Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Where do you get your ideas?

I get asked a number of such questions on a routine basis -- sometimes from strangers looking for assistance on a project similar to one of mine; sometimes from friends or acquaintances. This morning, I was cleaning out old email accounts and I came across yet another of those emails, but it was one where I was actually nice to, and patient with, the inquirer for a change. After reading it, it suddenly occurred to me that his email had the makings of an FAQ for my blog, so that's what I've done with it. There was nothing personally identifying or sensitive in the message, so I've simply anonymized the questions and tweaked my answers for this post.

"What is a good beginner's electronics / high voltage / mad science project for me to try?"

I get asked this kind of question a lot, and I'm always stumped how to answer. If you don't have a project you already want to do, how do you even know you want to do one? I could tell you what _I_ am interested in, but why should that necessarily interest you?

My usual answer to this one is to suggest something that ties in with other hobbies and interests you have. For instance, if you are into model rocketry, you could do a telemetry project. If you have a tank of fish, perhaps you could detect whether they generate, or are sensitive to, electric fields. If you're into photography, perhaps an audio strobe trigger would be interesting.

If you have a "secondary gain" - if there is some additional benefit to the project besides the project itself, you might be more likely to keep pushing when it gets difficult. ie; if you not only want to "do electronics", but also really need an audio strobe trigger because you want to take pictures of balloons popping or something, then that project has a secondary benefit, so it

"I appreciate your craftsmanship, do you mind if I emulate it?"

Thank you, and no I don't mind at all. I never cared much about appearances until just the last few years. Projects I built in the past tended to be real lash-ups, you can see it in some photos of older projects like my first big Tesla coil. I was more concerned with results. But within the last decade or less, I've run across other people's work which has inspired me -- the work of friends as well as some amazing people around the world I've never met. Speaking of which, I have to say, if you think _my_ work is jaw dropping, these next two links will blow your mind: <-- check out especially Barry J. Jordan, the guy who makes WORKING miniature machine tools!

So you want to put craftsmanship into your work? That certainly won't bother me any! I think there is far too little of that in today's world, whether it is commercial products or something made one at a time by an artisan. Consumers have been duped by manufacturers into believing that "quality" is synonymous with "features vs. price". And yet, you can still find (for example) two products with identical "features": one which costs $100, weighs 10 pounds, and comes with a 30 day warranty; and another that costs $400, weighs 30 pounds and comes with a 1 year warranty...

Quality is an entirely separate attribute from "features" or "price", although you generally will have to pay more for more quality. when you make things yourself, the amount of work that goes into a thing -- and by implication, quality factors like durability/reliability, ease of use, effectiveness at the task -- it's entirely up to the maker how good it turns out. A quick tool to solve a single odd-ball problem you're never likely to see again might be a real ugly mess, while something you're going to give to someone else as a gift might have much more work than you'd put into a tool for yourself. It's important to choose your battles" and put your (finite) labor into the areas where it will create the most value for you. Cannonballs - by which I literally mean pieces of heavy shot intended to be fired from a field artillery piece - do not need to be chrome plated to perform their function admirably.

One should not worry too much about possessing a style. My own "style" -- if I even have one yet -- derives first from "old fashioned / Victorian" manufacturing styles, and secondarily from what I can put my hands on easily or cheaply. I expect that with time, you will find your own unique style, even if it is similar. If I have one, I don't know what it is, yet. If you set out to create a style artificially, well, you'd better know a lot more about such creative artistic endeavors than I do, or it's likely to seem artificial. A true style evolves without conscious effort.

"How do you plan and measure the sizes of parts?"

For projects which require precision and test-fitting of parts before they're even made, I've started using CAD, specifically Solidworks. SW is not affordable for most people (I got lucky and got my license for free, sorta) but there are many other CAD programs out there which are free or cheap. They just aren't as good. Sorry, but you don't get what you don't pay for in that arena. For some applications, a structured drawing tool (something that accurately tracks dimensions and lets you display them on the drawing) may be sufficient and a full-up CAD tool might be overkill.

