Don’t Frak It Up: 5 Considerations Before You Hack Your Hardware

Kipp Bradford

Kipp Bradford is a technology consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for making things. He is the Senior Design Engineer and Lecturer in Engineering at Brown University, where he teaches several engineering design and entrepreneurship courses. Kipp is also on the Technical Advisory Board for Make Magazine.

41 Articles

By Kipp Bradford

Kipp Bradford is a technology consultant and entrepreneur with a passion for making things. He is the Senior Design Engineer and Lecturer in Engineering at Brown University, where he teaches several engineering design and entrepreneurship courses. Kipp is also on the Technical Advisory Board for Make Magazine.

41 Articles

Article Featured Image

Taking things apart can be a great way to learn how they work and are constructed. As anyone who has visited a junkyard knows, some discarded objects also hide fully functioning components (motors, switches, etc.) with lots of useful life left in them. Getting at the guts of the gizmos and gadgets all around us can be a bit of an art, especially as the things we buy have become more integrated. Whether you are taking apart your dishwasher to examine its innards, or you are harvesting stepper motors from your old printer to make a robot arm, here are some tips for hacking everyday objects.

Be safe

Voiding a warranty is OK. Getting burned or electrocuted is not. You can generally ignore the “no user serviceable parts inside” label. However anything indicating flammable, explosive, high-voltage, or a shock hazard requires extra precautions and expertise to prevent serious injury. Always unplug power (including batteries) before working on something and always safely discharge high-voltage capacitors.

m50_SS_HardwareHacking-2

Photography by Hep Svadja

Use the right tools

Tamper-proof fasteners like Torx once made it hard to take things apart. Nowadays, screwdrivers matching just about any fastener are easy to find online or in local hardware stores. It’s much easier to disassemble things without damaging them if you have the same tools that were used to assemble them in the first place.

m50_SS_HardwareHacking-3

Clamp it down

Secure parts when sawing, drilling, or hammering at them. Your fingers and hands are irreplaceable, so don’t put them in harm’s way when you find stubborn parts that need a little extra coercion to crack open or pull apart.

Search before you start

Find existing teardown instructions or videos online. It’s a sure bet that someone has not only taken apart your device, but they’ve made a YouTube video of their efforts (and probably added bad ’80s rock music as a soundtrack). iFixit.com also has an impressive collection of repair guides and disassembly instructions.

m50_SS_HardwareHacking-4

Document

Keep track of your disassembly process. Photographing and sharing your teardown is a great thing to do. Even if you don’t want to share, there is a lot to learn from studying how things are put together and what components were used to make a device. Manufacturers come up with all sorts of clever designs that might be helpful for your next project.

Some Example Hacks

Surprisingly, most handheld hair dryers contain a low-voltage DC motor. Though the hair dryer itself runs at 120V AC, the heating element acts as a giant resistor to drop the voltage down between 6V and 24V and a diode converts that to DC. With very little work, you can remove the motor and fan intact. These things make great high velocity air thrusters for an electric jet or a monster bubble blower!

Another interesting motor/fan combination lurks inside old cordless vacuum cleaners. Usually the low quality NiCad batteries die on these things long before the motors do. You can certainly revitalize an old cordless vacuum by replacing the dead NiCad battery with a rechargeable RC car lithium battery. Alternatively, pull the motor/fan assembly out and use it to create suction or pressure.

Adding lithium RC car batteries to a product is a great way to upgrade a dead NiCad pack and it can also be a useful way to replace plug in power. Alternatively, you can easily adapt battery-powered devices for plug-in power by wiring the plus lead of a new barrel jack plug to the plus lead of an empty battery compartment, and minus to minus. If you can’t find a power supply that matches the original battery voltage, use an adjustable regulator like the LM317T to get the voltage you want.