In this post I introduce you to a very inspiring and talented young man, Jeremy Blum. Jeremy currently works at Google (X) and has been involved in some truly amazing projects in his short 24 years. He graduated with a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Cornell University and also worked with Makerbot in Brooklyn. Jeremy has created the #1 rated educational material both written and video for the open source Ardueno electronics platform.
Jeremy will be someone to watch in the coming years and I’m sure he will continue to inspire us with his work. In this post, Jeremy answers some questions about his journey in “Making” and includes interesting links to several of his projects.
Many of the engineers I speak with remember being very curious about how things worked from a young age. When you were growing up did you find it irresistible to take things apart to explore how they worked?
Yes, I took everything apart. My computers while I was growing up were open more frequently than they were closed. Long before I started with electronics or computers, I spent a decent amount of time doing woodworking and building furniture.
Even from a young age, I was pretty good about documenting what I was doing so I could put things back together afterwards. However, sometimes I had the opportunity to take things apart that were already beyond the point of no return. Those projects were always my favorite because I could just tear into the device without worrying about damaging it along the way. This is the main way that I learned about how computers work.
Were your Parents supportive of your curious nature?
Yes, always. For as long as I can remember my parents have always supported my curiosity, and have given me the tools (both literal and figurative) that I’ve needed to succeed. To this day, they continue to wholeheartedly support all my endeavors, even when they don’t understand what I’m doing. My grandmother, a biology professor, has also always been incredibility supportive of my curious nature. I attended one of her college lectures when I was five, and remember being completely fascinated. The college students in the class had a good laugh when I raised my hand to answer questions.
Do you remember your first computer? I imagine this computer went through some modifications. Tell us about that.
The very first computer I had access to was an old PowerMac. This was probably around 1995 – I was five. I only remember one application that I used on that machine – a frog dissection simulator that I had gotten from my grandmother’s biology class. I eventually convinced my parents to get a new computer, and that one, a Dell Dimension tower PC, underwent major surgery on several occasions. I’m still amazed that that machine continued to work for as long as it did. I ran a computer repair company in high school, and often refurbished old machines for donation. While doing that, I probably completely disassembled and reassembled about 300 computers. The first computer that I built completely from scratch was in 2006. It was also the topic of my first-ever YouTube video. That same YouTube channel now has over 8 million unique views spread over 100+ videos.
What kind of electronic projects did you find interesting in high school?
I did a ton of work building computers in high school, but my first real exposure to embedded electronics and electrical engineering wasn’t until my sophomore year, with the start my three-year research endeavor into the field of intelligent prosthetics. Working with Dr. Kyberd at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, I designed, built, and validated a method for controlling below-elbow prosthetic hands. The project was a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search and I had the opportunity to present it at the National Academy of Science in Washington, DC.
Tell us about the work you did at the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell.
I worked in the Creative Machines Lab in some capacity for most of my time at Cornell University. In fact, one of the reasons that Cornell was my top-choice school was because I had read about the Creative Machines Lab (then called the Computational Synthesis Lab) in Popular Mechanics magazine, and I wanted to contribute to the work they were doing. During my time in the lab, I contributed to several projects:
- I designed the electronics and software for a robot capable of scaling and manipulating an arbitrary truss-structure, autonomously. This is published in IEEE Robotics and Automation.
- I designed module and base-station electronics for a system of self-assembling cubes.
- I developed embedded software and electronics for a learning, walking quadrupedal robot.
- I designed control electronics for 3D printers.
- I developed methods for 3D printing metal as part of an effort to 3D print complete mechanical systems.
In an interview with Jeffry Lipton at Maker Faire a few years ago, he was demonstrating 3D Printing with food. Did you work on this 3D Printed food project with Jeffrey and what challenges do you see with the 3D printing of food?
I worked on the Fab@Home project for a while, but I didn’t personally focus on food printing. However, I did 3D print a cookie for my TEDx talk about open Source Society. Obviously, 3D printing doesn’t make sense for all types of food. I’d like to see a completely programmable
Cookie Printer. Tell it what kind of cookie you want, and it should print it out and bake it all in one unit.
You were also involved in a project at Cornell that explored technology for using fiber optics to bring sunlight into buildings for lighting. Tell us about this project? What was your role? What is going on with the project now?
