31 January 2016

Rebuilding the Builder

When I was about four or maybe five years old, I discovered my father’s electric razor. This was back when he shaved and when, obviously, I had no clue how such things worked or even what it was used for. Some kids would have left it alone. Others might have found its buzzing blades worthy of introducing to the cat. As for me, I did what suited me best; I took it apart.

I’m not certain where I got the tools or how long it took to do. I vaguely remember a moment when I realized that I had crossed the event horizon and I did not have the skills necessary to put it back together. I clearly remember getting in trouble, but I don’t remember it being a “Heavens! He’s gone and burned the house down, pa!” sort of trouble. No, I seem to recall that my parents - my father at least - were equally impressed and annoyed with what I had done.

Genetically speaking, I’m blessed with what I can only describe as The Maker’s Gene. My maternal grandfather worked in the oilfield and restored first-generation cars like the Ford Model A. My maternal grandmother was an artist at heart and loved to paint. My paternal grandmother was a poet and an accomplished quilter and my paternal grandfather split what little spare time he had between fishing and his wood shop.

I’ve carried on their legacy. I love to build things. I build furniture in my wood shop, I build electronics projects in my office, I’m (re)building a 1967 Chevelle, and I build software for a living. I have no tolerance for crunching numbers or selling goods. I’m terrible at customer support and I get bored with most things very quickly. No, I’m a builder and I’m damn proud of it.

In the last couple of years I haven’t built much. I was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and that threw my life for a hell of a loop. I’m getting better, but it derailed who I am more than I anticipated. I haven’t spent any significant time in my shop since my diagnosis. Cobwebs have taken the place of the sweet smell of sawdust and dust now occupies the air once filled with music from the little radio in the corner. In many ways I’ve been more depressed about all that than the implications of my diagnosis and subsequent lifestyle changes. I’m sad because I stopped building.

Fortunately, building things hasn’t left me for good. For the last year or so I’ve been increasingly fascinated with 3D printing. Like many people, however, I struggled to find a good reason to invest in a 3D printer and I was overwhelmed by the choices and the fragmented marketplace. What the hell would I use it for? Which one is the best? Should I pay $350? $750? $2,000? $5,000?!? The research was agonizing, but the daydreaming became more and more vivid and I started to realize the possibilities. Finally, I pulled the proverbial trigger and put together my own 3D printer.

After just a few prints, I’m realizing just how powerful this technology is. No, I don’t believe that we’ll see a 3D printer in every household anytime soon. Perhaps eventually, but there are quite a few challenges to solve first. Those challenges are displaced for me by the power of this technology; it opens up a completely new world of possibilities. Setting aside the trinkets and bobbles that are ubiquitous with 3D printing, what strikes me is that I’ve introduced a very important capability and material to my repertoire… plastic.

Have a look around where you are right now. What are your surroundings made of? Wood, metal, glass, fabric, and plastic are likely the most common. I’ve known how to work with wood since I was a boy. Metal came later, but I can cut, weld, and shape it. Glass? I can make simple cuts. I can also sew, quilt, and even do a little weaving. The missing piece was always that pesky polymer we call plastic.

I’m starting to see building things differently. 3D printing isn’t about replacing a two-dollar part with one that took me four hours to print. No, it’s about leveraging the precision of the machine and the properties of the material to solve problems. Even more exciting, it’s about incorporating this technology into my projects. Suddenly, things that would have been tedious at best and in many cases nearly impossible are often almost trivial. My mind is starting to fill with new ideas and I’m finding myself revisiting old ones that I set aside because they were impractical or too expensive.

I’m not certain where this new thing will take me, but for now I’m simply enjoying the experience. I’m building again and, more importantly, I’m rebuilding the builder.