Yes, new year is here and it’s a perfect time to get to this blog back again. For this post I decided to look back at some social aspects of my engineer’s year.
As of end of 2017 I joined a new company – IMS Nanofabrication. It’s an Austria based semiconductor fab equipment manufacturer, or, according to their website “leading edge manufacturer of electron multi-beam mask writer systems”. Doesn’t sound as sexy as my previous job involving aerospace and satellites, but I learned this to be an insanely cool stuff. Let me see if I can explain it in more layman terms.
Let’s go back to how modern computer processors are made. To produce a microchip is not an easy-peasy task. You need to put a couple of billions of transistors on a piece of silicon a couple of square cm large. You do it, of course, by UV lightning a silicon wafer in a process called photolitography. This step is only one among hundreds of steps in modern-day IC fabrication process, but a crucial one. The photolitography defines resolution and density of the chip, i.e. a number of transistor you can squeeze on the surface. This is where the word “nanofabrication” comes from. For example, Intel has performed 10 nm process to put 108 millions of transistors per mm2 in their i3-8121U CPU. To preform the photolitography, you need a mask, a drawing of geometrical patterns a couple of nanometers in size that tell where shall transistors stay. Now, can you imagine how difficult it is to print something 10 nm wide? You can bet your home laser printer won’t be able to do it. And this is where IMS comes to play.
Mask writers take a huge portion of semiconductor fabrication industry. In principle, mask writer operation is fairly simple – it’s a beam of electrons drawing cute shapes on a glass substrate. Sounds trivial, but to make it work you need a hell lot of engineering. It was a surprise discovery to me to see how much of manpower, knowledge and capital goes into developing and maintaining one. The machines are as big as two family cars and require 20 highly trained physics PhD’s to operate them. What makes IMS so special on this market is their ability to produce multiple electron beams, printing at the same time. When beams are printing in parallel, they reduce the mask writing process to less than 10 hours, which is a huge deal in this industry.
As you can guess, the company is a lot like small research center, with people from all disciplines coming together, very often working on a line of what is physically possible. My position here is electronics R’n’D, and so far, I’m super excited working on a cutting edge technology with a decisive impact on a modern day world.
In the beginning of May, I took a part at the PyDays Conference – the biggest Python worshiping event in this part of Europe. The conference hosted some of the hottest names from younger generation developers, mostly from the areas of AI, Data science and machine learning. Not exactly areas where I shine, but definitely a good chance to meet fantastic people, listen to amazing tech talks and spread your social web. I also gave a talk about GNU Radio and demonstrated some RTL-SDR classics such as GSM sniffnig and airplane tracking. A bit of an off-topic compared to data science, but if it has Python, everyone’s okay about it.
Another IT conference I attended in May last year, was We Are Developers in Vienna. This one was a bit more glamorous event, having sponsors such as Microsoft and guests such as Steve Wozniak, and taking place in a fancy venue, and costing about 700€. Luckily, I had a friend who was a speaker there and who provided me with a “speaker’s friend” ticket. Thanks, Pawel!
So, I got to see the great Woz live. And he was cool and everything, but … I had a feeling his talk was well rehearsed. His messages and stories seemed like delivered many times already, and lacking an essence. His motivational speech was something along the lines of “follow your dreams” BS from Disney cartoon, accompanied with a personal anecdote where he LOVED typing as a student, and he spent hours and days doing nothing but typing, and he was the fastest typer in the school (“even faster than girls who were doing typing as a job”), and he only followed his passion for typing. And now he’s buying a new Tesla Roadster.
Don’t get me wrong, he is very charming and likable personality. I just think that, being a super star that he is, a lot of public appearances must be planned, rehearsed and non-spontaneous. On the other hand, a talk that impressed me quite a bit, was one of Mate Rimac, a Croatian inventor and entrepreneur. His company, Rimac Automobili, makes world’s fastest electric cars and develops car parts for big players such as Rolls Royce and BMW. His talk was more personal, more coming from the heart and definitely more inspiring.
This was my first Hackaday event of a kind. It was a one-day conference + hackathon in Belgrade, Serbia, and it was fantastic. Hackers and tinkerers from all over the Europe joined in this picturesque panonian city to share ideas and hack together. All Hackaday heroes where there: Mike Szycz, Mike from Mike’s electric stuff, Elliot, Sophie Kravitz and a bunch more. I enjoyed everything from talks to badges us attendees were given to play with to praised Serbian hospitality. The badge was designed by brilliant guy named Voja Antonic, a kind of a Serbian Steve Wozniak. Really? Well, he did make Yugoslavia’s first personal computer, in his flat, back in the ’80s. To make it more intriguing, it was time of import limitations and government oppression, and he needed to smuggle chips from abroad. He’s still rocking, designing cool electronics in California, where he lives now.
The coolest part of the event was definitely a hacking session that took place till the late in the evening. The conference badges were programmable and people went on to make them network together in some way, or play multi-person games on them, or run cool ASCII graphics. Down tempo music, trippy light show and a giant hall turned lab where a bunch of geeks work together to turn the badge into something wild.
In April, I was on a vacation in South East Asia, and I managed to convince my wife to stop by Shenzhen. Needless to say, it was the best part of my trip. I’ve met Scotty Allen from Strange Parts, and this awesome guy took me around the electronics markets and all the cool spots around the city. For a non-suspecting visitor, Shenzhen doesn’t offer much but grey building blocks and smoggy highways spread across the town, but for electronics enthusiast, this place is the closest thing to paradise. It’s a place where you go to buy electronics the same way you buy fruit on a market. It’s unbelievable how much you can find there, from rarest discrete components to fully assembled motherboards.
