Projects

Here’s some of the stuff I’ve made recently recently and a long time ago.

Sushi Warehouse
An innovative and world-changing side project. More details at sushi-warehouse.com and on Github 
Python-controlled 32-channel multiplexing capacitance meter
I spent summer 2012 on a project hunting for latent defects in high-frequency electrical signalling connectors.
I eventually designed a multiplexed system to measure the capacitance of 32 capacitors simultaneously. The core of the system was a Cirris 1100H+ electrical meter (basically a network of relays connected to a programmable microcontroller, packed in a ruggedized case. It’s sold as a cable tester but you can hack the hardware to do all sorts of useful things) and some custom fixturing to plug into the connectors that I was testing. The Cirris talked to a PC through the RS232 port. I wrote a few interlinking pieces of software in Python 2.7 to acquire, measure and analyze the data coming out of the Cirris box, and to issue commands to the Cirris. I ended up using Python as an intermediary layer to insulate the human from the Cirris’ crappy proprietary language (which is imaginatively titled “Cirris Control Language”). This worked really well. So at the end of the day, the user would input some test parameters into the Python CLI, and then Python would take control of the Cirris and start taking measurements like crazy. While measuring capacitors, I built a pair of systems to drive latent connector failures into the detectable range. I used a scriptable SPX Tenney thermocycling oven to apply thermal stress to the connectors, and also rigged up an electrodynamic 1-axis vibration table to apply vibrational stresses. Here are some photos of the connector.

CheapGearMoreBeer.com
 There are some sweet bargains out there on the daily deal sites, but it’s a pain to chase them all down in the four corners of the internet. I wrote a piece of software (in Python, of course) that tracks down the best bargains and aggregates them in one place. “Cheap gear, more beer” is what passes for a clever rhyme amongst engineers. You can check it out for your self at cheapgearmorebeer.com Just kidding. Am rewriting this in Django so it’s down right now. 
Native American Tipi
I recently constructed a 24 foot Native American-style Tipi. Why, you ask? Why not! This is like the chairs-and-blankets fort you made as a kid multiplied by 1000. My tipi is around 25 feet tall at its highest point and has an elliptical footprint of minor and major axes 18 and 23 feet, respectively. I got a permit, went to the forest, and chopped down all the frame poles with a chainsaw in a grove of lodgepole pines, then stripped them by hand with a drawknife and two sawhorses. There are sixteen frame poles, one lifting pole (that holds the canvas) and two flap poles (which are lighter than the others). Mine is a “Sioux Theory” tipi, meaning it has a design based upon three primary load bearing poles tied together in a tripod with more poles grouped around those central three. Competing designs often use four poles, but in this case less is more. The Sioux design is more wind resistant, more stable, and has a smaller top opening. At various times I’ve had electricity, a queen-size bed, and a fire brazier inside my tipi. Here are some photos.

Machine that teaches you how to pole vault
I recently got together with a few other guys and built a scale model (proof-of-concept) of a pneumatic machine that teaches you how to pole vault. It was basically a welded steel thrust frame supporting a three-dimensional four bar linkage with a carefully guided motion path. This was our undergrad senior design project and you can read all about  it here if I ever get around to putting that website back up. In the mean time you can still watch our promo video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odAq3XogtVk
Spare Parts Software for Tunnel Boring Machines
When I was a tunnel boring engineer on the East Side Access project in New York City, I was put in charge of a few hundred thousand expensive spare parts for our Tunnel Boring Machines. When I started work, they were literally looking through an Excel spreadsheet by hand every day to find parts that had been used and needed to be reordered. I wrote a few interlocking pieces of software in Visual Basic and Access that simplified and automated our spare parts management. My software was basically a way to move information in and out of a database and to automate data entry. It did (and does) a great job of keeping track of the location, quantity, and condition of all the parts in a giant warehouse full of hardware, and makes the reordering and purchasing process vastly easier. The software is closed-source and owned by Traylor Brothers Heavy Civil. Our machines were made by a German company called Herrenknecht, and they’re some of the largest land vehicles on earth. I also managed a construction project for topside support and learned a bunch of project management fundamentals. These are really, really cool photos.

Hard, low-friction carbon nanocomposite material
One of the areas of ongoing research in the ET&L lab at Columbia (where I work) is low friction materials. I’ve been developing a new nanocomposite material for the last several months, which is basically a epoxy matrix doped with carefully-oriented, single-atom-thick layers of carbon (called “graphene flakes”) to form a carbon composite material. There will be a research paper out on this topic sooner or later. I’ve also recently started managing the Carbon Doped Composites subgroup, which has four people and is expanding rapidly.
Twin-disc friction testing machine
I spent all of fall semester 2012 building an electromechanical system to measure friction between a pair of rolling cylinders for the ET&L lab. In the business this is called a “twin disc tribometer. There aren’t very many of these things around, so mine is a comparatively rare animal. I wrote the control and measurement software in Labview and got lots of help on the mechanical design from experienced machinists. There is a screenshot of the 3D solid model (done in Pro/Engineer) and an early draft of the measurement software’s block diagram below.

Roughing Pump Vacuum System
While developing epoxies for our nanocomposite materials in the ET&L Lab at Columbia, we started having problems with bubbles forming in the matrix material as it cured. We solved this problem by curing the epoxies in a vacuum to suck the air bubbles out of the material. I built a vacuum system from off-the-shelf hardware: a 1/2 horsepower 110V AC vacuum pump, some tubing, valves, and fittings from McMaster, a pressure gauge for automotive exhaust system troubleshooting, and a clear polycarbonate 3 liter vacuum chamber. The system pulls down to 30 mmHg in about 10 seconds and can absorb an astounding amount of offgassing from whatever you put in the chamber. It’s been working well since March 2012.
Superhard Materials at ANL
I spent the summers after my sophomore and junior years of college working at Argonne National Laboratory in Chicago, where I worked on projects involving very hard thin-film coatings and hardness improvements/corrosion resistance of bronze alloys. One of the projects eventually turned into a conference presentation at the American Ceramic Society’s 35th annual Conference & Exposition on Advanced Ceramics & Composites, in 2011. The other project is probably not novel enough to be publishable. Some of my micrographs are below.