A magic toolbox is a toolbox that always has the right tools and the right parts and the right documentation to fix whatever the current problem is. Back when I was the “go-to” troubleshooter that got sent out into the field to handle the tough problems, I spent a lot of effort carefully choosing what to pack in my toolbox. If you have the right stuff in the box, you look like a hero, if you don't have the right stuff you look incompetent – there is a big difference.

Since those fieldwork days I have had fewer and fewer occasions to pack a magic toolbox and there are lots of new technologies to take into consideration now. So I thought I would explore a more modern version of my magic toolbox that almost never let me down in the past.


But first a little story about my magic toolbox:

Once upon a time 4 partners and I had a contract to design and built two large fully autonomous robotic vehicles - picture 4-wheel drive, 2-seater, off-road dune buggies with a kilowatt of electronics. Gasoline-hydraulic hybrid drive with a Power PC for a control systems brain. The autonomous smarts were provided by a PC. We had to deliver these machines 2,000 miles from our shop and run through a series of acceptance tests (autonomous maneuvers) in the snow. The test site was about a hundred miles form the nearest electronics store and no internet, so if anything broke we would have to fix it with what we had in our briefcases.

Before the physical autonomous tests we had to deliver a presentation describing everything about the machines and field any questions.

The clients liked the presentation as we were delivering some key features they hadn't put in the contract, but which were obvious improvements. They were extremely safety conscious and had required a complex safety interlock scheme with multiple redundant overlapping safety interlocks – they did not want an autonomous machine of this size running amok. And with good reason (the first time we had tested it at our shop in full autonomous mode, it ran over an expensive camera tripod before we could hit one of the 5 kill switches)

During the presentation questions, it became clear to me they interpreted part of the safety interlock system differently from the way we implemented it. It looked like we were going to fail the acceptance tests.

We had a year's salary riding on the acceptance test and there were penalties if we couldn't deliver on time.

So during the lunch break, before the big reveal, I examined the schematics to see if we could alter the interlock system in hardware - many of the safety systems were independently hardwired. I came up with a really clever way to implement exactly what the client wanted without messing up the software, and fortunately my magic toolbox had all the right documentation, all the right tools and all the right components to implement the change. I had to dismantle the machine and make the fix in a cold garage while my partners stalled the clients for an extra half hour.

The machines went through the safety checklist and autonomous acceptance courses with flying colours.

When you have a whole year's salary riding on what is in your toolbox, you absolutely appreciate it when it comes through with everything you need. There were lots of high fives all around, even from the clients, but I'm sure nobody but me really understood how much magic there was in that solution.

So pack your magic toolbox with love and care.


Tools are so important they can make or break a job, but when you can't take every tool, which ones do you have to have?

Which Tools?

When you call a toolbox a tool kit it would seem to imply the there are also some electronics building blocks in the kit.

There is a wide variety of potential building blocks ranging from passive and active components up through complete modules and subsystems, but what would be in a general kit? I can review the types of module I would like in a kit...

Electronic Building Blocks

Just to emphasize the magic nature of the right kit I want to describe a specific instance where a specific special tool saved the day and there really wasn't any other viable alternative.

The Magic Tool

Way back in the middle ages of autonomous robots, long before smart phones, I built a unit called a BorgBot as an entry in an autonomous robotics competition. In these competitions you get 3 "runs" to accomplish some task. Since there are lots of competitors, there is time between runs, while others are running, to make repairs and adjustments, but it is never quite enough time. At one competition my BorgBot needed some disassembly and reprogramming, but there was an impossible screw located deep in the chassis that had to be taken out. To get it out normally would require complete disassembly of the robot (probably hours of work). I am not proud of being the designer who designed it that way. As luck would have it, my toolbox had a unique and magic tool that was not brought for this job at all as I had not anticipated this particular scenario....

I was able to effect repairs and complete all three runs - one of them was the fastest run of the day.

It does not matter much whether the tool kit is magic by design or pure serendipity, it is still fantastic when it comes through in the crunch.


So keep working on perfecting your Magic Tool Kit - it is bound to pay off, and you will be ecstatic when it does.


Link to the Project14 Portable Electronics Kit project description page

Link to the Portable Electronics Kit Project14 page