For anything that doesn't require much precision, or which is precise but simple, pencil and paper sketches (don't forget dimensions and _any_ other useful notations you think of) are usually adequate.

For anything that requires close tolerances or a lot of parts to be made and joined together, it's always a good idea to make a drawing with dimensions. You don't have to be a good artist, just use a pencil and a ruler and a white rubber eraser. Having all the parts' dimensions written down on paper before you start lets you compare things, and have more confidence that the parts will actually go together once you've made them.

For more artsy stuff, I just cut and bash and abrade things to fit as I go, with almost no advance planning at all, although sometimes I'll stop and make a sketch or three of something I can't make up my mind on, to help me visualize different ideas before I actually start cutting material.

"Where do you look for materials?"

Okay, this is a big deal for most people who weren't born wealthy. The simple answer is: Everywhere.

For starters, you've got to be on the lookout all the time for anything that might come in handy. The corollary to this is that you need a good idea of what is actually useful - what you are likely to actually use - before you can be watchful for parts or materials. Thus, at least a little advanced planning is pretty important. If you've got a plan (or even half a plan), for a future project in the back of your mind, it will be easier to recognize a potential secondary coil form (for a Tesla coil) or a bent metal widget for that RC boat model that's been stumping you.

You don't want to cart home every thing you find that MIGHT come in handy. If you do, you'll soon be groaning under the weight of your hoard, and looking for a larger place to live. Collect with care. Don't become a hoarder. I very nearly did - it runs in the family.

I've been collecting crap for decades, and have too much already, from yard sales, electronic surplus stores, estate sales, flea markets, junk and scrap yards, live auctions, ebay, and so on. You can even find useful things thrown out in dumpsters and alleys. Old microwave ovens for example, generally have a bad magnetron in them. The transformer that drives it can be used for various things, as can the HV caps and diode found in the magnetron power circuit.

But before you start dragging handy-looking junk home, please understand this: my pile of random collected crap (organized in boxes, on shelves, in my garage) has consistently turned out to be the least useful of my parts. While it's nice to acquire a few things that you need in advance, mostly it has turned out to be a waste of space, and now I'm working on whittling it all down to only those parts necessary for a specific project I actually expect to finish. Since I started doing this, I very rarely bring home anything "just because it might come in handy some day", unless it is very rare and specialized. For example, I don't even collect high voltage capacitors any longer, unless they are also exotic high speed pulse caps - there are just too many other sorts of "HV capacitor" so the odds of any given unit you find being perfect for a project you intend are between slim and nil.

Mostly, I try to get materials or bits of surplus or junk that are close to what I need, and re-purpose or modify it. Sources for that are mostly eBay and McMaster-Carr, but raw materials like metals I sometimes get from local surplus metal yards, ordinary things from the big-box hardware stores. Get familiar with what is carried in large hardware and "builder's supply" stores such as Lowes or Home Depot, because they have many ready-made things which will be _close_ to what you need, and can be repurposed with a minimum of work. Doing that kind of thing can save you hundreds of hours of labor, even if you do have to put some work in to convert that widget to your kind of widget.

Here's an example of a good "dumpster dive": I spotted a simple bed frame in the alley. It was - as most of the simple commodity bed frames are -- from painted 2" angle-steel, maybe 1/8" thick, with custom blivets on the ends to connect the headboard and footboard to the rails. I grabbed those two rails (maybe 7 feet long each), took them home, cut off the (non-useful) custom end fittings with a reciprocating saw (I'd have used an abrasive "chop" saw if I owned one) and suddenly I had two pieces of regular 2" angle steel to put on my stock rack, already painted (think of it as already-applied primer if you want to change the color). Within a month, I had cut one of them up to modify a heavy duty rolling cart for a granite surface plate to fit the smaller one I'd just picked up cheap at a surplus store. I just had to sand a bit of paint off the areas I wanted to weld, and touch up the paint after. Probably $60 worth of steel if bought new.

