Saturday, April 01, 2006

Eric Sink's Ultimate Dog-Fooding Story

Eric Sink has a story that may be the best "dog-fooding" tale ever. For those unfamiliar with the term: it refers to the act of using your own product ("eating your own dog-food"). For a software company that makes email software, for instance, it would mean utilizing your own software to run all of your company's email. Microsoft, as an aside, is famous for dog-fooding its products.

The primary machine tool in any well-equipped woodshop is a table saw. Basically, it's a polished cast iron table with a slot through which protrudes a circular saw blade, ten inches in diameter. Wood is cut by sliding it across the table into the spinning blade.

A table saw is an extremely dangerous tool. My saw can cut a 2-inch thick piece of hard maple with no effort at all. Frankly, it's a tool which should only be used by someone who is a little bit afraid of it. It should be obvious what would happen if a finger ever came in contact with the spinning blade. Over 3,000 people each year lose a finger in an accident with a table saw.

A guy named Stephen Gass has come up with an amazing solution to this problem. He is a woodworker, but he also has a PhD in physics. His technology is called Sawstop. It consists of two basic inventions:

* He has a sensor which can detect the difference in capacitance between a finger and a piece of wood.
* He has a way to stop a spinning table saw blade within 1/100 of a second, less than a quarter turn of rotation.

The videos of this product are amazing. Slide a piece of wood into the spinning blade, and it cuts the board just like it should. Slide a hot dog into the spinning blade, and it stops instantly, leaving the frankfurter with nothing more than a nick.

Here's the spooky part: Stephen Gass tested his product on his own finger!

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