Jeffrey McGrew's blog

Giving a talk at the North Bay Redwood Empire AIA on Thursday, Feb. 11th

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We're happy and honored to included in the North Bay Redwood Empire AIA's 2x4 lecture series.

This Thursday, February 11th, Jeffrey will be presenting several different projects we're in the middle of and our unique design-build studio's method of executing on them.

The talk takes place from 6:00 pm to 8:30 pm at the Chroma Gallery 312 S A St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401.

Would love to see you there!

The Four Levels of Robotic Automation

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Here at Because We Can, we work with a variety of robots and robotic tools. We've almost a decade of experience with it, and we've learned a great deal along the way. And we love to share what we've learned with you.

We interchangeably use the terms 'robot', 'robotic tools', and 'automation' to all mean the same thing: whether by a physical robot, custom computer code, CNC tool, or some combination therein, you're automating some task such that it's not being done by the labor of a person.

When thinking about having a robot do a job, it's important to know why you're going to have the robot do something rather than a person. Robots aren't always better than people, and can be expensive to set up, so you run the risk of spending a lot of time and money with not enough return. Or actually making the end result worse by trying to automate it. Automating something doesn't automatically make it better, and robots aren't great at everything.

We've found that there are four levels of tasks one can give a robot, each increasing in complexity of what the robot can do versis a person. Each one has it's own challenges and risks, so it's important to know where the task you're looking to automate falls. Critically thinking of it in this way will help you from making a costly mistake, and make the best use of automation for your company.

Level One: Same Job, Only Cheaper.

This is a task where it doesn't really matter if the task is being done by a person or a robot. Packing boxes, sorting/loading parts, moving pallets around a warehouse, and other rather basic tasks are good examples what we call Same Job, Only Cheaper. It's where the only value added by doing the task with a robot is that, once the robot is setup, it can do the job cheaper than a person can. Maybe that's because the robot is able to work 24/7, maybe it's because automating the task frees up someone to do higher-value work, maybe it's because the robot replaces several workers and thus is just plain cheaper over time. But what's key here is that whatever the task is, it's not that the robot is that much better at it, it's really just a matter of economics. So when automating this sort of task, the setup and ongoing maintenance costs of the automation are really important to keep under control. Also it's important to remember that robots tend to be very non-adaptable, and can be expensive to re-tool when the task changes. So the economics of it might not work out if retooling costs keep eating up any savings from having a robot do the job instead of a person. People are smart, flexible, and adaptable. Robots aren't.

Level Two: Robot Does It Better.

This is a task where a robot can do the task better than a person. Repetitive production welding, assembly line painting/assembly, basic CNC milling, and other tasks that depend upon accuracy and repeatability are good examples of tasks we call the Robot Does It Better. The value add is obvious, for here the robot is obviously better at the task than a person. But it's important to really understand the task, and if it's really true that the robot is better in this specific instance. While a robot can make a great production welder, being more consistent than a person, if the welding requires great finesse, lots of one-off situations (like repairing elements), or hard-to-reach locations, a person could still be better in the bigger picture. Because setting up the robots takes a non-trivial amount of time and money, it may be better for some tasks to be handled by a skilled person rather than a robot, even if theoretically the robot could do a more accurate and consistent job once set up. Skilled people can make amazing things, robots can only do exactly what you set them up to do.

Level Three: Robot Makes It Easy.

This is a task where not only does a robot do it better, but it makes something that would normally be unbearably complex simple. Complex CNC milling, complex sheet metal folding / punching, complex assembly, and other tasks where every part is unique and there are many parts are good examples of what we call the Robot Makes It Easy. While it would be time-consuming and difficult for a person to cut out hundreds of different unique parts, it's trivial for a robot to do so. This is an area we here at Because We Can are very familiar with, as many of our designs would be far too complex to produce economically by hand. It's an exciting area where working with a robot can add a lot of value. However, while we cut out almost all our parts using robotic tools, we still hand-assemble everything. The key with tasks like this is to use the robot for what it's great for, and use the people for what they are great for. Because we're very rarely making the same thing twice, and we pride ourselves on our high level of craftsmanship of what we make, we've found that the combination of robot-cut parts and skilled assembly and finishing is a winning combination for the kind of work we do.

Level Four: Robot Makes It Possible.

