The Viper Board Journey

[2012] In the Beginning…

This project started when Moebius offered the MkII Viper model from the 2003 Battlestar Galactica in 1/32 scale. And pretty soon, it was all snapped up. Modelers from all over, I realised soon after, generally buy them by the cartons. After getting my own copy, I realised that the model can be lit due to its opaque white plastic. Unlike the third edition of the Polar Lights’s 1/350 NCC-1701A’s white plastic which shows up as yellow when you utilise the Raytheon Effect, Moebius’s shows up as white.

And so, Bruce Toh and I decided to get a lighting System done for this model. But by this time in 2012, it was a very difficult year for me. My Mom had a stroke and eventually left us. I have resigned from my Job to take care of everything as best as I could to get the whole Family focused and sadly, the window to get this product out got slimmer every passing day.

The lighting for this is very simple; the model just needs three thrusters and its cockpit lit. Nothing can be simpler than that and so, other manufacturers got theirs done very quickly. By then, the MK VII has came out too. My good friend Jeffrey Chan also convinced my Wife that now could be a good idea for me to start up a small company just for making lighting system for model kits.

With everything going South a few months later, I too, started to doubt myself whether I can pull this off since my only product was the Robot Raider Lighting System (for Moebius’s 1/32 Advanced Cylon Raider). I started to lose Focus and with my Mom getting worse. That is, until I saw this video, it’s not the exact one I saw but this was the closest to the flickering effect which got me back to the design. A challenge which I accepted as one of those focus targets to keep me from going over the edge:

The flickering thrusters really got me hyped up. For you  see, in the nuBSG World, Tylium, is a source of fuel for both sides. Its powdery form needs to be liquified before it can be used a fuel. You can find more about it from the episode, ‘Dirty Hands’. So, let’s imagine the Tylium fuel to be less than 100% refined as the re-imagined series deals closer to reality than the Original Series. In other words, let the Vipers run on 98% refined Tylium and so the flickering challenge was born!

(L-R) TOS, Mk II and Mk VII Cockpits

My initial idea was to create the lighting for the Mk II and VII of the new series. Paragrafix has created beautiful photo-etch sets for the Mk II and Mk VII models. During the prototyping stage, it was determined that the first circuit board design was to be placed under the seats. I always believed in the ‘Plug and Play’ concept which means these, ‘ready to run’ circuit boards must either complement the model or, requires minimal plastic surgery.

[00.00.2012] Finally, after nightly vigils at the Hospital, I got the flickering effect I wanted. The chip will be the PIC12F629 with 5 outputs for the LEDs.

[00.00.2012] This is the first prototype which fits under the cockpit of the Mk II nicely. This was designed long before the Mk VII came out.

[00.00.2012] Getting these prototype boards done requires a lot of effort:

1. Design the circuit and proof it on the stripboard.
2. Realise the design on a PCB software (EaglePCB)
3. Output the design into a PDF and send for it to be printed into a positive film
4. Send the film to be etched since my girls were still inquisitive toddlers
5. Shape the board and populate it. Oh, in case you’re asking, the board on the right has not been cleaned off it’s etch resist chemicals.

[00.00.2012] First lighting test on the Mk II. Although this design is great for the cockpit, somehow the thrusters does not look as impressive as I wanted. The 5mm LEDs needs to be brighter.

[00.00.2012] Bruce and I having another look at the first prototype. This is how the thrusters looked with the 5mm LED behind it.

[00.00.2012] It looks good but there is a problem and this is because of the properties of the 5mm LED.

[00.00.2012] The 5mm LED radiates light 30º in front and so, if I were to drill a hole in the middle, the LED will be very bright. What I need is the light to shine at the edges of the LED instead. And one of the solutions would be to get wide-angle LEDs.

[00.00.2012] The cockpit lighting on the other hand looks good and is ideal for Paragrafix’s photo-etch.

Second Prototype…

By this time, we heard that Moebius was actually about to issue the Mk I Viper aka the TOS Visper. And so, its a good as any to redesign the board. The main reason was that I have opted to use the bigger current consuming 1watt LED which is not only blindingly bright but was able to light the thruster walls convincingly.

