New Matter and Lucky Dragons


Personal 3d Printing has been overhyped for a while now, so I’ve found myself tuning out more and more, despite using them nearly every week in my work.

A couple of weeks back I met Steve Schell, co-founder of New Matter, and it got me excited again about personal 3d printing for the first time in ages. I mean, they kind of had me from the Anathem reference, but that wasn’t the SF link that I think has the most resonance…

They’re running a crowdfunding campaign (natch) that’s ending soon, and seems to be going great guns. Their pitch is, well, not everyone wants to fire up solidworks or even sketchup every time you want something – what if it was more like an infinite vending machine where you picked from a catalog of design? It’s also a lot cheaper than competitors – $250 bucks… and they’ve called the first one the ‘Model-T’…

No, the SF story that springs to mind isn’t one of Neal Stephenson’s but part of William Gibson’s “Bridge trilogy” – namely the “Lucky Dragon” chain of convenience stores that have brought replicator-like vending machines to the corner store…

New Matter’s not there yet – the objects in their ‘vending’ library will have to be more useful and durable than the typical mainly decorative 3d printed spamjects you find so prevalent at the moment – but well worth tracking I think.





Sold: One Brompton

The way to LDN's heart is on a brompton

I got my Brompton six years ago, while I was still reverse-commuting every day from central London to Hampshire. Nokia’s UK design studio was located in glamorous Farnborough at the time, and quite a few of us travelled west from Waterloo for an hour or so, where there was a incredibly-depressing shuttle bus to the anonymous office park where we drank a lot of tea and tried to seduce implacable engineers and product managers with endless flash mockups of what we thought were better UIs than s60.

But that’s a tale for another day.

The train ride you could cope with – competitive crosswording with Matt Brown, Joe McCloud’s stream of consciousness narration of the suburban landscapes we trundled through (think Jonathan Meades meets Bill Hicks), Eddie’s terrible puns – but wait for the shuttle bus and the cramped, smelly bus ride itself were the last straw for many, who opted to bike the last couple of miles to the office every day instead.

There were a few tribes – the fast and furious fixies of Adam and Silas, Tom and Mattias the oak-legged mud-loving MTBers… and then, me… initially on a Strida, with its rubber belt, tiny wheels, pennyfarthing-seating and terrifying twitch-steering.

1st commute

Despite it’s quirks, I loved the Strida – at least compared to the shuttle bus. It was perfect for the train -> work -> train -> pub -> first floor flat daily life I had back then.

Strida Day #1

The lack of gears started to be noticed on even the slight climbs between Farnborough station and Nokia HQ, so after only a few months, in September 2006 I upgraded to my Brompton.

Wheels for yr mind

Up until last year it was my primary bike – until I started cycling my entire route to work rather than folding up and getting on the train. It sat forlorn in the studio, and then my kitchen – until last Saturday when I sold it to, from where it will hopefully find a new home.

I loved my brompton as I’ve not loved many of my possessions. Not only for it’s utility and efficency – but also for what it represented: British design, engineering and manufacture.

I was fortunate to be invited to the Brompton factory in 2010.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 17

I believe that at the time it was (and it still maybe) the only full manufacturing site in London. It was fantastic to see the skill, care and attention to detail that was given to every process.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 04

Also the integration of design, engineering and manufacture – the continuum of concern that the designers had for the material and human processes at work in the factory.

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 14

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 06

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 07

Design was not an abstract activity, but an integral one – with a tight feedback loop from the shop floor, the testing suites, the customer service.

And the shop floor itself was a treat for a designer – a rainbow of coated metal…

Visiting the Brompton Bicycles factory, July 2010 - 08

So, sadly it’s goodbye to all that for now, no longer will I be able to tuck my green machine into the convenient parking bay provided by The Shepherdess…

The Bromptronozord

But I dare say I’ll own one again, one day.

Handsome, handsome machines.

“Every setback has a huge silver lining” – Andrew Ritchie of Brompton on slow invention, design and manufacture in the UK

Andrew Ritchie in the Circle Of Bromptons

Rough notes from tonight’s talk by Andrew Ritchie, founder and inventor of the Brompton bicycle. Much paraphrasing and missing out of crucial bits I’m sure.

