Life on Contract: How to Fail at Contracting Regardless of Skill

I believe higher quality learning happens from sharing failure than from sharing stories of success. If you have set your mind to living on contract, I present this cheat sheet of some of the most simple and effective ways to muck it all up that have surprisingly little or nothing to do with your technical skill, knowledge, or even deliverables.

The previous installment of Life on Contract discussed how one might find clients as an engineering contractor or consultant while also taking a bit of time to pull apart the idea of whether life on contract is appropriate as opposed to, for example, bootstrapping a business instead. Assuming you are set on working as a contractor, let’s talk about what happens after you have found a prospective client (or perhaps more likely: after they have found you.)

WARNING: this article features an utter lack of success tips and tricks. Partly because those can be found in any seminar or business self-help book, but mostly because I do not have a foolproof recipe for success, and cheat codes to unlock easy mode still elude me. But I have witnessed (or committed) and reflected on many excellent ways to fail at contracting; or at the very least succeed in not being invited back.

Just because I won’t be sharing success stories doesn’t mean success has no learning value. Got a success story, or a better way to fail? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Fail More: The Story of [CNLohr]’s Clear Keytar

[CNLohr] is kinda famous round these parts; due to some very impressive and successful hacks. However, for his 20k subscriber video, he had a bit to say about failure.

Of course glass circuit boards are cool. Linux Minecraft things are also cool. Hacks on the ESP8266 that are impressive enough people thought they were an April Fool’s joke are, admittedly, very cool. (Though, we have to confess, posting on April 1 may have added to the confusion.)  For a guy who puts out so many successes you’d think he’d talk about the next ones planned; hyping up his growing subscriber base in order to reel in those sweet sweet Internet dollars.

Instead he shows us a spectacular failure. We do mean spectacular. It’s got beautiful intricate copper on glass key pads. He came up with clever ways to do the lighting. The circuit is nicely soldered and the acrylic case looks like a glowing crystal. It just never went anywhere and never worked. He got lots of people involved and completely failed to deliver.

However, in the end it was the failure that taught him what he needed to know. He’s since perfected the techniques and skills he lacked when he started this project a time ago. We’ve all had experiences like this, and enjoyed hearing about his. What failure taught you the most?

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Interesting Switch Autopsy

We put a lot of trust into some amazingly cheap components, sometimes that trust is very undeserved. Long gone are the days when every electronic component was a beautifully constructed precision lab instrument.  As [Rupert Hirst] shows, this can be a hard lesson to learn for even the biggest companies.

[Rupert]’s Nexus 5 was suffering from a well known reboot issue. He traced it to the phone’s power switch. It was always shorting to ground, even though it clicked like it was supposed to.

He desoldered the switch and pried the delicate sheet metal casing apart. Inside were four components. A soft membrane with a hard nub on the bottom, presumably engineered to give the switch that quality feeling. Next were two metal buckles that produced the click and made contact with the circuit board, which is the final component.

He noticed something odd and  busted out his USB microscope. The company had placed a blob of solder on the bottom buckle. We think this is because steel on copper contact would lead to premature failure of the substrate, especially with the high impact involved during each switching event.

The fault lay in the imprecise placement of the solder blob. If it had been perfectly in the middle, and likely many phones that never showed the issue had it there, the issue would have never shown up. Since it was off-center, the impact of each switching event slowly deposited thin layers of solder onto the copper and fiberglass. Finally it built up enough to completely short the switch.

Interestingly, this exact problem shows up across different phone manufacturers, somewhere there’s a switch company with a killer sales team out there.

What It’s Like to Quit Your Job and Start a Company – Then Fail

Some of our more dedicated readers may remember me as that promising and talented new writer who disappeared after only a couple of months last fall. Or, alternatively, that moronic new writer who had no idea what he was talking about. But, I’m just going to go ahead and assume it was the former in order to protect my ego. In either case, if you remember me at all, you may have wondered why I left. Was it cholera? Was I drafted into a top-secret CIA program? Did I join a circus as a fledgling trapeze artist?

No, it was none of that. That would be absurd. What would make you think I had any trapeze skills at all, much less circus-worthy ones? The truth is a lot more straightforward, but was also a lot scarier (and more exciting) for me — I started a business. The astute readers among you have probably already put the dots together and figured out that I failed. The title was a pretty strong hint, right? This isn’t a story of bootstraps-pulling success, or a heartwarming underdog tale. This is an opportunity for me to talk about the lessons I learned as I failed, and to give the entrepreneurs out there something to consider when they start their businesses. We’ll laugh together, we’ll cry together, and maybe we’ll even learn something together. Ready? Alright, let’s dive right into the heart of it, starting when I was seven years old…

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Ask Hackaday MRRF Edition: 3D Printers Can Catch Fire

[Jay] out of the River City Labs Hackerspace in Peoria, IL cleared out a jam in his printer. It’s an operation most of us who own a 3D printer have performed. He reassembled the nozzle, and in a moment forgot to tighten down the grub nut that holds the heater cartridge in place. He started a print, saw the first layer go down right, and left the house at 8:30 for work. When he came back from work at 10:30 he didn’t see the print he expected, but was instead greeted by acrid smoke and a burnt out printer.

The approximate start time of the fire can be guessed by the height of the print before failure.
The approximate start time of the fire can be guessed by the height of the print before failure.

As far as he can figure, some time at around the thirty minute mark the heater cartridge vibrated out of the block. The printer saw a drop in temperature and increased the power to the cartridge. Since the cartridge was now hanging in air and the thermistor that reads the temperature was still attached to the block, the printer kept sending power. Eventually the cartridge, without a place to dump the energy being fed to it, burst into flame. This resulted in the carnage pictured. Luckily the Zortrax is a solidly built full metal printer, so there wasn’t much fuel for the fire, but the damage is total and the fire could easily have spread.

