Monday, March 29, 2010

Emriver Em2 geomodel redesign, can you help?

We're continuing our redesign of the venerable Emriver Em2.  I expect we'll be building a lot of these in the next few years, and as I've mentioned here before, now is a good time to step back and see how we can make it better.

Here you can see the major changes.  The box is only slightly smaller; the decreased depth fools the eye and makes it look much smaller, but the box was deeper than it needed to be, and we're eliminating extra metal, weight, and cost.  The old box was efficient in that it was made from a complete 4'x8' sheet of aluminum.

The new box, and the entire setup, will be smaller, lighter, and easier to set up, and also shippable via UPS, which will further reduce cost and hassle, especially for export. 

The new Em2 will have smaller legs that attach to the box; these will weigh half what the old ones did, and can be converted for lab use with the addition of casters.

Lots of good things.

But most importantly, can you help?  If you're a current Em2 user, please head over to Survey Monkey and take a very short survey.  Give us as much information as you can.

And even if you're not an Emriver user, we welcome your input.  Thanks!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cara Bergscheider leaves LRRD.

In late January Cara Bergschneider left LRRD to work for the NRCS in southern Illinois.  We miss her very much.  She's one of a kind.

When I decided to expand LRRD from a home-based business in 2007, I knew I'd need an extraordinary person to handle a broad range of science and marketing work.  We advertised nationally and the applications poured in.

 Cara went around the system and called me on a Sunday at home.  She said her husband had insisted she wait a full day after seeing the advert to call me so she could calm down.  She and Devin were in upstate New York, but had decided only a few weeks before to make Carbondale their home, where they both had roots.  

She was indeed excited, and her skills were a wonderful fit.  After seeing her accomplishments and hearing incredible reviews from her references I hired her sight unseen.

Cara did so many things to build LRRD in what ended up being very tough economic times.  She's very good at grant research, and an incredibly bright, happy, and positive person.  She understood and believed in our mission - education, science, and conservation - and conveyed that to clients and collaborators.  

Cara is universally admired.  

She worked on many technical issues; we spent months figuring out the right colors for our Em4 media.  And logistical problems; how to ship our Em2 models, how to get the best deal on two thousand pounds of plastic modeling media.  Cara talked with hundreds of clients and worked to help them get grants to buy our models.

She spent hundreds of hours working on an NSF CCLI grant we continue to pursue; this year with 17 collaborators on ten campuses.  If we're finally funded this year it will be thanks to her hard work, there is no way I could have done it without her.

Cara joined us in October 2008, just as the US economy began the decline to the fall 2009 market crash.  Our sales, dependent on tax revenues, plummeted.  It was a hard time, I was overwhelmed and lacked the business and leadership skills we needed.  We didn't get to do the fun and rewarding stuff and instead spent a lot of time marketing; grant writing, and just staying afloat.  Cara rose to the challenge, but this was not what she signed up for--she's a soils and wetlands scientist, not a down market salesperson. I thank her for enduring and helping LRRD through those hard times.

I miss Cara very much, but am grateful she worked with us for two years while LRRD was growing.  

Cara and her husband Devin, with their beautiful children Shawnee and Trillium, are doing great things in southern Illinois, including organic farming, music, and sustainable living.

Thank you Cara, you were instrumental in building LRRD, and I wish you the best.

River models and young students; redesign continues.

Last week Andrew Podoll , a graduate fellow working with SIUC's NSF-funded GK-12 Heartland Ecological/Environmental Academic Research Training (HEART) borrowed one of our Em2 models for a local elementary school's "science night."  He and the model were huge there, and I was excited to hear that parents of autistic students noted their kids opened up with the models.

Andrew's experience reinforced a hypothesis we're working on, that small models like ours are remarkably compelling to students and may be near perfect science teaching tools.  Kids are fascinated by the water-sand interaction, and can see, touch, and control most of the variables.

Thanks to Andrew for doing this, it made my week.  If a current proposal is funded by NSF, this will be happening a lot, and I'll be very happy about that.

