Want to add USB port to my computerized sewing machine. Don't know how.
January 24, 2020 12:44 PM   Subscribe

I am currently browsing makerspaces, hackspaces, etc., but can't find a specific tutorial/overview. The perfect resource would give me a good tutorial on how to expand the capabilities of a computerized machine that has no USB port (Brother SC9500). I'd like to be able to program additional stitches on it, and need to find a way to "talk" to it with a computer (or: talk to its computer). So I'll need both, under-the-hood guidance and some idea of the relevant software/hardware setups.

I won't need help with the sewing itself, but I'll appreciate any specific, experience-based advice on potential issues to watch out for, as in how 1) monogramming 2) with your own programmed font and 3) a particular machine design (e.g. needle bar's range and that kind of thing) can bring up particular issues of their own.

I guess I'm asking for a combination of:
1) Sewing machine mechanics
2) An understanding of the computer in a computerized machine
3) Where would a USB port go, if it's even possible to install one, or necessary to install it, or even useful for my purpose if I did

I don't have a technical background but I'm not afraid of technology (and I'm married to a great source of general mechanics info), so please err on the side of more specific.
posted by ipsative to Technology (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I can't imagine what you want to do is possible, at least for less money and hassle than it would be to replace it with a sewing machine that is built to do the things you want to do.

The issue is that a machine like that has a computer that runs its own firmware to operate, and with no USB port built in (or any other external interface capability) you would need to completely replace its computer brain with one that knows how to speak USB, has memory to take input beyond the capabilities it had out-of-the-box, and knows how to take something from a USB, put it in that memory, and then integrate it into how it operates (presumably while giving you feedback on a screen).

The computer in the sewing machine isn't quite like a desktop computer, which is built to be customized, expanded upon, and to interface with external technologies it doesn't yet know about. It's a smaller, purpose-built, cheaper thing, with custom-written software that does what it needs to while taking up as little space and using as little hardware as possible. In addition to the obvious limitations of that, it also means that the programming in its computer is not done in a way that is easy to interact with. It presumably runs on custom software with no documentation to aid anyone looking to extend/adjust it. That keeps sewing machines with digital brains as affordable as possible, but at the expense of the kind of customization you're looking to do.

It sounds like you're trying to do cool things, and I don't want to be negative, but I don't think there's a realistic road from the machine you have to the machine you want that doesn't involve buying a new, smarter sewing machine. If there is a more expansive sewing machine hacking subculture than I know about, I'd ask an expert there, but otherwise
posted by lhputtgrass at 1:05 PM on January 24, 2020 [15 favorites]

Best answer: Let me make the caveat that I know very little about sewing or sewing machines, but I do know things about computers and computer programming. I do not know much about embedded systems, which I think is the problem domain that you're dealing with here.

Broadly, I think you're not asking the right question. If your sewing machine had a USB port, what would you do with it? The real question is "How can I make my sewing machine do more things than it currently can?"

This involves a few different tasks:
0) Understanding how different types of stitches are programmed into the machine.
1) Writing a new program for the kind of stitch you want.
2) Getting physical access to the computer in the sewing machine.
3) Getting your new program into the computer in the sewing machine without destroying the existing programming.

I think this is likely to be a difficult project. The first place to start is with the manufacturer. Is there good documentation of the hardware and software?

[On preview, lhputtgrass said much of what I meant in a probably more coherent way.]
posted by number9dream at 1:09 PM on January 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Seconding everyone above. I'm an emebdded software engineer, and this is exactly the type of system we classify as "embedded": it serves a highly specific purpose and the programming is completely self-contained. Just looking at the interface (simple numeric display, small amount of buttons) tells me it's not designed to be expandable. If I could see the inside I could make a better diagnosis, but I can guarantee it's a mystery chip connected to a bunch of motor drive hardware and not much more.

I've worked tangentially with some very industrial embroidery machinery (like this Tajima machine) and even THEY won't let you near how the internal systems work. The timing and control of the motors to make this all work is something you get right after much engineering work and then nobody touches it ever again. Allowing changes just opens the door to injury - to the machine or to the operator, or both.

Sorry to break the news
posted by JoeZydeco at 1:11 PM on January 24, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Most people who hack embroidery capability into machines that don't have it seem to do it be creating arduino controlled devices that move the embroidery frame while using only functions that the sewing machine already has to create the embroidery.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:13 PM on January 24, 2020 [14 favorites]

Best answer: Sometimes manufacturers make low-end and high-end versions of a machine, and occasionally the low-end differs by simply omitting a connector (such as a USB connector). If that is the case, than sometimes you can solder on a connector (and maybe fiddle with some jumpers or something) and the low-end machine magically turns into the high-end machine.

Machines where this is possible tend to become notorious as hack-friendly, and people who want a machine like that will buy the low-end versions and upgrade them.

However, unless you know that your machine is part of a series like that, it's a substantial non-sewing project to figure it out, and even somebody who was gung-ho to do it would probably start with a machine with better prospects, unless s/he was specifically familiar with the guts of your type of machine and knew that there was hope for the project.
posted by spacewrench at 1:36 PM on January 24, 2020

Best answer: Brother SC9500

A quick look at its specifications offer no information on a serial port. This type of port is a common, if now very old way to communicate with devices, and people have reverse-engineered access to these types of ports on devices as varied as fuel injectors on Italian motorcycles. However, without any access, you'd need to patch into the right chip on the logic board and even then, if you're lucky, it would have reprogrammable memory to add in your own stitch logic. That type of memory is usually more expensive than read-only memory and therefore unlikely to be in most sewing machines, as a cost-cutting measure. It might be worth looking into swapping this out for a user-programmable sewing machine.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 1:37 PM on January 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: WOW-- Thanks everyone for explaining this so clearly!

I'm not going to be devastated about this, if only because there's still plenty for me to learn on the sewing side before I go around doing a proper hacking job. Though "proper hacking" sounds like an oxymoron, I'm sure there are good and bad ways to do it, and this really does not sound like a good idea.

Machines where this is possible tend to become notorious as hack-friendly, and people who want a machine like that will buy the low-end versions and upgrade them.

That's really good to know, thanks spacewrench! I'll keep that in mind, seeing as I'm wanting to gain some hacker cred and find it much harder to be motivated by soccer-playing robots and the like.
posted by ipsative at 2:06 PM on January 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

So, here's at least one brother machine that's been directly hacked, but it looks like it had a port on the outside. I don't think your model has such a port, though it's technically possible there might be a serial port or other means to program it hidden inside.

posted by gryftir at 7:09 PM on January 24, 2020

A knitting machine is completely different from a sewing machine.
posted by SandiBeech at 6:23 AM on January 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

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