[00.00.2012] The TOS Viper has different flickering effects and again, its thrusters were not static. If you look at the behind the scenes of the original series. This is the prototype to cater for two different flickering  effects. The temporary push-button switch is to switch between the two effects; TOS and nuBSG.

And so, the challenge now is to create TWO different flickering effects for all three versions of the Vipers. Yes, even the original TOS Viper as flicker as seen in this Youtube below!:

[00.00.2012] This is the second prototype where I planned to have the board located at the rear. This not only eliminates the requirement for the less wiring but it fits the part like a glove.

[00.00.2012] Everything looks great for the Mk II! Yeah!

[00.00.2012] But bad news for the Mk VII.

[00.00.2012] Although I can slide the board in the crevice next to it, the problem would be me needing to remove the soldered components and so, this design failed. I was not thinking straight and rushed ahead because this is taking too long.

The Third Prototype…

And so, I had to start all over again with the third design. This time, I made the circuit as small as possible which means all the components, apart from the resistors, will have to be in the for of the more expensive but smaller SMD components. Which increases the price as the labour (me) to do all the soldering is higher.

[00.00.2012] This is the third design. Nothing has changed except that now I have to think of ways to power up more 3mm LEDs for the cockpit without using too much batteries.

[00.00.2012] This is the third version where its much slimmer and conforms to what I wanted in the first place. Cockpit wires on the right and thruster wires on the left. The four boards on the upper left were prototypes which I used them for other customised projects for Customers. One of them went to Phoon as arc welding circuit which won him the 2012 GBWC.

[00.00.2012] One good thing about Moebius’s Mk II Viper is that where is a small rectangular slot connecting the front fuselage and the rear thrusters. I try not to get my customers to perform plastic surgery more than necessary and so, this small little hole is very important.

[00.00.2012] So, this means, you can place the board at the back and thread the wires/LEDs for the cockpit to the front or vice versa.

[00.00.2012] And the cockpit is still good.

[00.00.2012] The design was further refined to use those 31AWG 7-core cables but its very rare here. Elsewhere, its known as Kynex. Do not mistake them for wire-wrapping wires which looks the same and they are NOT ideal for model lighting.

[00.00.2012] In case you’re curious about how the 5mm looked from the other side, this is the image. It’s hot spot does create the brightness but onto the middle. For the Viper, the light needs to be at the walls of the thrusters on the other side.

[18.08.2012] We drilled out the 5mm hole which is slightly smaller. And here is the result. The light is too bright and the side walls have a line of light which is no good.

[22.08.2012] Now, we test the 1watt LED and result looks promising. It is so bright, the walls of the thrusters are nicely lit. Let’s take it a step further…

[22.08.2012] OK, that’s the result! Although the 1Watt LED is blindingly bright, if you can cover the middle with some thicker diffusing material to offset it.

The Fourth Prototype…

I have more or less confirmed to use the 1Watt LEDs for this Lighting System. Unfortunately, this would mean a redesign of the circuit board again. I can use the normal 1/8 watt resistors but I am not taking any chances as I do not want them to overheat inside the model. And so, I had to use the bigger wattage resistors.

[26.08.2012] This is the fourth and final board. I am getting tired of all this because I am so stressed at this moment in time.

[26.08.2012] It worked! The walls are nicely lit. As I said, of course I can go with the wide-angle LEDs but I have another reason why.

[00.00.2012] Here is a rough test of the 1watt LED’s temperature on the Works table. It’s been there for minutes and there temperature has stabilised.

[00.00.2012] Surprisingly, the 1watt LEDs I got were brighter than the 1Watt on my flashlight.

[00.00.2012] The 5mm LED test with Moebius’s TOS Viper. And yeah, the model was designed for lighting as well.

The Finalisation…

And so after so many rushed mistakes, the board is finalised. The single layer board design is quite compact and there is no need to go into double layers for the space minimisation as the exercise would have not much difference. It just increases the cost.

