One of my favourite shows that I found out about far too late into my adult life was How It’s Made. The premise of the show is simple: they take you into the manufacturing process behind many common products, showing you how they go from their raw materials into the products we all know. Whilst I’d probably recommend skipping the episodes which show you how some of your favourite food is made (I think that’s called the Sausage Principle) the insight into how some things are made can be incredibly fascinating. However whilst everyday products can be interesting they pale in comparison to something like the following video which shows how solid aluminium wheels are created for an upcoming jet car:
I think what gets me most about this video is the amazing level of precision that they’re able to obtain using massive tools, something which usually doesn’t go together. The press seems to be able to move in very small increments and can do so at speeds that just seem to be out of this world. The gripper also seems to have a pretty high level of fidelity about it, being able to pick up an extremely malleable piece of heated aluminium without structurally deforming it. That’s only half the equation though as the operators of these machines are obviously highly skilled in their operation, being able to guide them with incredible accuracy.
In fact the whole YouTube channel dedicated to the Bloodhound SSC car is filled with engineering marvels like this from showing off the construction of the monocoque and the attached components all the way to the interior and the software they’ll be using for it. If the above video had you tingling with excitement (well, I was, but I’m strange) then I highly recommend checking them out.
The Kepler Mission is by far one of the most exciting things NASA has done in recent memory. It’s goal was simple, observe a patch of stars continuously for a long period of time in order to detect the planets that orbit them. It’s lone instrument for doing so is a highly sensitive photometer designed to detect the ever so subtle changes in brightness of a parent star when one of its planets transits in front of it. Whilst the chances are low of everything lining up just right so that we can witness such an event the fact that Kepler could monitor some 145,000 stars at once meant that we were almost guaranteed to see a great deal of success.
Indeed we got just that.
The first six weeks of Kepler’s operation proved to be highly successful with 5 planets discovered, albeit ones that would likely be inhospitable due to their close proximity to their parent stars. The years since then have proved to be equally fruitful with Kepler identifying thousands of potential exoplanet candidates with hundreds of them since being confirmed via other methods. These discoveries have reshaped our idea of what our universe looks like with a planetary system like our own now thought to be a relatively common occurrence. Whilst we’re still a long way from finding our home away from home there’s a ton of tantalizing evidence suggesting that such places are numerous with untold numbers of them right in our own galaxy.
However earlier this year Kepler was struck with an insurmountable problem. You see in order to monitor that field of stars precisely Kepler relied on a set of reaction wheels to ensure it was pointed in the right direction at all times. There are a total of 4 of them on board and Kepler only needed 3 of them in order to keep the precision up at the required level. Unfortunately it had previously had one fail forcing the backup wheel to kick into motion. Whilst that had been running fine for a while on May 15th this year another reaction wheel failed and Kepler was unable to maintain its fix on the star field. At the time this was thought to be the end of the mission and, due to the specialized nature of the hardware, likely the end of Kepler’s useful life.
However, thanks to some incredibly clever mechanics, Kepler may rise again.
Whilst there are only 2 functioning reaction wheels NASA scientists have determined that there’s another source of force for them to use. If they orient Kepler in a certain way so that its solar panels are all evenly lit by the sun (the panels wrap around the outer shell of the craft) there’s a constant and reliable force applied to them. In conjunction with the 2 remaining reaction wheels this is enough to aim it, albeit at a different patch of the sky than originally intended. Additionally it won’t be able to keep itself on point consistently like it did previously, needing to reorient itself every 3 months or so which means it will end up studying a different part of the sky.
Whilst this is a massive deviation from its original intended purpose it could potentially breathe a whole new life into the craft, prolonging its life significantly. Considering the numerous discoveries it has already helped us achieve continuing its mission in any way possible is a huge boon to the science community and a testament to NASA’s engineering prowess. We’re still at the initial stages of verifying whether or not this will work as intended but I’m very confident it will, meaning we’ll be enjoying Kepler aided discoveries for a long time to come.
There’s a lot of things in this world that I think I have a sound understanding of that, usually after a Wikipedia binge or YouTube bender, just aren’t inline with reality. These usually aren’t fundamental things (although my recent dive into corporal discipline of children was something of an eye opener) but more and more I find myself astonished at just how wrong my intuition can be. The most recent example is the simple petrol pump and the mechanism that stops the flow when your tank is almost full.