This is a task that can only be done by a robot, and simply can't be done by a person. Working in extremely hazardous locations, trochoidal milling processes, additive/subtractive combined manufacturing, and other tasks that are only possible by using a robot are good examples of tasks we call the Robot Makes It Possible. A great example here is the aforementioned trochoidal milling, A.K.A. 'high speed toolpaths', where a CNC machine moves in an incredibly complex and fast series of arc motions no person would be able to do, no matter how talented a machinist, to cut out complex parts significantly faster. It's not just that the robot is better at this task, it's that there is no way a person could even do the same task in the same way. This is an area where robots can add a significant amount of value, and in some instances can even be the basis for an entire company, invention, or industry. However these are also some of the most complex tasks to use a robot for, requiring either expensive software, talented engineers, or in many cases both. These tasks also require a great deal of vision, for much of the time it's something that's never really been done that way before. So these tasks can also require a great deal of creativity. However, thankfully, due to modern software, sometimes these sorts of tasks can be made accessible. For example, Fusion 360's CAM module does HSM toolpathing, and even makes the process very easy and accessible to even beginning machinists. So the real risk of these tasks is either trying to do them in a way that's too complex, or re-inventing a solution someone else already has that's better than what you came up with. If you think it's only possible with a robot, then you want to do your research and legwork, and find the very best way to only do it with a robot.

While automation is a powerful force, robots are totally awesome, and we dearly love our CNC tools, just like with any technology knowing when and how to apply it is the key to great success. We think that the real money is in empowering people, not replacing them, and that trying to fully automate everything quickly has diminishing returns. People working together with robots can make better, more amazing things more efficiently than robots alone ever could.

We hope our four levels are useful to your thinking, and we'd love to hear what you may have discovered working with these tools too.

The Choreography of Space, or how to make your interior design have a great experience.

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One design concept we bring to every project is what we call a 'Choreography of Space'.

"Choreography" in an architectural context is the idea that a space should 'unfold' as you move through it, directing your experience and attention along the way for maximum effect. Through the design, form, and subtle clues, the space creates specific areas and transitions between areas where you have a specific sort of experience.

Japanese gardens make wonderful use of this idea to pack a lot into a little space. Next time you visit one, pay attention to how they manipulate the ground and pathways and plantings to direct your eyes and feet and the 'feel' of where you are. Imagine this; you're walked into a lovely japanese garden, and are standing by a pond. The ground is smooth and flat, and you look out at the amazing open view of the garden. To your right, you see the hint of another smaller clearing on the shore of the pond. You then notice a tiny path farther to your right that you decide to follow, which turns away from that view, and dives into some dense bamboo. The ground becomes uneven, so you look down at your feet, and notice the amazing little tiny flowers in the undergrowth. As the path turns, it gently turns you a different way back towards the pond, which is now blocked from your view by all the plants. The path suddenly opens up at another little clearing, the ground smoothing back out. This clearing is smaller, more private, with a little bench half facing you and half facing the pond. You stop and think for a moment about what you'd see when you sit on that bench, and so you turn to your left and find another amazingly curated vista across the pond, looking at the garden from a new angle, and realize this is the little clearing you saw earlier.

You've maybe only moved about ten feet as the crow flies, but you've experienced a whole journey! You saw a hint of where you were going to go, but then the plantings and uneven ground directed your attention to what's immediately in front of you and slowed your walking. The plantings also blocked your view when transitioning between "vistas", and the tiny details along the way made you feel like you were going somewhere. Then you arrive, the hint of a bench gets you to turn and look up, and a big reveal happens with an amazing view. And a bench to then enjoy that space and it's different identity than where you started, which you can see from here, and see how the two spots relate to each other.

This all sounds pretty 'fuzzy' and fluffy, but when applied to our built environment it can have a profound effect. It's one of the things that gives a building or a space a real identity. And when done well, it makes the space meet it's goals much better. From Apple Stores to Disneyland to casinos, enormous amounts of time and money are spent on this topic, because it really pays off. By purposely directing people's attention and experience the best features of a space can be celebrated, that space's goals better met, and the space's drawbacks minimized.

How does this work in an indoor space? Let's take a look at a recent project we did, The Interval at The Long Now, as a prime example.

When walking by on the street, the combination of huge welcoming doors, warm lighting, and the spectacle of the stunning Orrey draw people into the space, curious to explore.

The just-right-sized open floor space in front of the Orrery, and the table around the Orrery giving it more 'presence' in the space, causes one to pause and look around for a moment. Seeing the bookcases beyond, the eye is drawn up and to the right, and then down towards just the corner of the bar and the chalkboard robot.

