09 April 2018
My time over the fortnight around Easter was spent on some Selworthy R&D, wrapping up a Foxfield production run, and continuing various pieces of hardware R&D.
Over on Selworthy, I finished up my first pass at the stand-alone library I’ve been working on and delivered an end-to-end test of its output. In week 276, I moved onto R&D around HLS video streaming – not only the various FFMpeg incantations to generate it, but also exploring how much of our client we’d have to replace to implement it, and how best to retain feature parity. The answer is that the key features will transfer over fine, but we’re probably going to have to replace one particular video library, and so my continued scoping – for now – will be about delivering that feature parity.
After various pokes and prods, my PCB vendor in China delivered a batch of front panels that were correct – following some production delays – and that meant I could box up a Foxfield/Longcrag production run and send it to Thonk.
This also confirmed my new approach to panel manufacture is successful, and that opens up some of the otherwise tight margins on future Foxfield products – which are nearly ready to offer up, I think.
Over on the 16n project, we saw our first prototype aluminium panel, which looks great. The next move is to make a full prototype of this version – version 1.25 – and confirm everything fits as expected. I think fit/finish will be fine; the key thing is confirming sizes of standoffs and screws. Once that’s done, we’re on to looking into manufacture routines.
As part of that, Brendon shared some calculations he’s previously used around costings for hardware runs, which were really illuminating, particularly for understanding how much that looks like ‘profit’ is, in fact, really just margin and contingency. It’s helped me understand what a particular idea I currently have might involve, too.
I also continued work on a small Longcrag prototype that I’m designing for manufacture. Will this ever happen? I don’t know. Why do I keep spending time on it, then? It’s a good question. It’s certainly intellectually interesting. And I’m learning a lot. It’s definitely not hit a NO GO condition, though it’s getting nearer to that point, perhaps.
On this DFM prototype, I assembled a test board. This is significant for a few reasons; notably, it’s the first board designed around the Silicon Labs chip I’ve chosen to use. That chip happens to be in a QFP48 package, which is about at the limits of what I’ve previously hand-soldered and, sure enough, it turns out my hand soldering is possibly not up to the job. The idea is to build up this prototype, and flash it via the SWD interface I’ve broken out on the board. That would prove that my layout for the chip and SWD interface were correct.
I spent a lot of Friday trying to do this over a JLink, with no joy. It’s not clear why, however. I patched a minor mistake on the board, tested the pinouts with a multimeter; I am pretty sure the board is correct. But it still could be a manufacturing fault – ie, my soldering. My plan for next week is to use a stencil, solderpaste, and a hot air reflow station to try to make a more definite connection between the QFP48 and the board. If that doesn’t work… I might be throwing my hands up in the air, into a NO GO configuration.
Why would that be a NO GO? Because it’s tiring, and I’m heading towards a point where I’m no longer learning or moving forward; all I’ve got to is a sticking point, and maybe going around would be better. But we’re not totally out yet. So another afternoon on this, still. I remain hopeful. Of course, if this is a GO, we open a whole new set of GO/NO GO branches – finishing firmware, for starters, and then trying to work out if there’s even a market for this.
I also managed to fit in some more social engagements. I spent a nice lunchtime with Nick and Timo at Playdeo. Mainly just a catch-up with old colleagues, friendly chat with peers in the industry, but also good to talk shop with other people working between technology and design, gain some perspective, and tickle each others’ imaginations. Good for the soul.
And on Friday, I got over to a BBC R&D event exploring the artistic application of voice assistants, pairing technologists with musicians and sound artists. Some familiar and new faces, some great performances, and good chat afterwards. Also good for the soul.
26 March 2018
I’ve largely stepped back from Selworthy now, spending a regularly day a week with the team reviewing work, looking at the future, and doing R&D on specific features or technologies.
However, I’ve taken on a short project for the client in the run-up to Easter. An old, abandoned library turned out to not be cutting the mustard for us, so I’m working on building a replacement. It’s exactly the sort of project I enjoy: gnarly text and character processing, working to a well-defined (if complex) spec for the format, neatly stand-alone and greenfield, and with obvious measures of success.
It’s also been a chance to learn a few new things; I’ve enjoyed working with the bindata gem a lot, which has made processing binary files far more straightforward and has also given me a parser for the format at the same time as building a formatter for it – nicely two-way.
By the end of the week, I was parsing the format correctly, and had started to break the back of encoding the format. I’d imagine there’s another handful of days to go – first to finish up the first pass at encoding, and then a lot of fettling to match the sample files we’re working to, and the nuanace of the spec.
Over on Longcrag, a bunch of cables arrived from China, and so an hour with some cutters got another Foxfield product bagged up and ready to go to wholesale. Now I’m just waiting on a final set of front panels for one product – on Monday, I found what looks like a much better way to avoid the fabrication issues I found in Week 273 without having to change supplier. We’ll know by next week. I also started working down my Trello board of what’s left on the second phase of products, which has been stalled for far too long and needs bringing into land pronto. It turns out, a chunky Trello board helped enumerate what was left, and give me easy threads to latch onto and start moving into the DONE column. Good stuff.
19 March 2018
Fortnightnotes, then, partly because of illness and travel.
Selworthy has settled into a new routine. I’m spending a fraction over a day a week on this, typically, doing R&D into some tricky new areas, discussing features and development with the team, pinpointing specific pain points, and reviewing code. It looks like there might be some odd development spikes in the future, but otherwise, I’m happy with this.
