[Review] Rubberband Engineer
Lance Akiyama combines tinkering and education into one aspiration; to create a better world by inspiring the next generation of innovators with exciting, hands-on projects.
Lance Akiyama‘s first book ‘Rubberband Engineer‘, published by Rockport, is all about taking common household items and making awesome things out of them. We spoke to him to find out more about how he came up with the idea.
Research for the book must have been fun! How did you go about selecting the gadgets that are featured?
Many of the ideas are rooted in projects that I developed over time when I was teaching engineering classes to kids. For everything else, I’d simply wander through Google images and YouTube looking for inspiration. Usually I would either find something that exists and I would think, “That looks fun, but I bet I could built it better,” or I’d see something really cool and ask, “How can I build that out of hot glue and woodcraft?”?
You must have some great stories from experimenting with all the gadgets featured. Which ones really stand out?
Anything that shoots really far is a little tricky to experiment with. For example, the PVC Slingshot Rifle – My yard isn’t big enough to test it’s range, so I would shoot projectiles straight up and see how high it goes to gauge it’s power. Often I would shoot apricot pits from my nearby tree. Needless to say, these would fall straight back down, sometimes forcing me to scramble for cover?
Another time I had a friend over to help me test the Hydraulic Fighting Robots. It’s always funny to watch adults play with these projects. At first, there’s always a tension between, “I can’t believe I’m playing with this silly thing” and “This is so much fun.” Eventually the fun wins out.
More recently I accidentally shot a paper rocket onto my neighbors roof. I can see it from my front yard, but I don’t think they’ve noticed yet. I’ll tell them eventually.
Do you have a favourite gadget, one that perhaps you¹re especially proud of? Which one and why?
The Floating Arm Trebuchet. It’s a very unusual catapult, and it has such a satisfying action. You can check out a short clip of the video on my old YouTube channel. This project was exceptionally challenging to get right. The counterweight needs to drop straight down the middle of the catapult, which constrained the design quite a bit. However, once I found the right building materials and techniques, it worked incredibly well.
I can imagine the gadgets appeal to all ages ?but did you have a particular reader in mind when writing the book?
All of the projects are designed for anyone who loves tinkering and making things of varying degrees of complexity.
When deciding what projects would appeal to the readers, the first question I ask is, “Do I find this fun and exciting?”
If I build something that makes me think, “Whoa, that worked way better than I thought it would!”, then I assume it’ll be fun for most other people as well.
Where did your passion for gadgetry come from?
It’s been a lifelong obsession. My childhood bedroom was covered with LEGO and craft stick contraptions. I would take apart old electronics, just to uncover the components and poke at the mechanisms. Even into adulthood, I would salvage things like window wipers and build mobiles out of them.
Whats your most ambitious successful gadget to date? What¹s your least successful?
Most of my gadgets aren’t exceptionally ambitious, though that’s kind of the point. Everything is pretty easily made out of household items. I have made some ambitious larger-scale things, like a geodesic dome, but I wouldn’t call it a gadget. If there’s one thing that I would call ambitious, it’s the Hydraulic Fighting Robots, which is shown in Rubber Band Engineer.
There are so many gadgets that failed. Or maybe “failed” is the wrong word, perhaps evolved is better. For example, I’ve built a dozen different air-powered rocket launchers for kids to use. The first ones were awful. They broke all the time and didn’t shoot very far. With each iteration they’ve become more reliable, easy to use, and powerful.
What words of wisdom would you give to a reader similarly playing with gadgetry?
One thing is to be willing to fail a lot, and to look at failure as the first generation of a successful idea, the best designs are a product of failed designs.
I had to make lots of mistakes to learn what works. Be satisfied with what you make, even if it’s not perfect, and strive to improve on it next time.
Also, everyone has their own challenges. One of mine was being original enough. At first I found it distasteful to use any ideas that were not 100% my own, but I learned that is really difficult. Originality and innovation are almost always the product of combining existing ideas, or putting your own spin on something. For example, the Hydraulic Fighting Robot is a very original project, but it’s derived from high school physics competitions in which students make robot arms.
You’re clearly passionate about encouraging education and innovation. Can you tell us more about instructables.com?
Instructables provided a platform to host all of my project-based engineering lessons. Through Instructables, I’m able to make my engineering projects for kids freely available to anyone. Some people thought I should license my content for profit, but I decided to make it free in order to increase my impact.
Rubber Band Engineer: Build Slingshot Powered Rockets, Rubber Band Rifles, Unconventional Catapults, and More Guerrilla Gadgets from Household Hardware by Lance Akiyama (Rockport Publishers, £14.99) is out now.