[00.00.2012] This is the finalised circuit board. It took me about three to four weeks for the board to return to me.

[00.00.2012] Notice the PC jumpers? Both production the board (left) and the prototype (right) has them and they’re identical.

[00.00.2012] The board measures about 1.5 inch by 1 inch

What about the Pilot?

OK, so now, I had another idea. I want to light up the Pilots too. In the TOS and nuBSG, the Pilot’s helmets were lit. Bruce and I had a look at the Moebius three pilots and they’re possible. All we need to do was to re-cast (ahem) the Pilot’s heads and we’re good to go:

  1. The MK II Pilot

    This is the ‘first’ Pilot from Moebius. Although its resin, the details were crisp and beautiful. The only way to light it up is to cut off the head, drill a 3mm hole from the neck to the bottom for the 3mm while LED to pass through. The 3mm LED also serves as the new neck which allows various position for the helmet.

  2. The Mk VII Pilot

    The Mk VII Pilot came out much later and is the styrene version of the Mk II. While the details were not as sharp, its body is already hollow which is ideal for the 3mm LED to pass through

    Where it lacks the sharp and crisp details, Moebius gives you choice to customise your Pilot either as a male or female.

  3. The TOS Pilot

    The third pilot, which is for the TOS MkI Viper also has a hollow body. And yeap, the neck is a gimbal which allows you to pose the helmet in different positions. We both had the same idea by using the 3mm LED as the new neck. Like the other two helmets, you just lightblock the clear cast piece on places where you do not want the light to show.

The Casting…

The only way to solve the problem of lighting the helmets convincingly was to have the helmets in clear. I was hoping Moebius would do that but unfortunately, this not only add cost to their production but in general, not may modelers would be lighting up their Vipers. But for this project, I went ahead after I was told that we got the go ahead.

This is the 3mm LED inserted into the TOS Pilot. The LED’s light shine upwards, which is not good. And since this is a plastic part, you can see that the lower and upper area of the opening where the lights are supposed to be is were not lit convincingly.

Recasting is something which is frowned upon but its also a very touchy area. So, I am not going to discuss in this page as its already very long. The challenge now is to locate someone who can do very high standards in casting. After a long search, I have found him and for me, he can cast in Smooth-on clear with very little UV problems. This is very important because UV tends to mess up clear plastics and resin is no exception. After some test, he was able to come up with the results and I got both helmets.

But do note that there are no 300 sets of helmets. Something just happened and my caster has gone on to another chapter in his life.And so I was left with about 100 or so helmets. If you’re that customer, congratulations. I was quite naive and followed my Ego that my System would sell quickly and so, to enhance that, I used my own savings to have the helmets cast, thereby making them as ‘free’. Stupid isn’t it? I mean how the heck can I prove that the money comes from my own savings?

The TOS Mk I Helmet

The nuBSG MkII and MkVII Helmet

Both Helmets compared. Either one is too big or the other is too small.

Another stupid idea is to print small faces (of Bruce) and put them inside the Helmet. It would have worked if the master’s visor was smooth.

So, for every Lighting System that you purchase, you get a set of both TOS and nuBSG clear helmets.

How about the Cylon Raider?

Well, that is a very good question. And thanks to Doug Shepherd, for the very first time, I now have a Revellogram Cylon Raider! And yeah, it can be used to that too, which bumped up the System’s features!

For the Revellogram 1/64’s Cylon Raider, you have two choices. You can either use 5mm LEDs but you will need to resolder the four 5mm LEDs into the static 3mm LEDs’s wiring.

Or you can just use the 1watt LED and select the TOS flicker mode!

Soldering time!

This is the best part for me. Soldering. I just love to solder those SMD components onto the PCB which I have designed. Although they’re tiny, my sharp tipped 30w soldering iron is more than capable of doing the job. This is the wattage I prefer as it does not burn the components much. The heart of the system lies in the PIC 12F629 chip which must first be programmed before I can solder it. Cuss words come later after you have soldered everything and from the testing, you realised that one chip was not programmed. Its not so much as a problem but the time wasted to link the chip to the programmer without de-soldering it. A process which can greatly damage a SMD component if you’re not too careful.

