From atoms to bytes and back again

Last night I went to a belated Winter Solstice party.  It’s a yearly thing with a fun mix of people and a very particular gift-giving tradition.  You are required (or, at least, highly encouraged) to bring something from your life as a gift.  It’s not exactly “white elephant,” but something more symbolic.  What you bring stands for something you’d like to remove from your life.  All of the gifts go out openly on a table at the party, then later there’s a sort of gift swap.  Someone picks something they’d like and explains a bit about why.  The person that brought that item then explains why they no longer want it and gets to pick something.  And so on, and so on, until you run out of gifts, people, or attention.

I ended up bringing a Big Box o’ Legos.  I have carried those things around for at least 10 years, across several moves.  I used to love Lego — in fact, still do — but there is only so much time in life for creative building.  These days, my building is mostly virtual.  I build with bits and bytes — writing code, writing words, manipulating photos, and the like.  The Legos are great to have out at informal parties and are great for having kids over, but they’ve been in the attic for so long that I’d nearly forgotten them.  And we don’t really have kids over these days.  The last few times I have felt like building something with my hands, it has either been electronic, carpentry (working on the house), automotive (repair), or paper engineering.  Lego just hasn’t been my construction material of choice.

I try not to make New Year’s resolutions.  They are too easy to break and only occur once a year.  I like to aim for continuous, incremental improvements of myself instead of big, infrequent steps.  I have been increasingly interested in mechanical engineering the past few years.  At my past couple of jobs, the software and hardware engineering can get difficult at times, but is usually easy to follow in retrospect.  The mechanical engineering has always been shrouded in mystery.  You tell someone what you want, they go off somewhere and build a prototype out of plastic or sheet metal, then return.  You go through a few rounds of this to get the details of the design hammered out.  Coding and (digital) hardware design feels very, well, digital.  It works.  Or it doesn’t.  Mechanical design feels very analog.  Your design has to have certain tolerances worked into it.  The materials are maleable enough to introduce a certain amount of error.  The tools for working with the materials are not always exact.  There is always a certain amount of wiggle room.  There are ALWAYS several rounds of trial and error. This just seems bizarre to my deterministic “write an equation or algorithm and you’re 90% of the way there” computer brain.

But I’m starting to get off on a tangent.  Ever since seeing the MakerBot at DorkBotPDX in mid 2009, it has sparked off a little bit of an idea.  Regular, if a little nerdy, people are using free software and coming up with free hardware designs, to bring mechanical engineering to the common man.  Anyone can use a free 3D program like Blender to design 3D objects.  And anyone can upload those files to a website, type in a credit card number, and get that object “printed” in plastic or metal, then mailed back to them in a week.  Or for cheaper than a laser printer (back in the day when such things were new) you can get a 3D printer and do it all yourself.  There is still a long ways to go to reach “The Diamond Age,” but it is an incremental step closer.  My next bit of learning and self-improvement is to discover more about this wild and wacky world of 3D design: to design, to build, to make mistakes along the way.

And so my Legos went out the door to make room for different creative endeavors.  Designing objects in bits and bytes, prototyping them in atoms, and definitely making a few mistakes along the way.  Heck, if I find I need more Legos in the future, I may just be able to design the ones I need and then print out the exact quantity needed.

(In trade for those Legos, I picked up a beautiful coffee-table book about the artwork of Mirrormask — a great movie with stunning visuals, which I hope will serve as a creative source of design flourishes instead of me being 100% pragmatic and practical about virtual building.)

Posted in: Dear Diary Gadgets MakerBot

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Brian Enigma

Brian Enigma is a Portlander, manipulator of atoms & bits, minor-league blogger, and all-around great guy. He typically writes about the interesting “maker” projects he's working on, but sometimes veers off into puzzles, software, games, local news, and current events.

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