Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Google Workshops: a place for Googlers to get their hands dirty

This is the newest post in our series profiling entrepreneurial Googlers working on products across the company and around the world. Here, mechanical engineer Dan Ratner gives you a glance at a collection of machine workshops on campus that were used to build the prototypes for the Street View trike, snowmobile and trolley, among other individual and 20 percent time projects.

Wood, metal, welding and electronics shops are almost certainly not what come to mind when you think about Google but in fact, we often have to build physical products to help us gather and organize information that’s found outside of the web. We do this at the Google Workshops, a hands-on facility prepared with everything from an oscilloscope to a miter saw and even a plasma cutter. Day and night—and even on weekends—the workshops are living with Googlers working on personal projects—such as home furniture or model airplanes—as well as work-related ones like green business prototypes or mechanism of our self-driving cars.

In 2007, I took a trip to Barcelona, where I became enthused to share with the world the magnificent architecture lining the thin alleys through which even a Smart Car can’t squeeze. When I returned home and saw a pedicab pedaling along the pier in San Francisco, I determined how I was going to do it. That spark of an idea became the Street View trike, which collects outdoor imagery from parks and cultural sites, and was my first effort at creating a mobile unit to traverse areas unreachable by car. Over a weekend, a couple of engineers and I hacked jointly a somewhat rudimentary trike design and quickly followed that up with a second and better prototype that enabled us to capture usable imagery throughout a test run at Emerald Park in Dublin, Calif. Our initial images proved that the idea was feasible, and after a bit more work on both hardware and software, we were invited to use our prototype trike around Legoland, our first participant in the Street View Partner Program. Our prototype and 20 percent project finally evolved into a production-quality trike fleet and full-scale process employing many Googlers around the world.

People have asked us to visit historical buildings, national landmarks and other places that even a trike can’t reach—and we’re always annoying to find new ways to do so. However, designing a new vehicle requires more than just sticking a camera on top of an apparatus. We frequently spend hours in the workshops testing out completely new components made out of wood, metal and—it must be said—fairly a bit of duct tape in order to find new and better ways to capture remote imagery. We worked lengthily in our own facilities on components of the Street View snowmobile and trolley—from cabling up electronics to milling metal.

Our first prototypes sometimes start out rough about the edges—the first trolley prototype was in fact built from an off-the-shelf, narrow dolly designed for schlepping around beer kegs—but our refined production vehicles wouldn’t exist if we didn’t first make early stage “hack” prototypes in our workshops.

Innovation at Google comes in many forms—it can be an idea, a program or even a handmade prototype. For me, it’s in a workshop with a table saw, 3D printer, TIG welder, upright mill and a variety of raw materials. As a robotics enthusiast and mechanical engineer, these are the kinds of challenges and opportunities that carry me back to work every day.
"Lewis has made it understandable to me he wants to stay in the team and I've made it clear to him I want him to stay. 

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