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Introducing Deck Chief – The Simple Solution for Motor Control

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Introducing Deck Chief – The Simple Solution for Motor Control

We are thrilled to announce our newest motor controller – Deck Chief.

Have you ever needed a simple, manual control solution for a machine on stage? Perhaps a projection screen in your auditorium, or a turntable in your trade show booth, or a traveler curtain in your theatre? You just want a knob and a button, something easy that anyone can operate. The Deck Chief was made for you.

Don’t let the Deck Chief’s simplicity of operation fool you, inside this guy is packed with features:

  • Industrial pushbuttons to start forward and reverse motion
  • Inputs for end of travel and slow-down limit switches for repeatable positioning
  • Indicator lights for limit switch and drive status
  • Emergency stop circuit with SIL-rated components
  • High-quality Mitsubishi variable-frequency drive (VFD) for smooth motion and plenty of power
  • Lock-out switch to prevent unauthorized operation

When you need a safe, affordable, variable-speed, no-frills motor controller put a Deck Chief on the job.
Get all the details…

Helping Out With A Local School Show

Gareth testing the Arts Alive wagon

We were approached a couple of months ago by Arts Alive Barrington, a local group that promotes arts education in the public schools here in Rhode Island. They’re helping to stage a production of Aladdin for the students at Nayatt School and they wanted our help doing a magic carpet ride, so we said sure and we’re putting together a basic friction-drive wagon. Here’s a video of our test run with Gareth on the unit.


And here’s a poster for the show that Gareth saw in the local Starbucks!



Handy Tools

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.

Super Looper Crossover Adapter

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.

Encoder Display

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.

Pocket-sized Wifi Access Point

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.

Encoder Crossover

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).

Motor Crossover

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.

Limit Jumper

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.

E-Stop Jumper

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.

Chain Breaker

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)

2011 Week 3 Recap

We’ve come to the end of another week, and here’s the weekly news wrap up.

Gala Hispanic Theatre

Revolver rentals are moving quick this year! The good folks at Gala Hispanic Theatre in Washington D.C. ordered their first rental package and will be using a Revolver machine to power an existing stock turntable.

San Diego Area

We shipped out more gear to two of our best longstanding customers, LaJolla Playhouse and The Old Globe Theatre. A little bit of trivia, The Old Globe Theatre was the second theatre ever to purchase a system from us and were the impetus behind the Stagehand Mini product. They needed a way to use our control gear but keep their existing investment in their stock of motor drive cabinets. As the temperatures plummet in Rhode Island, I’d love to have reason to personally check-in with our West Coast customers!

Building an Inventory

Financial resources are almost in place to begin executing our plan to build an inventory of products. We’re on track to build up stock in February and March, so starting in April many of our products will be able to ship within 24 hours of ordering.

Fun Future Brainstorming

When I first came up with the idea of the Stagehand Motor Controller around the year 2000, I was trying to find a way to embed a little network-enabled motion computer and motor drive into a single box for a reasonable price. At the time, the most practical solution was to use an 8-bit microcontroller with ethernet capabilities (the Rabbit RCM2100) and a dedicated motion control chip (the National Instruments LM628). Those components still form the foundation of our product (with a lot of code and other bits).

I’m a constant tinkerer though (for better or worse) and always looking for neat new stuff. With all the cool new chip architectures being launched at CES this year, and the proliferation of netbooks and tablet devices, I was curious to see how cheaply you could stuff a full-blown PC into a Stagehand these days. The answer? Pretty darn cheap. The picture above shows an Intel Atom motherboard (center) with integrated CPU (N425) that’s retailing for about $65. As you can see, the motherboard is only slightly larger than our current motherboard that we manufacture (left). Obviously, there’s more to it than just a motherboard, but the powerful possibilities get me excited. In the coming few years it wouldn’t surprise me to see something like this in the next-generation Stagehands. Or maybe not, who knows…

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