Austere Engineering Hack Chat

When disaster strikes, engineers strike back

Wednesday, January 22, 2020 12:00 pm PST Local time zone:
Hack Chat
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Laurel Cummings will host the Hack Chat on Wednesday, January 22, 2020 at noon PST.

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For most of us, building whatever it is that needs building is something that occurs in relative comfort and abundance. Sure, there are cold workshops and understocked parts bins to deal with, but by and large, we're all working in more or less controlled environments where we can easily get to the tools and materials we need to complete the job. 

But not all engineering is done under such controlled conditions. Field operations often occur miles from civilization, and if whatever you need is not in the back of the truck, it might as well not exist. At times like this the pressure is on to adapt, improvise, and overcome to get the job done, especially if people's lives and well-being are at stake.

All of this is familiar territory for Laurel Cummings, an electrical engineer and an associate at Building Momentum, a technology development and training concern based in Virginia. Her job is to get out in the field and work with the company's mainly military and corporate clients and help them deal with the challenges of austere environments, including disaster response efforts. 

From a North Carolina beach ravaged by Hurricane Florence to the deserts of Kuwait, Laurel has had to think her way out of more than a few sticky situations. Join us as we discuss what it takes to develop and deploy field-expedient solutions under less-than-ideal situations, learn how to know when good enough is good enough, and maybe even hear a few war stories too.

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 2

    Lutetium01/22/2020 at 21:10 0 comments

    Laurel Cummings1:02 PM
    It could be worth a shot! We have a post-disaster part of our work as well, that is a really valuable process in my eyes.

    Laurel Cummings1:03 PM
    Most times when we get back, if we've built a system to be implemented in the field, we actually rebuild it as home, in our workshop with central A/C, component walls, and PCB mills, just to see how it can be improved, and if we can send any suggestions to the people we left the project with in the field.

    salec1:04 PM
    You are not providing sufficient data, all we have is the distance of water level from surface and type of power used.

    zeeleez1:04 PM
    any online library/biblioteque accessible? Genre: Computer science, hack, 3D.

    free pdfs would be great.

    It's a while i can't find any 3D implementation.

    Dan Maloney1:04 PM
    But we are at the end of the hour, and if Laurel needs to get back to work we should let her. Feel free to stay on and chat as long as you want, though. For now, I just want to say thanks to Laurel for her time today, and for an interesting discussion. I think I've got some stuff I need to do to start getting better at this game - deliver something quickly and then work from there.

    Dan Maloney1:05 PM
    Thanks Laurel! And remember that we'll be sort of continuing this theme next week wit Dr. Tarek Lobani, talking about 3D-printed medical devices:

    Dan Maloney1:06 PM

    Laurel Cummings1:06 PM
    This was a great time! Thanks for the opportunity to talk about this, I appreciate being able to share how engineering techniques can change drastically depending on where you are doing the engineering. Thanks for hosting, Dan!

    Dave Zirkle1:06 PM
    Thanks Laurel!

    Nicolas Tremblay1:06 PM
    Thank you Laurel. You left us plenty to think about. It's been a great chat

    Laurel Cummings1:07 PM
    I'm happy to keep talking about the pump, or any other problems, if people are interested. The time frame on the pump one has kind of expired, but if you'd like to follow-up, anyone's welcome to email me at or message me on here!

    Laurel Cummings1:07 PM
    Thank you all for coming out to talk about this, I have a few more minutes if anyone has any lingering questions!

  • Hack Chat Transcript, Part 1

    Lutetium01/22/2020 at 21:09 0 comments

    Dan Maloney11:59 AM
    Hi all -- we'll get started with the Hack Chat in a few minutes. Haven't seen @Laurel Cummings log in yet.

    Laurel Cummings joined  the room.12:00 PM

    anfractuosity12:00 PM

    de∫hipu12:00 PM
    speak of the devil

    Dan Maloney12:00 PM
    I stand corrected!

    Laurel Cummings12:00 PM

    Laurel Cummings12:00 PM
    Hello everyone!

