Monday, July 16, 2012

Some possibly contentious thoughts on copyright law.

After reading a Forbes article about Megaupload and copyright law, I had some thoughts that have to do with copyright. I think they are relevant to the 'open hardware/software' movement. Keep in mind that these thoughts are mine alone and are not the statements of Open Source Ecology.

To me there are two kinds of things that can be created. The first is kind of thing can be reproduced for approximately zero cost (like music and text). The second type requires human or material cost of meaningful quantity to reproduce (like clothes and books). These two types I'll call Type Zero and Type One respectively. I can't think of anything that have used to be Type Zero and is now Type One. Can you think of anything? However, many things were Type One and are now Type Zero-- thanks Technology! The written word, engineering drawings, images, music and video are all examples.

Many businesses are based on using Type Zero things (such as engineering designs) to produce Type One things (such as cars). Copyright protects Type Zero things-- it makes something that is free to reproduce have a cost. Such protections have been historically needed in order to encourage invention.

Copyright has gone out of control in many ways. Plenty of people live without producing anything of Type One. These people depend on income associated with something they made of Type Zero. Think of a musician who is living off of royalties. It seems unnatural that a person can have one idea which guarantees their material wealth indefinitely.

Our economy has a lot of features which funnel money from the people that create Type One information (think factory workers and cooks) to those that create Type Zero information (think CEOs and Programmers). I find this ironic as Type Zero information is freely copy-able. Shouldn't it be in extreme supply?

Instead, Type Zero information is heavily protected, horded, and traded. The makers of Type Zero information are highly prized and rewarded while those that do Type One work are frequently devalued and left out in the cold.

An Open Economy can help to reduce this imbalance. By giving away Type Zero at all levels, competitive waste is reduced. Type One workers will have access to the designs for better tools and processes. They will be more productive as a result. The resulting market will produce only as much Type Zero information as needed instead of hundreds of variants all intended to circumvent rules about copying. Workers will be able to produce more Type One product for less effort. Prices will fall and work days will shorten.

We already know that a large segment of the population like to do Type Zero work. These are the Open Source programmers, hobbyist musicians, and filmmakers, and makers of all sorts. These people are working towards a world where they can produce less Type One product, live well, and truly explore their Type Zero aspirations. I am one of them and I hope we succeed.

[I'm not certain of my conclusions, or of the future. However, I'm excited to see the results of the transformation that is currently underway.]

Thursday, July 5, 2012

What is OSE doing in New York City?

What a whirlwind trip. This Friday I drove to NYC with my awesome family and stayed with Andrew and Chrissy (who also rock!). I helped represent OSE at For Humankind. It was awesome! I got to meet Aaron who will be living at Factor e Farm soon.

The event was a sort of exposition of human centered technologies. There were people turning soccer balls into little self charging batteries, others could turn any surface into a touch screen, yet others were working on turning algae into a high production bio fuel.

And of course, there was OSE. And my PowerCube! I got to show it off to others and explain the challenges of building it. I got to explain how the work of OSE made them inherently more valuable because it allows them to start a business that was previously out of their reach. I got to learn about their interest and goals. It was incredible how many intelligent, curious and engaged people came by to see what we were about.

I'm also happy to report that this kicked off some collaboration between Graham and myself. Graham will be building MicroTrac at FeF and we've been discussing goals and some design aspects. I'm excited to see what we come up with.

I've been invited to FeF, but given my current circumstances, I'm doubtful it would be practical (despite my real desire to make it happen). So for now, I'll work on getting my life in Detroit up and running. Then I'll finish my PowerCube and see what is next.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Meeting OSE in person in New York City?

I've recently been in touch with Aaron of OSE. He has invited me to visit NYC to show off progress on my PowerCube 4. I'm hoping to make it work. I've got a query out to some friends-- I'm hoping they can host me.

Here is the most recent photos of the Power Cube with captions.

Top View of Power Cube

Notice the minimal clearance between the tank and the engine here.

Gas Line connecting tank to Engine.

Gas Tank was a gift. Cheap, but effective. I will mount it more permanently when time permits.

Fitting for Engine Electrical

The Engine in profile

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

OSE is Growing!

