Uses This

A collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done.

A picture of Sarah Pavis

Sarah Pavis

Mechanical engineer

Who are you, and what do you do?

I'm Sarah Pavis, a mechanical engineer. I started my own consultancy, Measure Twice Labs, working freelance with large and small companies in New York City who need a helping hand building homegoods, consumer electronics, medical devices, boardgames, basically all sorts of product you might buy.

What hardware do you use?

I have 3 computers. I have a 2015 Macbook Pro which has been a workhorse for me. I hope I can use it for the next 20-30 years, that's probably reasonable. I also have a 2017 ASUS ROG laptop which I bricked last year and somehow totally corrupted my M2 SSD. I installed a new SSD and it seems fine now but I remain wary. I also have a dope desktop PC tower that I built from scratch in 2018.

I've always used Android phones. First the Nexus series, now I have a Pixel 2 XL. I hate how big it is but I love watching videos on my phone.

As a mechanical engineer, I use a lot of hardware. It's like, my whole job!

Trying to prototype and build hardware out of my tiny New York apartment is a Sisyphean effort. I don't have a dedicated room for a workshop so every project has to be pulled out and packed up every day or things get too messy too fast. I'm looking at different workspace options in the city but nothing's the right fit yet.

My favorite tools are: pry knives, awls, and spudgers. Those are 3 flavors of what is basically the same tool: an opening device. A pry knife is a dull blade used for separating pieces. It's good for opening electronics or separating the support from a 3D print. But it's dull so it's safe to be aggressive with it, unlike a box cutter or Xacto knife where you'll almost certainly cut yourself. An awl is a pointed metal tool, like an ice pick - it's good for all the things most people use a flat head screwdriver for (mainly stabbing things). A spudger is a pointed plastic tool, like an awl but designed to be weak for working with delicate materials that you don't want to scratch or break. If you exert too much force then the tool will break before the object you're using the tool on (which is what it's supposed to do).

iFixit came out with the Essential Electronics Toolkit which is a really good value at $20 because it comes with all the basic tools you need including spudgers and a pry knife. At past companies where I've done work, I buy this kit for each person so that all the communal tools from the shop stop mysteriously disappearing and floating around the office. Since I work as a consultant I need to have more personal tools so I have the iFixit Pro Tech Toolkit.

If I'm going to a client meeting they'll often have some sort of prototype or sample with them that I'll want to measure, inspect, open, disassemble etc. So whenever I leave the house for work I always bring my tiny travel toolkit with me: tape measure, ruler/protractor, #1 #0 #00 short screwdrivers, pry knife, spudger, scissors, tape, and spare press-to-close bags.

I always have a lot of press-to-close bags (aka ziploc bags). If I'm disassembling something I want to subdivide the sections into different bags for storage. I buy 4mil bags which are really thick so tiny screws don't poke through and fall out.

My at-home tool kit is more extensive. I've got lots of clamps, glues, spray coatings, needle files, gun picks (it's like a hardened steel version of a dental pick for cleaning out crevices), deburring tool (for getting smooth edges on work pieces), basic soldering kit, a USB microscope, and lots of other hand tools. Some of my favorite brands are Wiha (drivers), Knipex (pliers), and Irwin (work holding).

I've read some advice that says to buy something cheap if you're a beginner. I get the logic but once you've bought a tool you're really unlikely to ever upgrade it again so, when in doubt, buy the slightly nicer tool, especially for tasks you think be doing a lot or tasks that you know that you're bad at.

One task I'm bad at is trimming the insulation on wires. If I need to solder high gauge 11-strand wire then I almost always will snip off one of the strands when I try to trim the insulation. So I bought a self-adjusting wire stripper. It's so much faster and much more reliable. At $20 it's certainly more expensive than a $5 wire stripper but it saves me so many headaches.

I have a basic woodworking kit with a circular saw, drill, jigsaw, sander, and impact driver. Trying to get plywood to my apartment in New York is sad. In a past corporate job there's a courier I'd use for a lumber yard that had great wood for good prices but I can't justify that for projects at my home. I live across the street from a hardware store that won't order PVC pipe or plywood for me (is it a front?) so if I want stock materials I have to order them online and have them delivered. Which is honestly just as well, I don't have the space to keep 8 foot long sections of pipe or full sheets of plywood. It just feels hilariously sad to be ordering a ΒΌ sheet of plywood on Amazon.

I have a Prusa I3 MK3 FDM 3D printer at home which I built from a kit. Building it myself meant I knew how to fix it when something broke. I've had it about 9 months and have had 3 somewhat major fixes: heat sink (replaced the nozzle and cleaned out the heat sink), x-axis belt (was skipping, trimmed and tightened it), and heater cartridge (burned out, had to solder on a new cartridge).The Prusa is low-to-mid tier when compared to something like the Ultimaker/Makerbot/Lulzbot but the quality can be just as good, it just takes some more tender loving care to get super clean 3D prints.

For personal protective equipment I use N95 masks, nitrile gloves, steel toe shoes, and nail polish. My job is very hard on my hands so I do my nails once or twice a week to strengthen them and keep them from breaking. Plus it's fun and they look pretty.

And what software?

I use Solidworks, which is a very powerful and very expensive computer aided design program for creating 3D models and 2D drawings. Seriously it's anywhere from $4-$15k for a license, depending on how many bells and whistles you have, plus at least $1k per year for support. But it's the industry standard for mechanical engineering so there's not much of a way around it. A few years ago I tried Onshape, which is a much cheaper cloud CAD program made by some people who left Solidworks but back then when I tried it, it was still lacking a lot of features compared to Solidworks. I want to try it again because I heard it's gotten a lot better recently, which would be great to give Solidworks some competition. If you're a hobbyist looking to get started then I recommend Tinkercad, which is really popular and easy to use.

I backup my CAD files to Google Drive. For corporate jobs I've used fancier PLM/PDM document management tools like Teamcenter or Solidworks Vault, but for my own personal work and small client work, it's not worth the overhead.

I use Cura to connect to my 3D printer. Cura is a slicer. It takes 3D files and basically runs them through a deli meat cutter and sends those processed slices to tell the 3D printer to print each layer. There are a lot of slicers out there, and most are pretty good, but Cura is the most user friendly and has a billion settings to tweak to your heart's content.

I travel to factories for work and have been to China a few times so I use the very creatively named app ChineseSkill to help me improve my Chinese skills, along with the Chinese dictionary app Pleco. I'd say my speaking skills are mediocre, my reading skills are slightly better than mediocre, and my listening skills are slightly worse than mediocre. Unless someone is speaking standard Mandarin like they're talking to a 5 year old then I have a tough time following the conversation. I've been working on it for a few years but I'm still learning.

Outside of engineering specific software I like to use ColorNote for to-do lists or other random notetaking. On my Mac I use Pixelmator for all my basic Photoshop-esque tasks. For tracking billable hours I use Timesheet for Android.

What would be your dream setup?

Space, first and foremost. If I had a real workshop then I'd want a vacuum-former, laser cutter, resin printer, drill press, plus a super solid workbench with a big ass vise and lots of storage compartments.