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1278 interviews since 2009

A picture of Ben Heck

Ben Heck

Maker, builder, hacker

in hacker

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Benjamin J. Heckendorn and I'm the host of element14's The Ben Heck Show, a weekly show at the element14 online community that covers electronics engineering and the modding community. I live in Madison, Wisconsin.

Before the show, electronics was always a hobby. It wasn't my job or education, but I was always interested in it. I used to be a graphic artist, which is one of the reasons the show and its projects are visually sharp. My background influenced what I do now.

In 2004, I quite literally quit my day job to write a book. I had been "hacking" projects on the side and people were paying for them, and I decided to enter the electronic modding world full-time. Then the element14 Community entered the picture and helped quite a bit. Their sponsorship allows me to make projects that I probably wouldn't have been able to make before -- either because they were too expensive or too hard to justify. In a show format, you can explore new ideas and try crazy things.

What hardware do you use?

We use a lot of CNC machinery on the show. I have a CNC machine I use to mill large objects and do plastic and woodworking. I use my Epilogue laser cutter a lot as well.

I have a MakerBot 3D printer that I use to 3D print parts, but I also have my own portable 3D printer that comes in handy! Along those lines, we have a 3D Systems Cube 3D Printer and a new 3D scanner we've been testing out for an episode of the show.

Of course, I have computers for laying out all of my designs. We also use a variety of hand tools, the favorite of which is my pair of tweezers that I cannot live without. I have a nice Weller soldering iron from element14 that is great for modding. These are all the major hardware I use on a daily basis.

In terms of favorites, I enjoy using microcontrollers. We use microcontrollers quite a bit to create our builds and those are a lot of fun. Arduino is a great place to start for those people who are new to hacking and modding.

And what software?

I do a lot of my layout in Adobe Illustrator, the two-dimensional art program, because of my background as a graphic artist. Often when laying out designs I'll draw it in 2D because that's faster than 3D. We also use Autodesk 123 to make three-dimensional objects. Autodesk is becoming popular for DIYers, and they offer a lot of free options on their website to learn from if you're new to hacking.

Of course, we edit element14's The Ben Heck Show using Adobe Premiere. I have been an Adobe guy since the 90s. I still use Photoshop quite a bit from my graphic artist days.

Element14 has CadSoft EAGLE, which is quite standard for printed circuit board (PCB) layout. There is also a free version of EAGLE's program which is very common, well-documented and helpful for people looking to design PCBs.

What would be your dream setup?

The shop I have now is pretty great, but I do wish we had more outlets. That's really the one thing we're lacking. We need plenty of power rails and a clean power supply or power source.

I don't necessarily need more space - just better utilization of it; something that is easy to get around in and is designed for hacking. There's nothing super fancy I would want or need out of a shop. Really that's just where you make things. The tools and skills are really what matter, and I already have a good set of tools.

That being said, a better break room -- or a break room in general -- wouldn't hurt!