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Heck yeah! The emerging everyday engineer.

Graphic artist, electronics hacker, and pinball enthusiast, Ben Heck has made a mark in both the maker community and the world of hackable engineering. Armed with geeky humor, an array of hardware from element14, and his trusty red tweezers (the same pair for 20+ years), this maker-community hero spends each week hacking, modding, and redesigning everything from an Xbox360 to an AVR development board for thousands of viral viewers each week.

Ben Heck's Madison, WI-based studio houses an array of engineering delight. With an ancient altimeter in the bathroom and an Edison versus Tesla poster in the foyer (for a future pinball project), it can't be denied that this host has a passion for engineering.

Like any reputable engineer, Heck is both resourceful and practical. As he has struggled with feature creep and taking on projects that are simply too large, Heck has embraced the web as a powerful resource for engineering and tweaking his designs. He explains, "as we all know, even professionals need to go on the Internet quite often and find solutions. Everybody has questions."

Heck has become an icon of what is known as the maker movement, in which tinkerers are empowering themselves with CAD and 3D printers to begin designing and engineering solutions in their homes or garages. The gap between the amateur maker and the professional engineer is still significant, but it is slowly closing. Heck says, "The economies of scale have really brought this [exchange] about. Even in the 90s these things existed; stepper motors, CNC machines, 3D printers, and microcontrollers. But, there was no gateway drug for engineering. Now we have things like the Arduino." Arduino is an open-source electronic prototyping platform.

The significance of entry level, yet complex and expensive hardware and programming, is apparent. Since 3D printers have come down in price and components like Raspberry Pi and Arduino boards are finding themselves in the limelight, the maker community is making colossal strides. "Things like [Arduinos and 3D printers] give people an immediate and tangible result, which gets them excited about doing the next thing. When you're stuck behind a labyrinth of tools you need to use, that's disheartening to people," explains Heck. Access to easy-to-use tools allows more ideas to come to the maker-space table, and suddenly, creativity begins driving cost-effective innovation outside of a professional setting.

For those involved in the maker community (professional and amateur engineers alike), the Internet is the most powerful tool. Beyond The Ben Heck Show, communities such as element14 (Heck's sponsor), Thingiverse, and TinkerCAD are opening the world of engineering up to the series of tubes known as the world wide web and exposing a new generation to its offerings. "A lot more people are really getting into [the maker movement], so I think you're going to see a lot more people take engineering as a career path," Heck says.

The proof is in the pudding as to the importance of an open engineering community. Heck explains, "As far as engineering goes, [material research is] a huge time-sink. You could spend entire days trying to find the most common, cheapest, or most available part, but the Google does a lot of work for you." As maker communities grow, and brick-and-mortar hackerspaces continue to pop up around the country, a clear hunger for engineering is mounting. "Google is smarter than any person on the planet," he continues, "but the internet is data, you still have to get out there and touch things with your hands."

Though several of Heck's mods and hacks are focused on video games or various lazy-man innovations, the show articulates an approach to the design and engineering process that shines light on the daily rigors of a professional engineer. Redesigning, working with a limited budget, and significant time crunches are an everyday challenge for Ben Heck. As he walks viewers through his process, he shows professional engineers the easiest way to develop a specific hack, but he is also showing amateur engineers (makers) the complexities of the design process.

As the maker community grows and communities like element14 expand, Ben Heck is sure to remain an internet celebrity, and more personalities will begin to emerge. "The internet is a great teacher, even for professionals," says Heck. He emphasizes the impact of the web on the creative side of engineering, as well as using it for technical answers. "There's nothing wrong with using Google ... now that's some engineering advice. Collect all the data sheets and save them in a folder. Keep them forever' The underground world of the maker is already overlapping with a realm formerly dominated by the professional engineer, and as more design engineers moonlight as DIYers, the maker community is sure to thrive.


2013 marks the one year anniversary of the Raspberry Pi, a powerful, credit card-sized computer. The Raspberry Pi was initially aimed at getting kids interested in engineering, and getting their hands on a cheap development kit.

Now, after a year on the market, Raspberry Pi has evolved and provided a unique resource to at-home engineers. Dianne Kibbey, Global Head of Community at Newarke-lement14, says, "Raspberry Pi has been used for anything from building home security systems to programming games. It's run the gamut of home projects."

element14 and Raspberry Pi have provided a resource to engineers (of both the professional and DIY variety) that creates open communication among professionals and makers alike, as well as a cheap, quickly expanding dev kit. Kibbey continues, "With the STEM initiative, things like Raspberry Pi, and the maker movement, everything between design engineers and the makers is converging."

As the world of engineering continues to evolve, communities of engineers and makers are sure to collaborate. Apple started in a garage, hard to tell what's next.

By Chris Fox, Associate Editor, PD&D
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Author:Fox, Chris
Publication:Product Design & Development
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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