And here's a photo of me working in the shop today, with a mock-up of a leg attachment design.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Redesign of the Emriver Em2.

I'm super excited about our redesign of the Emriver Em2 model.  After many hours of meetings, emails, CAD work, research on materials and methods, and prototype building, I think we have the basic design figured out. 

The first design, based on twenty years of tweaking, has been wonderfully received, but now we can see the Em2 will be built in hundreds, if not thousands of copies, so now is the time to refine the design.

I want to keep these models accessible (to conservation groups and others who don't have much money) by keeping them simple, locally repairable, and adaptable to user-made parts and repairs.  I hope to keep the models inexpensive, open source,  and supported by grant-funded curriculum development.

I had visions of a sleek Euro design, but what's emerged is elegant in a less obvious way, like the old Coleman stoves I mentioned here two years ago.

This work will also make the Em2 shippable via UPS.  A big deal for our users and for export.

Lab time is precious.  Our users really appreciate simple, obvious assembly and operation because they have better things to do than fuss with equipment.

We're working on legs that will replace the aluminum "horses" we now use.  The horses are great, but a bit bulky and very expensive to build, so we've designed attachable legs that will be lighter, easier to use, and less expensive.

It's one thing to build an instrument that will work, and another to create something that's mass producible, needs little maintenance, and is safe, shippable, and obvious to operate.

Here are some of the constraints and parameters we considered, and these are just for the legs!

1. Manufacturablity/cost; minimum weight and parts count, welds, etc.
2. Robustness; long-term indestructible; very high margin of safety.
3. Safe from thoughtless use ("idiot proof," I don't like that term);
5. Redundant safety with near-zero chance of catastrophic collapse;
6. Usability with laminated wooden legs or other open source things users can build
7. Easy user assembly on initial ship; legs cannot be attached for UPS shipping;
8. Very simple, obvious, and satisfying in assembly and operation;
9. Very solid with little/no flex in use.
10.  Elegant, engineered appearance; strong; attractive.
11.  Box will be carried (i.e in a pickup), bottom cannot have sensitive components, box should have zero parts that stick out and snag.
12. Buildable without exotic extrusions or parts, locally repairable if damaged.
13.  Locally and easily repairable with off the shelf parts. 

Photos of my messy workbench (per request of my wife) and of a design that didn't make the cut.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Research and development at LRRD.

I'm way overdue on an LRRD progress report:  We're doing research and development on several fronts, including sensors and methods for full motion controlled models.  In English that means that things like valley slope, water and sediment discharge, standpipe height (and thus base level control), etc. can be controlled and monitored by microprocessors. 

Our museum models could autonomously do demonstrations, and for research, models could slowly alter variables (e.g. sediment input and valley slope) over hours or days, and record response data.  And students and researchers can observe model behavior as they see digital displays of key variables.

The shop is full of electronics, scraps of wood, aluminum, plastic, and little prototype models.

Chris Krumm, a renaissance man in Minneapolis who does electronics, art, welding, you name it in his museum designs, has been a great collaborator; we're working with a couple of museums on motion controlled models.  Many thanks to Chris for his help.  The photos here show some sensor/microprocessor systems we're working on.

There are amazing (and cheap) ways to sense and control things out there now, and I hope to develop open source hardware and software--i.e. things that students can build themselves, for sensing and recording data with our models.

We're redesigning the Em2 models.   I hope we will soon make them shippable by UPS (they're too big now).  The models have many years of dedicated design behind them, and won't change much, but the changes will improve usability and reduce cost.  We have to keep cost down so nonprofits and educators can afford our models for river conservation work, especially in this rotten economy.

Here you see Lily Hwang, a grad student at SIUC who's finishing an MS in forest hydrology (my master's topic).  Lily's been a huge help, volunteering now and then; with Jesse Reichman gone, and orders for Em2 models coming in fast, I really appreciate that!  We've been shipping the models in pairs lately.  Lily's been a blast to work with, and shares my interest in urban stream restoration.

