Keep It Simple, Smartly

“Keep it simple” sounds like such good advice, but what exactly is the “it”; what parts of a project should you try to keep simple? You can’t always make everything simple, can you? Are all kinds of “simplicity” equally valuable, or are there aspects of a design where simplicity has multiplier effects on the rest of the project?

I ran into two seemingly different, but surprisingly similar, design problems in the last couple weeks, and I realized that focusing on keeping one aspect of the project simple had a multiplier effect on the rest — simplifying the right part of the problem made everything drastically easier.

EA Axon Great plane, but heavy!

The first example was a scratch-built airplane design. I’d made a few planes over the summer, focusing on plans on the Interwebs that emphasize simplicity of the actual build. Consequently, the planes were a bit heavy, maybe not entirely aerodynamic, and probably underpowered. And this is because the effort you expend building the plane doesn’t fundamentally have anything to do with flight. Keeping the build simple doesn’t necessarily get you a good plane.

Weight, on the other hand, is central. Wings produce lift, whether measured in grams or ounces, and anything heavier just isn’t gonna fly. But reducing weight has a multiplier effect. Less weight means smaller and lighter motors and batteries. Structures don’t need to be as stiff if they’re not subject to heavier bending forces. And, important to the noob pilot, planes with less weight per wing area fly slower, giving me (ahem, the noob pilot) more reaction time when something goes sideways. Trying to simplify the design by trimming weight has knock-on effects all around.

My latest fully-DIY design threw out anything that brought weight along with it, including some parts I thought were necessary for stiffness or crash resistance. But with the significantly lowered weight, these problems evaporated without needing me to solve them — in a way, the complexity of design was creating the problems that the complexity of design was supposed to solve. Ditching it meant that I had a slow plane, with simple-to-build wings, that’s capable of carrying a lightweight FPV camera. Done and done! Simply.

Nope. Too complex.

At the same time, I’m building a four-axis CNC foam cutter. I’ve built many 3D printers, and played around with other folks’ DIY CNC machines, so I had a few design ideas in my head starting out. My first iteration of an XY axis for the machine runs on metal angle stock with a whopping eight skate bearings per axis. It’s strong and rigid, and clumsy and overkill, in a bad way for this machine.

3D printers want to move a relatively light tool head around a small volume, but relatively quickly. CNC mills need to be extremely rigid and shoulder heavy side loads, subject to some speed constraints. A foam cutter has none of these needs. The hot wire melts the foam by radiation, so there are no loads on the machine because it doesn’t even contact the workpiece. And because it cuts by melting, it has to go slow. These are the places in the design where simplification will bear the most fruit.

I write this in retrospect, or at least from the perspective of a second prototype. I wanted the first design to hold the cutting filament taut, hence the rigid frame. But separating the tension from the motion, by using a lightweight external bow to keep the filament tight, meant that the machine could be dead simple. I could use smaller plastic sliders instead of complex bearings, on thin rods instead of bulky rails. In a day after having this realization, I got twice as far as I had on the previous machine design in a week, and it takes up a lot less space in my basement.

So take your KISS to the next level. Brainstorm a while about the binding constraints on your design, and what relaxing any of them can do. Do any particular simplifications enable further simplifications? Those are the ones that you want to start with. Keep it simple, smartly. And because it’s not always easy to find these multiplier effects, tell your friends!

Ideas To Prototypes Hack Chat With Nick Bild

Join us on Wednesday, July 29 at noon Pacific for the Ideas to Prototypes Hack Chat with Nick Bild!

For most of us, ideas are easy to come by. Taking a shower can generate half of dozen of them, the bulk of which will be gone before your hair is dry. But a few ideas will stick, and eventually make it onto paper or its electronic equivalent, to be played with and tweaked until it coalesces into a plan. And a plan, if we’re lucky, is what’s needed to put that original idea into action, to bring it to fruition and see just what it can do.

No matter what you’re building, the ability to turn ideas into prototypes is what moves projects forward, and it’s what most of us live for. Seeing something on the bench or the shop floor that was once just a couple of back-of-the-napkin sketches, and before that only an abstract concept in your head, is immensely satisfying.

The path from idea to prototype, however, is not always a smooth one, as Nick Bild can attest. We’ve been covering Nick’s work for a while now, starting with his “nearly practical” breadboard 6502 computer, the Vectron, up to his recent forays into machine learning with ShAIdes, his home-automation controlling AI sunglasses. On the way we’ve seen his machine-learning pitch predictor, dazzle-proof glasses, and even a wardrobe-malfunction preventer.

All of Nick’s stuff is cool, to be sure, but there’s a method to his productivity, and we’ll talk about that and more in this Hack Chat. Join us as we dive into Nick’s projects and find out what he does to turn his ideas into prototypes.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, July 29 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about. Continue reading “Ideas To Prototypes Hack Chat With Nick Bild”

Nothing Comes From Nowhere

How do you come up with new ideas? As much as it sometimes seems like they arrive in a flash out of the blue, they don’t just come out of nowhere. Indeed, we all have well-stocked mental toolboxes that say “this thing can be used to do that” and “if you want to get there, start here”.

One incredibly fertile generator of “new” ideas is simply putting old ideas next to each other and realizing that a chain of two or three can get you to someplace new. It just happened to me while listening to Mike and myself on this week’s Hackaday Podcast.


Here’s the elevator pitch. You take something like the player-pianoesque MIDI barrel piano that we featured last Thursday, and mix it together with the street-painting bicycle trailer that we featured on Friday. What do you get? A roll of paper that can be drawn on by normal kids, rolled up behind a bicycle, with a tank that they can pressurize with a bike pump, that will spray a pixelated version of their art as they roll down the sidewalk.

Now how can I make this real? One of my neighbors has a scrap bike trailer…

But see what I mean about ideas? I just took two existing ideas and rubbed them together, and in this case, they emitted sparks. And I’ve got a mental catalogue of all of the resources around me, some of which fell right into place. This role as fountain of good proto-ideas is why I started reading Hackaday fifteen years ago, and why it’s still a daily must-read for folks like us everywhere. A huge thank you to everyone who’s sharing! Read more Hackaday!