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.

Continue reading “Are Today’s Engineers Worse?”

What We Are Doing Wrong. The Robot That’s Not in Our Pocket

I’m not saying that the magic pocket oracle we all carry around isn’t great, but I think there is a philosophical disconnect between what it is and what it could be for us. Right now our technology is still trying to improve every tool except the one we use the most, our brain.

At first this seems like a preposterous claim. Doesn’t Google Maps let me navigate in completely foreign locations with ease? Doesn’t Evernote let me off-load complicated knowledge into a magic box somewhere and recall it with photo precision whenever I need to? Well, yes, they do, but they do it wrong. What about ordering food apps? Siri? What about all of these. Don’t they dramatically extend my ability? They do, but they do it inefficiently, and they will always do it inefficiently unless there is a philosophical change in how we design our tools.

Continue reading “What We Are Doing Wrong. The Robot That’s Not in Our Pocket”

Continuing The Dialog: “It’s Time Software People and Mechanical People Had a Talk”

A while back I wrote a piece titled, “It’s Time the Software People and Mechanical People Sat Down and Had a Talk“. It was mostly a reaction to what I believe to be a growing problem in the hacker community. Bad mechanical designs get passed on by what is essentially digital word of mouth. A sort of mythology grows around these bad designs, and they start to separate from science. Rather than combat this, people tend to defend them much like one would defend a favorite band or a painting. This comes out of various ignorance, which were covered in more detail in the original article.

There was an excellent discussion in the comments, which reaffirmed why I like writing for Hackaday so much. You guys seriously rock. After reading through the comments and thinking about it, some of my views have changed. Some have stayed the same.

It has nothing to do with software guys.

being-wrong-quoteI definitely made a cognitive error. I think a lot of people who get into hardware hacking from the hobby world have a beginning in software. It makes sense, they’re already reading blogs like this one. Maybe they buy an Arduino and start messing around. It’s not long before they buy a 3D printer, and then naturally want to contribute back.

Since a larger portion of amateur mechanical designers come from software, it would make sense that when I had a bad interaction with someone over a design critique, they would be end up coming at it from a software perspective. So with a sample size too small, that didn’t fully take into account my positive interactions along with the negative ones, I made a false generalization. Sorry. When I sat down to think about it, I could easily have written an article titled, “It’s time the amateur mechanical designers and the professionals had a talk.” with the same point at the end.

Though, the part about hardware costs still applies.

I started out rather aggressively by stating that software people don’t understand the cost of physical things. I would, change that to: “anyone who hasn’t designed a physical product from napkin to market doesn’t understand the cost of things.”

Continue reading “Continuing The Dialog: “It’s Time Software People and Mechanical People Had a Talk””

It’s Time the Software People and Mechanical People Sat Down and Had a Talk.

With the advances in rapid prototyping, there’s been a huge influx of people in the physical realm of hacking. While my overall view of this development is positive, I’ve noticed a schism forming in the community. I’m going to have to call a group out. I think it stems from a fundamental refusal of software folks to change their ways of thinking to some of the real aspects of working in the physical realm, so-to-speak. The problem, I think, comes down to three things: dismissal of cost, favoring modularity over understanding, and a resulting insistence that there’s nothing to learn.

Continue reading “It’s Time the Software People and Mechanical People Sat Down and Had a Talk.”

What’s in a tool? A case for Made in USA.

A lot of people make the argument that you can’t go wrong buying a tool made in USA, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, etc. They swear that any Chinese tool will be garbage and it’s not worth purchasing them. Now, any discerning mind will say, “Wait a minute, why? China has a huge economy, experienced people, and the ability to use all the scary chemicals that make the best steel. Why would their tools be any better or worse than ours?” It’s a very valid argument. There are lots of Chinese tools that are the best in the world. Most of what we see in our stores are not. So what is the difference. Why does a country who can make the best tools not make the best tools? Surely it isn’t purely cost cutting. Is it cultural? The opinion I wish to put forth is that it’s a matter of design intent communication.

I’ve worked as an engineer in industry. The one common thread between a quality product and a bad product has always been this, ”Is the person who designed the product involved in making the product?” If the person or peoples who imbued the design intent into the original product are actively involved in and working towards the execution of that product, that product has a vastly greater chance of being good. Or in other words: outsourcing doesn’t produce a bad product because the new people making the product don’t care. It makes a bad product because the people who understand the intent behind the product are separated from its execution.

As you can see the export made crescent wrench is not made to the same tolerances as the previous wrench.
As you can see the export made crescent wrench is not made to the same tolerances as the previous wrench.

Let’s take the Crescent wrench as an example. Crescent wrenches used to be made in USA. In the past few years they have begun to make them in China. We can spot many visual differences right away. The new Crescent wrench has a different shape, the logo has changed and the stamping for the logo is dodgy, and worse, the tool just doesn’t operate as well as it used to. The jaws aren’t as hard and they wiggle more. What happened? How could Crescent mess up their flagship so badly. Surely they intended just to cut costs, not to reduce quality. This isn’t shameful in itself

What happened to the Crescent wrench is easily explained by anyone who has seen a product from design to execution before. A factory in the USA set out to make a good adjustable wrench. Hundreds of engineers and employees worked in a building to make a good wrench. When their machines didn’t work, they came up with solutions. When their quality was lacking, they implemented better processes. They had a list of trusted suppliers. They could guarantee that the materials that came in would be imbued with their vision and intent when the product came out. The intent and will of all those people built up in one place over time.