We're continuing development of a small "2D" flume, a model intermediate between the Em2 and Em4, on grant proposals, videos, and consulting projects, including urban work in St. Louis and on the Cache River system in southern Illinois.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Little River rides the economic roller coaster.

Or better, the bobsled.  This figure is from a recent report by the National Federation of Independent Business (via Andrew Sullivan's blog and the Economist).

With strong encouragement and financial support from my wife Kate, I expanded Little River Research & Design in mid-2007, growing from a home/garage business that was doing very well (for 17 years) to a nice building in Carbondale with three professional staff.

Our mission was simple:  Make wonderful educational tools nobody else would, and make a decent living at it.

You might say we couldn't have picked a worse time.  The market dropped soon after and collapsed in the fall of 2008.  Kate and I saw the value of our savings plummet even as we needed cash to keep young LRRD going through the recession.

We had a front row seat for the economic meltdown.

Budgets of our river model clients, universities, schools, NGO's,  were cut.  At many institutions, funding has dropped nearly 20%.  Though educators loved them, our Emriver Em2 models were dropped as budgets were slashed.

I haven't paid myself since 2007.  Thanks for taking up the slack, Kate.  And to people who've helped in other ways, like this and this.  And for the strong support from colleagues at SIUC.

Things are looking better now.  We've sold an Emriver Em2 a week for the past five weeks.  We will deliver a couple of Em4 models this year.  I'm covered with consulting requests, and we're collaborating on several grant proposals, including a big one to NSF.

It's been tough.  But the phone rings constantly now, and it's always something interesting.  We're working with several museums, and have models at universities all over North America, and soon will be exporting Em2 models.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

How to give a good presentation.

I've just finished reading Callan Bentley's post on how to give a good talk, along with many good comments at his new venue,  Mountain Beltway.

Go there and read it!  Here are a few slides to support the comments I left.  I'm a believer in Edward Tufte's design paradigms; you'll see them in my talks and movies.

Examples in my movies here--especially the
Grand River meandering sequence.

At left, some examples from my GSA talk last year:  Top, very simple graphics with Tuftian colors and the real thing compared with a schematic.

Next, more Tuftian colors and judicious use of "ink," though now I see the text at the top might be eliminated (clearly it's a time series). These are frames from one of my videos--I put a lot of work into the colors we used for the river model media (and adjusted them in editing).   And I like the design here. 

Lastly, an image from the first Godzilla movie (more here)--I used this to illustrate how gravity figures into physical model scaling.  Aside from the humor, I like the transparent black and white boxes and white text.  Unless you're doing a TV commercial for cheap furniture, you don't need to grab attention with color--use colors that please the eye and don't distract.

Looking at these again I can see several things I'd do to improve them.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Jesse Riechman leaves LRRD.

I hired Jesse Riechman as a prototyper in late summer of 2007 as LRRD outgrew my home office.  Jesse left us last November to become a full time grad student in SIUC's Forestry program.

Jesse had many skills, from fixing motorcycles to deftly dropping 250-pound drums of media from a pickup truck bed to the ground.  He built our shop from the ground up.  A Carbondale Townie, he was incredibly resourceful, knew everybody and could fix or find or borrow anything--these skills were a huge help to us as we moved into a new building and found our way. 

He streamlined parts making for our Em2 models, and came up with a near zero non-recyclable packaging system for shipping them.

Jesse developed a standpipe for the Em2 and Em4 models using a shaft seal from motorcycle shocks--this problem, of a pipe sliding up and down in highly abrasive media--had vexed me for years.  His system is elegant, inexpensive, and works flawlessly.  He also designed and built much of the sophisticated pumpcart for the Em4 model.

Jesse was an important part of LRRD's history.  There are dozens of photos of him on this blog, making parts, solving problems, and carrying an Em4 model up eight flights of stairs at St. Louis University.  I wish him the best.