Bill Atterbury What It’s Like Being A 40 Year Engineering Veteran At The Same Company
What to learn in this episode?
What it’s like to work for 40 years in the same company? We put that question to Bill!
There’s a lot to learn about becoming an engineer. In this episode of The being an engineer podcast, Bill Atterbury discusses what he learned working 40 years at the same company, the importance of process, and how to mentor young engineers.
Who is Bill Atterbury
Over his 40 year tenure working at Battelle, he has worked on a multitude of different projects, been named on dozens of patents, and developed skills using a wealth of design tools. He’s also involved in technical reviews and oversight capacity on numerous medical device projects including mentoring junior staff
We truly believe that Bill Atterbury is a very knowledgeable and hardworking man since he has been named as the inventor of the year (2013) and a Battelle Distinguished Inventor.
This only shows that he falls in love with the work. And he never feels like working but loving the work.
Do you also see yourself working 40 years or more in the same company? If yes, therefore let me know in the comment section!
You can find Anthony on LinkedIn here.
EXPAND TO VIEW EPISODE TRANSCRIPTION
patel, xerox, machine, upc code, people, product, signals, technology, companies, developed, battelle, challenge, design, great, organization, equipment, materials, nickel, office, copier
Bill Atterbury, Aaron Moncur, Presenter
The being an engineer podcast is a repository for industry knowledge and a tool through which engineers learn about and connect with relevant companies, technologies, people, resources and opportunities, enjoy the show.
Bill Atterbury 00:15
But in the lab, we’re able to take his brain signals and decode them into enough information to allow him to do things like pick up a glass now, animate his arms, pick up a glass, he can play guitar hero with this system set up and so the technology is pretty amazing.
Aaron Moncur 00:47
Hello, and welcome to another episode of The being an engineer podcast. We’re speaking today with Bill Atterbury. And if that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because he has been on the show before there was so much more I wanted to cover with Bill that I invited him to around to and he very graciously accepted. So for those of you who haven’t heard Bill’s episode yet, I’ll do a quick intro for him. And then we’ll jump into some questions. Bill holds both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering, and notably, has worked at the same company, but tell for 40 years, he has spent his career designing and developing new products largely in the medical device space. He’s a Battelle distinguished inventor, and in 2013, was named Patel’s Inventor of the Year. Bill. Welcome back. And thanks so much for joining me again.
Bill Atterbury 01:37
Thank you so much, Aaron, and thanks for having me back. It’s a pleasure.
Aaron Moncur 01:41
So tell us tell us a little bit about the tell. I mean, you’ve been there for 40 years, it must be a pretty incredible plays. What what is Battelle?
Bill Atterbury 01:50
Well, it’s a very interesting and unique organization, a little background on it. This may cover some of the earlier stuff that people have may have listened to. But Batal was started by a fella by the name of Gordon Battelle. And he and his family were central Ohio industrialists, they were kind of focused in the area of mining and coal and steel, primarily in central Ohio and other areas as well. And they amassed a good bit of money as part of that. And this was in the early 1900s, when Gordon was around, and Gordon died kind of early, but left no errors. So in his will, he had the vision to create an organization he saw a need for companies who didn’t have large r&d organizations and didn’t have extensive laboratories. And had no place to go to when they had problems, technical problems that needed solved. And of course, at the time, the focus areas were in the area of metallurgy and those areas and so his his thinking at the time was well here, here, we need to set up an organization that can do this kind of technically challenging work in areas that companies need it, but don’t have it available to them, and set up the organization as as, as part of his will, in his trust, and it’s an organization. So it’s we’re nonprofit, and the will says that all of our net profits go to charities. So that’s what we do with our net profits.
Aaron Moncur 03:33
You talked a little bit about Battelle being this organization that maybe not all companies have the resources to do a particular r&d effort. And so that that’s that’s where Patel comes in. So how does that work between Mattel and other companies? Does Mattel license certain technologies to other companies that aren’t, you know, can’t afford to develop it themselves? Or is it a different type of model?
Bill Atterbury 03:57
We have a number of different ways of working with our clients and our clients are government and industry, primarily government, but industry as well. And I call our bread and butter business is fee for service. So client will come in with an objective. The classic one is okay, here’s a medical device that I want designed. Can you guys design it for us and get us into production with this, and they give us a set of requirements and you know how it works in the medical industry. You know, you work towards those requirements and doing the development, design analysis and testing along the way. And then in the end you do the verification validation to get the product launches and medical device. So that’s our classic bread and butter. We just charge our cost plus fee for that. And that’s the primary way that we make money. We do have opportunities to do royalty and licensing work for us. technology, technology that’s developed in house internally. And I’ll talk about one of those in a minute. And that’s a that’s the Xerox case study. But primarily we’re fee for service. And there are a number of these other areas where we can license and make money that way as well.
Aaron Moncur 05:20
Great, great. So Bill has several. I don’t know if case studies is quite the right word for it. But topics that we’re going to cover today. And these are all projects that Patel has done. The really interesting work, and I’m excited to dig into them. Before we do I have one more question about Patel and how you work there. So Patel is a not for profit organization. How? How does that change the culture at Battelle or the way that you work as an engineering team when the team isn’t really motivated to generate a profit? Certainly, you’re motivated to not lose money, because you need to, you know, reestablish those those, the piggy bank so to speak, but how does that change the culture not being profit driven?