    Dan Maloney12:00 PM
    Hi Laurel, welcome aboard, and thanks everyone for coming today.

    Morning.Star12:01 PM
    Hey Laurel :-)

    wkpsahl joined  the room.12:01 PM

    Dan Maloney12:01 PM
    Laurel is here to talk about her experiences engineering solutions under less-than-ideal circumstances. Can you tell us a little about your background Laurel?

    Lazer.Coh3n12:01 PM
    hi Laurel

    Laurel Cummings12:02 PM
    Yeah! Firstly thanks so much for hosting this, Dan and Hackaday, and for inviting me to talk about the work I get to do!

    morgan joined  the room.12:02 PM

    Laurel Cummings12:03 PM
    My background is in electrical engineering, but I've been heavily involved in makerspaces and the maker movement as a whole for about 8 years now.

    Morning.Star12:03 PM
    Lol. Hey Morgan :-)

    Laurel Cummings12:04 PM
    When you're in these spaces, you get exposed to a lot of different and weird skillsets and learning opportunities, so most of my experience at this point has come from always being willing to go through those kinds of short courses, trying to help out in strange and varied projects, and collecting skills like you would quarters!

    Laurel Cummings12:05 PM
    I really enjoy hardware work and do most of my work in Arduino and C, and on the side, I do some prop making and electronic music making. :)

    Dan Maloney12:07 PM
    Can you tell us a little more about the outfit you work for? I struggled with how to describe it, settling for a consulting and technology development firm. Did I come close?

    Dave Zirkle joined  the room.12:07 PM

    Laurel Cummings12:07 PM
    Haha, it is a hard place to describe succinctly!

    Laurel Cummings12:09 PM
    So Building Momentum is the company I work for, and our primary business is in the problem solving training field. A large portion of our work is done with the US military, in training active duty military members in a weeklong program called Innovation Bootcamp.

    Laurel Cummings12:10 PM
    We teach them 3D printing, laser cutting, MIG welding, electronics, soldering, Arduino, Raspberry Pis, P2P communications, IP cameras, solar power... just about as much as we can cram in their heads, honestly!

    Tarek Loubani joined  the room.12:11 PM

    Laurel Cummings12:12 PM
    The true objective of this training is to really teach these folks that failure is okay, and is not only acceptable but expected! You're never going to hit the best solution to a problem on the first attempt, and iteration is a vital part of the problem-solving work flow.

    Lazer.Coh3n12:12 PM
    what does the US Military have to do with Arduino and raspberry pi?

    i mean why is it usefull to the military?

    Morning.Star12:12 PM
    /me leaves

    Dan Maloney12:12 PM
    And do you do those bootcamps in their world? Like on bases and forward deployments and such?

    Laurel Cummings12:13 PM
    Yeah, we go to their bases, and usually have to make a fully functional workshop in about a day's time, which is usually a tall task.

    Laurel Cummings12:13 PM
    It can be really difficult to forsee every possible tool, compotent, and technology you'll need to solve at least 95% of the problems that come into that workshop.

    Laurel Cummings12:14 PM
    And that's where our work with the military really starts to tie in with the disaster response side of things, because it's those resource-deprived environments that we've practiced- and gotten good at- working inside of in both disasters and the battlefield.

    Dan Maloney12:16 PM
    It's funny - we're so used to thinking of the military as "$1000 toilet seats" that we forget the day-to-day stuff is resource limited.

    Laurel Cummings12:16 PM
    Lazer, the military is a hugely diverse place, despite the projected image...

    Read more »

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Maximilian Laurenz wrote 01/23/2020 at 16:23 point

I like the idea of an online maker task force suggesting ideas for fast and simple solutions in the field - internet connection assumed :p And the question between doing something fast (and even dirty) or work it out in lots of detail surely has the potential to open a whole area of conflict between makers :-) In some software development fields this is almost an everyday decision to find (with fast solutions evolving to long term solutions driving successive programmers insane if they were not well commented). Thanks for the insight.

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