There's been a lot of exciting stuff coming from OSE. They've really begun to scale and it's great to see the Iron Worker and CnC torch table running. Here is a video they produced showing off some of their progress:

As for me, I'm in the process of learning a new job and buying a house. That's got me pretty tied up. I'm hoping to get back into production before my new baby comes along. I still hope to finish the Power Cube before Christmas.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Details and Diagrams of MicroFork

As far as I can tell there are only a few major modules to MiroFork. Here they are:

  • Drive Module - Applies force to the ground so MicroFork can move.
  • Tool Fixture - securely attaches a tool to MicroFork and moves that tool relative to MicroFork.
  • Power Module - Feeds other components with energy. This is a PowerCube.
  • Control Module - Allows the behavior of other components to be controlled by the driver.
  • Tool Module - One of many possible machines that attach to MicroFork (eg, snowplow, tiller, etc.)
  • Passenger Module (optional) - Allows the Driver to ride on MicroFork.
In the spirit of hypermodularity, each of these modules should define interfaces such that they can easily be swapped out. This modularity is somewhat expensive. It requires additional materials and manufacturing as compared to an integrated tool. For long lived, versatile tools it's worth it.

Here are my vague ideas on these components and interfaces. I've already posted a little on the drive unit. I now consider those thoughts largely irrelevant. The drive unit can be implemented in lots of ways depending on the requirements. I'm reluctant to make MicroFork a skid steer because I want it to be useful on a suburban lawn (so no skid marks). I'm leaning toward a lawn tractor type design-- 4 wheels, two steerable, two powered by a differential transmission which is in turn powered by a hydraulic motor. This is complex, but would be manageable with salvaged parts. This isn't a good long term OSE solution but would work for me personally in the short run.

The Tool Fixture is the core of MicroFork. All other components attach to it. I'm like my forklift style manipulator because I imagine it to be simple to build and sufficiently flexible for MicroFork type work.

Time for the pictures! To the left is a the forklift based tool fixture. The green plate would support multiple attachment schemes. The two important ones are Bobcat quick disconnect, and 3 point hitch (like the one on my Dad's John Deer tractor-- probably class 2). A big feature of this design is ease of dis-assembly. The pins holding together the pivots can be removed to collapse the whole thing. Having multiple brown members of different lengths, allows the angle of the green plate relative to the ground to be changed. 

Next is the interface design between the Drive Module and the Tool Fixture. This is a simple 'drop and pin' arrangement. It doesn't allow for any movement, but is very general and should be (I'm guessing here) very strong. So long as the fixture and the drive module have correctly spaced joiners, it won't matter how they do their job (tracks, or skid, or articulated steering).

I still don't know how the other modules fit in. There may be problems with balance, strength, and alignment. I don't even know how a real forklift operates (I'm hoping to take a long look at one sometime soon.)

Ideally, if the interfaces were well defined/designed the different components of MicroFork could be implemented in parallel-- good job team WikiSpeed.

I was contacted by Graham who will be making a MicroFork this summer. I'm hoping to be able to help with the design if not the construction.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Alternative MicroTrac Design-- MicroFork

I've spent the last week between jobs and it has done wonders for my creativity-- I've got a lot more brain energy to devote to my flights of fancy. As such, I've got what I consider to be some major improvements to my MicroTrac design. I'm calling my proposal MicroFork. My next couple posts will be about it.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to put arms onto MicroTrac so that it could lift an earth pulverizer up to the height of a CEB Press hopper. I've recently realized that this probably isn't a great requirement. First off, it's a pretty specialized task. LifeTrac seens like the right tool for that anyway. Besides that, it's quite different from other kinds of requirements that I can see MicroTrac being useful for. Goals like snow blowing/plowing, lawn mowing, tilling, posthole digging and the like are all done at relatively low heights

So instead, why not take inspiration from a different lifting requirement that MicroTrac should be able to handle. It should be able to load a pallet into a truck like a fork lift would. This has a much lower elevation requirement than loading a CEB, but is a general kind of utility MicroTrac should provide. I propose that this is the most height intensive requirement currently on the docket. So, why not take inspiration from the forklift which does the job very well. What would we end up with then? We'd get MicroFork.

(I'll post more thoughts soon.)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Where have you been? Why haven't you been posting?

My progress has been glacial lately. I have some pretty good reasons though...

