X-Y plotters were once a common sight in places that needed high-quality hard copies of computer-generated line drawings. Blueprints and charts of all types could be produced with multiple colors on large pieces of paper, with perfectly smooth lines and curves. But eventually pixel-based laser and inkjet printers increased sufficiently in resolution—and decreased sufficiently in price—to make plotters something of a rarity.
Still, some things were lost in this particular march of progress. One casualty was the distinctive lines of vector-based graphics and text. Another was fun: Watching a laser printer print is about as interesting as watching a refrigerator, while there’s something mesmerizing in seeing the head of a plotter spring to life and construct an image line by line through confident sweeps and arcs. The US $171 iBoardbot from JJRobots is intended to bring back some of the romance of the plotter, but with a contemporary twist—it’s cloud controlled and self-erasable.
The iBoardbot comes either as a kit or in a largely assembled version for $234. JJRobots sent me the kit, which has four major sets of components. First is the erasable drawing surface itself, made up of a 40- by 15-centimeter piece of tempered glass (you can choose from multiple colors). Second is the electronics, consisting of an Arduino and a custom shield created by JJRobots to drive the motors. The motors—two stepper motors to control the X and Y positions of the plotter head, along with two servos to handle the raising and lowering of the plotter and wipe heads—are the third group. And finally, there’s the collection of metal rods and plastic widgets that hold the whole thing together.
On its website, JJRobots estimates that all these components can be assembled into a working iBoardbot in “an hour or so,” which—no. I have no doubt that if I built a bunch of these things, I could get the time down to an hour. For someone unfamiliar with the kit, simply identifying which oddly shaped piece of plastic is the one called for in the next step of the instructions (and then making sure it’s the right way around) can take a few moments. But for me, the biggest time killer was that the plastic widgets are 3D printed. They’re complex shapes, so it makes sense to print them, but I did have problems with some of the widgets being just a tiny bit smaller than they should be. (Items that are just a tiny bit too large or too small are a recurring problem that can crop up in 3D printing.) This resulted in some mismatches between the printed parts and components made out of other materials.
In particular, one piece had two holes intended to grip a pair of metal rods. The plotter head uses these rods as tracks when moving up and down. After considerable time spent trying to twist the rods into the holes, as per the instructions, I realized the holes were simply too small. I used a cylindrical needle file to widen the holes just enough to accommodate the rods and still provide enough grip to hold the metal in place. The rest of the assembly went fairly smoothly, although I did come across another mismatch in size between the printed parts used to form the sides of a box used to hold the electronics and the acrylic plates that form the top and bottom of the box.
Once all was assembled, the next step was to get the iBoardbot ready to accept instructions. The custom shield that drives the motors also has a Wi-Fi chip, and wireless is the only way to communicate with the system out of the box (although all the source code is available, so you could program it to accept commands over a USB cable if you really wanted to). The first step is to visit the JJRobots website and run its connection wizard using a unique key provided for each iBoardbot. Midway through the process, you connect your laptop or smartphone to the device, which initially acts as a stand-alone Wi-Fi access point. You then feed it the SSID and password details for your regular Internet-connected local Wi-Fi network.
Once that’s done, the drawing surface is controlled via a Web app hosted by JJRobots. Access is obtained by passing your key in the app’s URL, which is bad from a security point of view: If someone can get your key (a 16-character alphanumeric sequence), he or she can write to your board. The app allows you to send short text messages or graphics to the board. The graphics modes will let you either make freehand sketches in real time (it’s great fun to watch the board follow along with you as you draw on a touch screen) or upload an image—you can use scalable vector graphics files, or the Web app can do its best to turn a bitmapped photo into a vector image.
My initial attempts at getting text and images out of the iBoardbot required some trial and error—the servos controlling the pen and the wiper have to be set just so. This involved partially disassembling the iBoardbot, unscrewing, adjusting, and rescrewing the arms attached to the servos, and repeating until the pen and wiper were moving correctly into position.
But the most useful thing you can do is control the iBoardbot using the IFTTT (“if this, then that”) online service, which provides a number of applets that respond to certain triggers. For example, the iBoardbot can be programmed to act as a clock, writing out the time and date every hour. You can also write your own IFTTT “recipes.” Currently, my iBoardbot is set to write out tweets sent to or from the IEEE Spectrum twitter account, a far more entertaining way of monitoring our social media than something like TweetDeck.
This article appears in the June 2017 print issue as “The Master Plotter.”