Q&A: Jeremy Blum, Electrical Engineer, Entrepreneur, Author

Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum

Jeremy Blum, 23, has always been a self-proclaimed tinkerer. From Legos to 3-D printers, he has enjoyed learning about engineering both in and out of the classroom. A recent Cornell University College of Engineering graduate, Jeremy has written a book, started his own company, and traveled far to teach children about engineering and sustainable design. Jeremy, who lives in San Francisco, CA, is now working on Google’s Project Glass.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: When did you start working with electronics?

JEREMY: I’ve been tinkering, in some form or another, ever since I figured out how to use my opposable thumbs. Admittedly, it wasn’t electronics from the offset. As with most engineers, I started with Legos. I quickly progressed to woodworking and I constructed several pieces of furniture over the course of a few years. It was only around the start of my high school career that I realized the extent to which I could express my creativity with electronics and software. I thrust myself into the (expensive) hobby of computer building and even built an online community around it. I financed my hobby through my two companies, which offered computer repair services and video production services. After working exclusively with computer hardware for a few years, I began to dive deeper into analog circuits, robotics, microcontrollers, and more.

NAN: Tell us about some of your early, pre-college projects.

JEREMY: My most complex early project was the novel prosthetic hand I developed in high school. The project was a finalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search. I also did a variety of robotics and custom-computer builds. The summer before starting college, my friends and I built a robot capable of playing “Guitar Hero” with nearly 100% accuracy. That was my first foray into circuit board design and parallel programming. My most ridiculous computer project was a mineral oil-cooled computer. We submerged an entire computer in a fish tank filled with mineral oil (it was actually a lot of baby oil, but they are basically the same thing).

DeepNote Guitar Hero Robot

DeepNote Guitar Hero Robot

Mineral Oil-Cooled Computer

Mineral Oil-Cooled Computer

NAN: You’re a recent Cornell University College of Engineering graduate. While you were there, you co-founded Cornell’s PopShop. Tell us about the workspace. Can you describe some PopShop projects?

Cornell University's PopShop

Cornell University’s PopShop

JEREMY: I recently received my Master’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Cornell University, where I previously received my BS in the same field. During my time at Cornell, my peers and I took it upon ourselves to completely retool the entrepreneurial climate at Cornell. The PopShop, a co-working space that we formed a few steps off Cornell’s main campus, was our primary means of doing this. We wanted to create a collaborative space where students could come to explore their own ideas, learn what other entrepreneurial students were working on, and get involved themselves.

The PopShop is open to all Cornell students. I frequently hosted events there designed to get more students inspired about pursuing their own ideas. Common occurrences included peer office hours, hack-a-thons, speed networking sessions, 3-D printing workshops, and guest talks from seasoned venture capitalists.

Student startups that work (or have worked) out of the PopShop co-working space include clothing companies, financing companies, hardware startups, and more. Some specific companies include Rosie, SPLAT, LibeTech (mine), SUNN (also mine), Bora Wear, Yorango, Party Headphones, and CoVenture.

NAN: Give us a little background information about Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD). Why did you start the group? What types of CUSD projects were you involved with?

CUSD11JEREMY: When I first arrived at Cornell my freshman year, I knew right away that I wanted to join a research lab, and that I wanted to join a project team (knowing that I learn best in hands-on environments instead of in the classroom). I joined the Cornell Solar Decathlon Team, a very large group of mostly engineers and architects who were building a solar-powered home to enter in the biannual solar decathlon competition orchestrated by the Department of Energy.

By the end of my freshman year, I was the youngest team leader in the organization.  After competing in the 2009 decathlon, I took over as chief director of the team and worked with my peers to re-form the organization into Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD), with the goal of building a more interdisciplinary team, with far-reaching impacts.

