least, the lowly chain breaker. I really love this style of breaker, it clamps down on the entire chain link and pushes the pin out. Other chain breakers only grab one cheek plate on the chain which often results in a slightly mangled chain link and a half-stuck pin. This style requires a 1/2” wrench, but it works beautifully every time. McMaster #6669K11 & #6669K12 for small & large chain respectively.
That’s it for my list, what have I missed that you can’t live with out?
(p.s. for the products listed on this page that we make, I haven’t posted links ‘cause…er… we don’t have them listed on our site. If you want something right now, give me a poke, but we’ll be getting them up on the new site soon)