Bill Atterbury 06:13
It’s interesting, we do not operate quite like a research like a university or academia would would operate your research for the pure purpose of research, it’s usually applied. And we, we don’t have traditional we don’t we don’t have an owner obvious clearly, he’s no longer with us. Gordon Patel, we don’t have shareholders. So we don’t have to have quarterly, you know, every quarter, post our profits, we do have to sustain our business and grow it if we can. And that’s kind of our goal is to sustain and grow. And so we always want to be relevant, and busy working on things that are relevant to the society and making a little bit of money along the way. Because the more money we make, the more we can give away to charities. So that’s kind of the focus of what we’re doing. And we, we don’t, certainly we don’t look to lose money, we’d like to make money. And when we do that we can we can grow and then support our charities.
Aaron Moncur 07:23
Fantastic. How big is Battelle, how many people work there?
Bill Atterbury 07:29
Wow, it’s a good question. There’s a number that in this, we’re based in central Ohio, in Columbus, Ohio central flower, and there’s about 2000 in that region, but about 6000 overall. So there’s a number of offices around the country. We we count some of our employees as the ones that work at Pacific Northwest National Labs. Those are our employees. We do manage a number of other labs under consortium agreements. And we don’t count those as our employees.
Aaron Moncur 08:02
Okay. All right. Well, let’s dig into the meat of this episode. You mentioned Xerox, let’s start there. We’ve got six or seven topics that we’re going to discuss. But let’s start with Xerox what was Patel’s involvement with Xerox.
Bill Atterbury 08:17
Xerox is an interesting technology. I think everybody knows what Xerox is and what it means. This goes way back to the 40s. When there’s a fellow very sharp fellow Chester Carlson is his name, who was the inventor of the Xerox process. And Chester was a patent attorney. And he spent many, many long hours copying drawings and patent applications by hand. And you can imagine how painstaking that would be. And he is the one who came up with the basic process of how to do copying without using photographic processes. So he had applied for his patent and I think the late 30s and tried to peddle it to primarily the photographic companies, and they were like, well, why should we have this we’ve already got this great business built on photographic methods and you know, what, what do we need your, your technology for? And so he struggled a little bit with trying to get people interested in it. And it was kind of happenstance meeting he was meeting with with one of the Mattel officers on another topic, and it’s one of the things like you kind of get done with your work. And at the end of the meeting, he says, Hey, I’ve got this interesting technology. Do you know anybody be interested in it? And, and we looked at it we said, well, that that is interesting technology. And, you know, it wasn’t developed at Battelle, but it is something that kind of is right down our alley in terms of some of the challenges that you see with it. but we didn’t have the money to invest in it either at that time. But we basically said, Well, you know what, we will work with you on this to commercialize it developed to the point where it can be commercialized. And as part of that, will will take a fraction of the ownership of the technology. And what just go ahead,
Aaron Moncur 10:20
sorry to interrupt. What did the technology look like at that point, when when Chester first approached Patel was it in any form that we would recognize now as Xerox, or was it completely different?
Bill Atterbury 10:32
It was what he had done, obviously created the process and how to document quite quite well, but he working his little attic lab in Astoria, New York, took out a piece of wool, and rubbed it on a glass plate to charge it up. And then he would expose that to an image. And then he would dust some carbon carbon on it, and then blow it off. And he would capture that image, and he’d press it onto a piece of paper. And that was kind of where it was at. And, you know, is all the right steps and all the right things, but nowhere close to anything that could be commercialized. Okay, it did lack a number of, you know, areas that that that were a fair amount of work to get to get, get working. And that’s kind of where Batal comes in. So he came to us, and he said, Okay, well, you know, let’s let’s, let’s see if we can do this jointly. And the first challenge we had was, you know, the pattern didn’t stick to the glass very well, it didn’t hold a charge that great. And it when you expose it to light, it didn’t get that great of an image. So our first challenge was to come up with a coating for that. And being a materials company, metallurgy materials, we understood the materials pretty well in the process is pretty well. And we kind of took a nice and a Edison approach to it. We just basically tried all sorts of different types of materials and processes. And we landed on an amorphous selenium coating. And we applied that by backing deposition, which, you know that that took a fair amount of trial and error work to get to, but we found that it was great. Yeah, it was a great semiconductor. And it took a charge really nicely. And, and then you know, where it got exposed to light, the charge was dissipated. And it held up to the subsequent steps very nicely. And so it’s kind of funny copiers, even today have that very similar coding may not have selenium in them. A lot of them do. There’s some new ones too. But But that’s kind of stood the test of time.
Aaron Moncur 12:47
Oh, interesting. So Battelle was really the organization then that took this what sounds like was very bare bones technology, and made it into what we recognize today as a copy machine.