You need to drop a bit of solder on one of the legs after you have aligned it correctly on the pads. You can also tin the SMD pads too but make sure its enough to cover the copper. Melt the solder and the component aligned. Once that is done, you can solder the rest of the legs with no problem.

There is no production line on the Works table and so, if I want to solder them, I need to solder the boards in a batch of say, 20. This method is faster than soldering the board one at a time

Wiring the LEDs are a pain in the ass. But after some practice, I quickly organised process into a few steps. I have to because if I don’t this will delay the production. And which is very important because there’s only me to do all this.

Doing all the soldering by myself is very time consuming and its not possible to outsource it unless we’re talking in the tens of thousands. My circuit design is very unconventional as its a real fusion between SMD and through-hole components and are labour intensive. Moreover, I don’t have the capital either. I had to revamp my production methods so that I can get them ready within the shortest time possible. Relying on my experience in the manufacturing sector, I had to break down the whole process into stages and do them in batches as well.

For example, wiring the LEDs. Its a very simple task of cutting the wires, strip them, cut the LED’s leads and so on. But multiply this for say, 25 boards, the simple steps can be very daunting indeed. Let’s see how many steps…

  1. Cut the red wires into their correct length
  2. Cut the black wires into their correct length
  3. Strip about 5mm from each ends of the red wire
  4. Strip about 5mm from each ends of the black wire
  5. Twist the exposed wires of the red wire
  6. Twist the exposed wire of the black wire
  7. Dip both ends of the stripped red wire into the solder flux
  8. Dip both ends of the stripped black wire into the solder flux
  9. Tin both ends of the stripped red wire
  10. Tin both ends of the stripped black wire
  11. Cut off the leads of the 3mm LEDs
  12. Dip the LEDs of the 3mm LEDs into the solder flux
  13. Tin the leads of the 3mm LEDs
  14. Solder the red wire to the positive lead of the 3mm LED
  15. Solder the black  wire to the negative lead of the 3mm LED
  16. Cut the 1mm heatshrink sleeves for the soldered joints
  17. Insert heatshrink into the red wired LED
  18. Insert heatshrink into the black wired LED
  19. Heat the heatshrink sleeves using the soldering iron

So, that’s 19 steps. Each board uses nine 3mm LEDs and four 5mm LEDs. And in one batch, I need to do a minimum of 20 boards. That’s 20 times 13 times 19 steps. That’s a lot of steps! (4,490 steps FYI)

Tining the LEDs is done by first dipping them into the solder flux. The hot flux removes any kind of oxidisation on the leads and suddenly, the solder flows into the like magic. You need the third hand’s crocodile clip.

Once you have tinned the leads, quickly open the crocodile clip and let the LED drop to the tray below. The drop cools the solder and you’re ready for the next LED!

The Third hand has become very important. I place the correct wires on either side while the crocodile clip holds the LED (in its correct polarity) in place. Then its a simple matter of pulling the wires and soldering it to the LED

The 1/32 BG Starfighter Lighting System V1.1

The finished product

So the Viper Board is now complete and it has the following features:
1. It has two flickering modes:
A. TOS mode – Fast synchronised flicker with one 5mm LED for random blinking (this is a Fibre-optic light engine)
B. nuBSG mode – Three independent flickering as if the Vipers were running on 98% impure Tylium with one 5mm LED for slight blink

2. It was two LED types, both selectable via PC jumpers:
A. 5mm LED for Mk VII Vipers
B. 1watt LED for both TOS Mk I and nuBSG Mk II Vipers

3. You can use it for the following models:
A. Revellogram or Moebius TOS 1/32 Viper
B. Moebius 1/32 Mk II and  Mk VII Vipers
C. Revellogram 1/64 Cylon Raider
D. Moebius 1/32 TOS Cylon Raider
E. Your own customised Sci-Fi Craft

But for mine, I have yet to complete even one Viper Mk.II…