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If You Build It...

If You Build It...Will Langford (E'12) uses his passion for engineering to energize the do-it-yourself community.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [03.31.10] If Will Langford (E'12), needs a coat hook for his dorm room, you won't find him looking for one at the university bookstore. He'd much rather make it.

"I build things because I want to and because I can," says the 19-year-old mechanical engineering major. So when he came to Tufts and saw a need for a robotics club, he did what he always does - he made it.

Meeting a few times a month at the Center for Engineering Educational Outreach in Curtis Hall, the half-dozen club members work with minimal banter and great concentration, soldering wires and using computer software to program the movement of their robots, with Langford looking on, often in a mentor role. While the group is not officially recognized by the student senate, that's on Langford's to-do list, too.

Though club members do enter their work into competitions-their 12-pound "battlebot" creation "Jumbonator" was made to "fight" other robots - Langford says his goal is more about providing an outlet for hands-on learning.

His most recent brainchild-the tiny square "sumobot," which resembles the ghosts from the arcade classic Pac-Man-is designed to do just that. Over winter break, Langford put together several sumobot assembly kits, made up of motors, wiring and circuit boards, for each member of the club. "Once the kit is refined, I'm hoping to target it to high school and middle school students" to introduce them to robotics, Langford says.

Manufacturing at Home

Langford's do-it-yourself persona took hold in childhood, first with Legos building blocks and quickly progressing to robotics during middle school. Moving to Singapore with his family during high school, Langford says there was very little programming for those interested in robotics. But, as always, he found a way to work around that by doing an independent study where he built a faux-head that moved its eyes and mouth, and used text-to-speech software to make it talk.

A champion of the "DIY" (do-it-yourself) ethic, Langford says everyone should have an opportunity to be an inventor.

"There's a trend now where people are getting interested in applying their knowledge-it's not just learning out of a textbook," he says. "It's how can I use this knowledge so I can do something, to see some results."

Looking at engineering on a broader level, Langford says it's the responsibility of engineers and product designers to "to situate their solutions within the context that it's needed for." He's getting some of that real-world experience through an internship with MakerBot Industries, a Brooklyn-based start-up that uses computer-aided design software to produce 3-D pieces like his dorm room coat hook.

The way the printer works is both simple, and slightly magical. Using a small, heated platform, plastic tubing is fed through the top of the printer and slowly melted and cooled. Currently limited by the platform size, which is between four and six inches in diameter, the printer is great for building smaller scaled pieces, from salt shakers to earrings. 

Will Salisbury (E'12), Langford, Jonah Kadoko (E'12)

"Their whole aim is to make these 3-D printing machines that usually only universities and research institutions have, because they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and make them available to a lot more people for a thousand dollars," he says.

Having purchased a MakerBot printer himself, Langford says he is excited by the ease of assembly, which will make it more accessible to not just DIY-ers, but also the average consumer.

"It's Ikea," Langford says with a laugh.  "A lot of people just want to be able to design their own things and have them now and not have to just accept whatever design Sony or whatever huge corporation determines is best."

And Langford continues to make more things: glasses to share on the digital design site, or 3-D printed jewelry to sell on Etsy, an online storefront.

"I'm pretty sure I don't want to be stuck in the normal engineering setting, designing normal things," he says. "I want to be testing assumptions. I want to fully physically realize my ideas as much as possible."

Story by Kaitlin Provencher, Web Comunications
Photos by Joanie Tobin, University Photography.
Video production by Joanie Tobin and Kaitlin Provencher.

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