Thursday, December 23, 2010

Democratic Manufacturing

There is a movement underway, and I am determined to get involved. Before you hear more, are there any takers to get in on 'democratic manufacturing' as it has been termed? No, this has nothing to do with political parties, but rather it has to do with who controls manufacturing processes and how people turn ideas into products.

The system in America over the last several hundred years has focused manufacturing in the large corporations, where skilled machinists operate large expensive machines to produce vast quantities of goods. This drives efficiency as workers are able to specialize, and economies of scale drive down the cost of each product. Right now, there is a push in exactly the opposite direction, so that individuals operate small low-cost machines to produce small quantities of goods. This is much more akin to the system used to make wooden clocks in rural Germany, where each person from the village would make components in their own home, and someone would put them together into the finished product. This modern day manufacturing movement goes much further, as each individual is able to design their own products and start making them on their own, right away.

You may ask, how is this possible? And won't quality suffer as a result of so many unskilled people trying to build things? Well, the answer has come from a variety of open source movements that rely on computer controlled machines. The RepRap initiative by Adrian Bowyer ( has created a self-replicating (or nearly so) 3D printer that costs well under $1000. It is in its third generation, and is looking very neat, although not quite ready for just anyone to use. Right alongside this is the Makerbot team ( who has created a standalone 3D printer for about $700 which is much easier to put together out of the box and get running right away. They've sold several thousand printers, and are having wonderful success to date. Both of these machines allow you to enter a CAD model into the computer, and it will print it out by melting a plastic and pushing it through a small hole to lay thin strips side by side until a full 3D model has been created. This is a great way to quickly build models of concepts without any setup costs, so changes can be made on the fly and the design process will be shortened as a result.

Another service that has taken off recently is Pokono ( This connects the independent designers with manufacturers all around the world to build parts for them. People without prototyping capabilities can have prototypes made within a week, and at a very reasonable cost. Additionally, these manufacturers are usually more sophisticated than the DIY'er at home, so they have larger more capable equipment that can do high volume runs for parts that are ready to go commercial. Pokono simply serves as the middleman, facilitating these connections between designers and builders. Once again, the individuals are empowered to work more quickly and effectively due to the greater access to manufacturing services.

I see a void here for advanced at home manufacturing, essentially the step between the makerbot and sending parts out to Pokono. This is the void I'm looking to fill. I'm pretty confident on the mechanical side, designing and building the physical units, but I'm at a distinct disadvantage on the controls side, where I have little experience. With enough time I'm sure I could wade through it and work something out, but I'm sure there are people who understand these things much better than I could, and can come up with truly elegant solutions. Over the next month I'll be refining this concept and developing the first round of designs. By the time next semester starts my goal is to have the mechanical aspects worked out for this advanced manufacturing setup, and then from there I'll start looking at the integration of controls to bring it all to life.

I'm looking forward to a very enjoyable month ahead.

On Grades

Today seems to have been a major day for people and their grades. Admittedly, grades were posted just a few hours ago, so they are fresh in everyone's mind. Somehow though, I feel as if the intense focus on grades at this point is almost foolish. Your grade in a class should represent the level of mastery you have attained in a class over the course of the last semester. In theory this means that by the end of the semester you should know exactly how well you have done and what grade to expect. If anything, today should be rather boring, as your final grades only serve to reinforce what you already came to know over the last three months.

Nonetheless, there is great anxiety and grief over grades, and from my experience, this has three root causes. First, grades aren't directly tied to your mastery of the subject matter, and students don't know how to accurately assess their skill level in a course, and there are inconsistent grading policies between different professors.

Some courses may fall into the stereotypical "Easy A", whereas others may fall closer to one of my favorite professor quotes "A's are reserved for those students ready to teach this course". Without a common measuring stick, students may not always know how to correlate a certain level of understanding with a certain grade. Add to that the question of how well you know the material, and there is bound to be confusion (and anxiety). Clearly, if I can recall everything from the course perfectly, that should be worth an A, but where do the breaks occur? Does knowledge of 90% of the material lead to a 90% in the class? What if I know 80% really well, and 20% only marginally well. And what if I'm just really good at guessing on multiple choice?

The interesting part about undergraduate education is that some portion of your grade is likely based on homework, projects and quizzes. These gauge your knowledge at key points throughout the course, and factor in to your final grade. Therefore, you not only need to know things well at the end of the semester, but also need to be consistently building this knowledge every week. This is in contrast to the system used in many European colleges where your grade is entirely dependent on one final examination, and maybe one mid-semester exam. There is a trade-off, as this puts more pressure on students to perform on these one or two occasions, but it is a more accurate snapshot of the learning outcome from the course. In many classes I have taken, it is possible to use the homework and projects to squeak out a passable grade despite poor exams. I see this as a detriment to overall learning, as it allows students to pass a course without demonstrating the fundamental knowledge they should have achieved. Perhaps the cost of a lower pressure grading system is that it provides opportunities for poor students to slip through.