Bill Atterbury 13:00
Well, we got to close. Now, the other area that we worked on quite a bit was Chester had just used like carbon black, which is a great way to, you know, create an image but as you know, you pull non finished paper out of a copier, and it’s gets all over your hands, and it just smears and, and so that toner is the other part of the equation for Patel’s contributions. And so we took that carbon black and we put it on a very finely milled polymer that then could hold the charge carbon dissipates charges. So we need something to hold the charge, but also would have the carbon black in it so that we could transfer it to a piece of paper and melt at a low enough temperature, we could fuse it to the paper and basically make a permanent record. So that was the other the other key contribution that we had made to that. To this day, pretty much they use the same sort of technology for toner and like it or hate it. It’s because nobody likes dealing with the toner packages. And then where that ended up for us was we helped them develop the first commercial copier, which was the Xerox 914. And it was launched in 1959. So overnight success in about 10 years. And we have where the Xerox nine fourteens in our lobby, it’s a very interesting piece of equipment, you might think, Oh, that’s great. You just put your paper in, it comes out, not so much. It is a unit that saw I’ll call it about the size of a desk sits on a table and I had two units. One was the exposure unit where we capture the image and shake it shake the toner on top of it. And then you would take that out and put it into another machine that would then you know process and fix the fix the image and it took between a minute and two minutes to make fun copy out of this thing. So Wow,
Aaron Moncur 15:01
right now 40 6080 pages a minute.
Bill Atterbury 15:04
There’s no document feeder in this one. So it’s one at a time and very manual about 10 steps to the process of getting it, you know, from one image to to another piece of paper and finishing that off.
Aaron Moncur 15:18
Okay. And who finally took it into commercialization? I mean, who Xerox was selling these companies? So did it go from Patel’s labs back to Xerox, and then Xerox is the one who put it on the market and started selling well,
Bill Atterbury 15:35
kinda like that. There was a company called the Haloid Corporation. And their business was primarily in the photographic copying means and they were forward thinking enough to, to entertain a new technology. And so we end up doing it at about that point in time was licensing it to the Howard Corporation. And interesting, they didn’t have any money either. Nobody had any money. So he said, Okay, well, let’s let’s, let’s take our payment in terms of stock. And Chester obviously got a lot of stock and, and Mattel did to at the time. And at first this and they did launch with this, this Xerox, Xerox 914. It was called Xerox, but it was the Haloid Corporation, that was the one who was doing it at the time. And we launched with that, and it was a horrible failure. Now, people were like, Well, I’m not gonna buy that that’s too expensive. And it takes too long. And why should I, you know, waste my time and money on that. So they decided to basically place the copiers and charge for copy. And I don’t know how much they charge. But what they found was that it really changed a lot of the way things worked in the office. And now you can have multiple copies of anything. You know, obviously, you had a mimeograph machine, you could get copies of type things, or you could make carbon copies of things. But you couldn’t take a document and make a copy of it. Yeah, if you’re around back then I know you weren’t because you’re too young. But usually, you’d get something it would get circulated from office to office to office, and they have a list of people and you just check your name off as it goes around. And the very one on the bottom might be a month later until they see this, this document, wow. Now, somebody could take that and make a bunch of copies of it. Everybody could see it in, you know, 10 minutes. So it was like, Oh, now make me a copy of that. Coaching. And so they started generating a fair amount of revenue, because they they charged for coffee, because you know, they really kind of had to invent the market. And that’s, as you know, if technology is one thing, but if you gotta invent the market, too. That’s another challenge as well. Yeah. And then eventually
Aaron Moncur 17:54
it became in and of itself.
Bill Atterbury 17:56
Yeah. Eventually, it became so popular that halite says, well, nobody knows what Howard Corporation is. And they just changed their name to Xerox because that was there. Oh, interesting. Okay, the company so.
Aaron Moncur 18:10
Okay, so Xerox was not Chester’s company. It was the Halloween Corporation. And they changed their name.
Bill Atterbury 18:17
That’s correct. And, yeah, and, and he was able to, obviously, you know, cash in on a lot of a lot of stock of what ended up becoming Xerox, which is, you know, back in that time, grew, grew quite a bit. He he was actually a fairly philanthropic person as well. And he used to say, I hope to die a poor man, because he spent the rest of his life basically giving away his riches.
Aaron Moncur 18:44
Yeah, that’s terrific. All right. Well, let’s move on to the next topic here which which you phrase is the sandwich coin? I don’t know if that’s a term that’s used it Patel or if this is a general term that I should understand that I just didn’t pick up on but can you tell us a little bit what what is the sandwich coin
Bill Atterbury 19:04
the sandwich coin is work that we did for the US government, department Treasury back in the 60s. And basically the challenge was okay, the coins there and I’ll mainly talk about quarters and dimes, they’re made of silver and they were solid silver. And the government even at that time was saying you know, these are getting really expensive to make we can’t afford to make these out a similar anymore. Can you can you help us out? If a quarter were made out of silver today, it would be six bucks to just in the silver costs.
Aaron Moncur 19:39
Wow. A dime would cost 200 perspective.
Bill Atterbury 19:42
So you know, clearly not sustainable. We’d all be down or quarters and dimes the case them in. So that’s obviously not sustainable condition either. So they came to us they said okay, you’re used to air air and you’re used to requirements from From other clients, they say, Okay, you got to make something that’s the same diameter, it’s got to look the same. It’s got the same thickness, it’s gotta have the same weight. But it’s got to cost a lot less to make. Can you do that for me? And that’s the challenge. So
Aaron Moncur 20:17
we’ll becomes a material science problem. Yeah, yeah.
