Five Really Cool Inventions Being Developed In Metro Detroit

Posted on November 12, 2012

They actually make things here. Cool things. Things that may have no commercial value, or they may be market-ready. The idea may not originate here, but innovators find a way to make it happen at places like TechShop and i3Detroit, or in garages and school shops.

That’s one thing that Metro Detroit has been known for. And in the aftermath of the region’s depression, there are signs that the maker spirit never died.

The climate for creative production in this rust belt region is fired up. There’s something happening in the minds of makers: Maybe a daydream on the job, or the dream of an entrepreneur. It’s about possibilities and places to make them a reality.

Here are a few samples of the cool stuff that people are making here.

A literal brainstorm fuels a flame-thrower

Matt Oehrlein likes to tinker. An electrical engineer by profession, he was intrigued with flame shooting out of a dragon sculpture. He and his partner, Ed Platt, a software expert, came up with a physical depiction of a brainstorm, known as “Mind Flame.” Mind Flame is a brainwave-activated technology that reads electronic pulses from the brain, measures the intensity of concentration, then when it reaches a certain level triggers an eruption of fame. Think of it as a literal brainstorm.

Using technology developed by NeuroSky, which measures small electrical pulses that originate from neurons firing in the brain, Mind Flame translates the pulses into measurements like “concentration” or “attention,” which can be read wirelessly from a computer. Mind Flame was designed and built at i3 Detroit, a membership workshop in Ferndale.

Oehrlein presented Mind Flame at the 2012 Maker Fair, an annual exhibition of inventions and crafts, as a competition between two minds. “I thought it would add an interesting element of competition to have people try to out-concentrate the other participant.”

The power of concentration is well-known. The potential of powering a technology through concentration is an idea that has been researched elsewhere. Oehrlein just wanted to have some fun with it.

For most people who work at i3Detroit, “their jobs don’t allow them to be as creative as they want to be…. People are there because they want to build cool stuff. They just want to release cool energy, not controlled.”

There’s a lot of potential in untapped creative energy “among those who come to these spaces to create. It’s up to those people to translate that energy to a product other than making something cool.” Some do, but most just tinker.

Why can’t work be fun enough to tap into the wellspring of this creative energy? “Work has a huge demand for growth and productivity,” he says. “When it’s a hobby, there’s freedom to approach an idea from your own perspective, when you want to work on it.”

Southeast Michigan is “very fertile” for innovation, he says. “You have cheap real estate and manufacturing tools. It drops the barrier of entry to play around…”

Make it new: redesigning an industrial idea from 1812

If it works, make it better, faster, cheaper, more efficient… That’s what engineers do. Tim Sefton, an engineering consultant, is all about applied creativity. He developed an engine that is powered by multiple energy sources. Based on the principles of the Stirling engine, invented in 1812, operates on the same principles as the internal combustion engine. Sefton’s innovation advances the concept two centuries to provide a low cost, efficient, flexible engine, with parts made from commodity components.

As more attention is given to alternative energy solutions, Sefton’s engine will produce close to the average home use of electrical power per day and priced at about $100. From an energy perspective, it uses anything that can produce sufficient heat: gas, wood, chips, paper, as well as waste heat from a fireplace or furnace.

“Our engine will provide an alternative power source for the individual homeowner who wants to move closer to self-sufficient electrical generation,” he says.

Sefton is working about 10 hours a week fabricating Stirling engine parts at TechShop, another membership-based workshop in Allen Park. He’s currently assembling 30 engines in his garage.

Tinkering is fun, better than homework

Tinkering comes naturally, until school oppression stifles the instincts. Whether it’s words or technology, smart educators are freeing their students to create, as the Novi Robotics Club mentors challenged students to create a pneumatic pitching machine. It was a publicity stunt and an assignment, so technically the students didn’t think it up. But they designed and built a robot that threw the first pitch at the Tigers-Blue Jays game on Aug. 22.

It’s not so much the technology as the process to create it, says Colm Boran, an engineer and mentor. “The kids built it. They got their hands dirty.” They used computer software to design it. And from a publicity standpoint, they achieved their mission. The Novi Robotics club increased its membership from 50 to 70 and the Novi middle school, which had one team, now has six.

It’s about the process of creating the robot that’s “cool,” he says. “It appeals to everyone. There’s a sense of a cool objective. It appeals to the craving kids have for something cool.”

Michigan has the second largest number of high school robotics teams in the nation, second only to California, Boran says. In the annual state robotics competition “you will see the most competitive robots in the world — built by our students.”

Respecting artistic tradition, embracing the potential of computer design

The three-dimensional possibilities of computer assisted design (CAD) software, machine tools, and multidisciplinary encounters at TechShop has expanded the innovative potential of Detroit Glass House, a custom glass art business. Andrea Oleniczak, a partner with Taylor Kurrle in Detroit Glass House, says using CAD allows her firm to meld traditional glass-blowing with contemporary industrial design and production techniques.

Oleniczak says she surveyed glass studios in Michigan and couldn’t find any that use three-dimensional software design techniques and molds made with wood router machinery in their work.

“The way we design, what we design, and how we design is entirely different. We don’t think about what we do with our hands… Now we can blow into molds.” It opens not only creative opportunities, but production efficiencies. From a business perspective, she says, “that adds up in dollars and cents really fast.”

The firm recently completed an installation of computer-designed work at the Catalyst restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

As an artisan, Oleniczak is loyal to the tradition of her art, but notes that “glass-blowing has its limitations… We’re just trying to bring the craft into the 21st century.” Working with other crafts people at TechShop also opened her to cross-disciplinary possibilities that weren’t possible in her more insular arts community.

Crime is the other mother of invention

Vehicles are increasingly stolen for the same reason exotic animals are hunted — for one high-priced part. In the case of motorized creatures, it’s the catalytic converter. Don Price, an engineer with Ford Motor Company has been working after hours at TechShop to perfect a patent for an anti-theft device for catalytic converters.

It’ not just cars, Price says. medium to heavier trucks are also stolen. “An entire fleet could be completely disabled,” Price explains. Using features in the existing vehicle anti-theft system, Price and co-inventor Eric Reed were able to come up with a more secure and capable alarm.

Price worked on weekends at TechShop developing the invention, tapping into the collaborative and innovative environment of others working alongside him. He’s currently in the process of developing a new pressure sensor to complete his device.

Price envisions pulling together an engineering brain trust on an afternoon and designing the new sensor before dinner, then testing the new anti-theft device prototyped before the team heads home for the night.

“The ‘blitz’ concept is intentional,” he says. “I always strive to do the design and then immediately follow with the prototyping of an invention; when the idea is fresh the building phase is more efficient.”