Sunday, April 29, 2012

"Making Things Move", an Excellent Book for the Maker

Making Things Move, by Dustyn Roberts
Making Things Move: DIY Mechanisms for the Inventors, Hobbyists, and Artists, by Dustyn Roberts

I found this excellent little book from prominent robotics engineer, consultant, and educator Dustyn Roberts on the new books shelf of our local library this past week. The Robby the Robot themed cover caught my attention right away, but after leafing through it for a few minutes, I found the content compelling and immediately tucked it onto our stack of the day's take-home selections.

This book teaches you how to apply basic mechanical engineering principles, and some basic knowledge of electronics, to your DIY projects without sending you back to school for an engineering degree. Perhaps you are an artist or graphics designer and don't consider yourself a "technical" person, or your technical experience is limited to the more abstract realms of software or chip design, but you'd like to get your hands dirty with a project using mechanical components, such as nuts and bolts, motors, gears, and solenoids. Maybe you have a great idea for a project that incorporates mechanical motion, but you just don't know how to get started. If so, this book can really help and guide you. From the introduction:

In this book, you will learn how to successfully build moving mechanisms through nontechnical explanations, examples, and do-it-yourself projects. Maybe you're a sculptor who wants a piece of art to come alive, a computer scientist who want to explore mechanics, or a product designer who wants to add function to complement the form of  your product. Maybe you've built projects in the past, but they fell apart easily. Or maybe you didn't grow up making things move but want to learn. The students in the class I teach at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications Program in the Tisch School of the Arts have been all of those things, and they gave me the inspiration to write this book. 

Ms. Roberts deliberately goes light on the math throughout... you don't have to be a calculus or physics wiz to understand it, just some knowledge of very basic algebra and trigonometry is all that's required, and if you're rusty on those subjects, you can easily brush up with a little help from the many tutorials available on the Web.

The book begins with a presentation of six basic machines and mechanisms: levers, pulleys, wheels and axles, inclined planes and wedges, screws, and gears. The second chapter presents common project materials (metals, plastics, etc.), their basic properties, and how to choose the right materials for your applications. The third chapter outlines the basics of joining materials with screws, rivets, nails, adhesives, soldering, and so on. The next couple of chapters present some basic physics of mechanics, such as force, torque, friction, energy, work, and power, which lay the background for an understanding of the basic requirements --- strength, power, energy, and so on --- that a successful product will need to meet so that it won't fall apart or otherwise fail.

After these opening chapters concerning fundamentals, the real fun begins, with stepper motors, servos, bearings, bushings, springs, basic electronics, and how to combine them to make simple machines that are useful and fun. The final chapter details a handful of good projects that give you hands-on experience that complements the teachings of the book, such as a miniature wind turbine that powers an LED. Finally, the book closes with an appendix about the popular open source Arduino microcontroller board.

Dustyn Roberts has put together a website and blog for the book. Check it out, the website is very useful. I especially liked the "Resources" page set that is organized around the book's chapter, with videos and links to relevant external resources. Her professional website and blog is also interesting.

As indicated in the quote above, the book is an outgrowth of the author's real classroom experience with real students from diverse academic and professional backgrounds, many with very little or even no hands-on experience of technical work. In this book, she's showing you that you don't have to let this intimidate you and stop you from doing something cool that you really want to do. Study it, work the exercises, apply the principles and you'll get better results from your own DIY projects.

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