CUSD3

Under my leadership, CUSD built a passive schoolhouse in South Africa (which has received numerous international awards), constructed a sustainable community in Nicaragua, has been the only student group tasked with consulting on sustainable design constraints for Cornell’s new Tech Campus in New York City, partnered with nonprofits to build affordable homes in upstate New York, has taught workshops in museums and school, contributed to the design of new sustainable buildings on Cornell’s Ithaca campus, and led a cross-country bus tour to teach engineering and sustainability concepts at K–12 schools across America. The group is now comprised of students from more than 25 different majors with dozens of advisors and several simultaneous projects. The new team leaders are making it better every day. My current startup, SUNN, spun out of an EPA grant that CUSD won.

CUSD7NAN: You spent two years working at MakerBot Industries, where you designed electronics for a 3-D printer and a 3-D scanner. Any highlights from working on those projects?

JEREMY: I had a tremendous opportunity to learn and grow while at MakerBot. When I joined, I was one of about two dozen total employees. Though I switched back and forth between consulting and full-time/part-time roles while class was in session, by the time I stopped working with MakerBot (in January 2013), the company had grown to more than 200 people. It was very exciting to be a part of that.

I designed all of the electronics for the original MakerBot Replicator. This constituted a complete redesign from the previous electronics that had been used on the second generation MakerBot 3-D printer. The knowledge I gained from doing this (e.g., PCB design, part sourcing, DFM, etc.) drastically outweighed much of what I had learned in school up to that point. I can’t say much about the 3-D scanner (the MakerBot Digitizer), as it has been announced, but not released (yet).

The last project I worked on before leaving MakerBot was designing the first working prototype of the Digitizer electronics and firmware. These components comprised the demo that was unveiled at SXSW this past April. This was a great opportunity to apply lessons learned from working on the Replicator electronics and find ways in which my personal design process and testing techniques could be improved. I frequently use my MakerBot printers to produce custom mechanical enclosures that complement the open-source electronics projects I’ve released.

NAN: Tell us about your company, Blum Idea Labs. What types of projects are you working on?

JEREMY: Blum Idea Labs is the entity I use to brand all my content and consulting services. I primarily use it as an outlet to facilitate working with educational organizations. For example, the St. Louis Hacker Scouts, the African TAHMO Sensor Workshop, and several other international organizations use a “Blum Idea Labs Arduino curriculum.” Most of my open-source projects, including my tutorials, are licensed via Blum Idea Labs. You can find all of them on my blog (www.jeremyblum.com/blog). I occasionally offer private design consulting through Blum Idea Labs, though I obviously can’t discuss work I do for clients.

NAN: Tell us about the blog you write for element14.

JEREMY: I generally use my personal blog to write about projects that I’ve personally been working on.  However, when I want to talk about more general engineering topics (e.g., sustainability, engineering education, etc.), I post them on my element14 blog. I have a great working relationship with element14. It has sponsored the production of all my Arduino Tutorials and also provided complete parts kits for my book. We cross-promote each-other’s content in a mutually beneficial fashion that also ensures that the community gets better access to useful engineering content.

NAN: You recently wrote Exploring Arduino: Tools and Techniques for Engineering Wizardry. Do you consider this book introductory or is it written for the more experienced engineer?

JEREMY: As with all the video and written content that I produce on my website and on YouTube, I tried really hard to make this book useful and accessible to both engineering veterans and newbies. The book builds on itself and provides tons of optional excerpts that dive into greater technical detail for those who truly want to grasp the physics and programming concepts behind what I teach in the book. I’ve already had readers ranging from teenagers to senior citizens comment on the applicability of the book to their varying degrees of expertise. The Amazon reviews tell a similar story. I supplemented the book with a lot of free digital content including videos, part descriptions, and open-source code on the book website.

NAN: What can readers expect to learn from the book?

JEREMY: I wrote the book to serve as an engineering introduction and as an idea toolbox for those wanting to dive into concepts in electrical engineering, computer science, and human-computer interaction design. Though Exploring Arduino uses the Arduino as a platform to experiment with these concepts, readers can expect to come away from the book with new skills that can be applied to a variety of platforms, projects, and ideas. This is not a recipe book. The projects readers will undertake throughout the book are designed to teach important concepts in addition to traditional programming syntax and engineering theories.