So in my engineer brain I figured that there was some kind of sensor embedded in the end of the nozzle and, upon fuel reaching the outside of the nozzle the pump would be alerted, stopping the flow. Of course I often wondered how they managed to detect fuel on the outside of the nozzle whilst ignoring the inside but I figured that there were people much smarter than me working on that problem and it was a simple matter of engineering. Of course I was right about the latter but I never expected a fully mechanical solution to it, especially one not as elegant as they show in the video.
It really is true what they say about what happens when you assume something 😉
Long time readers will know I’m something of a petrol head. It’s an obsession that grew out of my introduction to all things automotive at a young age when my parents let me ride around our property on our little Honda Z50 which continued on through multiple bikes and cars as I grew older. Since these cars were usually bound for the scrap heap keeping them running wasn’t something I (well my parents, really) had much interest in spending money on so I became intimately acquainted with the inner workings of late model Datsuns. Whilst I don’t bother diving under the hood of my current car very often the interest in the technology that drives them hasn’t faded as demonstrated by my fixation on this video:
The one area I never really wanted to touch was transmissions, mostly because they’re one of the hardest parts of the car to work on and taking them apart is fraught with danger for unqualified hacks like myself. Whilst I knew the basics of how transmission worked I didn’t know the complex dynamics of power transmission through the varying gears. Whilst this video might not be reflective of how current transmissions work (indeed that’s a world’s a worlds away from how an automatic works, to my understanding) the fundamentals are still there in beautiful 1930’s video glory.
What I’d really be interested to see is the gear work behind some of the advanced transmission schemes that power some of the more modern cars like Volkswagen’s Direct-Shift Gearbox (which is essentially 2 gearboxes working in tandem). There’s also the Continuously Variable Transmission which has the peculiar behavior of letting the engine rev itself out whilst it gradually gears up. This can allow a driver to peg the engine at its optimal RPM and keep it there until the desired speed is reached. Although this is typically undesirable as it feels like clutch slippage in a traditional transmission so many CVT based cars have “gears” that are essentially different response profiles. There’s even more exotic things on formula 1 cars but that’s whole other world to me.
We humans aren’t great power sources, despite what The Matrix might have you believe, with our sustained output being roughly equivalent to about one quarter of a horsepower (maybe half if you’re an endurance runner or cyclist). This works pretty well for our natural form of locomotion as we don’t need that much to move ourselves around but it becomes something of an issue when we start using more exotic forms of transportation. Cycling and rowing can be fairly efficient forms of transportation when all you have is human power however once you want to take to the skies things start to get a little hairy as the power required for sustained flight is usually well above what your typical human can provide.
That’s not to say we haven’t tried, far from it. Attempts to create a purely human powered craft go as far back as 1923, a mere 20 years after the first powered, heavier than air flight took place at Kitty Hawk. Most of these experiments could only be considered experimental in nature as the distances they could cover were rarely more than a few meters and most of them required a powered assist in order to take off, thereby invalidating them as being truly human powered. The late 1970s however saw the creation of the Gossamer Condor and Albatross, both fully human powered craft that took the Kremer Prize. However probably the most famous of all the human powered craft comes in the form of the MIT’s Daedalus a human powered craft that flew from the Isle of Crete to Santorini, a distance of 115KMs that was completed in just under 4 hours.
You’d then think that a human powered helicopter wouldn’t be too far behind however the design principles behind a helicopter present a much larger challenge than those of a traditional aeroplane. Instead of pushing the aerofoil via the use of a propeller to generate lift a helicopter instead whips the aerofoil itself through the air. This, traditionally, requires a lot more effort in order to generate the same amount of lift and the tricks used for the current generation of human powered craft (light materials and giant wings) present even greater challenges when those wings need to be under rotational stress. We do have several decades of aeronautical engineering advances since then however and one team has finally managed to create a human powered helicopter, one that can fly for just over a minute:
It’s an incredible device sporting 4 rotors that each have a diameter of 20m, each of which is larger than the individual rotors of the mighty Boeing Chinook. That incredible size is also coupled with a weight that seems almost impossible for a craft of that size, weighing in at a paltry 55kg. One thing to note however is that whilst this does count as a human powered helicopter the height it attained, some 3 meters or so, means that this craft was still operating well within the ground effect which means that it’s effectively working with a much better lift profile than would be expected once it reached a higher altitude. Some would then not classify this as a helicopter and instead call it a ground effect craft, which I’d agree with in some sense, but it’s still a pretty amazing feat of engineering despite the fact that it hasn’t left ground effect yet.