Bill Atterbury 20:21
And a manufacturing problem, too, because you got to figure how to make it. So we came up with the nickel copper sandwich, which is why they call it the sandwich coin. So copper in the middle and nickel on the outsides, nickel gives it strength and corrosion resistance. And obviously, the copper is less expensive, not not really cheap these days, copper is pretty expensive, even these days. But then that got implemented in both the quarter and the diamond, they launched that back in 65. So anything that was minted before 65 will be out of silver, and anything after that’s
Aaron Moncur 20:53
what challenges did your team run into with this project?
Bill Atterbury 21:00
Well, primarily, obviously, getting getting the sheet material made. Basically, the coal rolling process to make the sandwich part is is, is the key, once you figure it out, you can do that. And now you got to figure out how to get those things put together and the processes necessary to to create that material.
Aaron Moncur 21:20
So is it’s not just nickel plated, there’s a sheet of nickel that gets rolled across on both sides of the copper. And they’re fused somehow.
Bill Atterbury 21:31
Yeah, that’s correct. It’s not not nickel plated. It’s just it’s three sheets squeezed together and a high pressure roller that fuses them together. And that’s about all I know about the process. But sure, there’s somebody out there who knows?
Aaron Moncur 21:44
And was was the nickel used to because of, you know, anti corrosion properties? Is that the purpose for the nickel?
Bill Atterbury 21:55
Of course, it’s got to balance the weight out anti corrosion, and it’s still got to look like a quarter. So it’s got to be silver in color. And, and durable. Actually, more durable. Okay, so was
Aaron Moncur 22:07
Do you know, how much the the material cost is today for you mentioned before that a quarter would be $6? If it was silver? What is a quarter worth today? Do you know, in just material cost?
Bill Atterbury 22:19
Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, obviously, there’s some material costs and scrap and, you know, the presses aren’t free either. So I don’t I don’t know what the right costs are. I mean,
Aaron Moncur 22:30
I’m gonna have to look that up more than they were curious. That’s a whole other conversation. Yeah. Okay, well, let’s, let’s move off on to the next one, then the first UPC what was Patel’s involvement in that?
Bill Atterbury 22:47
So we developed the first UPC code, and now it’s ubiquitous, you see it on everything in the store, I see something on the shelf that doesn’t have it, I put it back, because I know it’s gonna be a long trip to the cashier line, if I don’t have a UPC code on whatever I’m buying. But we did this work originally, for the supermarket interest Institute, it wasn’t government and government didn’t have the foresight to do this. The grocery stores themselves, you know, they that, sure that’d be cool, but they don’t have the resources to do it. So the supermarket Institute, which is a consortium of grocers, got together and said, you know, this is something we could really use and really need and had the vision to, to create it. The actual 12 digit code that you see today was one of a number of you know, we asked we asked the industry for proposals, and it was one on a number that were submitted the winning one by IBM but we did the development on that and on the systems that go around it to create that and a little bit of history their first product was a stick Do you see Juicy Fruit gum case stick you know packet of juicy fruit gum, and it was sold in a store in Troy Ohio. And that was that was a big deal back then. 1974 and I you know, I saw these and I was little it’s like well, that doesn’t make any sense. Who who needs that? You know, you just go to the cashier you hand her a dime and interested okay, you’re good to go and but the reality is, is you can see now everything is built around that as a way to keep track of your product price it to obviously scanning very quickly. And you know, the self scanners are a great way to leverage improvement and getting people out the door. And then you look at companies like you know, Amazon and see stamp. Universal Product Code, I think
Aaron Moncur 24:54
universal okay, I’ve been curious about this in the past. asked how, how universal are the universal product codes? I mean, if I’m in a grocery store, let’s say I’m in an Albertsons in California, and there’s a certain UPC code on, you know, box of cereal or something, and then I’m in a Fry’s supermarket in New York, and I pick up the same box of cereal, is the UPC going to be the same on both? Or is it like institution specific, like supermarkets specific?
Bill Atterbury 25:33
Oh, I think it’s standard across the industry, because the manufacturers have adopted it. Of the of the of the products are selling. And somewhere, there’s this list of what that all means. I mean, obviously, you read a code and it traces back to one specific product. I don’t know if it’s international or not.
Aaron Moncur 25:54
So there’s got to be some organization that keeps track of this massive database of UPC codes. And at some point, a product is going to become obsolete and removed from the market. And so I guess, whatever organization this is just allows that UPC code to become available, again to be applied to another product. Is that how it works?
Bill Atterbury 26:18
It’s a good question that works its way down the bottom, some computer somewhere. I assume the obsolete him at some point in time. But there’s product in the pipeline. I think you got to keep track of it. Right.
Aaron Moncur 26:31
Yeah, sure. Yeah. So did Patel also develop the scanners? I mean, I guess the the UPC code itself is not all that useful without the scanner. Right.
Bill Atterbury 26:43
Right. It’s a system, as you can imagine, and obviously, there’s compromises in the UPC code. If you’ll notice, and I’m sure you you have, you know, in addition to the linear pattern they have on there, there’s also a a number that you can read in readable number that goes on that. And so the real key is coming up with something that can be easily read by a machine, a laser scanner. And in the early days, that wasn’t easy. So there was a lot of concessions made to the scanning techniques and the technology used for picking up that that information. Nowadays, I think it would be a lot easier to get away with more, but kind of developing that whole system. As far as the scanners themselves. We didn’t do the scanners, but we came up with the methodology to read them.