NAN: I see you’ve spent some time introducing engineering concepts to children and teaching them about sustainable engineering and renewable energy. Tell us about those experiences. Any highlights?

JEREMY: The way I see it, there are two ways in which engineers can make the world a better place: they can design new products and technologies that solve global problems or they can teach others the skills they need to assist in the development of solutions to global problems. I try hard to do both, though the latter enables me to have a greater impact, because I am able to multiply my impact by the number of students I teach. I’ve taught workshops, written curriculums, produced videos, written books, and corresponded directly with thousands of students all around the world with the goal of transferring sufficient knowledge for these students to go out and make a difference.

Here are some highlights from my teaching work:

bluestamp

I taught BlueStamp Engineering, a summer program for high school students in NYC in the summer of 2012. I also guest-lectured at the program in 2011 and 2013.

I co-organized a cross-country bus tour where we taught sustainability concepts to school children across the country.

indiaI was invited to speak at Techkriti 2013 in Kanpur, India. I had the opportunity to meet many students from IIT Kanpur who already followed my videos and used my tutorials to build their own projects.

Blum Idea Labs partnered with the St. Louis Hacker Scouts to construct a curriculum for teaching electronics to the students. Though I wasn’t there in person, I did welcome them all to the program with a personalized video.

brooklyn_childrens_zoneThrough CUSD, I organized multiple visits to the Brooklyn Children’s Zone, where my team and I taught students about sustainable architecture and engineering.

Again with CUSD, we visited the Intrepid museum to teach sustainable energy concepts using potato batteries.

intrepid

NAN: Speaking of promoting engineering to children, what types of technologies do you think will be important in the near future?

JEREMY: I think technologies that make invention more widely accessible are going to be extremely important in the coming years. Cheaper tools, prototyping platforms such as the Arduino and the Raspberry Pi, 3-D printers, laser cutters, and open developer platforms (e.g., Android) are making it easier than ever for any person to become an inventor or an engineer.  Every year, I see younger and younger students learning to use these technologies, which makes me very optimistic about the things we’ll be able to do as a society.

The Transistor: Something for Every DIY-er

The Transistor is a UT-based hackerspace. Its members have a love for all things open source and DIY. They enjoy working with embedded electronics and have created their own version of Arduino.

Orem

Location 1187 S 1480 W Orem, UT 84058
Members 55

Salt Lake City

Location 440 S 700 E
Unit #102, Salt Lake City, UT 84102
Members 18

The Transistor Hackerspace

Founder Deven Fore tells us about The Transistor:

ROBBERT: Tell us about your meeting space!

DEVEN: We currently have two locations. One in Salt Lake City, UT and one in Orem, UT.

Our Salt Lake City location is about 1,000 sq ft in a nice office building. We have one main area and two smaller rooms.

Our Orem location is about 5,700 sq ft in a large warehouse that also has offices. We have sectioned off a wood shop, a metal shop, a clean CNC, an assembly area, a members desks area, a lounge, a server room, an electronics room, and a few other dedicated areas.

ROBBERT: What tools do you have in your space? (Soldering stations? Oscilloscopes? 3-D printers?)

DEVEN: Too many things to list. All the general things you would expect, such as:

  • Soldering irons
  • Oscilloscopes
  • Analyzers
  • PCB work stations
  • Laser cutter
  • Vinyl cutter
  • Heat press
  • Chop saws
  • Mini lathe
  • Servers
  • Air tools
  • Cut-off saws
  • Mig welder
  • V90 FireBall router
  • A couple small miscellaneous CNC routers
  • 3-D printers
  • Networking gear

ROBBERT: Are there any tools your group really wants or needs?

DEVEN: We would love to have a large mill (CNC or manual) some day. Also, just all-around upgrades to current equipment.

