Prototyping Practices

I wanted to delve a little deeper into practical habits I find useful when you’re tinkering like a madman.

Documentation. One oft cited reason for studying history is that ‘we can’t move forward unless we understand where we’ve been.’ It’s also true in tinkering – a surprisingly hard habit to internalize. If you think planning where you are going is boring, writing down where you’ve been is even worse. If it was a success, huzzah! It works and you just want to make the next thing. If it was a failure you just want to scratch that off the list and try the next option. But if you don’t write down what you tried, why you tried it, and why you think it worked or failed, chances are you will forget at least some details that may be incredibly relevant later – you just don’t know.

Before I forced this habit on myself, I would sometimes circle back on already-asked questions and failed attempts in design space. Remember that Edison, the tinkerer to end all tinkerers, kept meticulous notes. Do you think without them he would have been able to hone in on a specific type of bamboo from Japan as the correct material for light bulb filaments? I doubt it.

Different tiers of difficulty – Try to mentally categorize the small steps into rough ‘tiers’ of difficulty and have an idea of how much activation energy/planning, programming, machining, and testing (the four big time eating categories) it will take to jump from one to the next. Here, I can’t but evoke the image of evolving Pokémon – apologies to anybody who didn’t grow up in the 90’s. It’s an important exercise because unknowingly skipping tiers can lead to disaster and disappointment. Remember, though, this categorization should be a quick mental exercise with maybe a note or two: a five-minute session, not the day’s project.

For example: Our lab is trying to test the effects of spinning permanent magnets for eddy-current actuation. Tier one is sticking the magnet on the end of a drill bit and going to town: an easy proof of concept – no machining or programming necessary. Tier two is building a set-up with the magnet at the end of a powered motor – eliminating precariously held drills: medium – there is machining and unavoidable planning: you need to make sure the motor is powerful enough and can actually be mounted usefully, otherwise the machining will have gone to waste. And finally, tier 3 is controlling the motor with an Arduino and an H-bridge, which will require some amount of basic electronics and programming.

I said it before, but I really want to stress that it’s essential to keep a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses in mind.  For example, it’s relatively easy for me to get activation energy to jump up and do a test, but a task that requires coding in something besides Matlab is like tar as I slog through documentation. Thus, I try to substitute a bunch of small tests for something that is nominally more efficient, but involves coding in C. This may be the complete opposite for someone with a different skill set.

So ask yourself: what really trips me up? It’s great to shore up those weaknesses, but unless that’s one of the goals of the project, the madman stage of prototyping is not the time.

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