It’s really quite amazing to see how a combination of engineering and human power can create things like this which were the stuff of fantasy not too long ago. Sure it might not have any practical uses right now but the technology they developed will definitely flow down to other lightweight craft, further improving their flight capabilities and characteristics. We might never all have our own pedal powered aircraft but it still remains a valuable engineering challenge, much like the solar car races held here in Australia. I can’t wait to see what they develop next as there’s already been implementations of other exotic aircraft like the human powered ornithopter so others can’t be that far behind.
Of the numerous memorable experiences I had working at the once great Dick Smith Electronics chain (serving a pimp who paid with notes removed from a gold money clip shaped like a dragon being among them) there was one that really stuck with me. I remember a man coming into the store who was looking for spray to freeze components, something which we stocked back then. I’m not sure what started the conversation but I do remember at one point mentioning that you could use it to cool a CPU in a PC if you were so inclined although you wouldn’t have much time to run your benchmarks with just a single can. As it turns out he was an electronics engineer and me, being halfway through a computer engineering degree at the time, instantly hit it off with him.
Among the cooling talk it came up in conversation that I had just recently built myself a water cooled PC rig, mostly for the street cred I’d get from overclocking the bajeezus out of my AMD CPU. He laughed and remarked on how he no longer bothered to do that any more but he did say that back in his day he used to do the same thing. We then got on to talking about product quality and what he said after that, whilst not changing me immediately, stuck with me:
When I’m trying to figure out if a motherboard is good quality I’ll pick it up and look at the engineering went into it. You can tell if components are laid out logically, if there’s high quality components and heaps of stuff just by having a good look at it.
For someone who had fed himself a steady diet of reviews, forum posts and benchmarks to determine the quality of a product the idea of simply looking at something to determine the value seemed kinda strange, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. Over the years that idea grew into something of an obsession and I started to look at all the products I wanted to buy with an engineering eye. From there it’s grown into a passion for well engineered things and should anything cross my path that I can see has had a certain level of engineering prowess put into it I can’t help but feel myself be drawn to it.
The coffee machine pictured above (the Breville BES900 if you’re wondering) is the latest product to tickle my engineering fancy just right. Now I’m sure that sounds a little strange, I mean I’m no coffee geek and traditionally coffee machines are the most technically thrilling pieces of technology, but I was in the market for one and my highly experienced Melbourne friend (I have friends with coffee cred, see) recommended this one. Breville isn’t exactly the name you’d first associate with high tech either so on the surface pretty much everything about this was lining up to be a mundane adventure into the work of kitchen appliances.
I could not have been more wrong.
I can wholeheartedly attribute my current geek lust for this particular appliance to the hands on preview from the people over at CoffeeGeek. Whilst things like the boiler system, temperature controls and all the other bits that go into the coffee making side of it are impressive in its own right there’s a whole bunch of things that just scream good engineering. Overfill the reservoir on the top? No worries it has a drain into the spill tray in the bottom. Got the machine butted up against the wall but want to get to the back? There’s a switch on the bottom that extends wheels out so you can just spin it without having to lift the whole thing up. I really could go on but the guys at CoffeeGeek did a much better job than I could showcasing just how much solid engineering went into it.
And it’s pretty much for that fact only that it’s my current obsession. I don’t drink a whole lot of coffee and up until now my $10 special plunger has sufficed but every time I use it I can’t help but think about the beautiful piece of engineering I could be using instead. Soon one of them will find its way into my home (via those credit card points which are useless for pretty much everything except things like this) and I’ll be able to revel in its well engineered beauty in person. Until then I’ll satiate my inner engineering with specifications and pictures of its various bits and pieces, something which I never seem to get tired of.