ROBBERT: Does your group work with embedded tech (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, embedded security, MCU-based designs, etc.)?

DEVEN: All the time.

ROBBERT: Can you tell us about some of your group’s recent tech projects?

DEVEN: Currently we are working on miniature MAME cabinets. They are two player and will hold up to a 22″ LCD. We will release the CNC plans to the public as soon as we are done.

We’re working on a lot of miscellaneous projects: software, hardware, security, and so forth.

We’re also currently working on building some displays for The Living Planet Aquarium, in Sandy UT.

ROBBERT: What’s the craziest project your group or group members have completed?

DEVEN: Nothing too crazy. We built a drink cooler a year or so ago for the Red Bull Challenge. We designed and build a few full-size four-player MAME cabinets (planned for release to the public on our website, and featured in J. Baichtal’s Hack This: 24 Incredible Hackerspace Projects from the DIY Movement (Que Publishing, 2011).

4-player MAME cabinet

4-player MAME cabinet

ROBBERT: Do you have any events or initiatives you’d like to tell us about? Where can we learn more about it?

DEVEN: Lots of things are going on right now. Nothing specific, aside from working with the aquarium. We have a lot of public events/user groups that meet at our space. Our calender is on our website if you are interested in specifics.

ROBBERT: What would you like to say to fellow hackers out there?

DEVEN: Have fun, be productive, be safe.

Want to learn more about The Transistor? Check out their Facebook or MeetUp page!

Check out their calender to see what The Transistor is up to.

Show us your hackerspace! Tell us about your group! Where does your group design, hack, create, program, debug, and innovate? Do you work in a 20′ × 20′ space in an old warehouse? Do you share a small space in a university lab? Do you meet a local coffee shop or bar? What sort of electronics projects do you work on? Submit your hackerspace and we might feature you on our website!

ALTspace – Cubes, Shame and Art

ALTSpace is a Community Art Workshop in Seattle. Creative people of all kinds share this spacious workshop, teaching, experimenting, making and learning. Members can spend time bouncing ideas off one another, hold or attend classes, work away from home and have the space to get even large projects done.

Location 2318 E. Cherry Street, Seattle, WA
Members 37
Website airlighttimespace.org

ALTspace hackerspace, Seattle

Co-founder Mike tells us about his space:
Tell us about your meeting space!

We have a total of about 2800 sq ft. We have two garage spaces for industrial machines, loud and dirty operations. (about 700 sq ft total) The rest of the space is for personal workspaces and public areas for working, meeting, hanging out. We have 2 showers, 2 bathrooms, a kitchen, a laundry room and an outdoor patio.

What tools do you have in your space? (Soldering stations? Oscilloscopes? 3-D printers?)

Full list of ALTspace’s tools & equipment.

Are there any tools your group really wants or needs?

A laser cutter would be our next purchase.

Does your group work with embedded tech (Arduino, Raspberry Pi, embedded security, MCU-based designs, etc.)?

Yes, we do quite a bit of electronics. One of our more well known projects, the Groovik’s Cube (A 30ft playable Rubik’s Cube) is an arduino driven project.

Can you tell us about some of your group’s recent tech projects?

Groovik’s Cube:

ALTspace's Groovik's CubeWe first built the cube as an art project for Burning Man 2009 and we’ve since been working hard to try and bring this project to the general public. We’ve been collaborating with the Science Center since summer ’10 and we’ve been doing a number of refurbishments including a brand new light-weight aluminum structure to create a neater look suitable for an indoor museum environment.

Groovik’s cube is a fully playable, LED driven Rubik’s cube, hung from the ceiling, corner down. (the motion is of course simulated, not mechanical, i.e. the colors move around, not the structure itself). It can be played and solved by the visitors. A particularly interesting feature is that we have split the controls into 3 stations placed around the cube, each allowing only one axis of rotation. This means 3 people have to collaborate together to solve it. The stations are ~30-50 ft apart from each other. This makes the puzzle considerably harder with a current record solution time of 50 minutes (achieved on Friday night @ Burning Man 09). It also turns a very introverted game into a collaborative challenge which is fun to watch. Imagine people shouting instructions to each other and running around checking on the state of the cube from different angles.