Andrew Ritchie/brompton

1st prototype for 1000 GBP in late seventies
Looking for a licensee
No big companies are actively looking to increase the risk they are exposed to or increase their portfolio of projects
Only option was to manufacture themselves
“Why don’t you find 30 ppl and charge them 250 for a bike you haven’t yet built and guarantee them their money back once the company is running”
18 months later… Still trying to manufacture…
“A degree in engineering is all very well but it’s not substitute for metal bashing”
1981 Small firms loan guarantee scheme (recently resuscitated?)
Pilot production, basic tooling, space in Kew nr the tube station
“Patrick the brazer said he’d worked in an open sided shed in Aberdeen, he didn’t mind the cold”
Hinge supplier stopped supplying, spent three months milling hinges himself from solid blocks of metal
“We needed a 150 grand to get going, got 80. That wasn’t going to stop us.”
1987, after the gales, moved into the railway arch…
“we got cracking and started making bikes. Everything went wrong.”
“change is a bloody nuisance” as conservative about his manufacturing as the channel/dealers were when he started. Patience
Sales abroad came to 2/3. Stayed the same every since.
7.5% discount to those dealers who paid in 10 days, never had any trouble collecting cash. Doesn’t know why it’s not common practice. Most firms give 2.5% and so people don’t bother to pay early.
Sturmey-archer disaster… Went bust. Stopped supply of the hub gears
German firm said we’ll do something special for you
“I didn’t like the five speed, so I made them more expensive…” People started buying more…
Titanium bits. The titanium workers in Russia are spinoff of ussr space program…
“I hate marketing. Lovely people but as far as I’m concerned make something good and people will buy it. You don’t need some touchy feely story.”
Cultural issues in growing a manufacturing company are the biggest challenge. Growth of 25% a year is the target, very challenging.
Wouldn’t have worked if this had been attempted quickly, all the failure and hardship has made the product and company what it is.
“bromptons are far too expensive at the moment, I’m very sorry.”
“there’s masses we can do to improve what we do, we’re always trying to improve”
“Took my time and solved problems because I didn’t have a business plan”
“I’m very glad the hinge supplier went bust, because that made me improve the design. If I’d continued there would have been thousands of bikes full of errors”
“all these setbacks had huge silver linings”


I wrote a little thing for the Howies spring catalogue:

I’m a designer that mainly works with digital materials, and while the pleasure of tinkering with a machine is something that I get quite a lot in software, to tinker in hardware and software (especially Meccano) is a rarer thing.

It seems to activate a way of thinking with the eye, the mind and the hand that is entirely natural, and the playful problem-solving instincts of childhood come rushing back.

Kevin Kelly writes in an essay about Artificial Intelligence that problem-solving is not just an abstract process of the mind, but something that happens in the world, and brands those who don’t believe this as indulging in ‘thinkism’.

The intelligence of the hand, and the eye, and the body, working with material things in the world, instead of abstract symbols in a computer you might call ‘Do-ism’.

Russell wrote something lovely for it:

Technology is not the enemy. Inattention and waste are the enemy. If you don’t notice your footprints you won’t clean them up. So remember to take notes and use whatever tools can to keep you paying attention.


As for the machine…

It’ll get finished this year, honest…

Howies Instorematic update: November

Time for an update. The siege mentality has set in, and incremental progress is being made towards The Glorious Completion.

Today we made the tracks much more structurally-sound and less likely to deviate from setting. The new design is very adjustable and tunable, so that the postcards will sail down majestically everytime (we hope)

Instorematic update

Chief Engineer Henry writes:

“Hello there,

We’re doing ok – slowly, but surely. I’ve been continuing to build & test in the evenings and weekends – I’ve built a ‘unit revolution’ of the new helix, using the original framework but with 00 gauge model railway to convey the postcard, which is supported on cardboard and held in place by some natty adjustable brackets which i’ve built from odd bits of plywood and acrylic which was hanging around.