I continued working on a new Longcrag/Foxfield order: lots of kits sorted, a minor setback involving some fabrication in China, but not much bagging on my end left to go – the main thing remaining is the waiting involved in global supply chains.
I continued hacking away a bit on the hardware design of 16n. That led into an avenue of learning about sectional analysis to confirm design:
…and spitting out a lot of renders:
My CAD chops have got quite strong now. Probably spent enough time on this, though!
Beyond that, I had a day or two off to visit family, and lost a day or two to illness, which was annoying.
With this Foxfield run wrapping up, and Selworthy dialled back, I’m going to have some availability coming up – not quite full time, but not far off, and well suited to project-shaped work. So I’m thinking about what I’m interested in.
Things I appear to be interested in: software, mainly on the web; building useful tools for others to work with; small, genuinely cross-disciplinary teams; collaboration rather than implementation; still calling interaction design interaction design; connected objects; audio, music and sound; hardware/software hybrids.
If any of that tickles your fancy, maybe drop me a line. I’ll keep thinking if I have a better way of describing what I’m looking for.
05 March 2018
I spent a chunk of week 271 in the workshop.
The workshop is, of course, exactly the same as my desk (most of the time), but it’s being put to a different use. In this case, I continued to work on a few physical projects: either Foxfield-related electronics, or other physical objects related to music that I’m using to expand and develop skills.
Electronics work included beginning to put together the pieces for a new run of kits for Thonk – acquiring parts from the UK, Europe, and China, and getting a few new PCBs and panels fabbed. Most of this will have arrived by the end of week 272, I think.
Some circuit boards for a personal project arrived, so I spent a few hours building a pair of those up:
These were my own variation on an original schematic by someone else, with a few new features added. Suitably interesting to layout, and I’ve definitely got a whole lot better at the schematic capture, layout and fabrication end of things. (They’re the second iteration on this board – though the first largely worked first time, this polishes it neatly and gives me some to donate to friends).
I also started work on what might be a prototype for a new Foxfield thing:
which went together very fast and, largely, functioned correctly. A few part-values need tweaking before I can confirm if it’s a GO or NO GO, though – but I can do this all on this board.
Another project I’ve got on the go is called 16n; it’s a musical controller made up of 16 faders, that emits data on a variety of channels – MIDI over USB and wire, I2C, and sixteen voltage outlets.
My work has mainly been the layout of all the electronics; collaborators have been working on the case and hardware. Whilst the electrics are feeling good, there’s still a little way to go with the hardware, so I’ve spent a period of time thinking about that this week. It’s a project that largely fits around other work – done as part of an online community – but it’s been enjoyable and I’ve learned a tone – easily the largest thing I’ve ever routed.
Finally, I also spent some time on building a half-moon switch for my electric piano/organ. The electrics on this project are simple – a flick-switch connected to three cores of a cable. The goal here, however, was to learn how to design a physical object in CAD for 3D printing. That meant modelling the switch, modelling a case around it correctly, adding features to the case so it would snap together, and making sure it fitted the organ.
The SLS-fabbed version arrived from Shapeways this week, and I put it together:
It works well… aside from the spacing of the two thumbscrews being incorrect, owing to an oversight on my part. And so I quickly knocked out a bracket to fix that issue, and ordered that.
Still: lots of progress on a few different projects, all functional, and all new muscles to exercise, even if all I’m putting it towards is being a somewhat mediocre engineer. But: new ways to think, that aren’t software, and are entirely absorbing whilst I’m working on them: I’ll take that, especially in this period of somewhat deliberate downtime.
I also spent a day on Selworthy, helping the team grapple with some subtitling formats for broadcasters, and the minutiae involved there. And, somewhere in the middle of this, there was a slow day at home in the snow.
A good week. Lots of hands-work.
26 February 2018
Into the deliberate gap between projects, then.
I spent a day with Selworthy, going over what my future engagement with the project would be – something between ‘more consultational’ and ‘limiting getting hands dirty to stuff I know best’. For now, a little more handover with a new staff member, and some consultation around specific features.
Wednesday saw a debrief on the Hyper Island teaching from the course co-ordinator. Overall, it was really very positive indeed, so it seems like I’ll be working with them again at the end of this year. Really glad that the students enjoyed – and took a lot away from – the teaching, and also that they were so positive about the my peers and colleagues I invited as guest speakers. Good stuff.
I had a good chat with Rachel on Friday morning, largely about technology and our practices; it’s nice to finally have the time to catch up with peers and see what’s tickling their brain.
I also had a chat with a few folks from Sensible Object about some technology planning, essentially acting as another brain to pick, and that was I hope useful for them.
I spent some time on an engineering tip, prodding various electronics projects further along, and also sending a CAD project to be fabricated. I’d needed a particular object, and it seemed like a good time to brush up my Fusion 360 skills and get a snap-together case 3D printed. More on that in due course.
Finally, I received a new order from Thonk for Foxfield products, so started taking inventory of what I had in the studio – both in terms of complete kits and parts – and started building up an order. That’ll likely continue into Week 271, and then the ‘waiting for parts to arrive’ process will begin.
Steve also inquired into the state of the (at least) three new products on my slate. The answer is that they’re into that final 95% – namely, needing documenting and ‘productionising’, the name I give to ‘sorting out BOMs, documents, pricing spreadsheets, and making things produceable on demand’. This work is likely to kick off in Week 271.