Wonderful Flatness

This may not be everyone’s taste, but the black granite slab in the picture is an amazing artifact. It’s called a surface-plate. I got this one for my little home machine shop from a semi-retired machinist who deals in used tools on the side. He had it out in the back shed under a pile of junk and I had to pull it out myself, but he let me have it cheap—$80.  surface-plate

The surface plate is one of the machinist’s most basic and important measuring devices.  It is a slab of stone (or occasionally cast iron) ground and lapped to almost perfect flatness so that it can be used as a reference surface to measure things from.  Machinists and tool-and-die makers use them constantly to set up tools for taking complex measurements or for laying out precision work. Industry uses them for high-precision inspection, and laboratories find numerous uses for the accuracy provided by the finest grades. At 18”x24”x3” and 220 pounds, this is a small one. I saw a nine-ton,  4’x8’x2′ surface plate offered on eBay the other day, and that’s by no means as big as they get.  Two foot thick solid granite. Continue reading “Wonderful Flatness”

Nobody is Amazed Enough

I’m no kind of engineer or industrial design guy. I do make a lot of physical things, but it’s mostly artworks, and old fashioned artworks at that—stone and wood carving. Nothing much has changed in those media in 150 years, and even then it was just power tools to speed up the same things they already did.

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A sample from Autodesk’s site. The virtual parts all move, shafts turn, the spring compresses, etc.

It’s perverse to live in the 21st technological Renaissance, and limit yourself to materials and techniques that have been around since the end of the Bronze Age. With this in mind, I recently borrowed a Makerbot Replicator 3D printer, downloaded a program called Fusion360 and set about joining the 21st Century. (I’m lucky to have friends who can lend a guy a printer!)

Holy $%^#!, but this stuff has come a long way. Forget the printer—Fusion360 is a potential career killer. Don’t even start playing with it unless you’re prepared to get obsessed. It’s magic, really. It takes a little time to get the basics, but it’s a nice shallow learning curve and you can start building simple designs the first day.  

Continue reading “Nobody is Amazed Enough”


You’ve probably heard of the “Internet of Things”—the cool kids call it IoT—but if you’re like most people, all you know is that it has something to do with kitchen appliances that can order groceries for you.skynet_t_shirt_textual_tees

Like so many of us, jaded by decades of technological miracles, for years I mostly ignored IoT as just another TLA in the never-ending cacophony of buzzwords, but now that I’ve put some time into learning what it’s all about, the scales have fallen from my eyes.  It’s not just smart coffeepots and burglar alarms the call your iPhone. I’m coming around to the view that it’s ultimately going to rival the Internet itself in scale, and may well result in epochal changes to the human condition.

Continue reading “Skynet”

Watta Bargain

A startup called N-Gen technologies is running an interesting crowdfunding campaign for a natural gas-fueled, Stirling engine-powered appliance for generating your own electricity at home. N-Gen doesn’t use the S-word in their fundraising materials but they do in their patent (more below.) They claim it’s going to change the world, cutting out the power company and letting you generate your own power safely and efficiently, immune from power failures.  Could it? Hard to be sure, but they have working prototypes, and it’s nifty technology. The crowdfunding prospectus is worth a look; it reads like the disclaimers for a pharmaceutical ad. Who knew there were so many ways to lose your money?

Before we look at this claim, what the heck is a Stirling engine, anyway?

A model Stirling engine kit by howtobuildplans.com

Continue reading “Watta Bargain”