test-build of one revolution of the spiral

Attached are some (in build) pics…
The parts were easy enough to make (especially with my natty new tabletop bandsaw) but I’ve been being extra cautious and testing what happens to the structure over time – I don’t want any of those subtle changes that were frakking things up with the last ‘design’.
The brackets need a little more work, in order to induce controllable camber – I think its a matter of a bolt per bracket, connected to the copper pipe.
customisable camber brackets
That way, I’ll be able to ‘dial in’ the amount of camber needed for each quarter of the helix (at the top, too much camber is a bad thing – it stops the truck because it hasn’t started moving very much, at the bottom you need quite a bit – the truck is moving rather quickly and has a tendancy to fly off – more camber required…)
The next stage is to complete the entire helix – which is a matter of manufacturing more of the same standard parts and slotting them together. The helix can then be tuned and the rest of the layout completed.
So, the carrying postcard should be able to decend via gravity. Hopefully the more finite adjustment of the track will mean that this will work fine…. hopefully.
the postcard carriage
I was giving quite a lot of thought to how the truck would get itself back up to the top – the last meeting with Russell fixed me on having a powered arduino controlled shunter to do the work.
All the other methods seem too complicated in one way or another. The shunter is simplest – it can either be battery powered (with a recharge station at the shop end of the track) or can be powered through the track itself, just like a model railway.
I’m inclined to go for the battery powered option – because then the track doesn’t have to be cleaned (which is a pain in the arse, and will be tricky considering how delicate the track supports will be….)
In *theory* once the helix part is complete, the rest of the track is very easy – about as easy as it was to make that bit of track we built previously. The next complicated part is the postcard pickup, and following that the part that pushes the postcard off the truck at the other end.”
Slow and steady wins the race!
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Top Secret Howies Project: more cowbell!

One project I’m doing that I haven’t written anything about yet is our Top Secret Howies Project, that isn’t a secret at all.
It’s going pretty well, and should be in the store very soon – just spent the afternoon with Henry and Russell, tinkering and discussing some of the niceties of the installation, in a kind of more genteel, smaller, slower version of “Scrapheap Challenge”.
With cake.
The pleasure of tinkering with a machine is something that I get quite a lot in software, especially in discussion with Boris, Tom, and Matt B., but to tinker in hardware and software (especially Meccano) is a rarer thing.
It seems to activate a way of thinking with the eye, the mind and the hand that is entirely natural, proving in practice some of the early chapters of Malcolm McCullough’s “Abstracting Craft”; and the playful problem-solving instincts of childhood come rushing back.
More of this in 2008 I think.

HLM#2: The Heidelberg V-30 Web Offset Press

Handsome lookin’ machines don’t have to move an inch to be handsome, or save your bacon in case of xenomorph bioweapon attack. Witness the Heidelberg V-30.

^ It’s a handsome lookin’ machine, alright.

I’ve long admired Heidelbergs, from the sheet-fed litho at Harris Printers that I swept around after school; to Rupert’s huge, building-filling behemoths in News International, my first employers after college*.

The V-30 looks as if it could single-handedly produce at least a spiral-arm or two of the Gutenberg galaxy:

“With a horizontal web lead, the V-30 prints at up to 35,000 impressions per hour in heatset mode and 45,000 impressions per hour in non-heatset mode. Solid steel frames extend to the floor for simplified installation, and solid cylinders have simple slot lockups for quick and easy plate changes. A vertical cylinder stack arrangement with a shallow blanket-to-plate cylinder angle stiffens unit dynamics, permitting higher quality printing at higher speeds. Blanket cylinder positioning also allows faster clean up, shortening the down time between jobs. “

That’s great, but what’s the use of a fecund and free press running at 35k iph when merciless swarms of acid-dribbling space cockroaches come a-calling?

The V-30 I believe, with it’s extended finishing options, could be a great place to lure killer aliens to their death within it’s whirling innards:

^ Printing-press or battleground? You decide.

“JF-35 options:

  • Tall air former
  • Rotary blade quarter folder
  • Urethane nip rollers
  • Cross perforators
  • Web severer
  • Motorized former nose slitter module”

You’ll be able to keep one vigilant eye out for suspicious Giger-esque shapes in the shadows, as the controls of V-30 don’t make undue demands on your noodle:

“User-friendly V-30 controls deliver all the advanced features necessary to keep productivity high and makeready waste low. From the console, operators can monitor and adjust everything from ink, water, drive, and motorized registration systems to the tension control and folder settings.”

Just like there’s nothing quite like the feeling of having saved the Earth from a murderous alien brood, there’s nothing quite like witnessing a big web-offset press rolling. Your local newspaper might be gracious enough to allow you to witness the latter if you can prove it would prepare you for the former.

Ratings [1 -> 5]
Handsome factor: ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Monster readiness: ♦ ♦
[marked down due to dangers of luring beasts into machine]
Cost: $$$$

Spec sheet is here [1121k PDF]

Another HLM next week!

* not sure Wapping ran/runs Heidelbergs, actually… anyone know?