1) My wife is Pregnant! We're expecting a new family member in late September.
2) Our family is primarily located in Michigan so we will be moving early June.
3) I just finalized the adoption of my son Frankie!
4) I've found a new job. I'll be working for Rolled Alloys. The job search was time consuming.

So, I'm not expecting to make much progress in the next few months. I will write occasionally with thoughts and other occurrences.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Interviewed by the Associated Press!

I got a call yesterday by a reporter for the Associated Press. She was doing investigation for an article that she might write about OSE. She asked a bunch of interesting questions and I enjoyed the conversation. I'm hoping the article gets written. I'll certainly link to it if it does.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Good at building. Bad at Posting.

It's been hectic. I've got a lot going on personally, so it's been hard to keep the posts flowing. However, progress is happening! I'm assembling my power cube! There are parts that still need to be ordered and assembled, but things are beginning to look up.

The Cube
I've assembled the Cube (above). It is the frame that holds all the components in place. After welding the corners together, my professor said that it could handle being dropped from an airplane.

The Reservoir
The hydraulic reservoir is air tight and ready to rock (above). I had to fix leaks twice during the leak tests. My PVC plugs held up to high pressures (60 PSI or more) without a problem-- still be careful if you're doing this yourself.

Reservoir in CubeTacking the Reservoir

I mounted the reservoir into the cube. It fit nicely so I tacked it in place. With it secured, I was ready to start positioning the engine mounting plate.

At least I thought I was ready. I had already assembled the engine mounting plate and its supports. The plate with the hole will receive the engine-- the engine shaft goes through the hole. The other plate is a vertical support which holds the plate up.

When placed into the cube I saw the image below. Can you tell what is wrong?

It turns out that the instructions were out of date. The holes they described placed the engine too close to the tank outlet. The intake hose that connects the hose to the pump can't make that sharp a bend. So I had to drill a new hole and move the engine mount away from the tank outlet.

Here is the plate after it has been moved and tacked. Can you tell what it wrong? The horizontal plate is no where near level. I didn't think it would be a problem but, the engine wouldn't fit right with this sag. I cut my tack welds and used a level to get everything square. Below you can see the scoring from the grinder and the new location of the support.

This made the engine fit nicely. You can see in the next image the thin slice of light coming between the engine and the tank. When the plate wasn't level, this clearance was taken up and the engine was resting on the reservoir.

So things are starting to look real. I'm very happy with my progress, though there is still a long way to go. My next post will include a really great trick for locating the holes that the engine bolts will go through.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Thinking about MicroTrac

As an American, I am required to want a big tractor. I do in fact want a big tractor. What do I need though? Can I get by with less? Enter MicroTrac (Top Right) a small version of LifeTrac (Bottom Right).

MicroTrac is in the early phases of the development process. It's also a better size for my near future needs. So I've been thinking about making a MicroTrac when my PowerCube is complete. I've been thinking a bit about high level design for such a tractor. My thoughts are below.

Things it should be able to do:

  • Take interchangeable Attachments:
    • Snowblower, Lawnmower, Snowplow, String Trimmer, Mini Forklift, Tiller, others?
  • Powered steering.
  • Optional ride behind or ride in front (depending on whether attachment is pulled or pushed).
  • Low center of gravity. Reasonable stability & Balance.
To achieve this, I'm thinking of something like the diagram below.
Simple Concept for MicroTrac
It's primitive, but reasonably to scale. The cube in the middle is a Power Cube. It would rest securely in a frame. That fram would have two LifeTrac quick connect wheels attached near the midpoint. This keeps the center of mass low (but should still allow for maneuverability).

On the top are hydraulic valve controls which would control the wheels and the attachment. They would be movable so they could be at the front of the cube or the back. This allows the driver to push the attachment (snow plow) or pull the attachment (tiller).

The protrusion between the wheels is the attachment point. The would need to allow either a rigid or swiveling connection to a tool. To allow for loader type attachments (fork lift, bucket) there needs to be a more complex mounting mechanism available-- perhaps uprights at the back of the power cube that arms could attach to.

Finally, the drive could walk behind the tractor, attach a platform to stand on, or attach a seat of some sort.