Temple of Shame:

ALTspace's Temple of Shame

by Alissa Mortenson, Nebunele Theatre, The Temple of Shame was a 6ft wide, 18ft tall wooden Temple dedicated to the collection of shame from the participants of Black Rock City. The temple was ceremonially burned on the last night of the festival to symbolically release all the shame collected.

From shameproject.org: “The experience of shame is part of our shared humanity, yet paradoxically, the times when we are ashamed are the times when we feel most alone. But within shame lies a capacity for human connection. The Shame Bearers seek to explore this emotion as a powerful medium for reaching a state of shared vulnerability. In order to make connection –the core human desire– we must believe that we are enough, that we are worthy of love and acceptance. In our vulnerability and our recognition of our mutual imperfections, we can find worthiness and connection. That is the power of this project.”

What’s the craziest project your group or group members have completed?

Groovik’s cube for sure.

Do you have any events or initiatives you’d like to tell us about? Where can we learn more about it?

Indeed: http://lsc.org/grooviks. We’re trying to raise funding for a new Groovik’s cube that will travel the World for 7 years together with Liberty Science Center and Erno Rubik!

What would you like to say to fellow hackers out there?

Hack more! Not satified with availability of hackerspaces near you ? Start one! It’s easier than you think and people come out of the woodwork to come and help and donate time and tools.

ALTspace’s tools & equipment:

Metal:

  • 2HP Metal Mill & Lathe
  • Lincoln 220 MIG Welder (up to 1/4″ steel)
  • TIG 200Amp DC/AC (i.e. Steel, Aluminum & other non-ferrous)
  • Plasma Torch (Up to 1″ steel or aluminum)
  • Stick Welder
  • Metal Grinding wheels, belt sanders
  • 4×6 Metal Bandsaw
  • Deburring wheel and 2 buffers
  • Wire bender
  • Abrasive metal chop saw

Machine Shop (Wood):

  • 3/4HP Table saw
  • Router table & Hand Router
  • Various Sanders (Orbital & Belt)
  • Miter Chop saw

Other Machine Shop amenities:

  • 90 PSI Compressor
  • 3/4HP 1/2″ Shank Drill press
  • Hand drills, Sander
  • 110V/230V Power (50A)

Glass:

  • Glass fusing/slumping/casting kiln, up to 1600 deg F

Jewelery setup:

  • Small Propane/Oxygen torch for soldering/annealing
  • Flexshaft Rotary grinder
  • Rolling Mill
  • Disc Die Cutter & Hemisphere punch

Electronics benches:

  • Maker bot
  • Soldering station with fume extractor and static pad
  • Multimeter
  • 100 Mhz Oscilloscope (Techronix)
  • Basic tools (snippers, strippers, screwdrivers, etc)
  • Variable voltage / current power supply
  • Stock of common components
  • Anti-static worktop

Sewing Area:

  • Pfaff industrial sewing machine
  • Janome domestic sewing machine
  • Hoseki HK757G is a 5-thread industrial serger
  • White domestic 4-thread serger
  • irons, cork-topped layout table, digitizing table, pattern plotter
  • Janome Computerized domestic sewing machine
  • Rowenta domestic iron
  • Sleeve board
  • Tailor’s ham
  • Pattern Drafting Rulers and curves
  • Costuming books

Read more about ALTspace’s Groovik’s Cube project on indiegogo or on Mike’s website, or about The Shame Project on shameproject.org!

You can read about more of ALTspace’s projects on their art page.

Show us your hackerspace! Tell us about your group! Where does your group design, hack, create, program, debug, and innovate? Do you work in a 20′ × 20′ space in an old warehouse? Do you share a small space in a university lab? Do you meet at a local coffee shop or bar? What sort of electronics projects do you work on? Submit your hackerspace and we might feature you on our website!

