Com­pass Bicy­cles: Why not “Made in U.S.A.?”

This arti­cle is a real­ly thought­ful answer to a com­mon ques­tion. It’s an inter­est­ing predica­ment for those (like me) who think we should build more things in Amer­i­ca. And it offers fur­ther proof that the anti-glob­al­iza­tion, anti-trade poli­cies cham­pi­oned by many can­di­dates in this year’s election–guilty par­ties include Trump, Cruz, and yes, Sanders–are a com­plete­ly wrong and dis­as­trous solu­tion to the prob­lem of declin­ing indus­tri­al out­put.

April 19, 2016 April 19, 2016 engineering by Scott No Comments

As if I need­ed more proof that 2015 will be a crazy year.

January 30, 2015 January 30, 2015 engineering by Scott 1 Comment

If you are an engi­neer and you’re real­ly bad at what you do, read on! Choose your indus­try and I will pre­dict your for­tune:

Home routers and cable modems

You have a fas­ci­na­tion with blind­ing­ly bright, nar­row view­ing-angle blue LEDs flash­ing inces­sant­ly in dark rooms.

Automated teller machines

You like need­less­ly loud fan noise, anti­quat­ed dis­plays with bad view­ing angles, par­al­lax error between but­tons and UI ele­ments, obso­lete oper­at­ing sys­tems, and input lag while per­form­ing sim­ple tasks.

Printing (err… 2D printing)

You enjoy unpre­dictabil­i­ty. While your col­leagues made pre­cise, error-free image depo­si­tion pos­si­ble, you worked tire­less­ly to ensure that only some­times can the print­er be detect­ed on the net­work. To make sure the dri­ver is cum­ber­some to install. To obfus­cate the front-pan­el UI. And to guar­an­tee that the print­er drops off the wire­less net­work peri­od­i­cal­ly. You like to keep the users guess­ing.

Home security systems

The 1980s called. They want their beige plas­tic and 2-line alphanu­mer­ic LCDs back.

Heat-sealed clamshell packaging

You are a bad per­son.

February 18, 2014 February 18, 2014 engineering by Scott 1 Comment

You don’t want one of these in your house. It’s sup­pos­ed­ly the best, most mod­ern, most effi­cient oil-fired boil­er you can get and, in defi­ance of all sound rea­son­ing, the pre­vi­ous own­ers of our house opt­ed to invest in it just a cou­ple of years ago.

Energy Kinetics boiler

The heat hasn’t worked reli­ably since we moved in. Over more than six ser­vice vis­its in the last two months, the root cause has been var­i­ous­ly diag­nosed as: out of fuel, bad fuel, fuel line improp­er­ly run, clogged fuel fil­ters, dirty com­bus­tion cham­ber, unsta­ble chim­ney draft due to block­age, improp­er­ly sized burn­er noz­zle, bad CdS pho­to­cell, bad pres­sure switch, and improp­er fuel/air mix­ture.

They changed or adjust­ed every­thing. It’s pos­si­ble that every­thing was indeed bro­ken. Doing my own diag­no­sis, I even found stripped gears in the motor­ized zone valve con­trol­ling the flow of hot water into the radi­a­tors, which was caus­ing all kinds of addi­tion­al prob­lems (like the house heat­ing to 90 degrees when you take a show­er on a warm day, and the boil­er con­troller “tim­ing out” on start­up on cold days).

Inter­im solu­tion: a Rasp­ber­ry Pi (pur­chased 30 min­utes before clos­ing at the local Micro Cen­ter) that I wired to the boil­er con­troller. Now, when the boil­er shuts down pre­ma­ture­ly, my phone receives a noti­fi­ca­tion with­in sec­onds. And I have a detailed, time­stamped log of odd behav­ior for the ser­vice guy.

Raspberry Pi boiler monitor

Final­ly, a break­through last night: a buildup of “scale” inside the com­bus­tion cham­ber was block­ing the pres­sure switch port, caus­ing unsta­ble pres­sure read­ings. You should see the amount of sol­id pol­lu­tants that accu­mu­late inside this thing. Why does any­one in the city still heat with oil?

January 19, 2014 January 19, 2014 engineering by Scott 1 Comment

The recovery of the SpaceX Dragon capsule

Pho­to cred­it: Gene Blevins/LA Dai­ly News
(via Space­flight Now)

I had the good for­tune to wit­ness one of the final launch­es of the Space Shut­tle last year, and it was an awe­some expe­ri­ence. The Shut­tle was an incred­i­ble vehicle–a tri­umph of engineering–with an infi­nite­ly com­plex and expen­sive sup­port infra­struc­ture.

So I was pret­ty excit­ed when I saw this pho­to of the recov­ery of the SpaceX Drag­on cap­sule today. Why? Because of the guy on the lad­der. Specif­i­cal­ly, because that lad­der is clear­ly a reg­u­lar lad­der wrapped in foam pipe insu­la­tion and blue mask­ing tape. If this had been a NASA project, he would be using a $10,000 cus­tom climb­ing device made by Boe­ing. Instead, it looks like a late-night project sup­port­ed by the local True Val­ue store. It speaks vol­umes to what is pos­si­ble.

This is the future of space explo­ration.

June 5, 2012 June 5, 2012 engineering by Scott 3 Comments

How to divine a poten­tial supplier’s rep­u­ta­tion from a datasheet:

  • Detailed graphs and charts: +5 points
  • Accu­rate mechan­i­cal draw­ings: +5 points
  • ISO 9001 cer­ti­fi­ca­tion: +5 points
  • Type­set in Com­ic Sans: -1000 points
Datasheet

January 4, 2010 January 4, 2010 engineering by Scott 1 Comment