You know what gets me excited? Projects like this one that break our usual paradigms, reshaping the way we think about a particular problem space:
Anyone who’s done some industrial design or materials science will tell you that strength is a relative thing. There’s a whole bunch of materials that are “stronger than steel” but that trait usually only applies to a particular trait that the supposed better material excels at. Cardboard, whilst not being able to boast anything strength gains over steel, has the rather awesome advantage of being cheap, light and almost limitlessly available. Constructing durable, reusable products out of it is something that I haven’t really seen done before and a cardboard bike shows that it can be a very capable material when you carefully engineer around its shortcomings.
Honestly when I first heard about this idea I was pretty sceptical. I figured that it was probably some kind of one off (which it is, currently) that wouldn’t work outside some very specific conditions. From the video though it’s quite clear that the bike is quite capable of replacing a regular fix speed bike without too many troubles. The next steps would be to include gears to make it a bit more usable, but for a first prototype of a production design its pretty spectacular.
The kicker of all this is just how cheap such bicycles could be. Whilst I doubt that the $90 price could be hit with all the work being done by hand I could very easily see something that’s being factory produced hitting that target. Gafni’s idea then that the bike would be “too cheap to steal” is an intriguing one as the black market for such an item would be incredibly low. I mean would by one second hand for $30 when the new one could be had for $60? I think not and crack fiends around the world aren’t going to work that hard to sell something like that when a GPS worth an order of magnitude more is just one window away.
Everything about this project is exciting to me. The radical use of materials, the incredible amount of engineering and the wider social impacts that such an invention could have. Should these eventually become available you can be assured that one will make it into my home, just because of the ideals it represents.
I have a lot of respect for fine engineering. It doesn’t matter what field it comes from either as I find there’s an elegance about things that have been so well planned, designed and the implemented. I recently came across this video that show cases the world’s smallest V12 engine, all hand made (apart from the screws). It’s a bit lengthy but I was mesmerized by it, loving the incredible attention to detail and the beauty of something so complex coming together so well.
I think it also plays into my not-so-secret love of steampunk stuff, what with all the elaborate metalwork and interconnecting parts.
It’s the beginning of 2006 and the end is in sight for my university career. It’s been a crazy 3 years up until this point having experienced both the dizzying highs of excelling in a subject and the punishing lows of failing to understand even the basic concepts of some units properly. Still I haven’t failed a single subject (despite some near misses) and really the only thing standing between me and that piece of paper I’ve been chasing is my final year, most of which will be dedicated to working on an engineering project. I had been looking forward to this for a while as I felt it would be a chance to test my meddle as a project manager and hopefully create something valuable in the process.
The year started off well as I found myself in a project team of 4 including 2 long time friends and a new acquaintance who was exceptionally skilled. After brainstorming ideas we eventually settled on creating a media PC with a custom interface based off the open source MythTV project which would handle most of the back end work for us. After getting a space to work in we covered the whiteboard in dozens of innovative ideas ranging from TiVO like recording features to remoteless operation based on tracking a user’s movement. Looking at the list we were convinced that even that list of features wouldn’t be enough to fill a year worth of development effort but thought it was best to settle on these first before trying to make more work for ourselves. With the features in mind I set about creating a schedule and we set about our work.
Initially everything was going great, we were making quite a lot of progress and the project was shaping up to be one of the best of the year. The hardware design and implementation was looking phenomenal, so much so that I made the brash move of saying there was a potential market for a mass produced version of the device. Our lecturers showed a keen interest in it and we even managed to come in second place for a presentation competition amongst all the project students, narrowly losing out to an autonomous robot that could map out and navigate its surroundings. We were definitely onto a winner with this idea.
However my desire to project manage 3 other people started to take its toll on the project. Realistically in a team of 4 everyone needs to pitch in to make sure stuff gets done, there’s really no room for designated roles. I however kept myself at arms length from any solid development work, instead trying to control the process and demanding vast reams of documentation from those doing the work. Additionally I failed to realize that the majority of the coding work was be done by a single team member which meant that only they understood it, making collaboration on it next to impossible. Seeing the beginnings of a sinking ship I called everyone together to try and figure things out, and that’s when things really started to turn sour.
