CIA hero

Saving At-risk Neighborhoods One Boombox at a Time

Cohesive neighborhoods don’t die without cause. The Bayview neighborhood in southeast San Francisco—just north of Candlestick Park—thrived for decades. During World War II, African American workers migrated from the South, attracted by plentiful job-offers from the U.S. Navy, building and repairing ships in the nearby naval shipyard at Hunter’s Point. Life was good until the 1970s, when the shipyard was shut-down, leaving thousands without jobs. No plan had been developed to help train and transition these workers. Ultimately, with unemployment high, the neighborhood severely declined.

“People were virtually abandoned. Very quickly, guns, gangs, and dangerous drugs came to dominate the streets. Families were in pieces. Neighbors didn't trust each other,” said John Weiss, founder of the BOOM. “Instead of job-training for the residents, aggressive policing came into the community. The neighborhood was used as training for police officers on how to operate in dangerous neighborhoods.” Bayview had become a place for non-residents to avoid—day or night.

Student solders component for boombox.
Student solders component for boombox.

Reconsidering Bayview

But Bayview—less than an hour from technology-rich and economically advantaged Silicon Valley—is a tight neighborhood with intense community spirit, heart, and hidden brilliance.

John sensed that when he moved there a decade ago. During his first job in Bayview as a recording studio instructor in a low-budget recording studio at the Bayview YMCA, he guided kids 8 through 18 to produce beats and rhymes with audio hardware and software. The studio was housed in a cramped concrete pill-box. "Let's just say there was an over-abundance of natural reverb!" It was there that John discovered the untapped talents of Bayview kids.

Soon after, John founded the BOOM, an organization committed to the economic empowerment of underprivileged youths, by delivering hands-on hardware training. The BOOM's goal is to teach entrepreneurship, engineering, and economic skills to teen boys and girls who lack opportunities to learn marketable skills.

The BOOM vision is a synthesis of John's dual background as a technology professional for 25 years, and as a student of child development and psychology. John is a self-taught engineer, inspired by his first mentor, his dad, who studied electronics with the U.S. Navy in the 1940s.

John's early boombox prototypes led to a three-year pilot program that engaged about 40 disadvantaged teens. They soldered components, populated circuit boards, drilled wood and metal, wired components, and applied graphic elements.

"It's easy for them to 'think outside the box' because the neighborhood kids live in a world separate from the mainstream. Their inventiveness is bounded only by lack of training and resources."

But, as often happens in hardware, test-users (in this case, a group of highly rambunctious teens) revealed numerous design-flaws that needed attention. John realized the boombox wasn’t adequately rugged, loud, or good-looking. The boombox needed a complete redesign. That's what led to Protolabs’ Cool Idea Award.

Multi Jet Fusion 3D-printed part
Protolabs 3D printed the battery spacer nuts with HP's Multi Jet Fusion additive manufacturing technology.

Old Technology Solves New Product Issue

John paused youth activities to focus energies on a revamp of the boombox, bringing on seasoned hardware engineers from top companies like Apple and Dolby, to work through the engineering challenges. Design requirements weren't just meant to satisfy buyers, but perhaps more importantly, to make the experience of building the device a powerful learning experience for BOOM apprentices, with just the right amount of "difficult-to-build."

Among the design challenges was the lack of a reliable way to hold the batteries securely in place, which often caused the batteries to short out. It goes without saying that if your batteries are bouncing around loosely inside your product, instead of hugging each other in a rock-solid embrace, then your portable device is just a fancy brick.

“The lack of a flexible, small-footprint, off-the-shelf pack-mounting system was particularly troublesome, so I was really pleased when I worked out an original solution,” said John. “I designed a simple component, a specialized nut, for bolting down battery packs of any size. But this little nonprofit doesn't have the resources to order up a plastic injection mold. Protolabs’ Cool Idea Award enabled the BOOM to turn our CAD dream into a reality, helping our entire educational program to move forward. Protolabs is enabling us to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged teenagers.”

The core of the solution comes down from ancient Egyptian, Chinese, and Indian royalty, carved into wood and stone—the dovetail joint.

These days it's a feature of plastic interlocking "battery spacers," ubiquitous among lithium battery hobbyists. By coupling the spacer pins and grooves to the BOOM's spacer nuts, the power grid locks in place, and you’re free to listen to your music without interruption—until you need a recharge. The parts add very little weight to the boombox, which is critical for a portable device. The spacer nuts can accommodate packs of any size or shape, so packs are endlessly expandable. Best of all, the spacer nuts feature strategically placed bolt-holes to accommodate bolts for securing the battery pack to the overall assembly. That separates John’s solution from what’s currently available off-the-shelf.

The spacer nuts are made of PA 12 (nylon) Black, which is known for its durability, strength, and near isotropic mechanical properties. They were manufactured using a Multi Jet Fusion 3D printer, meaning that these strong parts had high-resolution features with quality surface finishes—and they could be made in as fast as one day. Another benefit of using nylon is that it is a comparatively inexpensive material.

"Protolabs’ Cool Idea Award enabled the BOOM to turn our CAD dream into a reality, and as a result is helping our entire educational program to move forward. Protolabs is enabling us to make a difference in the lives of disadvantaged teenagers."

The BOOM was also awarded a residency at the Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco, which gave John access to Autodesk designers. John says their professional guidance and participation was vital for refining and improving the component, to make it production-ready. The BOOM will be making the designed spacer nut available for sale to help raise funds for its educational program.

A Retro Redesign

The boombox encapsulates many engineering and non-engineering lessons for the teens who will build them. The BOOM is serious about promoting responsible product design.

"The BOOM plants seeds for engineering and entrepreneurial thinking. In today's world, that includes sustainability,” said John. “Whenever possible, we repurpose, reuse and recycle. The boombox incorporates building-construction tubes, used industrial batteries, and even plumbing supplies, all donated by local companies."

Although still under development, the end result will be the BOOM’s flagship device, a cool, retro boombox. Each will be uniquely decorated with artwork donated by artists who specialize in graffiti, tattooing, video game graphics, and comic book art.

The Future for the BOOM

Ultimately, the BOOM’s solution for economically excluded folks is “small-volume hand-crafting of boutique electronics,” according to its website. "Micro-enterprise can empower self-employed craftspersons to be their own boss, and work with dignity, self-sufficiency, and self-determination."

The name of the BOOM’s portable device is a company secret at the moment, according to John. “I don't want to give it away until we release the product. We have a few colorful names that we're considering.” He expects the boombox to be available for purchase in 2022, with proceeds supporting the BOOM's educational activities. John is confident he can replicate the BOOM curriculum in struggling neighborhoods across the country.

In the meantime, the BOOM's all-volunteer team is working hard to promote opportunity and good vibes for teens in San Francisco. Find out more about the BOOM here.