Continue reading “What’s in a tool? A case for Made in USA.”

Can You Hear Me Now?

It’s great to build projects just to do something neat, to learn; to impress friends and other hackers. It’s even better to address a real need.

I’ve worn hearing aids for 40 some years. My response to the question “Can you hear me now?” is still all too often, “No.” Because of this I heartily applaud the Aegis Acoustics Headset currently active on Kickstarter. I’m happy to see it’s blown through its goal with over a month left.

The Aegis is targeted at prevent hearing loss, primarily in teens since they use headsets so often. It’s equally applicable to adults and pre-teens. The Aegis works by limiting the sound level emitted to 85db, which is a safe level. Above that the risk of damage to the tiny hairs in the cochlea – the inner ear – increases dramatically with a 3db increase cutting the safety time in half.

Future’s So Bright I’ve Got to Wear ‘Aids

My personal experience explains why this is important. At my first professional level job as a software developer I noticed that people at the other end of the table often mumbled during meetings. Not really, because everyone else understood them fine. I needed hearing aids.

My first hearing aids were analog devices. There were three frequency bands across the audio spectrum whose volumes could be custom set for my ears — resulting in crude and limited improvements in what I could hear. My current hearing aids are technological marvels of digital signal processing with a multitude of algorithms the audiologist can use to help me hear better. They even coordinate their actions by communicating between themselves.

I still need to ask people to repeat what they say at times. But who doesn’t? I had a successful career despite my loss. But it is still a royal pain-in-the-butt to miss out on one-third of the dialog in a movie, to not go to a local coffee house because I won’t understand the lyrics or comments by the musicians, and miss out on all the other small parts of life along these lines.

Hacking for Hearing

There are a range of areas where hackers could contribute and not just in assisting individuals, like myself, who personally gain from technological assistance.

Consider how the cell phone improved communications in developing countries. Using radio communications the countries avoided the need to string thousands of miles of wires. That saved the expense and the decades of construction time. It’s easier to get cell phone service than water in some locations. It’s important to notice that it didn’t come about because of a big plan. It came about as an unseen consequence of a technical development.

“We can rebuild him…we have the technology” is from the opening of an old TV series and movies, “The 6 Million Dollar Man” and has found it’s place in the pop-culture vocabulary. But it rings true. We have the technology. We have the tools. We have the expertise. We’re hackers and builders. We and the technology are all over the place. We’re a solution looking for a problem.

Devices that Extend the Body

All signs point to a coming revolution of devices that protect our bodies and make them work better. The 2015 Hackaday Prize theme is Build Something That Matters and that sentiment is obviously taking hold throughout the hardware hacker movement. The Aegis headphones I mentioned above are one example of preventive devices, but look around and there are many more like the UV-Badge which gives you feedback on safe levels of sunlight for your skin.

Surely we’re going to see further augmentation for the devices that help restore function. Wearables are all the rage, how long will it be before your smartwatch notification functions make it into my hearing aids? Imagine the improvements we will see in custom hearing profiles born of that smartphone-hearing aid connection. The foundations of this are user-controlled profile switching which is already in place for apps like Belltone’s HearPlus. If the advanced electronics in the smartphone can build a better noise profile and transfer it to the hearing aid my visits to the coffee shop just might get a lot better. And this doesn’t mean the devices need to look the same either. I love the Design Affairs Studio hearing aid concept that is shown at the top of this article. Hardware can be a status symbol after all.

This type of forward thinking easily extends to all assistive technologies such as wheelchair improvements and navigation systems for the blind.

As you look toward your next big hack, roll these concepts around in your mind. The tools, software, and talent have never been easier to connect for our group of citizen scientists who are hacking in basements and garages. It’s exciting to think about the change we can affect using the skills honed over the past decades of this hardware enlightenment we’re all living.

Childhood Tech Exposure Is Slowly Killing The Keyboard

I see the disturbing trend of moving away from keyboards as input devices — and I’m talking about a real, physical keyboard. This isn’t a matter of one decision that kills the keyboard, but an aggregate that is slowly changing the landscape. If you blink, you’ll miss it. We will not find ourselves in a world without keyboards, but in one where most of the available keyboards suck.

Rise of the Virtual Keyboard Generation

Is swipe-style keying the future of coding?
Is swipe-style keying the future of coding?

Tablets are great for screwing around, but when you want to get real work done in a reasonable amount of time, you grab a physical keyboard. In this scenario I don’t see the problem being those in the workforce going away from keyboards; it’s how the younger generations are learning to interact with technology that is troubling. The touchscreen is baby’s first computer. Families gather and the kids are handed their parent’s tablets while the grown-ups watch the game. More and more schools are outfitting classrooms with tablets, and for this I’m an advocate. Getting kids involved early in technology is imperative; knowledge evolves much more rapidly than printed textbooks. The tablet is a powerful tool in both of these areas. But most of the screen time kids get is with touchscreens and no physical keyboard.

How much time are K-12 kids spending in front of a physical keyboard? In the United States, if keyboard (typing) classes exist at all in a public school’s curriculum they’re usually only one-semester. Students who spend half of Elementary school using a tablet, and just one semester at a keyboard, are bound to prefer touchscreen-based entry over a physical keyboard.

Keyboard Erosion

We’ve already seen a strong push into touch-screens on laptops as the tablet market has grown. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Think of the computer mouse, it didn’t replace the keyboard, but augmented it and now is seen as a tool that itself is a necessity.

Continue reading “Childhood Tech Exposure Is Slowly Killing The Keyboard”