Prevent Embedded Design Errors (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Attention, electrical engineers and programmers! Our upcoming 25th Anniversary Issue (available in early 2013) isn’t solely a look back at the history of this publication. Sure, we cover a bit of history. But the issue also features design tips, projects, interviews, and essays on topics ranging from user interface (UI) tips for designers to the future of small RAM devices, FPGAs, and 8-bit chips.

Circuit Cellar’s 25th Anniversary issue … coming in early 2013

Circuit Cellar columnist Robert Lacoste is one of the engineers whose essay will focus on present-day design tips. He explains that electrical engineering projects such as mixed-signal designs can be tedious, tricky, and exhausting. In his essay, Lacoste details 25 errors that once made will surely complicate (at best) or ruin (at worst) an embedded design project. Below are some examples and tips.

Thinking about bringing an electronics design to market? Lacoste highlights a common error many designers make.

Error 3: Not Anticipating Regulatory Constraints

Another common error is forgetting to plan for regulatory requirements from day one. Unless you’re working on a prototype that won’t ever leave your lab, there is a high probability that you will need to comply with some regulations. FCC and CE are the most common, but you’ll also find local regulations as well as product-class requirements for a broad range of products, from toys to safety devices to motor-based machines. (Refer to my article, “CE Marking in a Nutshell,” in Circuit Cellar 257 for more information.)

Let’s say you design a wireless gizmo with the U.S. market and later find that your customers want to use it in Europe. This means you lose years of work, as well as profits, because you overlooked your customers’ needs and the regulations in place in different locals.

When designing a wireless gizmo that will be used outside the U.S., having adequate information from the start will help you make good decisions. An example would be selecting a worldwide-enabled band like the ubiquitous 2.4 GHz. Similarly, don’t forget that EMC/ESD regulations require that nearly all inputs and outputs should be protected against surge transients. If you forget this, your beautiful, expensive prototype may not survive its first day at the test lab.

Watch out for errors

Here’s another common error that could derail a project. Lacoste writes:

Error 10: You Order Only One Set of Parts Before PCB Design

I love this one because I’ve done it plenty of times even though I knew the risk.

Let’s say you design your schematic, route your PCB, manufacture or order the PCB, and then order the parts to populate it. But soon thereafter you discover one of the following situations: You find that some of the required parts aren’t available. (Perhaps no distributor has them. Or maybe they’re available but you must make a minimum order of 10,000 parts and wait six months.) You learn the parts are tagged as obsolete by its manufacturer, which may not be known in advance especially if you are a small customer.

If you are serious about efficiency, you won’t have this problem because you’ll order the required parts for your prototypes in advance. But even then you might have the same issue when you need to order components for the first production batch. This one is tricky to solve, but only two solutions work. Either use only very common parts that are widely available from several sources or early on buy enough parts for a couple of years of production. Unfortunately, the latter is the only reasonable option for certain components like LCDs.

Ok, how about one more? You’ll have to check out the Anniversary Issue for the list of the other 22 errors and tips. Lacoste writes:

Error 12: You Forget About Crosstalk Between Digital and Analog Signals

Full analog designs are rare, so you have probably some noisy digital signals around your sensor input or other low-noise analog lines. Of course, you know that you must separate them as much as possible, but you can be sure that you will forget it more than once.

Let’s consider a real-world example. Some years ago, my company designed a high-tech Hi-Fi audio device. It included an on-board I2C bus linking a remote user interface. Do you know what happened? Of course, we got some audible glitches on the loudspeaker every time there was an I2C transfer. We redesigned the PCB—moving tracks and adding plenty of grounded copper pour and vias between sensitive lines and the problem was resolved. Of course we lost some weeks in between. We knew the risk, but underestimated it because nothing is as sensitive as a pair of ears. Check twice and always put guard-grounded planes between sensitive tracks and noisy ones.

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.