More than almost anything else in my professional life, I enjoy the idea - the illusion, usually - that I’m doing a good job at a wide variety of things. It’s an elusive feeling, compounded by the need to continuously discover new and weird skills in order to maintain it. Each old skill then slowly atrophies, leaving me with only the vague sense that I’ve grown wiser from having learned and then forgotten something.
In college, I decided that the most human trait - the one which ultimately makes us both beautiful and tragic - was our ability to sincerely believe in logical inconsistencies. And one of my own logical inconsistencies arises from my deep skepticism about companies which pursue multiple business models. It’s difficult to succeed at just one thing, and the desire to succeed at multiple things strikes me as deeply naïve. And yet I’ve chased a decidedly generalist career, and often find myself justifying a calendar that mixes knowledge work with rote mechanical tasks - as if the two will add up to some kind of micro-corporate synergy.
This newsletter has, over the past seven and a half years, become a lot more than Spencer’s thoughts about manufacturing and stuff. That is undoubtedly a good thing, and it’s also one that opens me up to all sorts of questions about my intentions, and my abilities, and the strategies I’ve chosen to match the two. If you’ve got questions along these lines, I’d love to hear them.
The most clicked link from last week's issue (~10% of opens) was a photo tour of the Hagoromo chalk production line.
Two events that I'm looking forward to this week: Women In Hardware's chat with Zoox CEO Aicha Evans (all genders welcome), and the NYC Manufacturing And Industrial Innovation Council's roundtable discussion on developing diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives.
Planning & Strategy.
- Dan Wang on the Sinica podcast, talking about the strength of Chinese industrial policy and the many other (mostly China-related) topics in his insightful and exhaustive 2020 recap letter. Emphasis mine: “This year made me believe that China is the country with the most can-do spirit in the world...One [Chinese] manufacturer expressed astonishment to me at how slowly western counterparts moved. US companies had to ask whether making masks aligned with the company’s core competence. Chinese companies simply decided that making money is their core competence, and therefore they should be making masks.”
- A good overview of ways in which mechanical engineers can pursue careers fighting climate change. "While it is definitely okay to transition to climate-related positions later in your career, keep in mind that the IPCC gave us a deadline in 2018: only ten years to nearly halve global carbon emissions to stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming from preindustrial levels."
- A Twitter thread bio of Morris Chang, the founder of TSMC. See also this good overview feature on TSMC, and Ben Thompson’s recent post on how they've beaten Intel.
Making & Manufacturing.
- I finished building the Paulk/MFT-style woodworking workbench I started in the fall, and it’s awesome.
- Two interesting metal 3D printing startups emerged from stealth last week, both of which I’ve been tracking since 2016. I list them here in order of when I first became aware of them:
- Seurat, which uses a laser diode array (instead of a scanning fiber laser) and an optically-addressed light valve (as a photo mask) to print entire layers of metal powder in a single shot. Seurat’s technology compares to standard laser powder bed fusion roughly as DLP compares to standard SLA - or as an Asteroids-style vector display compares to a modern (rasterizing) LCD screen.
- Mantle, which prints a metal/polymer paste before machining it in the printer and sintering the part in a furnace. They're targeting the tool and die market, with excellent surface finish and tolerances around +/- .02 mm.
- A *totally* beautiful video of Japanese kumiko crafts, in which tiny slits of wood are cut, grooved, mortised, and intricately assembled to form art objects, dividers, and sliding doors. Both the workshop and the kumiko themselves have a strong monochrome vibe, making every subtle detail really pop.
- An archival video of the Goodyear Inflatoplane, an experimental airplane that was developed in the 1950s. Its wings and fuselage were constructed of drop stitch fabric, which is stiff when inflated but can be rolled up like a pool toy when deflated. To paraphrase from Wikipedia: “A pilot would then hand-start the two-stroke cycle, 30 kW Nelson engine, and take off with a maximum load of 110 kg. On 76 L of fuel, the aircraft could fly 630 km, with an endurance of 6.5 hours. Maximum speed was 116 km/h, with a cruise speed of 95 km/h.”
Maintenance, Repair & Operations.
- A pretty rad little automatic (and manual) safety razor blade sharpener.
- In 1998, the town of Boucherville, Quebec was snowed in without power. So local officials derailed a locomotive 😬 and pushed it around surface streets with construction equipment 🤯 so that it could be hooked up to the local municipal grid 😵 to supply power for basic services. “To use a locomotive as an emergency generator, you have to run the engine at the correct speed to generate AC at commercial frequency (60 hertz or cycles per second in North America). With an EMD GP38-2, for example, instead of running the engine at ‘notch 8’ ‘locomotive speed’, the engine would be operated at 720 RPM which would produce 60 hertz AC directly from the traction alternator.”
Distribution & Logistics.
- A map of the USPS’ Retail and Delivery Operations Areas, taken from page 20 of the FY2020 USPS Annual Report. The boundaries here are fascinating, and the names of regions are like some unhinged free-association game - I love it.
- A project (Cryptonym) to crowdsource Whole Foods’ delivery dictionary. “At what point did Amazon/Whole Foods realize that a random number or personal name was slower than some simple one word signifier? And how many times are the words reused? Does every store use the same dictionary, or are there customized dictionaries based on local needs: language, velocity of sales, etc?”
Inspection, Testing & Analysis.
- A tool that I was not aware of: Crack monitors, which consist of a couple simple plastic parts and, when stuck to a building’s foundation (or whatever) show movement over time quickly and intuitively.
- In a response to the NHTSA in January, Tesla “respectfully disagrees that the eMMC wear-out condition [in which the Media Control Units in Model S and X fail, disabling the rear view camera, defrost/defog controls, and turn signs] constitutes a defect.” Instead, Tesla claims that the eMMC’s 4-6 year lifespan was actually a conscious decision on their part. They go on to say that they have "significant concerns" with NHTSA's assertion that components should last "at least the useful life of the vehicle." There are a few subpoints here:
- Tesla says it's bad to force auto makers to make their vehicles out of components that will probably last as long as the vehicle itself
- Tesla implies that the life of the Model S and X should be 10-12 years - a number that’s roughly in line with the average internal combustion vehicle ...but of course, Musk has said that the Model 3 (which is not subject to the current eMMC recall, but still) is designed to last *a million miles,* which at the US average of 13,500 miles per year would mean a 74 year lifespan.
Now, one might argue that Tesla sees their cars as more modular, with certain components wearing out and being replaced much like you’d replace your home appliances every few years - a fine idea, but one that I find indefensible in the context of Tesla’s negative stance on right-to-repair legislation.
- A reminder that sigmoidal curves look a lot like exponential curves - until they flatten out completely.
- A fun and silly TikTok of a sandwich being made via power tools.
- Interpretive dance of hydraulic press videos.
- Regolith is “a blanket of unconsolidated, loose, heterogeneous superficial deposits covering solid rock,” e.g. the material covering the surface of the moon and other planets.
- Lego made a Spotify white noise playlist that’s just bricks being moved around and snapped together.