The Ride Begins
One of the reasons I love working at Blinds.com is that you never know what type of “extracurricular” project you may have a chance to work on. In my short ten months with the company I’ve helped build a giant Angry Bird out of canned food to benefit Houston Canstruction, participated in a lip dub video, and was recently part of a team tasked with building a Rube Goldberg machine to decorate a conference room at our new office.
[A Rube Goldberg machine is an overly complex machine designed to perform a simple task]
My co-workers, Hung Cao and Stephen Nelson, and I were teamed with students from the after school engineering program at Booker T. Washington High School led by Dr. Nghia Le. Before meeting the students, Jay Steinfeld, Blinds.com’s CEO, communicated the goals of the project to us: the students were to design and build a Rube Goldberg machine that would raise and lower a remote controlled window shade in The Ride (a conference room named for “Enjoy the Ride”, our company’s fifth core value). Furthermore, the design and construction of the machine was to be completely done by the students, without any influence from the Blinds.com team (but we were able to help with the installation).
An Engineering Paradise
We then set off to the high school to meet the students and tell them about the project. On my first trip to the school I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, but what I found there really impressed me. It was a scene that reminded me of the cargo bay of a Jawa’s sandcrawler—odd looking remote control devices, Raspberry Pis, Arduino boards, a washing machines transformed into a high speed centrifuge and even a 30 foot rocket, were strewn about the classroom. This was not the typical classroom I had imagined. After seeing their creations, I wasn’t surprised to find out that the students were working on projects with NASA.
After a brief introduction, I explained the project vision and ten students volunteered to work on the machine. The volunteers immediately started to brainstorm ideas for components that could be used to create the machine. The students discussed the merits of each component and decided which ones they would focus on in their design. The students drafted an initial blueprint, nominated a project manager and set about building the machine over the next few weeks.
A Marathon Build
The project manager reported the team’s progress to me twice a week, requesting materials to build the machine and asking questions about the layout of our conference room. I visited the students each Thursday after school to answer questions and check on their progress. After about a month of planning and testing, the day for installation arrived and five students came to our office to set up the machine. The thing we quickly discovered about Rube Goldberg machines is just how finicky they are. If even the smallest component is just slightly askew, the chain reactions that power the machine will fail and the device won’t work. We installed each component in turn, making adjustments as we added each new component. After about 10 hours, several significant modifications and three runs to the local Ace Hardware store, we emerged with a bona fide Rube Goldberg machine consisting of:
A glass marble that is launched via a pinball machine plunger up a PVC pipe where the marble slowly crosses the room and drops into a clear, spiraling plastic tube device. As the marble exits the tube, it launches a metal ball from a newton’s cradle, which tips over a metal pinball into a paper towel tube and onto the launch button of a Hot Wheels loop set. This shoots a Hot Wheels car into a chrome ball bearing that jumps into a transparent staircase, down into a plastic collection basket and through a tube that hits another metal pinball and sends it rolling down an electric train track. When the pinball hits the end of the track, it completes an electrical circuit powered by a 9 volt battery, triggering an electro extender that pushes a button on the shade’s remote control, thus lowering or raising the shade.
See It In Action:
It was quite a feeling of accomplishment for everyone the first time we saw the machine work flawlessly from start to finish. During the project I had a great time seeing the students’ creativity in action and getting to know each of the students and Dr. Le. I’d be stretching the truth to say it works perfectly every time, but just like most of the projects life hands you, things don’t usually go according to plan. But if you keep the right mindset… you can always enjoy the ride.
Are you finding ways to enjoy the ride?