Monthly Archives: May 2007

Rube Goldberg is Alive and Well

“Rube Goldberg” is alive and well in Harry Potter’s neighborhood. Three blokes in their mid-twenties, graduates of elite Cambridge University, have developed fantastic mechanical chains of devices, like sliding chess pieces, dropping hammers, and perfectly aimed darts that keep the crazy sequence going on video. They reckon four to five million people have watched their clever automation process on screen.

Their contraption videos are a brilliant effort to promote the young company of these clever mechanical engineers who specialize in manufacturing and design creativity. I urge every reader to go to their website, to see their hard work.

I talked to Tom Baynham, one of the creative engineers, about the group’s business plan, and how the popular videos fit into it. He says they are in the manufacturing and design creativity business. They are currently working on a project for a firm providing portable machine tools for the oil industry. They have spent time at the Mazak plant in Japan and see a future for their innovative approaches to making things.

He says that their videos have brought them notoriety and networking opportunities in manufacturing circles, but my sense is that they have not grasped the potential of the films.

They have a superb opportunity to turn their site into a huge social networking venue for people interested in mechanical things. This could lead to opportunities in toys, construction, even apparel – judging by the young guys from Threadless. They also could try the citizen contest method, which could culminate in an interesting show approach.

What these fellows have done is discover the latent interest in intricate mechanical contraptions. This implies big opportunities for machining companies to popularize and humanize their websites with similar creative efforts.

If I was looking for a company to make something, and found a group with the creative acumen of a Rube Goldberg master, I would definitely give them a shot at my work.

It is not a big leap to connect the dots from wacky contraption to perfect machined parts.

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A Perfect Day

Sometimes I have a day when everything comes together and I have to say, “Thank you, God, for allowing me to experience it.”

I had one on May 7th. Noah and I had an interview scheduled with Eitan Wertheimer, Chairman of the Board of Iscar, the huge Israeli cutting tool firm that he and his father Stef built. They just sold 80 percent of the company to Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway for $4 billion.

We got to the Standard Club in Chicago a half hour early, stepped into the elevator and Eitan introduced himself to us. He was ready to start the interview at 9:00 instead of 9:30, and we immediately began talking about Iscar, the sale to Buffet, his business career, love of cars, interest in education, the ups and downs of family business and a satchel full of other subjects.

Great chemistry. He wanted my take on business in North America, particularly the car industry and the woes of GM, Ford and the Tier Ones. I wanted to get his view of Israeli politics. He said that in business you can develop good people and work with them for a long time, but in politics you have no choice but deal with a bunch of difficult personalities.

He had advice for Noah about family business. The two of them seemed to hit it off immediately. Eitan’s oldest son is Noah’s age and is trying his hand at being an internet entrepreneur.

The interview lasted 75 minutes, and I felt like we could have talked for hours, but I knew that other people were waiting for a piece of his day in Chicago.

So we left the elegant, old Standard Club to prepare for our later interviews that day. Noah was preparing to talk to the twenty-something owners of Threadless, a custom tee-shirt company that is rewriting the business script of retail, and I was going to see the young entrepreneurs at Microlution, a machine tool startup on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

Microlution is making a CNC milling machine, smaller than a desktop computer. The next version of the tool will be adding a tool changer with the same kind of tiny footprint or, to be more precise, handprint. These young engineers worked on this stuff when they were students at the University of Illinois and are now translating it into what they hope will be a viable business. They are working on a big development contract from the Navy, they hope to sell four machines by the end of 2007 and 20 next year.

I think that they are doing something very cool. The current machine is potentially a design engineer’s best friend because the engineer could make prototypes literally at his desk by himself, skipping layers of bureaucracy and enormous tooling expense in a traditional big company setting. The engineer could make ten iterations of a component in a fraction of the time it would take to job it out or send it to a big company’s toolroom for prototyping.

I was impressed with their product, and I liked the way they think. I had a 5:00 p.m. reception for the American Israeli Chamber of Commerce back downtown, and I needed a ride. In a moment of inspiration I asked Andy Phillip, one of the brains at Microlution, if he would like to meet Eitan Wertheimer of Iscar. After a long moment of pondering his schedule, he said yes.

We stopped by his apartment in the city (he lives two blocks from Noah), so he could change into a suit and tie for the old school meet-and-greet for big shots at the Conrad Hilton on Michigan Avenue.

We walked into the reception (for the American/Israeli Chamber of Commerce) and saw Eitan Wertheimer surrounded by a gaggle of people. He immediately greeted me buoyantly and asked me if Noah was coming. I told him no, but I had another young guy named Andy Phillip that he had to meet. I briefly described the Microlution product, and then the two men started to talk shop. After 10 minutes they exchanged cards and promised to email. Then Eitan introduced Andy to several men from Pratt and Whitney, with whom he has a big joint venture making jet engine blades in Israel. One of the aircraft engine guys we met has 450 design engineers working under him.

I got a huge kick out of it. Will anything great come of the interviews and the matchmaking? It already has for me.

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