Which brings us to the topics of discussion.

How much can we trust our own work? We all have our home-builds and once you’ve put a lot of work into a printer you want to see it print a lot of things. I regularly leave the house with a print running and have a few other home projects going 24/7. Am I being arrogant? Should I treat my home work with a lesser degree of trust than something built by a larger organization? Or is the chance about the same? Continue reading “Ask Hackaday MRRF Edition: 3D Printers Can Catch Fire”

Dr Noirimetla, Private Failure Investigator and the Mystery of Galileo’s Pillars

One dark and stormy morning, Dr. Richard Noirimetla, private failure investigator, was sitting at his desk nursing his morning cup of joe. It was an addiction, but life, and engineering was hard. Intense eyes sat in a round dark-skinned face. An engineering degree from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology hung from the wall in his sparse office. Lightning flashed outside of his window, as the rain began to beat even harder against his corner office windows.

His phone rang.

“Hello, Dr. Noirimetla, Private Failure Investigator here.” He said in deep, polite voice. “How may I help you?”

“Ah, I’m Chief of Manufacturing for Galileo Concrete Pillars Inc. We have a bit of a problem here. We used to see a failure rate above 33% for our concrete pillar operation. As part of our lean manufacturing efforts we tried to reduce that number through various improvements. However, we see a failure rate of almost 50% now. We expect foul play… from one of our suppliers. Can you come right away?” a worried man’s voice sounded over the phone.

“I see, that’s very troubling,” Noirimetla rumbled. “I’ll send over the contract detail. There will be an increased fee, but I’m on my way.”

“Sounds good, we’ll pay anything! Just get our operation up to standards!” The man bid a polite goodbye and hung up.
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3D Printering: Hobbs Meters And 3D Printer Reliability

A direct link to Makerbot's  3-pack of Smart Extruders is very hard to find
A direct link to Makerbot’s 3-pack of Smart Extruders is very hard to find

It’s been a little over a year since Makerbot introduced their new line of printers, and since then there have been grumblings about the quality of the Smart Extruder that each one of these printers comes with. While there is no 3D printer extruder that will not eventually clog, wear down, or otherwise break, there are reports of the Makerbot Smart Extruder failing in only hundreds or even tens of hours of use. Considering that a single large print can take a dozen or so hours to complete, you can easily see the why the Smart Extruder is so despised and why even the availability of a three-pack of Smart Extruders is a joke in the 3D printing community.

Of course a cheap shot at Makerbot that plays right into your preconceived ideas and prejudices is far too easy. We’re here to solve problems, not just state them, so here’s what we’re working with: to quantify the long-term reliability of 3D printers we need a way to measure the mean time before failure of extruders. This is already a solved problem; it’s just not implemented.

On aircraft and some very expensive engines that power things like buildings and ships, there’s one gauge, tucked away in the control panel, that keeps track of how long the engine has been running. It’s called a hobbs meter, and the idea behind it is extremely simple – when there is power going to the Hobbs meter, it counts out hours on a small clockwork display. The resolution of the display is only tenths of an hour, usually, but that’s good enough for scheduling maintenance and to be mentioned in NTSB accident reports.

Spend enough time with a 3D printer, and you’ll quickly realize the ‘estimated print time’ is merely a ballpark, and with failed prints the ‘total print time for this object’ isn’t exactly a perfect measure of how many hours you’ve been using your extruder. Only by directly measuring how many hours are logged on a hot end or how many kilometers of filament have been sent through an extruder will you ever get an accurate idea of how long an extruder has been running, and how reliable a printer is.

Hobbs meters are available from Mouser, but you’ll be overpaying there. The better option is from a vendor in a different niche; $30 for a meter that can connect directly to the extruder heater. If enough people add this and keep proper logs, there’s a slight chance of improving the state of 3D printers with real data and not the prejudices of people trying to justify their own designs and purchases.

But perhaps that’s too hard; adding a $30 item to a printer’s BOM just for the sake of data is a bit much. Luckily, there’s an even simpler solution that won’t cost a dime. Just measure the time a heater has been on in the firmware, or save the total length of extruded filament in a microcontroller’s EEPROM. Every printer firmware out there, from Marlin to Repetier to Sprinter has in it a way to calculate both the length of time a heater has been on or how much filament has been pushed through a nozzle.

However, this is 3D printing we’re dealing with. An organized community is not a luxury we currently enjoy, and for this to work several things are needed. The first is somewhere to upload failure statistics. This would be a web site, naturally, with the ability to input the printer make, extruder and hot end model, and the time since last clogged nozzle. The website itself is just a database, some JavaScript, a bit of CSS, and some hosting costs; not hard until you consider tens of thousands of operators would have to know about this website and contribute.

Secondly, if we’re not going with mechanical Hobbs meters there would need to be a ‘total time heater on’ or ‘total length of extruded filament’ variable in the various firmwares. There would hopefully be standardized Gcodes or Mcodes to read and reset this variable.

Will this happen? Of course not. Organization isn’t a strong suit of the RepRap project, and any company that implements Hobbs meter functionality will probably lock that up in proprietary obfuscation. However, Makerbot isn’t dumb, and given they’re selling three-packs of extruders, I would bet they have some data on the MTBF of their extruders. A community-based measurement of the most common cause of broken printers is certainly possible, but like all problems it’s one of organization, not technology.


3D Printering is a semi-weekly column that digs deep into all things related to 3D Printing. If you have questions or ideas for future installments please sending us your thoughts.