Aaron Moncur 27:31
Got it. Okay. So the the individual bars in these UPC codes, they something about the, I guess the number of bars and the spacing between bars and the thickness of those bars. That unique combination is what is what designates it as this 12 digit number. Is that right?
Bill Atterbury 27:52
Yeah, that’s correct. I don’t know all the details. But yeah, the bars and the widths. And the number. Yeah, at all. Okay, and that says quite a number of, obviously combinations of products. 12 digits gets here gets here. That’s a lot, a lot of products
Aaron Moncur 28:08
That’s a lot, a lot of products that, like hundreds of billions. I think that’s where it ends up.
Bill Atterbury 28:15
Do the math kind of 12 digits.
Aaron Moncur 28:17
Oh, even more? Yeah. Okay. All right. Well, anything else that that we should go over about the UPC codes?
Bill Atterbury 28:26
Now, that’s all I had, I just, you know, I can’t imagine you know, if you’ve been through a tour of any of the Amazon facilities or companies that bring stuff in and figure out where to put it and ship it back out the fulfillment organizations, they just have stuff stashed everywhere. And it’s like, how do they keep track of all this stuff? And, and yet they do, and they do it in a very efficient manner. So it’s pretty awesome.
Aaron Moncur 28:53
Okay, what can you tell me about the golf clubs swinging machine?
Bill Atterbury 28:58
So this is one we developed for Spalding. So that Spalding came to us and said, you know, we’d like to have a machine that we can use them to test our equipment. And can you can you come up with that one? It’s like, okay, we can do that. And, you know, the golf swing is so fluid. We didn’t even know where to start. Just like everybody else they designed. You know, the first person design airplane may look like a bird because birds can fly, right? So, so we did the same. We did the same thing. We went out and invited a bunch of world class pro golfers to come in and spend a couple days videotaping them from all different angles to get the mechanics of their swing. And the one that we pick that we pattern the machine after is Byron Nelson. So the machine got called the Iron Byron. And if you want to see images of it, you can search iron by iron Ernie Byron and you’ll see what that machine looked like. Before computers. It was all pneumatic kinematics were fairly simple and straightforward, but you charge the system up with air, compressed air. And of course, you know, you can get a lot of power out of compressed air. So it ended up being a very repeatable way to test golf clubs and golf equipment.
Aaron Moncur 30:27
Did you ever pit Byron the golfer against iron buyer in the machine and see who could hit a ball farther
Bill Atterbury 30:35
farther? i Yeah, I know we didn’t. But the machine clearly. Sadly.
Aaron Moncur 30:44
Byron maybe. And more precisely,
Bill Atterbury 30:46
it doesn’t go from t to pin very elegantly, but you know it, as far as hitting a golf ball goes. It was pretty good at it. Once again, this is another classic business failure. Spalding thought, well, they’re going to, you know, create a business around testing all sorts of golf equipment, and now they got this machine, they reached out to all the other people in the industry and they said, hey, you know, we got this machine. Do you want us to use it to test your your clubs and your golf balls and all your equipment? And, and they came and looked at they said, why would we want to do that? You’re our competitor. We’re not going to give you our equipment to test. And, and then they said, but can I buy one of those machines? Can I Can I have one myself. And so it ended up being not a great business for Spalding. But they ended up selling a fair amount of machines to other people who could use it to test their own equipment.
Aaron Moncur 31:49
Okay, well, at least they got to sell some of these machines, right recoup some of that investment. Yeah,
Bill Atterbury 31:54
there was a little bit of money there. machines could swing pretty comprehensively, they were known to break a number of golf clubs. We had set it up at one of the allow horses and invited some of the local pros around to come in and news organizations to to film it. And so when they were setting it up, they pretty much had broke every golf club that they had brought with them. And so I know Jack Nicklaus was one of the pros that we had there and his wife rounded up the other golf wives, and they scoured the local golf shops for drivers. So they’d have enough for the demonstration.
Aaron Moncur 32:38
With the machine, just swing the club so hard that it would it would break on contact with the ball.
Bill Atterbury 32:44
I don’t know when it broke, but you could dial it up to do anything. So and it turns out the weak link was the golf club. So they did break a number of golf club shafts.
Aaron Moncur 32:55
That sounds like a really fun project. That’s when I would have loved to work on. All right. Okay, we got just a few more topics here. The next two are not really Patel’s specific, they’re not even project specific. But over the past 40 years, you have developed quite a bit of of industry knowledge and wisdom. And hopefully we can tap into some of that with these next two questions. What are some things that you didn’t learn in college that you have since learned just on the job that have turned out to be pretty important?
Bill Atterbury 33:32
Well, well, the first thing, you know, when you come out of college, they prepare you quite well. You know, you’ve got all this knowledge stuffed in your brain and all the courses and, and you make your way through the program, and you think you know, everything, at least I did. And the first thing I learned is that so that was
Aaron Moncur 33:50
me. I did not
Bill Atterbury 33:54
you know, and then you find out that, yeah, it’s it’s, it’s a lifelong learning process. And I guess I wouldn’t give that up for anything, because that was the fun part. It is the fun part today. So I think, you know, the first thing I learned was, you know, I, I learned to keep learning. And I learned that, you know, you can solve every problem you want, you just gotta apply what you’ve learned and, and stick with it. And think think other things I’ve learned since the classic one is, you know, they’re fairly simple models for say, friction, friction as a friction coefficient times the normal force and, and then you get into the real life, and there are so many other things that affect it. That, you know, stuff like that. It’s just like, well, you can go a lot deeper, and it’s not quite as simple as maybe, maybe the simple equations might suggest.
