The Ugliest Thing
I spent a good portion of the last two weeks combing the through Global, European and American IP registries looking through some 400 patents for signs of innovation that didn’t quite materialize. A little tired of looking at the screen, I decided to make something ugly and useful by hand with newly acquired skills.
Mostly out of curiosity I recently took a welding night course at the local college. I do like to make things and, as a designer, it's kind of critical to attach the doing/making with the ideation, or 'synthesis' as it's sometimes called. Besides, we all too often forget to think with our hands. Medical devices are small, though, and the chances of me ever using my new welding skills on a prototype of a device are pretty slim. However, I do have some ideas for some bigger things I might like to weld in the future. Like, say, furniture or a cargo bicycle, or maybe some minor structural elements. I thought a bicycle powered soil sifter might be useful. A friend who keeps bees just inquired if I could maybe design and weld up a honey centrifuge. I don't have the foggiest what that is. Maybe I could do some motorcycle frame repairs, if I had a motorcycle. My Dad does, and he's jealous - of my welding. I'm just jealous of his motorcycles. OK, yeah, and his cheese making. There's actually so much in the world of people that is metal and the only way to really work with it is to weld it. Until recently that's all been a mystery to me. There have been a number of things thus far in my life that in order for them to be repaired: "oh, you'd have to weld that". Which, up until this point, has always been code for: "you would have to dispose of it". The suspension on my last car comes to mind. I actually could have welded that and saved the car from both "the cancer" (rust) and the scrapper (certain doom). Going forward with this welding activity, I think TIG (tungsten inert gas) welding might be my thing for its accuracy, small scale and versatility. But the basics and shear, crude power of oxygen-acetylene and SMA (shielded metal arc) or "stick" are perfectly fine right now, and a pretty exciting thing to do, if also a really sweaty thing to do.
The course largely involved a lot of repetition: welding straight, flat and horizontal welds until you got it. Welding is an acquired manual skill. You cannot read a book on it, or watch youtube videos (though I did discover there's loads of them) instructing you on how to weld well. You have to do it, like practicing free throws, to get a feel for the steel and the heat or the amperage. Unlike a hammer or a saw, though, you can't just pick up a welder and run with it. There's a knowledge of the task that is only gained by doing. In this day and age of digital everything and metawork (the detached work you do just to do the actual work you're paid to do), I think that's really cool. Thank you, Mathew B. Crawford for that insight.
Coincidentally, my wife runs a local community allotment garden. She hosted a talk with a fellow a who was expert on composting a few weeks ago, and he brought with him a compost aerator. It was kind of an auger-y thing you put in the bin or pile and gave some turns to churn the compost. While you don't have to do this, he said, it does help. Having never seen one in any of our local garden or hardware stores I thought: "Hot damn! I can make one in my welding class!". Incidentally, our friend Karen also made one in case you, like everyone else in the world, do not have access to welding equipment, but do have access to a tomato spiral, a vice, $2 and a few bits and bobs. I'm unconvinced those are her arms bending the spiral.
Your man's auger was rather fancy. I figured a simple harpoon like thing would suffice for our bin. Use brute force: plunge that sucker up and down in the heap and the compost should be both macerated and aerated. I could make it out of some steel rebar we had on hand. I told my welding instructor that my wife wanted a compost aerator, and could I use a bit of class time to make one? He replied: "Government job, huh? Yeah I think we can do that." And off I went.
This is actually kind of a tricky thing to do for the noob welder. I had to drop amperage and go to the thinnest electrodes on hand as I quickly learned the usual combo of 1/8" 7018 stick and 113 amps risked completely melting down the rebar. I just needed to weld it, not recycle it. There was grinding and sparks and accidental fire, and even molten steel falling on my safety shoes. That's why you wear them. All good, sweaty fun. I was, however, slowed to a stop for about five minutes after flipping down my helmet, which hit my hand, which then nudged the electrode forward towards the steel, which initiated the arc, which then temporarily blinded me just as my helmet was falling into place. Arc flash, that's called. You can apparently get quite the burns from looking at or even being near the UV rays of a welding arc. It's bad, that's why you wear the full mask that covers everything. Anywho, personal protective equipment, yeah. It's tricky for a noob welder to strike that arc at all on rebar when you're totally blind. That mask is really dark, and no I do not have my own auto-darkening one...yet. So trying to find the work, while blind, wearing a 20lb leather jacket on a hot summer night, with the end of a tiny stick that will heat up to 20,000 degrees C and be brighter than the sun when it does is tricky. But I did it.
And the result is the ugliest thing I have EVER made. BEHOLD!
It turned out to be a day of firsts. First time successfully using welding to make some practical instrument with which to impose my will upon the world. First time seeing and being blinded by arc-flash. In my excitement, it was also the first time I picked up a piece of metal with my bare hands shortly (as in 10 minutes) after welding it. Keeping things medical, maybe I should refer you to Group C nerve fibers. The slow unmyelenated ones. So slow, you don't feel the pain until it's a bit too late, reflex arc be damned. This is kind of a human design flaw. I cooked the fingerprints off of two fingers and a thumb, and got some nice blisters to show for it. Sweet mother of god that metal was still so hot. Lesson: in a welding shop, assume every piece of weldable metal is actually hot metal.
Someone else in my class suggested that I should patent it! Having spent the better part of the last two weeks staring intently into a screen and building a juggernaut of an excel sheet detailing the IP of several companies that were not the one I was contracted to, and trying to figure out whether anything involving X and Y inventions had ever been...well...invented, I laughed. Oh did I laugh.
And here it is in action. Damn thing works, and how. Superb mascerating performance. Good churning. I even think I could do a better design. Of course I could...just look at it! Never yee mind the weeds in the garden.
I also took time to bust out the sewing machine this week, making some garden row covers out of greenhouse cloth, pvc electrical conduit and dowel. These should keep all the pests out, except raccoons. This week was a pleasant reminder that sometimes in this digital age of e-mail, Slack, Wryke, Basecamp, Instagram, Facebook, CAD, 3D printing, The Cloud, Skype and staring at one screen after the other for hours on end, it's really good to think with your hands, doubly so if you can get outside to do it. Happy Canada Day.
And just to prove that the snapping turtle was relevant, we found this big lady headed for the kids soccer field next the garden allotment to lay eggs. She would have eaten the Timbits soccer kids and probably some of their parents too. Good thing we carefully moved her to one of the nesting pads that the Royal Botanical Gardens built adjacent to the allotment. Last we saw, she was still stubbornly headed north, despite our best efforts. You can lead a snapping turtle to a nesting pad, but you can't make them lay their eggs.