Time (yours) can be exchanged for money, to bring down the cost of goods. Rusty metal is MUCH cheaper than clean metal at the scrap yard, but you've got to clean it before you can work with it. Your choice.

"If you normally find stuff at a junk shop, or someplace where supply may not be stable, do you wing it with alternatives or do you usually look for specific parts?"

It just depends on what I'm doing. For an artsy project I'll wing it with found/convertable parts, since I feel more flexibility. In those cases, form does not necessarily follow function so closely.

On the other hand, if what I am creating has to work a certain way, and form must follow function first and foremost, then I'll be more likely to look for specific parts, or make them from scratch. Even on a technical project, I tend to have some aesthetic desires for how I want the thing to look, certain styles of switches or lamps or meters that I like or dislike.

"How did you get your start in all of this?"

I honestly can't say what made the technical subjects appeal to me more than other subjects, but they always did. Even when I didn't understand what I was doing, I was determined to do _something_, so even at an early age, I took apart TVs and radios and played with the parts.

I did have a few mentors who helped me develop skills in various areas - construction, electronics, sciences. My 4th grade elementary school science teacher got me started in Science Fair, which had me building techie projects - and documenting them - from an early age, which I kept up with through high school. Later I found another mentor at my mother's workplace who helped me learn some basic electronics.

In high school, there were shop classes, and although I soon realized that wood shop wasn't my bag, metal shop sure was, and I learned how to operate all of the machine tools, as well as various hand-work techniques before I reached college age. Just knowing how to make desired physical objects from some material (all materials are different and require different tools and techniques!) is tremendously valuable. There are little tricks to working with every metal, every plastic, hard and soft woods, but books which teach them are rare and precious -- you may find it preferable or easier to make the friends with older, smarter, more experienced people who share your interests, and learn everything they are willing to teach. At least two of my close friends - one a degreed Mechanical Engineer and one a degreed Electrical Engineer - have taught me most of what I know in either field.

Unfortunately, due to various reasons not germane here, I never went to college. I have severe ADHD, which handicapped me most of my life. It got even worse a few years ago (I am now middle aged) so I've just now finally begun to treat it with medication.

Old fashioned, basic "how to" books are very valuable for these skills. Even ancient books which discuss "obsolete" methods can come in handy. For the technical hobbyist, the current State Of The Art methods may not be affordable or available, but the old ways may work just fine and be cheaper.

"If you could go back to the younger you, what specific advice would you give him to help you build great things later in life?"

#1: Get strong in math.
That's where I went wrong. I work as an engineer now, but I am STILL weak in math. It is my greatest single failing. Learn math, all the way through calculus, including differential equations. Because so many useful formulae have already been derived for us by those who came before, you may never again need to use calculus, but it is such a powerful tool, it can help you solve difficult problems if you are comfortable. At the very least, you absolutely MUST be comfortable with algebra. Trig you need to understand how to use, but now how to do any calcs - you use a calculator to do the functions, but you need to know how the functions are used. Trig is very useful for AC and RF calcs.

#2: In any technical endeavor, learn the underlying theory until you understand it _intuitively_.
Being able to recite definitions and formulas by rote may earn you high scores on tests, but it is nearly useless in the real world. You need to have a gut feeling for each mathematical relationship that you work with on regular basis, each process you look at every day, even if you can't remember how to work the problem. You can always look up formulae and such in a book if you don't remember them. But developing that instinctive understanding will mean having to look things up in books a lot less often, and it will also mean knowing exactly what to look up and where. After education and before the mental faculties

You will realize when you get to middle age that time was always your most precious commodity, James Gleick quotes* notwithstanding. You would be wise not to waste as much of it as I have.

* "Recognize that neither technology nor efficiency can acquire more time for you, because time is not a thing you have lost. It is not a thing you ever had. It is what you live in. You can drift or you can swim, and it will carry you along either way." - James Gleick

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