Looking towards the bar, the long table made from the Chime Generator prototype makes the space feel much bigger than it really is. As you move that direction, to see more of the bar perhaps, as it's mostly hidden from this vantage point behind the wunderkammer under the stairs. This element draws your eye towards it as you pass it, with lots of small details and interesting stories of all the various projects the Long Now is doing, encouraging you to slow down to have a nice transitionary moment along the way.

The rounded shape of the wunderkammer encourages you to turn, and the entire bar is revealed. The Brian Eno artwork behind the bar and overhead hanging lights once again draw your eyes up, to see the lovely glowing bottles hanging overhead, which stretch all the way to the little back room and booths along the wall.

What a good idea it seems now to get a coffee or a cocktail, and either hide away in that back room, or join some friends you saw at the big table as you walked in.

This is just one briefly summarised 'path' where we thought deeply about how people would move from the street outside to the bar itself when exploring the space for the first time. The goals were to draw people in, briefly explain the Long Now's mission and projects, and introduce them to all the main elements within this small space quickly while keeping enough mystery intact for further exploration.

Thinking this way about space requires a deep understanding of people, trying to view the experience of the space from many vantage points, and a clear definition of the goals our client has for that space. It's a human-centric powerful design tool we use on every project, and we work hard and closely with our clients to realize the best choreography and experience we can for their project and all it's users. Just think of what we could do together!

Fall 2015 BWC Open House This Friday

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It's time to celebrate the fall, and all the great projects we've been working on. So stop by and join us in the fun!

We are opening our doors for Because We Can's Fall 2015 open house.

We'll be starting early at 5PM and going until 8PM-ish.

We'll be dancing, drinking, snacking, talking, and showing off great projects recently completed and some currently underway. It's a great time to drop by and talk shop with us, too, if you want to learn more about what we do and how we do it.

Kids welcome, but it is a shop and a party. Lots of sharp corners. And they might learn some interesting new words!

Friday, October 2nd

5PM - 8PM

2500 Kirkham St
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 922-8846
Click here for the Google Map.

All are invited, so come on by! We'd love to see you.

Come visit us at NewCo Oakland!

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We're very proud to have been included in the NewCo Oakland event.

NewCo is an awesome event that celebrates creative companies. It's sort of a 'distributed conference', where you get to tour more companies than you'd actually have time to see, hear how they do what they do, and meet lots of amazing people.

We'll be opening our doors at 9 AM on October 8th to show off our robot-enabled shop and give a brief talk on one of our favorite topics: Empowerment through digital fabrication and design! We'll be going over our special seven-step process we use to create amazing buildings, interiors, furniture and art using these incredible tools.

We'll also do an interactive demo of on-demand fabrication, and show you how it's truly possible now to make almost anything locally, quickly, and totally custom— for the workplace or the home.

Click Here to register. Space is limited!

BecauseWeDynamo, a set of Fabrication Nodes for Project Dynamo and Revit

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We here at Because We Can love leveraging technology and creating our own unique way of working to make great things. While we’ve developed a decent amount of in-house software to help our work over the years, I’m very excited and proud to begin sharing some of that work with you, with the initial release of “BecauseWeDynamo”.

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It’s a set of custom-made Nodes for Project Dynamo focused on fabrication. You can find it in the Package Manager in Dynamo under BecauseWeDynamo and the open-source code is hosted here on GitHub.

A wonderful example of what this is all about is shown with the complex triangle walls of our recently completed Shipping Container Lounge project. The organic, flowing interior walls are made up of hundreds of unique triangles joined together to make a fluid, undulating, expressive (yet affordable!) surface.

Making something like this without some automation is almost impossible; the complexity can be hard to manage both in the design and in the building. So we used what’s called in our industry “Generative Design” where the combination of parametric 3D models and intelligent functional programming are used together to have the computer generate the design for you. You set up the rules and the smarts, and let the computer figure out the rest.

Autodesk Revit is wonderful at producing parametric models. We used it to made a special triangle object or ‘Family’ as they are called in Revit that you can flex using math into whatever size and configuration you need. You set the location of it’s three corner points, and the Family produces a flat triangle with radius tips, an offset ‘gap’ between it and the triangle next to it, and even proper placement for the joining hardware and more. This let us ‘hang’ these Adaptive Families off of 3D splined curves, making it easy to control the complex surface of the wall. Rather than model every triangle, we simply can push and pull control points on the splines, and have all the triangles model themselves.

