Long Range RFID Controlled Dry Cleaner

Guide for hooking up large dry cleaner conveyor machines to relays, then reading in tags with Long-Range RFID for multi-arduino control.

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This guide will take you through the electronics-side of how we made our large-scale robotic artwork, "Replantment." It connects two, independent, decades-old, dry cleaner conveyors to cutting edge Long-Range Simultaneous RFID arduino and motion controllers. It covers the basics of controlling big motors and lights with electrical relays (switches), and using Sparkfun's new Long-Range RFID controller. the way we will share lots of tips about sourcing strange items, making your electronics safer, hacking big machines, and how to help keep interactive artworks from bricking on you in a gallery setting! **Psst -If you are in the NYC area, you can even go check it out at the Pratt Manhattan Gallery until Feb 17!

Along the way we will share lots of tips about sourcing strange items, making your electronics safer, hacking big machines, and how to help keep interactive artworks from bricking on you in a gallery setting!

**Psst -If you are in the NYC area, you can even go check out this project for free at the Pratt Manhattan gallery until Feb 17!**

The other half of this year-long art project is about rapidly creating silicone and polyurethane molds in the field and replicating natural plant forms collected from all over the world as glowing, UV sensitive leaves. For details on how we made the leaves, check out our other How-To article:

If you want to learn more (especially on the philosophical / artistic side) about this artwork, and many more that were part of Madeline Schwartzman's "See Yourself E(x)ist" exhibition, you can see the manual here:

  • 1
    Sourcing Conveyors

    Dry Cleaner conveyors are one of those things that until you start thinking about it, you may not realize there are huge entire industries built around these. When you start researching it, it is fascinating and there are great corporate videos about all the minutae and design considerations you probably didn't think about, like if the products need to be able to tilt, go up inclines, make slower turns, and so forth.

    Finding a conveyor system within a very small price range can be super tricky though. We considered several options.

    Build Your Own

    For our artwork we needed about 2, 4 meter conveyors. One way to do this would be to manually build one from scratch. You can find lego-like parts to make your own fully customized conveyor at mcmaster-

    This would have potentially worked for us, but when we ran the numbers, it looks like it was going to be at least $3,000-$4,000 USD to get a minimally sized conveyor we wanted

    Purchase New

    Two big companies in the US selling new conveyor systems are

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    This is a great option if you have the money because the people at the companies are super helpful, and can help you find something you precisely need. Unfortunately I don't think we were able to get a quote for anything under $12,000 USD

    Find Used

    Ebay and craigslist are decent sources to look into for finding used conveyors. Down side is that shipping is REALLY expensive for something this heavy, so you will want to look locally. Another downside is that you might not be able to be too sure of the condition or quality or if all the parts are there in what you find.

    These conveyors really hold their value since they are built to pretty much run for 100 years, so that means they are still kind of expensive used. We saw prices for basic 10 foot conveyor systems ranging from $3,000 USD (for a pile of components from craigslist) to $9,000 USD for quite good looking used systems.

    Our Conveyors

    Maddy really worked her magic with the find that led to our conveyors. She saw a dry cleaning business that had been closed for 12 years, peeked inside and noticed they still had conveyors in there. She hunted down the owner, and inquired about them. They tested them, and he offered a price of just $200 per conveyor for us to take them away! We hired some extra handy folks to help us de-install them, clean them up, and transport back to the gallery! Overall buying, de-installing, installing, and transporting the machines cost us $1700. Not bad at all!

    What a great find! We called the people at Railex about our model of conveyor to see if we should pre-preemptively order extra parts for these conveyors (which have been around since the 70's I think), and he actively discouraged us, and said they would run forever, just put some 3 in 1 oil on them!

  • 2
    Installing Conveyors

    Getting them up to the second floor of the gallery was a bit tricky, but once there we managed to install them without too much difficulty. Our machines come from the Railex coporation, and appear to be system 722 single plane garment conveyors model C 200.

    They have 204 hanging positions, are about 3 meters long, and have 18'-5" of total hanging length.

    Some notes:

    • These things are really heavy and powerful! Make sure you have adequate room for people to move safetly around them before locking them into position!
    • Make sure they are mounted securely to the walls and/or ceiling
    • Lay down lots of heavy blankets under heavy equipment to not screw up the floors
  • 3
    Hacking the Conveyor

    Controlling them is not too difficult! They already have remotes. The conveyors each come with 1 motor power supply cable and two foot pedals that can each tell the machine to go forward or backwards.

    (note when working in a strange place like a jungle or a gallery, I recommend making a PIFpack like Plusea's , mine helped me a ton! )

    Unscrewing the foot pedal reveals that inside are just two electrical switches. When the button of one switch is pressed, it just makes a connection that tells the machine to go one way, and when the other button is pressed it sends a different signal to go the other way.

    So to control them with an arduino is quite easy! We just need to replace those two switches with an electrically controlled switch (or a relay). Since we want to control them to go forward or backwards, we want two relays (one for each button switch inside the foot pedal). Luckily there are nice 2-channel relays available everywhere:


    I think people get scared of relays because they tend to be used with high-voltage AC current, but they are super simple! While the machine is entirely disconnected from any power sources, all we have to do is

    1. snip the two wires going to the button in the foot pedal,
    2. connect these two wires to the two screw terminals of the relay
    3. connect the other button in the foot pedals's two wires to the two terminals of the other relay
    4. on the other side of the relay are 4 ports labeled GND, VCC, in1, in2. connect the GND and VCC to the corresponding parts on the arduino
    5. connect in1, and in2 to ports 5 and 6 on your arduino
    6. connect your arduino and load this diagnostic code

    This is basic code to go through output ports on the arduino and turn them on and off. Connect your relays to any ports 5-13 to test and see if they are working.

    If they are working the little red lights on the relays should turn on and off. That's great! Now if you are ready for the real test, look and make sure there are no loose wires, and your relays are insulated from anything metal. Plug in the power to your conveyor, and it should turn on for a second, move one way, stop, and go the other way for a bit as the arduino code runs! Hooray! You have a robot conveyor! you can now adjust the code to make it do whatever you want!

    **By the way, there are generally two types of relays you can buy:

    • Regular- These Electro-mechanical relays physically use a little magnet to make a connection just like any button or light switch. You can hear a little "click" when they turn on. They are cheap! But they can break down easier.
    • Solid-state - Solid State relays use some kind of magic to open-or-close the circuit without any moving parts (so they don't make a click sound). In theory this makes them more reliable over many duty cycles. They tend to be a lot more expensive, but we bought them since our artwork has to run reliably for as long as possible!

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