Aaron Moncur 34:53
Yeah, yeah. Do any examples come to mind where you had to go a lot deeper. had to figure out a solution to a problem that just kind of the standard, easy equations that you learned in college.
Bill Atterbury 35:09
We do a lot, I think you’re involved in this too. We do a lot of injector devices, and they all have springs in them. And a lot of your fixtures have springs in them. And spring idealize spring is very simple. You know, you just squeeze it in, it’s linear, and you get your spring rate and you size your spring, make sure you don’t violate any stresses, and you’re good to go.
Aaron Moncur 35:31
And if Kx, right, are
Bill Atterbury 35:33
you, Gary go are there, you got straightforward, right? Just that works for everything. And then you’ll learn that well, they’re not quite as simple as you might like, and that can cause you problems. So the first thing you learn is what when you squeeze it, it grows in diameter. It’s like, oh, darn it, I didn’t allow enough space for it. So now it’s binding up. And then you squeeze it, and it tends to, to wind up then tends to twist a little bit. So the things that I’m putting together now want to turn as well as many get long, skinny springs, and they’re like a snake. They don’t, they don’t want to compress at all they want to wiggle. And so now I have to line it up somehow and keep it constrained. And and so when I’m done, I got this spray. It’s nowhere close to ideal because it’s grown and twisted and snaked and
Aaron Moncur 36:27
that’s a good example. Yeah. All right. How about common engineering mistakes? What are some mistakes that you see engineers making quite frequently that, that we can learn from right now. So that we don’t make those same mistakes ourself?
Bill Atterbury 36:43
Yeah, that’s I got so many. There’s a challenge. There, first of all, throw out is, is just materials in general, and we do a lot of work on materials. And you do too, and, and how you characterize those materials, particularly polymer materials. And, you know, you, you design it, what you think are, you know, linear properties, and then you find out later, those were typical properties. And they’re not quite maybe what you designed to? And it’s like, oh, no, no, you don’t get that that’s just maybe what you know, what they might do. And oh, by the way, we test them under very ideal conditions. And so that’s, that’s kind of one area that we’ve, we’ve learned that is always a bit of a challenge is understanding and characterizing your materials really well.
Aaron Moncur 37:34
Yeah. Okay. Anything else come to mind?
Bill Atterbury 37:37
Um, yeah, there’s a few and you gotta gotta get into specific projects to go after him. You know, I see it today. You know, you’ve got these really cool cad tools, and you can design anything, it’s of any shape. And they look really cool used to be designed things that were flat and square and blocky, because it was easy to put on a 2d drawing. Now, now you got, you know, all the all the reins are off, you can design anything you want, make it any shape you want. And that’s great, really looks cool. And we’ve even got the technologies now to make any shape. You know, you don’t have to worry about molding it or machining it with standard machining and molding methodologies, you can print it. So now I got this crazy shape that’s an app printable, and it looks great. And then the challenge becomes is okay, now I want to manufacture this, and I want to dimension it, and I’m gonna put tolerances on it. And I want to know, you know, what shapes will work and what shapes don’t, but the shapes are hard to find. You know, I know what they are. I defined them once. But I didn’t define the limits of what was acceptable. And so now the challenge becomes is, how do I manufacture something efficiently? That’s, I can say, Yeah, that’s a good part. That’s not a good part. This is not acceptable, how to communicate that, to the people that are making stuff
Aaron Moncur 39:00
like that, especially if you have a really organic shape, right, then it becomes very difficult to define what those boundaries are.
Bill Atterbury 39:06
And we see the need for that all the times these complex shapes. Yeah, there’s a lot of things that need that, that use that take advantage of it. A lot of good reasons to have it. It’s just now you got to deal with how to make it and how to manufacture consistently.
Aaron Moncur 39:21
Yeah, who wants to deal with that? Let’s just go back to square blocky shapes, that’s a lot easier.
Bill Atterbury 39:25
Well design everything to look like a brick and three times larger that needs to be so.
Aaron Moncur 39:31
Exactly. This is never going to fail. All right. Last Last topic here before we finish up, Patel neuro life. What can you tell us about Battel neural life? What is that?