The primary coder expressed their concerns that no one else was doing any work and I, still not realizing that I didn’t need to be a project manager, instructed them to take a week off so the others could get up to speed. This didn’t work as well as I planned as they continued to do all the work themselves, effectively locking anyone else out from being able to contribute to the effort. I did manage to get the star developer to collaborate with the others but by this point it was already too late as they’d usually have to rewrite any code that wasn’t their own.
In order to save some face in this whole project I elected to do the project report entirely on my own, realistically a task that needed to be done by all of us (just like the project). I spent countless hours cobbling everything together, piecing random bits of documentation and notes together into something resembling a professional report. It wasn’t amazing but it was enough to get the approval of everyone else in the team and our project co-ordinator so a week before the final demonstration I handed it in, wanting to be done with this project once and for all.
The final demonstration was no picnic either with everyone in the team (bar me) staying at university until midnight before the presentation. We managed to demonstrate a much cut down version of our initial vision to the class with only a few minor hiccups and the 2 honors side projects went along quite well. Afterwards we hurriedly bundled the project away into one of the members car (he provided all the hardware on the proviso he got to keep it) happy to be done with it once and for all.
For 2 years afterwards I struggled to figure out why the project that started off so well tanked so badly. It wasn’t until I was officially employed as a project manager that I figured out that the most toxic element in the whole ordeal was me, the power hungry idiot who contributed the least whilst ensuring that anyone trying to get things done was hampered by my interference. I failed to get everyone to collaborate effectively and hamstrung them with rediculous requirements for documentation. In essence I was acting like a project manager on a big project when really I was anything but. The end result was a far cry from what it could have been and one member of that project team still refuses to speak to me, and I don’t blame them for doing so.
I suppose the best thing that came out of this is that I finally realized my weaknesses and actively worked to overcome them. Sure it might have been too late for the university project that was but I’m glad to say I didn’t inflict any such torment on a project whilst I was being paid to do it, instead taking on board those lessons learned to make sure those projects were delivered as required. I still hold out hope that one day I’ll look back on those days with my former project members and laugh but those project management war wounds will stick with me forever, reminding me that I’m not as infallible as I once thought I was.
Us engineers usually like to work in controlled circumstances, taking our time to analyze the problem and develop a good idea about how the solution will look before diving in head first. Sometimes however we’re chucked in the deep end and we need to come up with a solution on our feet with the resources that are available immediately, leading to a term I like to refer to as field or ad-hoc engineering. I can’t tell you the number of times I would be working on my beloved first car trying to install some widget only to find the exact part I needed would be a good 30 minutes drive away. This probably explains why it has mostly fallen apart 5 years later, after all my various hacks disintegrated.
There’s also another side to ad-hoc engineering and that’s finding a novel solution from something that wouldn’t normally server its purpose. It was the following article that brought this all to mind:
During the holiday season, many people place toy trains on circular tracks beneath their Christmas trees.
This month, at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, physicists and engineers built tracks inside one of its fusion reactors and ran a toy train on them for three days.
It was not an exercise in silliness, but in calibration.
The modified model of a diesel train engine was carrying a small chunk of californium-252, a radioactive element that spews neutrons as it falls apart.
It’s really an ingenious solution to improving their calibration techniques, even if at first glance it seems rather silly. If you take a look at any major engineering project I’m sure you could find many more examples just like this, although I bet more than a few of them involve copious amounts of duct tape.
My university studies were filled with examples like this, especially the final year which saw me and 3 other students work on what was essentially a media PC running MythTV with a custom intuitive interface. The case itself was salvaged from an old instrumentation rack, the controller board for the front panel was actually an old keyboard that had been torn apart to fit the bezel and all of the PC parts were from one of the project member’s old PCs. I’d love to say that the whole thing was held together with hope, strings and bailing wire but it did turn out pretty well with us coming second in a university competetion. I’d have to credit the other members of the team with the success though as I had relegated myself to being the project manager (which in hindsight was a terrible idea, we should’ve done that stuff collaboratively).
Strangely its this kind of engineering I find most satisfying. I’ve wasted many hours scrounging through my garage for that one thing that will mostly do the job whilst I sort out a better solution. It’s also the reason why I find it hard to throw anything out as I know that the second I do some strange use will pop into my head and I’ll curse myself for throwing it out. There’s a good reason why we have a 3 car garage at our house with not a single car parked in it. 😉