But what you really want to do there is to find a business contacts. In the 20-stores buildings, thousands of stands stacked one next to another, selling all sorts of components and they are open for business all the time. You can find PCB manufacturers, assembly contractors, CNC and 3D print contractors… Literally, the whole supply chain you could need just sits there and waits on you. For what usually takes a couple of weeks from my workdesk in Europe, here takes couple of hours. You can literally walk in with sketches of your PCB, and have it done the same afternoon. Component delivery is super fast – if they don’t have it right there on the table, somebody will in no time jump on their moped and bring it directly from the factory an hour away. I’ve met many people in hardware business who decided to move there for some time to start up their business and get the first-hand experience in setting up a production.
Not everything there is meant for open daylight kind of business. I had a chance to sneak a peek into the so called black markets. This is where the components that manufacturer didn’t intend to sell find their way to the curious buyer, one way or another. Imagine that in some chip factory, a batch was deemed faulty, or intended for some non-trade purpose. Imagine some incautious technician throwing it in the garbage, or even stealing it from the factory. Well, hidden in the wet streets behind the Shenzhen trade centers, on some shady metro station entrances, you’ll find never seen before Iphone logic boards, lithium batteries, smartphone casings, or flash drive chips. All the implausible cheap electronics from E-bay, like the flash drives you get for 2$ that turn to be a tenth of the claimed size? All come from here.
In the cozy English countryside, there is one of a kind festival called Electromagnetic Field Camp. Some would say it’s an European Burning Man. Open field, filled with hackers, engineers, artists, robots, antennas, home-made race cars, YouTube stars, and one huge robot-spider. Mind-boggling talks by day, sick laser show by night. Extraordinary experience.
I didn’t come as a mere observer there. In order to get me a free daily pass, I needed to present something at the festival, what committee board deems interesting enough. As I was on short notice when I booked a flight, I decided to wrap up something I’ve been working on half the year before – computer vision. But also something that might be cool enough for festivals. I gained some skills on facial recognition algorithms, what gave me an idea. I wanted to build a robot that looks at you, and serves you a beer – if you’re sad! Thus, a CheerrBeer™ was born! I utilized my RPi 3 to run OpenCV and TensorFlow, got some open source emotion recognition Python code from Github. I’ve also built a pump system that pours you a beer, when the computer vision program raises a flag. I’ve built a wooden case, with a help of Fusion 360 and laser cutter in my local maker-space. Actually, now that I think of it, this project deserves a post on its own. Shame I didn’t document it in any way during the past months!
The show was a blast! People would come, curiously examine the machine, and after instructions, show their sad face to the camera window. In return, the CheerBeer would spit out a couple of sad droppings of beer foam into their glass. Friends, who were with me at the festival, put up a show about, inviting everyone to check it out. Soon, visitors lined up in hundreds. Ok, not in hundreds, but enough to make me nervously walk around in circles and leave the show and a machine to my overly hyped friends.
Electronica Trade Fair
This year for the first time I had the chance to visit the world’s biggest, ok, maybe just Europe’s biggest trade fair and conference for electronics, Electronica in Munich. How big it was? It was big enough that in two days of constant cardio among the sellers’ desks I only managed to see a mere fifth of it. And most of it only through a glimpse. It was HUGE.
How was it there? AI, IoT, AI, IoT, it was all about the AI and IoT. Literally everyone came over with a platform for either AI, or IoT, or both combined. I guess that’s what we can expect to see more in 2019. Infineon came with some humanoid robots, Texas Instruments with some millimeter wave radars, Analog Devices with their latest ADCs, Rhode & Schwartz and Keysight with some instrumentation porn and Mouser and Arrow with some free food. It put me down a little to see how much more glam flows around desks of distributors like Arrow, Mouser or Digikey than around actual engineering companies. But I was feeling better very soon, when I got to grab some freebies from their desks, such as my latest BeagleBone and Nucleo from ST Micro.
This was a business trip so nothing much to write about it here and not many cool photos. It was mostly an industry oriented event, and colleague and I were after our company’s suppliers.
Since I already have a cocktail-making machine, it would be a shame not show it a bit more around. If only there was an event where people could show off their self-made funny cocktail machines, a festival of a knid. Hold on! Apparently, there happens to be a yearly event in Vienna, where I live, called Roboexotica – a festival of cocktail-making machines! Crazy! What are the chances! I was happy to apply for the event, and they were happy to have me. All I needed was to activate two more pumps and and cocktail-mixing program in Python. Err, I really should document this somewhere and write about
The whole event was brilliant, I had no clue how many gems are living close to me. People have built various kinds of cocktail-mixing robots, contraptions and all kinds of devices that will fix you a drink when you interact with them in some way. For instance, there were some guys whose machine scans your brain with EEG probes and lets you control amount of cocktail by your thoughts. Another guy made Parkinson’s disease simulator, to raise an awareness over this terrible condition. Some guys went eco-friendly and made a machine with no electrical parts, using only Bernoulli’s principle and force of gravity; some others, on the other hand, made a machine that looks like a hobo and vomits a cocktail when you punch it. And so on. Fun event, definitely going to check again.