Dominik Textor is better known around these parts as dtextor. The Swiss mechatronics engineer enjoys sharing a wide range of projects here on Instructables, from fun (Nosey USB-Sheep), to practical (The Quest for the Perfect Wallet), to tools for adventure (The MicroCamper aka "Fat Berta"). In his Instructables profile "About" field, there are just two words: "applied simplicity." I wanted to find out more about dtextor, so I decided to ask him a few questions.
What kinds of things were you interested in making and doing when you were a child?
To the horror of my peace-loving parents I was quite interested in weapons. Not really to hurt someone, but merely fascinated about how their mechanisms work. Since my parents weren't going to buy me toy weapons, I had to build them myself. And I did so quite successfully too. When I couldn't get a spear gun for fishing (waiting for the fish to take the initiative sucks) I went into the garage and built one. It caught quite some fish and I still have it to this day (killing and eating fish wasn't so much fun, but the spear gun rocked!).
And I always built mice traps from scratch. I preferred to relocate the mice instead of killing them and this lead to some very special designs. My last trap I built a year ago for the parents of my girlfriend in South Africa. A rat was messing with their food stock and so we asked the rat politely to do it somewhere else.
I always brought injured animals home, ranging from ravens and owls to a little bat called Sam. So I had to build transport cages and temporary shelters to coddle them up again. I was also very fond of taking things apart to see how they work. I remember taking apart the radio of my older brother. It worked perfectly normal before I took it apart and didn't afterwards and my brother wasn't so happy. It took some time until the family understood that I can fix stuff too, not only break it.
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Are there any people in your life that have been influential in inspiring you to make things with your hands?
A bit classic, I know, but my father had a tool shed and built some of the furniture in his spare time. So I had access to tools and scrap wood in abundance and watched him working. Some of the tools were officially forbidden for being too dangerous, so I took extra care when using them (but I was, of course, using them anyways).
At age 6 I got my first heavy electrical shock while wiring and building a lamp on my own. On the positive side, the wiring was perfectly okay, only the insulation of the lamp socket wasn't. At age 7 I was slightly careless with the soldering iron and burnt an astonishingly large and deep hole into my hand. But luckily I hit the nerve and so it didn't hurt so much. I guess my parents were quite astonished when I reached adulthood and still had all my fingers. But then again I learned from watching my father that it's quite normal to spend a bit of blood and pain for a good project.
And I was very lucky that my mother had a nice sewing machine and took the time to show me how to use it. It gave me access to a whole new area of making things. Actually one of my next Instructables will be about the complete modification and reassembly of my down sleeping bag (oh my, that was a mess).
So all in all I had the opportunity and motive and taught myself new skills on the way.
What do you do for a living and how has this affected the things you make?
I studied mechatronics and at the moment I work for a mechanical R&D; group at the technical university ZHAW in Winterthur. Studying mechatronics gave me a completely new tool set. Programming and a basic knowledge of electronics allowed me to make much more complex projects. And I'm lucky to get a bunch of very diverse projects to work on. For example I built for an exhibition a swarm of tiny interactive underwater robots. They were able to avoid obstacles and flock together and the spectator could call them to the front of the water tank with a modified and pulsing flashlight. The whole system was built with Arduino Pro Minis and very cheap pager motors. Money and time was short but in the end it worked and the visitors had a lot of fun.
"This is from a an exposition piece that I did for my research group (job) featuring 7 small autonomous and interactive underwater robots powered by tiny Arduino boards."
How did you first discover Instructables, and what led you to post your first one?
I don't remember exactly which Instructable it was, but I do remember Googling some things and repeatedly ending up on Instructables. And then getting stuck there for quite a while. But it took some time until I made my first Instructable myself. I had some spare time during my holidays and thought "why not." After that it became a habit to take pictures when building something just in case it could be worth sharing.
What do you like about the Instructables community?
It empowers people by showing them how to build stuff. For me the most amazing thing about the internet is that I can learn a new skill whenever I want. I find instructions on sites like Instructables and get a "hands-on new skill 101" by experts over YouTube. Things you couldn't find in a library in the past and had to travel far to learn can be learnt now in moments. This doesn't make you an instant expert, but it sets you on your way.
And there's another amazing thing about our community. Almost on all other forums a simple question turns after three posts into a political or pseudo-intellectual discussion, mostly missing the initial question completely. But if you ask an author a question on Instructables, you get several answers, straight to the point, by people really willing to help you. It's this dedication to getting things done and working that amazes me every time anew. And the fact that people upload Instructables with new and brilliant ideas without thinking first about getting a patent for it shows that it's first and foremost about building things and helping others, not about profit.
In your Instructables "about" section, you have written: "applied simplicity." What does this mean to you?
I'm highly attracted by things that serve a purpose and are as simple as possible. Whenever I build something it comes to these two things. It must fulfill its purpose to the fullest and be still simple and sleek. As Saint-Exupéry said: "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." A bit cheesy, but it gets to the point. But the term "applied simplicity" isn't from me. My girlfriend's father commented that about something I built and it perfectly summed up what I wasn't able to put in words myself.
Do you have any projects that you are excited about on the horizon?
My projects have the curious nature to arise suddenly without warning. So at the moment I'm quite oblivious of the next one. But in January I'm bound for Abu Dhabi as technical support for a solar racing team and I'm sure this will be very exciting.
What skill are you interested in learning next?
At the moment I'm still in the process of learning how to work with leather. After some quite ugly attempts things are getting closer to what I want now. I don't have a strict agenda of the skills yet to learn. Mostly it works the other way around. I see something that inspires me to build something and to achieve this I have to learn something new.
"Sadly, this isn't my own workshop. I only forged a knife there."
If you could give a piece of advice to a new author, what would it be?
Pictures, pictures, pictures. It's so much easier to understand a technical process with pictures. Try and make them as simple and meaningful as possible. It's hard to see a detail if the whole picture is cluttered with unused tools and parts. And use a lot of light sources.
Who are three other Instructables members that deserve to be featured authors, in your opinion?
Well, that's really hard to decide.
swm5376 built an electric motorbike from bike parts and it's such an amazing old school look. It's his only Instructable, but I'm sure there's more where that one came from.
Robot-Chicken is also not a heavy publisher, but his mechanism for the chicken door is just astonishingly simple and genius (Only beaten by the "chicken controlled door opener" that can be found on youtube. Seldom laughed so hard.)
And then there's user Nozebra doing really cute stuff and using and combining materials in completely new ways.
Dominik in his workshop.