As a first year grad student I was required to take a few shop classes to get my key to the department's shop - something necessary for any experimentalist. People of my vintage were used to building projects - everyone was good at soldering as we were weaned on Heathkit projects and we mostly knew basic woodworking and drafting from home and shop classes, but I had never done any machining so I took a metal working class. It was basic - learn how to use a lathe and milling machine.
Of course it came in handy and I had to weld too (fortunately I learned how in high school), but it wasn't until after I cleared the preliminary exam before I worked on a project for fun.
The inspiration came from old Popular Science magazines in the library. There were a few engines of various types and I decided it would be neat to make a solar powered Stirling engine using a parabolic mirror's focus to provide the necessary heat. I poured over some existing designs and came up with a simple two cylinder design, bought the steel, aluminum and brass stock I'd need and some neat ball bearings from the SKF company. I ruined one of the pistons, but everything else came together and I had something that generated about 30 watts at 1,500 rpm using a blowtorch flame. I never got around to finding a nice parabolic mirror to turn it into a solar powered engine, but learned a lot in the process. It wasn't elegant or beautiful, but it worked.
About a month ago I found myself part of a group charged with trying to understand mass customization (extreme personalization and whatever you want to call it) a bit better. There is the notion that 3d printing will become a major force changing the world in the near future. I don't agree - at least not in the next decade, but there is so much more to mass customization and extreme personalization than 3d printing.1
The successful companies to date, other than those specializing in prototype support, are those that offer multiple choice of already designed products - think of it as an extensive options list. Manufacture is still conventional, but the process may have to be radically different.
In theory one of the largest opportunities in this area is machine assisted bespoke. Jheri and I have worried about this and have discussed it as it relates to clothing and I've mentioned bicycles. The clothing piece is more interesting as it has seen much more attention and some automation - the largest benefit is probably getting away from sizing, but also to give a bit more freedom in fashion.
Jheri has been giving me a better sense of what fashion means as a personal expression of taste and even artistic sense. She notes that women her age in the US are generally lacking in creativity compared to many of the major European cities and also notes the Americans tend to spend more money and buy many more pieces of clothing. But the clothing is poorly made out of inferior materials, mostly in Southeast Asia under conditions approximating slavery. This exists in Europe too, but apparently a middle ground of clothing that vanished from the American market still exists. Workmanship, materials and fit are still important and the idea is to get pieces that will last and can be modified from year to year.
Jheri added something very interesting. Young American women are no longer being taught how to sew whereas most of their European counterparts - particularly in France, Italy and Northern Europe - are. A bit of checking around shows the boys are also receiving shop training. The continent has a larger percentage of young people who know how to build things. This doesn't mean they will, although it happened on a large scale in Iceland a few years ago when their economy crumbled, but when you build things you get a better sense of what design is. You won't become a master, but you'll appreciate it more. This may translate into a different appetite for well designed objects - watches, clothing, furniture, cars, bicycles or whatever and, more interestingly, it may translate into different tool needs for personal involvement in mass customization.
The Do It Yourself movement is alive and well in the US, but is notable as it is such an enormous contrast with the rest of the country. This type of activity is more common in many of the European countries where hobbies and crafting take up a larger percentage of time that is devoted to passive entertainment in the US. Jheri follows street fashion and notes a few world class hotspots in America, but generally it is more interesting in European cities.2
The basics for beginning to appreciate fabrication and design were once taught in the school system. A few people are doing it themselves, but is this something we should try and bring back? What does it say about education?
The notion I'd like to have you think about is the power of free time and boredom and its relation to home fabrication and design. Over the years I've become convinced that intense periods of single tasking followed by periods where you aren't doing much in particular and may even be a bit bored, are very important to creativity. The interesting thoughts usually strike me out of the blue during those quiet periods, but they are rare or absent if I haven't been pushing myself. I've noticed that tasks associated with building things and trying to sort through that intensely connect the dots world of design and fabrication can leave me completely puzzled where I just have to quit and think of other things - or just sit around being very bored with my lack of progress. For whatever reason those have proven to be very rich moments.
If you are looking for something for your kids or yourself that is probably totally different and may expand your horizon and possibly provide new insight into your normal work I recommend learning a bit about building things and design. But this usually needs to be hands on and it is going to be much easier and more fun if you can find local people to learn from and with.3
1 It would take many pages to go into this, but basically there are some major roadblocks. 3d printing makes enormous sense for very low volume fabrication - prototypes, certain types of hobbyist kit, some medical apparatus and the like and it is revolutionizing those worlds. The idea of having the spare parts for your washing machine or a new household device appear from your home or even community printer is off in the future. If you are willing to compromise on material choice, fit and finish and price, you can do it - but those are major concessions. On the other hand 2d printing is approximately here now. Ping me for details if you want a discussion.
If you have the time and patience I do recommend playing with it. You can even design objects and have them printed by someone else so you don't have to pay a few thousand bucks for an "ok" printer. They've made great leaps since the early days - I first used one at Bell Labs in 1993 and most recently a few months ago. An amazing difference, but we're still in the early days for home use - certainly not at the IBM PC or Macintosh level and not even at the Apple II or TRS-80 level. But great fun for learning.
2 She puts it a bit more starkly than I stated - "American women mostly dress only as they are told by advertising. The streets are so predictable and boring with all of those poorly made outfits marching around with each similarly dressed wearer proclaiming 'I am an individual' There is so little personal art involved."
I add that there is a lot of crafting in the US, but it is reduced from what it was mostly because it is done as a hobby rather than for making things we really need. Now we just buy cheap imports.
3 Our school system used to offer inexpenise shop classes, but those vanished with the shop program. The community college still offers them. Some cities have clubs that share a well equiped workshop for a low fee - here is a neat one in Cambridge in the UK and you can find them in regions where people build things - Brooklyn, the East Bay, Silicon Valley, Cambridge, Mass, and so on.... Check out the local university- some of them do this sort of thing. If you are into clothing there are any number of sewing, weaving and other forms of 2d fabrication with people who have deep expertise. It often helps to live in an urban area, but see if you can find a good match.
Tree nuts are good for you in moderation. As a vegetarian I'm supposed to have 30 to 50 grams a day of almonds, cashews, pecans or walnuts. All great things in my book. Here's a neat little salad for pecans
Apple-Pecan Broccoli Salad
° 6 ounces brocoli slaw or one cup shredded broccoli stems, one cup shredded carrots, and one cup shredded red cabbage (I cheated and used a 6 ounce commerical bag which was on sale for $2)
° one tart apple cut into matchsticks
° a handfull or so of pecan halves
° 2 tbl plain Greek yogurt (I used 2% Fage)
° 2 tsp mauonnaise
° 1 tbl honey
° 1/2 tsp sweet curry powder
° 1/2 tsp fresh black pepper
° 1 tsp rice vinegar
° toast the pecans over medium heat in a dry frying pan until you can smell them. Don't brown them!!
° In a mixing bowl whisk the dressing ingredients. Add the salad ingredients except for the pecans and toss