Meet the Maker / Kyle Doerksen, engineer and inventor of the Onewheel, explains the process, his space-age inspiration, and his path from LEGOS to IDEO to local manufacturing.
Behind the scenes / From initial napkin sketches to early prototypes to machining Onewheel components on a Haas VF-2SS, there’s a lot of time and determination involved in the process. CNC is used extensively for both prototyping and production.
On manufacturing in the USA / I really feel that manufacturing is the heart of creating value in an economy. You take basic materials and put them together in a creative way that makes something much more valuable. Why let other countries have all the fun?
Practically speaking, a totally new kind of product like Onewheel means a lot of hand-holding with a contract manufacturer. They’re in the tight spot of trying to combine state of the art power electronics with plywood parts they’re buying from a surfer dude in Southern California–it would push any contract manufacturer’s comfort zone and it’s a lot easier to have them close-by where you can be there in 20 minutes instead of hopping on a flight across the ocean.
Kyle’s path as a maker / It started with LEGO and disassembling my parents’ old appliances. I spent a few years trying to pick an undergrad major and ended up taking courses in computer science, EE, biology and wrapping that into a degree called Neuroengineering.
I built a little model engine that runs on compressed air in the machine shop class in college. It was my first introduction to metalworking and the experience of being able to make something so precise and perfectly true to an idea in your imagination was pivotal for me.
At one point I tried building a part for a project I was working on and gave a hand-drawn sketch to an old Sicilian machinist who worked in the basement of one of the engineering buildings at Stanford. He made me these amazingly well-crafted parts, perfectly machined to a thousandths of an inch–but the prototype didn’t work because I’d designed it poorly. So I decided I also needed a masters in Mechanical Engineering.
From IDEO to Onewheel / I spent 8 years as a Design Engineer and Project Leader at IDEO. IDEO is a fantastically creative place, one where the different disciplines swirl around and you’re thinking about brand strategy and industrial design when you’re doing engineering and vise versa. I had fantastic coworkers who I learned a lot from. I was also part of the team that spun out Faraday Bikes, a bespoke electric bicycle company in San Francisco. I was already building the first Onewheel prototypes when I got involved with Faraday, so both products took advantage of learnings from the other.
Mentors have always been a big part of my journey–from emeritus professors to garage machinists I love learning tips and tools and reveling in the creative energy of other makers.
What are your sources of inspiration?
It’s pretty random, but a couple years ago I bought a bunch of back issues of “Air and Space” magazine from the mid 1960s on eBay. Whenever I feel like the engineering problems I’m working on are too hard I pop open one of those and look at all the amazing stuff they were doing in the days of the space race. Solving incredibly hard problems for the first time, in ways that in many regards are pretty scrappy, but also elegant. We look back and it sort of makes sense (I still don’t understand how some of the programs like the Blackbird and Apollo were possible with sliderules), but maybe they were only possible with sliderules because people had intuition and direct experience and a big audacious goal. I get the sense that a lot of people are solving much easier problems these days (and often making a lot of money doing it), but if you look at the “top 10 inventions” list of the 20th century, the things that made a difference were all works of incredible effort.
Who are some of your favorite makers?
Burt Rutan, Edwin Land, Kelly Johnson, swiss watchmakers, Tom Blackburn. Whether they’re in their personal workshop or running large companies, they’re people who combine technical excellence with creativity and audacity.
What’s next for Onewheel?
We’re shipping in the next few months. It’s a mad rush to get a product out the door but we’ve got some really interesting new features and next products that we’re working on in the lab.