My current reservations about this design:

  • Geometry - Will everything fit? It should be possible but might be tight.
  • Balance - There isn't a lot of weight in the back to keep MiniTrac from tipping forward. This is a big problem with lifting devices like a bucket, soil pulverizer, and forklift. Would a wheelie bar in the front help with those? Perhaps a caster in the back to keep from tipping backwards?
  • Maneuverability - How agile will it be? What sort of grade could it climb?
  • Ease of Control - The PowerCube is pretty powerful, how jerky will starting and stopping be? This can probably be mediated through clever hydraulics.
  • Ease of implement attachment - The attachment mechanism needs to be strong and easy to work. Perhaps us the same align + cam mechanism that the wheel modules use?
I'd love to hear feedback in the comments below. How can this design be improved? Any suggestions on attachment mechanisms? etc. etc. etc.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Kicking Butt in the Shop

It feels like I've finally turned a corner in making my Power Cube. Things are going more quickly as I hit my stride. With so much progress, I'm going to change my format a little. I've been posting about each day in the shop. With the progress that I've been making that won't be coherent-- I'm doing too many different things to describe them well in a single post.

So, here is a laundry list from the last two weeks. I'll write followup posts with details on each process.

I used the CnC Plasma Torch to cut out the pump plate and engine mounting hole. I used a drill press to attach the engine mounting plate to the angle iron that it will be bolted to. I leak tested the Hydraulic Reservoir at 80 psi! And now for a fun picture:

Steel Pacman eating a green dot =)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

What has this Tractor cost so Far?

If you're not aware, I'm currently building a Power Cube 4. This is an interchangeable power unit that can power a tractor, a brick maker, a lathe, and many other tools. Once I'm done with it, I'll start work on something for it to power. I'm leaning towards a micro-tractor right now.

How much have I spent on this endeavor so far? Has it been worth it? My records say I've spent about $1,365 and 25.5 hours on production so far. A John Deere riding lawnmower costs in this range, but isn't nearly as flexible or durable. As for my time spent, it's been great. I'm learning all sorts of useful skills and applying them.

I'm estimating another 16 hours of work and perhaps $200 more in parts. All told, I'm really happy with the process and experience.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Why am I building a Tractor?

The simple and honest answer is that my dad had one on the property that I grew up on. It was so endlessly useful that I can't imagine living on any sizable property without one. There is more to it than that though.

A reminder: This is what I'm building =)
I'm building my own tractor because I want to understand it and be able to maintain it. It's also a project that will teach me many valuable skills. I've already learned a ton about machining and CAD.

Finally, I'm interested in joining the material economy at some time in my life. So far I've earned my living by working in the knowledge economy. I think really hard and get paid to do it. I'm employed as a programmer. It's a job I love, but constrains my life quite a lot-- I work 40hr a week and have to commute to my place of work. One day, I'd like to have a bit more control-- perhaps program as a hobby.

What do I mean by 'material economy' (a green wing article)? I mean that I take ingredients and make a product. The product is a tangible thing that solves a tangible problem like hunger, need for shelter, etc. This is important because the tangible problems are the ones that force the average person to take a 9 to 5. If I can provide fixes for these root human needs, I'll have high security (someone somewhere is hungry) and be encouraging smaller scale self sufficiency. The OSE folk argue (see Village Scale here) that a material economy of about 200 people is enough for comfortable modern living locally. That sounds like somewhere I'd want to live.

So what will I produce in the material economy? I mean really, what will my tractor produce? I don't have a firm plan, but my current thoughts are to produce pelletized biomass. With a few tools (Tractor, Hay Cutter, Hammer Mill, Pelletizer) and some land, I may be able to produce a renewable, carbon neutral (or even negative!) local fuel.

This is Pellitized Wood (wikipedia)
I'm not yet clear on the economics-- how much land make how many pellets? How much labor for each acre of land? How much do pellets cost? Where would I sell them? But, I'm going to have a tractor regardless so if the economics don't work, I'll find a different plan.

Time Card & Bill of Materials updated.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Want to produce faster? Pick the right tool!

What is this?
There is a kind of knowledge that is important in any kind of work. It's the ability to pick the right tool. You might be great with a hammer, but if you're repairing a computer that skill is of little use. And so I've learned again and again. This time the lesson was in welding.

I've done all of the welding on my tractor with a tiny little TIG welder. It puts out just barely enough heat to weld 1/4" steel. It takes about a minute to make an inch of weld with it. I was using TIG on the advise of an experienced machinist (my instructor).