Bill Atterbury 39:45
That’s a project that’s ongoing, it’s current and it’s been going on at Mattel for a number of years and it’s really cool stuff heavily in the medical area. Essentially We are working with LSU doctors and have at least one person that’s gone through this name is Ian Burkhart. If you want to look them up on the web, you can now rely for Ian Burkhardt. And Ian is a credibly quadriplegic, and so has no use of arms or legs. And with the help of us, you doctors planted that chip in his brain, and are able to get signals of his thoughts of moving his limbs. And then that the challenge of that is now you got to hook it up to a electrical stimulation sleeve, that then activates his his arm, his hand muscles to do things that he wants done. And the magic sauce in that whole thing is you got tons of signals. And you forgot to figure out how to decode those into individual muscle activations. And so you know, nians hooked up to the system, you know, and only heal a little doesn’t lab, it’s a laboratory level thing, it’s not something that is, you know, it’s not something anybody can do. It’s not something that’s done outside of a lab setting. But in the lab, we’re able to take his brain signals and decode them into enough information to allow him to do things like pick up a glass now, animate his arms, pick up a glass, he can play guitar hero, with this system set up. And so the technology is pretty amazing. Oh, yeah. Yeah, it really is. And it’s like, Well, okay, you severed your spinal cord. And, you know, it’s essentially it’s a bypass, but, you know, the bypass is, it’s very complex. And
Aaron Moncur 41:44
so now the equipment that patella has developed is acting effectively as the spinal cord, right? Well, that’s
Bill Atterbury 41:51
yeah, it’s basically doing the bypass operation of the spinal cord, taking the signals generated by the brain, and translating them into signals that then can activate his arm with. So it’s because
Aaron Moncur 42:02
the muscles still work perfectly fine. Yep, just can’t get the signal from the brain, right of the muscles.
Bill Atterbury 42:08
Exactly. And of course, if you don’t use the muscles over time, they don’t. You know, they get weaker, but Right. Yeah. So yeah, if you can, if you can do that, and get the signal to the right place on the arms, pick out the right signal. And, you know, of course, there’s all sorts of calibrations that are required. And every time they set it up, it’s it’s very intensive as far as dialing in the kind of signal patterns. But we started off with something that looked like and the key there, obviously, is latency. You know, you it’s got to happen pretty quick. But we started off with some pretty good size hardware that does that. It’s still external, obviously, and it’ll never be, you know, something we can implant, but it reduced the size of that they never Yeah, well, someday, maybe. But it’s always on day. Yeah.
Aaron Moncur 42:58
It’s incredible that it can be done with such granularity, as to give him access to drink out of a glass and or play a video game. You mentioned Guitar Hero. That’s really, really impressive. How long did it take to develop the technology to that point? Wow.
Bill Atterbury 43:20
It’s been years, for sure. And even Ian has been working on it with for years. As part of that, I have to give him a lot of credit, because you think you got this neat system, and it just works? Well. A lot of it is E and figuring out how to make it do what he wants him to do. So he’s adapting it as much as it’s down. Right? Right. So you give him some exercises to do and it probably doesn’t work right at first, but then he figures out how to move a.on The screen. And and then okay, now he’s he’s figured that out. So it’s kind of it kind of works both ways. He’s figured it out as much as everybody else has. But it really is neat.
Aaron Moncur 44:04
Yeah, yeah. So the brain activity that he had in the past to lift his left arm may not lift his left arm now that he might have to wiggle his right toe and that lifts his left arm I might be exaggerating a little bit, but that’s kind of what you’re saying. Right? He’s had to kind of rewire the way he thinks. I think
Bill Atterbury 44:23
there’s a little bit of both, and I’m not the expert on this. But you know, there’s a little bit of both where he’s kind of figured out what what things he can do to make it give him those all he wants and we’ve sort of figured out how to take most of what those things that he’s thinking about and translate them into electrical signals for for removing it from moving his arm.
Aaron Moncur 44:43
What what does that human machine interface look like between in and the equipment that Patel has developed? Is there like a Matrix style plug in the back of his head and you hook it up there or what does that look like? Yeah,
Bill Atterbury 44:59
essentially Lay the chip was implanted by these OSU Doc’s and they obviously look for areas that were, you know, he you know, it was placed in areas that they knew or the motor skills, and specifically the motor skills of what we were trying to control. And essentially, you’re right is just it’s just hardwired to a connector that’s on his head. And wow, we plug into that and read the signals and then generate the stimulation for Christmas for his arm cuffs
Aaron Moncur 45:27
that is just so wild. I love it. What does the chip look like? Is it is it like a flex circuit that wraps around a lot of different folds inside the brain? Or is it just a small little square?
Bill Atterbury 45:40
I do. I don’t know that much about the chip. But it is a small little square it’s in one location is not. It’s not a bunch of men in different places. It’s one but it’s got a bunch of different Okay, receptors that they can pick up a number of different signals from that, and it’s just
Aaron Moncur 45:58
hardware to a connector. Amazing. Just amazing. Wow. Yeah, it’s
Bill Atterbury 46:02
pretty stuff. We’ve we’ve been kind of moving on a little bit and looking for applications, for example, stroke rehabilitation. And in those cases, we you know, it’d be really scalable if we didn’t have to implant a chip in somebody’s brain. So we’re looking at ways to read signals externally, and help people like stroke rehab victims, if they can get to a point where they can start moving your limbs. Apparently that accelerates the recovery process from strokes. So that’s, that’s kind of
Aaron Moncur 46:33
what a cool sneak peek of the future of medicine here. I imagine that there are going to be a lot of people listening to this to think to themselves, wow, but tell sounds awesome. I would love to work there. How do people get a job at Patel? I mean, there’s a pretty good sized company. What’s the what’s the process for applying to work at Patel?