Indeed, as the recipients of a prestigious grant from the EPA, I worked with other engineers and designers to design a system for using focused fiber-optics to pipe natural sunlight into the interior of a building. This was my primary master’s research at Cornell. I designed a fully-functional network-connected light fixture with an aperture for combining natural light with tuned LED light. Our working prototype of this system was displayed in Washington, DC. We spun our LED color matching algorithms out into a company called SUNN. I served as the CTO of SUNN until I joined Google [x]. I still sit on the board for SUNN, which has pivoted to focus on building lighting control software (instead of building actual lighting hardware).
After graduating from Cornell you spent several years working as an engineer at Makerbot in Brooklyn. What was that like and what projects did you work on?
Actually, all of my time at MakerBot was while I was still enrolled as a student at Cornell. I started there as a Kessler Fellow after my Junior year, and I continued to consult for them (sometimes remotely, and sometimes on-site) for a little under two years. I learned a ton in my time at MakerBot, and I worked with really amazing people. The knowledge I gained in that role helped prepare me for much of what I do now. I worked on electronics upgrades to the MakerBot Thing-O-Matic, I designed the electronics for the MakerBot Replicator (3rd Gen Machine), and I designed the first electrical prototype of the MakerBot Digitizer 3D Scanner. When I started Makerbot was roughly 20 people. By the time I stopped consulting there were several hundred people working for the company. It was fascinating to watch the growth of a startup from both the inside and the outside. It’s tough to grow that quickly.
Do you feel the IP wars will kill innovation and ultimately slow development in the 3D Printing sector?
Regardless of what IP wars may or may not be happening, I’ve been really impressed by the evolutionary speed of the 3D printing sector, both by larger companies, and individual hobbyists. If there are “IP wars,” their influence doesn’t seem to be preventing academics and hobbyists from making strides with their 3D printing technology.
What advice would you give a young person today who is interested in a career in the field of engineering?
Never let anybody else tell you what you “should” or “shouldn’t” do. If you’re interested in technology, math, and science, then does whatever you can to soak up all the knowledge you can get. Take things apart. Buy old computers from yard sales and take them apart. Build anything. And, don’t be afraid of the theoretical stuff. When engineering students get to college, many get scared off by the theoretical classes. Many universities have tons of opportunities to get involved in “hands on” projects. Take advantage of those opportunities. You’ll learn more from those than you will from many of your classes anyways. Of course, don’t slack off in your classes, but don’t make them your only focus.
Do you see ways we could improve education in America to include more classes in Making and Design?
There is always room for improvement. Part of the reason we don’t graduate more engineers in America is because we scare them off when they are young. Early math and science courses should be supplemented with hands on components so that students get a sense for what engineers really do – we don’t just solve math problems all day, with no end goal.
Tell us about the educational materials you created on Arduino.
I’ve been using the Arduino as a platform to teach introductory computer science, electrical engineering, and human-computer interaction principles for about four years. It started with a series of extremely popular youtube tutorials that have now been watched by millions of people all over the world. These videos are totally free and are supplemented by lots of open source code and projects that I post on my blog. Last year, I released Exploring Arduino, a comprehensive book that can teach anybody about Arduino. It is the highest-rated Arduino book on Amazon, and is currently being translated into a multitude of languages. I teach free workshops whenever I can.
Many people complain about the speed of FDM 3D Printers. What new types of faster 3D Printers are on the horizon and is there a new technology you’ve seen that you’re excited about?
FDM will continue to get faster with more sophisticated control algorithms, more tightly controlled extruder settings, and better mechanical setups. Other technologies can offer slightly faster speeds, but no 3D printing technologies will ever be as fast as mass-production options like injection molding. 3D printing is meant for one-off prototyping, not mass production. I think that within a few years, 3D printers will be fast enough that they are no-longer a development bottleneck, but I doubt they’ll ever get to the speed where they could act as a mass-manufacturing solution. I think bringing cost down is way more important than speeding up these machines.
You now work for Google X on the Google Glass project. What is it like to work at Google? Are there any new developments with Google glass you can share with us?
I can’t share anything that isn’t already public. I love working at Google – I work with awesome people, and get to solve really exciting and challenging engineering problems every day.
What is your vision for the future of 3D Printing?
I want to be able to go on Amazon.com, click on a product, and have it print out in front of me – the electronics, the battery, the mechanics, everything. The question is, can the intellectual property constraints be overcome, and can engineers solve the technical hurdles associated with this kind of technology? I’m not sure, but I certainly hope so.