An engineer discovers the perfect tool to document her projects: The venerable three-ring binder.
Julie Porter's 3-ring binder containing all of the documentation for her player piano project.
My own mentor bought a clock factory for a retirement project after his wife passed away. Every Wednesday he would invite the ladies of the clock club to the factory to help assemble the clocks. Invariably he would be asked what part of the clock was the hardest to make. His smug answer was always, "The first one."
Wiser words were never spoken, as I have learned the value of experience over my engineering career. My past experience was instrumental to the success of a recent year-long project to design and build over 300 miniature toy pianos that were used as giveaway favors at a 50th anniversary meeting.
Over the years the table favor has become an elaborate production. Key chains, bottle openers, and other themed tchotchkes have been supplanted by custom electronics. A recent giveaway was a music box that played a song from a greeting card chip.
Similar circuits and designs for miniature player pianos abound online. But since I had already made a full-sized instrument that plays from midi files, I proposed simply scaling it to fit into a small box.
“Could we have a detachable representation of a player piano roll?” I was asked. “Already done,” said I.
How could I reply with such confidence?
Simple. I had taken the time to document the first project, which meant that I had all of the information at hand that we could leverage for making the miniatures.
What exactly is documentation? I will admit that when I was a salaried engineer I looked on such as busy work not worth my time. I wanted to get into the thick of the project and find bugs, suggest improvements, and see things that would work.
Somewhere in my collecting of things, I acquired a dozen or so 1-in. 3 ring binders with denim covers. I put the data sheets I most wanted to refer to into one. I then printed out my schematics and board layouts. I then added the BOM for completion. In the natural order of things, I even added in receipts from the board shop and component suppliers.
Since I sometimes purchase parts surplus, I even took to taping strips of surface mount connectors to the BOM. One caveat, though: I found that size does matter. When I stuffed a 3-in. binder full, there was too much stuff in it. I went back to my now favorite denim binders, which hold just the right amount of stuff.
What’s your method for documenting your projects? Do you set up separate virtual binders on your computer? File drawers? Or do you have some other scheme that works well for you? Please share any tips below in the comment section.
Julie Porter started working with computers in the late 1970s, while still in high school. Julie sold and supported Apple III and Lisa Computers in the 1980s before joining Apple Imaging in the early 1990s as a postscript quality engineer, coding tests and firmware diagnostics on the Apple LaserWriter printers. As a collector of merry-go-round organs and automata (mechanical dolls) she has somehow managed to make the restoration and building of pipe organs containing electronic control systems her day job. She will be documenting her experiences designing and building player pianos for EELife.