I do find it somewhat amusing that I have changed significantly on the topic of grades. I used to be concerned over every point and worked my hardest to ensure that I got an A in every class. At some point in college I realized that the grade isn't what I should be striving for, and I should instead be concerned about how well I know the material. For example, this semester I came away with a great understanding of statistics, and the various applications of statistics to engineering problems. I don't mind the fact that I didn't receive an A in the course, because I came away with a great understanding of the material, and that's what actually matters, not the letter grade attached to that understanding. Students  have to juggle priorities, and it can be a tough choice between finishing the homework for one class or doing a better job on the project for another. That's why I've come to focus more on overall comprehension rather than grades, because the grades definitely don't tell the whole story, for better or for worse.

So with that last though, I'd just like to remind everyone that the grades shouldn't be so much of a concern as your overall education and knowledge. Lets focus on the the things that matter most, save ourselves a little grief and anxiety, and everything else (like grades, a job, etc) will follow from there.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Priorities are always a strange thing. Take this blog for example. I have a pair of finals to study for, so with that in mind I took the time to get this blog set up. In much the same way, I've historically made exceptional progress on side projects in the few days leading up to big due dates or exams. By no means do I neglect my work, but rather I find new things to pile on at times when conventional wisdom would say to consolidate and focus my energy. I think a lot of this is psychological, although I don't have any concrete evidence to support that. As I come close to finishing things, I believe there is a part of me that starts looking ahead for the next big challenge, and sometimes I'll jump the gun and dive into the new things a few days earlier than would be prudent. It probably stems from a desire to always have something fun and exciting to do, so once I'm reaching an end of one thing, I'll start searching out the next idea. Top ideas going forward?

1. Dive back in on my RepRap and get the extruder up and running again
2. Build a dremel powered lathe
3. Build a dremel powered mill (maybe just add dremel attachment to RepRap)
4. Gather a bunch of spare parts for a set of weekend tinkering days next semester
5. Trust me, there will be plenty more

That should be a good list of the things I'll be playing with over break. Photos may go up here, or I may host those on my Google sites account, so we'll just have to see. Now, in all seriousness, I do need to get back to studying. Once 4:30 comes around tomorrow, then I'll be free to tackle these new projects


Tuesday, December 14, 2010


After deriding this idea for quite some time, I've finally warmed to it, and I decided to give it a go. I'm intrigued by the concept of taking to time to formally put my thoughts down on paper (well, close enough), and I'm convinced that this will help me develop myself as both a thinker and as a writer. Sadly, this is something I've let go in the last three years and the only significant writing I do is focused on three main tasks:

1. Lab Reports - full of technical analysis of the results during some set of tests. I probably won't get into that much on here. No promises though, old habits are hard to break.
2. Scholarship Apps - full of self promotion and talking about my past achievements / future aspirations. No plans for self promotion, but I figure aspirations may crop up now and again.
3. EWB Funding Requests - promoting the work our organization is doing and asking people to support us based on past achievements / future aspirations. I'll talk about EWB, but not in the same style these have required

No where in there have I spent any time doing any writing that wasn't required of me. No where in there have I spent time developing myself as a critical thinker about some of the less technical and more pervasive issues in society today. I find these greatly intriguing, and I try to stay abreast of the news as best I can. I often come across interesting pieces, and I find it highly likely that I'll spend time discussing and critiquing what is presented in those articles. Just two days ago I was at a Christmas party and met a gentleman who pressed me for my views on China. I no doubt have my own views, but I had some difficultly finding the right words to express them on the spot and provide rational arguments in support of my opinions. I hope that through this medium I will be able to more clearly develop these ideas and views so that I will be more adequately prepared for future discussions.

This is not to say that I dislike extemporaneous discussions and arguments, and I frequently enjoy talking politics with Tim when we both have time. Rather, I would like to spend a little more time formulating those small pieces into full concepts so that I have a more solid base to work from in future discussions. For example, earlier today I was talking about the recent health care law ruling, and I was forced to quickly analyze the validity of an argument comparing health insurance with auto insurance. There are interesting parallels there, but also critical points where the two diverge, highlighting issues I may not have considered.

In any case, I hope that this turns out to be a useful media for me to develop my thoughts, and for any that happen to stop through, I hope it provides you with meaningful insight as well.

- Brian