However, just having a nice model of something is only the first 1/3rd of actually getting it built. Managing the production and assembly of hundreds of unique parts can be very daunting! This is where automation via functional programming is a huge help. We needed some way to export every triangle in a format that works with our CNC Router, and we need to label every triangle for ease of assembly. Doing it manually would take forever and is error-prone. Much better to produce a ‘script’ and let the computer automate that task for us!

Project Dynamo is a ‘functional visual scripting language’ for creating, manipulating, and automating all sorts of design data by non-programmers. Rather than write code from scratch, or call on existing libraries, and produce a stand-alone application like a software developer might, tools like Dynamo let us easily create one-off workflow solutions to automate small repetitive tasks and model impressively complex objects. It works fanatically well with Autodesk Revit, and thus was an obvious choice. Plus we really dig it, and dig the people working on it, so it was a joy to use.

Rather than write code, where the ‘flow’ of the program is abstract and non-visual, tools like Dynamo let you ‘draw’ your program. Perfect for visual designers like us! By connecting various Nodes together, you ‘wire’ together a solution for your project-specific problems, iteratively working your way through it as the code runs live and you see the immediate results.

Now, Dynamo is rather new, and it didn’t have all the Nodes we needed for this project. So we decided to create our own custom Nodes to scratch our own itches, and shared them openly for other designer-fabricators to make use of. For as we have for years now we release most of what we do under a creative-commons license.

So one thing our custom Nodes help do is parse the Revit model, label every triangle, lay them all out flat, and then export them to our CNC router for production. Every triangle is not only labeled, each edge of the triangle is labeled so you can easily figure out what edges go together. It made short work of this problem, and helped us make this wonderful and complex design efficiently and effectively.

Within BecauseWeDynamo you’ll find Nodes for part labeling, DXF exporting (with proper true curves!), mesh topology walking, edge labeling, and even our own custom old-school line-based pen-plotter style font suitable for CNC production. We’ve also got some auto-sectioning tools ala 123D Make, and are currently working on Nodes to help automate shop drawing production and development of complex surfaces. You’ll find on the GitHub site some great working examples, and we’ll be developing more samples, how-tos, and actual physical case study objects as well.

Our ongoing goal with this project is to make the fabrication of elements in Project Dynamo and Revit easier and more efficient; thus empowering all designers to be able to make great things like we do.

BWC Meetup at The Interval - this Thursday the 18th, starting at 7

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Meet up with us and help celebrate an amazing year at an amazing place: The Interval at The Long Now.

We'll have the back room this Thursday, December 18th, from 7 PM on, and we'd love to see you there.

The Interval is in the Fort Mason center San Francisco.

Close to several bus lines, plenty of free parking out front, and a paid lot right outside the front door.

The Interval has a full bar, wonderful snacks, great coffee and tea for the non-drinkers, and the restaurant Greens is right next door.

Come drink with us, share stories about your year, and help us raise a toast to the new Chalkboard Robot.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meets this Thursday

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The Bay Area Digital Fabrication Club meet-up is meeting this Thursday.

Graciously hosted by BlueSprout, Oakland's new tech factory, the Club is an informal and fun user's group where designers, fabricators, and artsts share tips and tricks about these amazing tools. This month's meeting is all about cheap and/or free 3D modeling options for 3D printing & subtractive fabrication.

Remember, bring something you've made to show & tell, and get a chance to win a prize: $60 worth of 3D printing filament or CNC tooling, your pick!

Would love to see you there!

Our BlueSprout project, the Oakland-based business accelerator and industrial coworking space, got a write-up in the East Bay Express

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We are huge fans of Oakland, and so we are very excited to share with you the BlueSprout project we've been working so hard on. It just got a great write-up in the East Bay Express.

Go Oakland!

We're speaking at MakerCon

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We're honored to be included in the first Makercon next week. We're very excited to be giving a talk on Building Codes & Makerspaces: What you need to know to Hack that Space.

We'll be talking about all we've learned first hand in helping BlueSprout, the new Oakland-based hardware / business accelerator and industrial coworking space, get off the ground. There are a great deal of pragmatic and code issues that must be sorted to get to work (legally).

Later in the week, we'll also be at the Maker Faire, riding with the Serpent Twins. We'd love to see you next week!

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