This week I switched to MIG at the suggestion of another fabricator. I could weld at about a foot a minute with this (much more powerful) machine. That is a speed increase of 12 times. I'm very proud to say that I finished all the welding on the Hydraulic tank (see above)! I need to do a leak test as quality control, but I may be ready to move to the next component.

Note: While MIG is faster, it's more likely to leave voids. With the TIG I could probably have made the tank leak free on the first try. With MIG I expect to have to make some (quick) patches. I took some pictures of the welds to show the difference in quality.

TIG - Smooth finish, lots of control, slow

MIG - Lots more material, some spatter, fast

Monday, February 13, 2012

Machining my first machine!

In Fall 2011 I operated a mill and a lathe for the first time. I did some simple operations and made some parts that were 'machined', but those parts weren't machines. This semester, in addition to working on my tractor, I'll be machining my first machine. If I do it right, it'll look something like this:

My instructor calls it an 'air engine', but I think of it as a 'steam engine'. Air (or steam) goes in the quick disconnect (which has a red handle). It enters the metal block on the left. In the block is a piston which rotates the cylindrical fly wheel which can be seen on the back on the machine.

It's not an efficient or complex device, but I'm really excited to make a real machine. At class this week I began machining the piston which must be very precise. I got it to .0005 inches from true. For the record, that's pretty accurate. There are a lot of operations on this machine, so I'm expecting to be hard pressed to get it done. This also means that I won't have as much time to work on my Power Cube.

In order to make more time, I'm planning on using some vacation time to spend full days in the shop. I'll update on Power Cube progress when I have made meaningful progress. Not much has happened yet this semester.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Am I building a Tractor, or is it a metaphor?

I discovered today that one of my readers didn't realize that I was actually building a tractor. So let me be clear. I am building a real tractor that does real things and produces real value. This is not a metaphor. This is a machine that does work. This is the most subversive economic action that I've ever taken. This has the chance to move me from a knowledge economy where I work 40+ hours a week, to material economy where I work 15+ hours a week.

It is no guarantee. This isn't a sure thing. It's a gamble where I risk some money, time and effort. In exchange I will get a tractor, mechanical facility, and material skills (welding, machining, practical design). I might get economic autonomy for significantly reduced effort. Is it worth it? If it all falls apart, I walk away with my 'will gets'. If it works, thenI walk away with freedom from a deeply compromised economic system.

Our economy channels money from the masses to the super-rich. These people work primarily in the knowledge economy where their money, luck, and situation allow them to reap enormous material well being for negligible material effort. Many of them have resigned from work and continue to reap the benefits of past work (stocks, bonds, investments, patents, copyrights...) Then there are the vast majority of Americans who working day in and day out to support the super-rich. They make the cloths, electronics and shoes that situate the rich so comfortably.

These people work long hard hours in the material economy and pay most of the profits of their labor to those in the knowledge economy. Doesn't it seem strange that a clever idea about what to produce and sell (knowledge) can satisfy the material needs of an individual for their entire life while backbreaking labor for 40+ years barely satisfies the material needs of a different individual from day to day?

The problem is size. America rewards individuals for finding ways to convince others to work on their behalf. It's a hierarchy and being at the top is best-- you get the most. This works in a big community when the top dog has other top dog friends. In a smaller community, the top dog sees the hardship they cause and the bottom dogs see who causes their suffering. In a big community, change is hard and slow. In a small community, hardship is a recipe for fast change.

So what about my tractor and my freedom? How do these relate? Well, small communities can't be globalized. They have to live locally. Building a small community based on locally available materials is only possible in two situations. Either the participants accept the need for a lifestyle of barely surviving, or they depend on technology to multiply their effort.

Agricultural technology like the tractor is responsible for the trend toward higher density human population that has been prevalent in all recorded human history. This is because it allowed one farmer to do the work of 10 farmers. The other 9 would-be-farmers end up doing other tasks like business and hedge fund management. Without technology like tractors, there isn't enough surplus time in a community to allow for surplus production like comfortable beds and clothing.

So, to start a small community that is free of many of the boils of American Capitalism, one starts by producing tools. These tools allow high productivity individuals and therefore a comfortable community. And so, I build a tractor.

(I'll be in the shop again for the first time in more than a month tomorrow. Expect a progress update soon.)