Bill Atterbury 46:58
Well, it’s similar to many companies these days, just go to patel.org. And look for careers, all of our applications are done online. So you’ll submit an application that way and get you into the system, you’ll see what kind of job openings are available there, and what opportunities and we’re looking usually for a broad range of folks, not just in the medical area, which is my area, but also in other areas. So a lot of science, technology, engineering sorts of types of exam, and of course, all the support personnel that you need as well. We don’t, by ourselves, for sure, there’s a lot of people that make our jobs a lot easier to do.
Aaron Moncur 47:40
And does Patel work with folks remotely? Or do you have to live in a specific area?
Bill Atterbury 47:46
Well, as you know, with the way things have gone over the past almost two years, we are doing most of our work remotely. So we’re mostly working out of our homes for the folks who can. And I think we are obviously working for clients that are remote, in many places in many places. So a lot of our work is done remotely. And I think we’re more open now to people who are able to work remotely and support ours or Australia, you know, we’ll we’ll see what the future brings. We’d like to be in the office together. Because, you know, it really helps us kind of, you know, manage our day to day activities. And we use it to kind of build on each other’s ideas. And it’s easy when you’re just walking down the hallway to bounce something off of somebody saw, I know, we’ll go back to that at some point in time, at least in a hybrid mode. But we do find ourselves working more with people who are located remotely. So I don’t think that that’s a limitation anymore. Obviously, yes, you can’t run a test. And I in the lab if you’re doing it remotely, but there’s a lot of things you can do.
Aaron Moncur 49:01
Absolutely. Yeah, we we pipeline has historically been remote. All of our team members have worked from home offices, you know, ever since the beginning of pipeline, so we worked from home before working from home was cool. And and then ironically, towards the beginning of COVID. As everyone was leaving offices, we moved into our first commercial space. And so now we’re kind of a hybrid approach where we’re sometimes we’re in the office and sometimes we’re still working from home. I tell everyone to core value number two is governed by productivity, not bureaucracy. And so I tell everyone just work wherever you’re most most productive or wherever it’s most productive for the project or the team with whom you’re working. But I have noticed personally and this is coming from someone who I tell people jokingly but only a little bit jokingly that I don’t like people that much and I I like I like being alone. I like I enjoy having quiet time by myself very much. But I’ve noticed that I’ve really been enjoying going into the office and seeing my team and just being there, there really is something almost magic about being in a space with like minded people who are focused on the same outcomes. I think that there, there definitely is a benefit to that. So we have the I think the the best of both worlds right now, where some of our work can and is done remotely and other of the work is done in persons. That’s a pretty good deal, I think.
Bill Atterbury 50:39
Yeah, and I have to think we’re about in the same boat, some more than others, depending upon what your role is. I’m with you, I can be very effective working from home and getting stuff done. Obviously, meetings now are not a problem to do from anywhere, which is a great leap, I think, because it has a restrict how you can do that. And then obviously, there’s other things if we’re doing, you know, tests, with equipment, that’s, you know, five tons, it’s not going to transport very easily. So that’s work that’s done in the office, as well as some other lab work that gets done in the office. And then I think that the creative aspect, too, is is really kind of nice. You can’t quite schedule everything on a zoom call. So it’s kind of nice to have, you know, folks around. Hey, what do you think about this bounce stuff off of that, for sure. Yeah.
Aaron Moncur 51:33
Okay, Bill. Well, thank you so much for joining me again, this has been a lot of fun. Is there anything else that we haven’t talked about that you think we should
Bill Atterbury 51:42
know? I think we’re good. I got a couple of anecdotes with the xerography stuff. You know Battelle, like many companies, rewards the key contributors and or inventors of some technologies that are jet royalty generating for Mattel. And so as a result of that, there was a couple of people that were involved in that project. One was we reached out to a OSU linguistics professor, and how should we name this technology? And, and he came up with the term xerography, which in Latin is dry writing, which makes total sense shortened to Xerox later. And when he did that, I said, Well, that’s great. You know, we’d like to, you know, reward you for that. We can either off you offer you $100, or some Xerox stock. And, and, of course, please tell me, he took the stock and of course, he said, Well, you know, I need a new pair of shoes, so. And the other one was a fellow. Similar story. Yeah. Really nice shoes. Yeah. Yeah, I hope so too. So, other one was a fellow that was on that original team, and he’s to join his coworkers for lunch. And he bragged at lunch about his million dollar house. And, and so after about the third day of this, his coworker said, Ozzie, you know, you got a nice house, little, little, you know, a two bedroom brick flat and graduate back in a neighborhood not far from here in Clintonville, which is a suburb of Columbus, and he says, it’s nice, but it’s not a million dollars. So what’s the deal? And he says, Well, you know, I just gotten married, I was looking to start a family, and I needed a downpayment. So I sold this doc for the down payment on the house. Had I kept this stock? worth a million dollars?
Aaron Moncur 53:40
No. Well, hindsight is 2020. is only there a way to know beforehand? Yeah. Yeah. Right. All right, Bill. Well, thank you again, so much for joining me again, I really appreciate you hanging out again on the being an engineer podcast.
Bill Atterbury 53:59
It’s good to be on. Thank you for having me.
Aaron Moncur 54:04
I’m Aaron Moncur, founder of pipeline design, and engineering. If you liked what you heard today, please share the episode. To learn how your team can leverage our team’s expertise developing turnkey equipment, custom fixtures and automated machines and with product design, visit us at Teampipeline.us. Thanks for listening.
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