Juicero: A Lesson On When To Engineer Less

Ben Einstein, a product designer and founder at Bolt, a hardware-based VC, recently got his hands on a Juicero press. This desktop juice press that only works with proprietary pouches filled with chopped fruits and vegetables is currently bandied in the tech press as evidence Silicon Valley has gone mad, there is no future in building hardware, and the Internet of Things is a pox on civilization. Hey, at least they got the last one right.

This iFixit-style tear down digs into the Juicero mixer in all its gory details. It’s beautiful, it’s a marvel of technology, and given the engineering that went into this machine, it was doomed to fail. Not because it didn’t accomplish the task at hand, but because it does so with a level of engineering overkill that’s delightful to look at but devastating to the production cost.

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Alan Yates: Why Valve’s Lighthouse Can’t Work

[Alan Yates] is a hacker’s engineer. His job at Valve has been to help them figure out the hardware that makes virtual reality (VR) a real reality. And he invented a device that’s clever enough that it really should work, but difficult enough that it wasn’t straightforward how to make it work.

In his presentation at the Hackaday Supercon 2016, he walked us through all of the design and engineering challenges that were eventually conquered in getting the Lighthouse to market. We’re still a bit overwhelmed by the conceptual elegance of the device, so it’s nice to have the behind-the-scenes details as well.

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The Engines of Ingenuity

Every once in a while, we stumble on an amazing resource that’s not exactly new, but it’s new to us. This is the case, in spades, with The Engines of Our Ingenuity, a radio show that’s been running since 1988!

Each episode covers an invention or engineering marvel, and tells the story of how it came to be, and puts each device into its historical and cultural context. Want to get the lowdown on how we safely bring fire into the kitchen? Or the largest land transport vehicle, NASA’s crawler? And what’s up with lobsters anyway?

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[CNLohr] Reverses Vive, Valve Engineers Play Along

[CNLohr] needs no introduction around these parts. He’s pulled off a few really epic hacks. Recently, he’s set his sights on writing a simple, easy to extend library to work with the HTC Vive VR controller equipment, and in particular the Watchman controller.

There’s been a lot of previous work on the device, so [Charles] wasn’t starting from scratch, and he live-streamed his work, allowing others to play along. In the process, two engineers who actually worked on the hardware in question, [Alan Yates] and [Ben Jackson], stopped by and gave some oblique hints and “warmer-cooler” guidance. A much-condensed version is up on YouTube (and embedded below). In the links, you’ll find code and the live streams in their original glory, if you want to see what went down blow by blow. Code and more docs are in this Gist.

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Specifications You Should Read: The NASA Workmanship Standards

"This is reflective of the typically idiosyncratic way engineer's of this era explored the human condition. The purple and shitty gradient show's the artists deep struggle with deadlines and his personal philosophy on the tyranny of the bourgeois. " - A segment from a confused student's art history paper
“Reflective of the typically idiosyncratic way engineers of this era explored the human condition. The shitty gradient show’s the deep struggle with deadlines and their personal philosophy on the tyranny of the bourgeois. ” – An excerpt from a confused student’s art history paper after the standard is installed in the Louvre.

The NASA workmanship standards are absolutely beautiful. I mean that in the fullest extent of the word. If I had any say in the art that goes up in the Louvre, I’d put them up right beside Mona. They’re a model of what a standard should be. A clear instruction for construction, design, and inspection all at once. They’re written in clear language and contain all the vernacular one needs to interpret them. They’re unassuming. The illustrations are perfectly communicative.  It’s a monument to the engineer’s art.

Around five years ago I had a problem to solve. Every time a device went into the field happily transmitting magic through its myriad connectors, it would inevitably come back red tagged, dusty, and sad. It needed to stop. I dutifully traced the problem to a connector, and I found the problem. A previous engineer had informed everyone that it was perfectly okay to solder a connector after crimping. This instruction was added because, previously, the crimps were performed with a regular pair of needle nose pliers and they came undone… a lot. Needless to say, the solder also interfered with their reliable operation, though less obviously. Stress failures and intermittent contact was common.

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How to Make a Human Crossbow

Say you have a team of French engineers, a lake in the summer, a wizened old machinist, and some gigantic bungee cords. What would you build? The answer is clear, a human-launching crossbow. (Video, and making-of embedded below.)

the-human-crossbow-how-we-made-it-kim41mdcizymp4-shot0001You can start out watching the promo video because it looks like a lot of fun, but don’t leave without watching the engineering video. What looks like a redneck contraption turns out to be painstakingly built, and probably not entirely a death trap. The [Rad Cow] team even went so far as to purchase metal cart wheels.

Everyone else on the Intertubes would tell you not to do this at home. We say go for it. That is, draw up reasonable plans, work with an obviously competent machinist, and make something silly. It’s not going to be more dangerous than the stuff that [Furze] pulls off.

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Are Today’s Engineers Worse?

Today’s engineers are just as good as the ones that came before, but that should not be the case and there is massive room for improvement. Improvement that can be realized by looking for the best of the world to come and the one we left behind.

Hey kids! Let's learn why the CE certifications exist!
Hey kids! Let’s learn why the CE certifications exist!

Survivorship bias is real. When we look at the accomplishments of the engineers that came before us we are forced to only look at the best examples. It first really occurred to me that this was real when I saw what I still consider to be the most atrocious piece of consumer oriented engineering the world has yet seen: the Campbell’s soup warmer.

This soup warmer is a poor combination of aluminum and Bakelite forged into the lowest tier of value engineering during its age. Yet it comes from the same time that put us on the moon: we still remember and celebrate Apollo. It’s possible that the soup warmer is forgotten because those who owned it perished from home fires, electrocution, or a diet of Campbell’s soup, but it’s likely that it just wasn’t worth remembering. It was bad engineering.

In fact, there’s mountains of objects. Coffee pots whose handles fell off. Switches that burned or shocked us. Cars that were ugly and barely worked. Literal mountains of pure refuse that never should have seen the light of day. Now we are here.

The world of engineering has changed. My girlfriend and I once snuck into an old factory in Louisville, Kentucky. The place was a foundry and the only building that survived the fire that ended the business. It happened to be where they stored their professional correspondence and sand casting patterns. It was moldy, dangerous, and a little frightening but I saw something amazing when we cracked open one of the file cabinets. It was folders and folders of all the communication that went into a single product. It was an old enough factory that some of it was before the widespread adoption of telephony and all documents had to be mailed from place to place.

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