A perfect ocean wave

in Artists & Engineers

Rides, Waves, & Robots: An Interview with Engineer/Artist Mitch Wenger

Our Artists & Engineers series replaces the actor/model with the artist/engineer,  a STEAM slash-something that is really worth looking up to. Get inspired by the individuals and collectives we interview, including Laetitia Sonami and Ozobot’s own Mitch Wenger below, as they open up about the projects they’re excited about, where they think technology is headed, and what advice they’d give their teenaged selves.

Mitch Wenger is an engineer with a mission: to create things from scratch. With decades of experience in product development, both in the U.S. and abroad, he has successfully launched numerous products. Wenger’s impressive skill set has been sought out by multiple well-known companies, such as Universal Studios Hollywood, where he was responsible for sustaining all the rides as Senior Mechanical Engineer. He even got to work on some visual effects for the new Fast & Furious component of their studio backlot tour.

Most recently, Wenger lead up the engineering team at Kelly Slater Wave Co (KSWaveCo) to create a perfect wave that surfers only dreamt about before. The wave is said to have the perfect barrel and is 1,800 feet long, twice the length of a typical wave you’d see at the beach.

Wenger has also been recruited by yours truly, Ozobot! Mitch is a Mechanical Engineer and is helping us out on some exciting Evo projects. We were thrilled when he agreed to sit down and talk with us about his experience and his advice for kids who may be interested in a similar career path.

 

Tell us about the Kelly Slater Wave project.
It’s basically a long lake and they move a boat hold down to generate a wave. When I started with Kelly Slater, they had just finished a prototype that only went one-way and it took a long time to reset. The idea with the next phase was to generate waves more quickly and send the boat hold in both directions.

There were some complicated mechanical assemblies associated with getting things reversed. My title was Lead Engineer, so basically the entire engineering effort was filtered up to me. In addition, I did a lot of mechanical engineering work guiding some of our consultants. It was basically a year-long project that we 97% finished for a [surf] competition that was being held that September.

We ran it from September through December and then drained the lake. We tore up some concrete and re-did some things and re-engineered some stuff. The project took about nine continuous months of construction to complete the first version (before I was there). The second version took us about six months.

How did you get involved in that project? Did you have connections to the surf industry?
I worked with my boss from Kelly Slater Wave Company in the past at Universal Studios Hollywood.

I was an engineer for Universal Studios Hollywood and when we both left, he had been consulting for Kelly Slater. When they figured they needed my skill set, he called me up and it just so happened that I was ready for the opportunity.

 

What motivated you to be an engineer who also practices art? Did the education system nurture that interest, or did you have to take matters into your own hands?

As a child, I had always expressed interest in painting and drawing. My mom got me started with lessons and made sure that I was taking art classes in school, more so than football or baseball. I did music and art. As a kid, I would always get things that were broken that I could take apart and just figure out. When I got older, I figured out how to fix them and put them together. At some point I realized that’s what mechanical engineers do for a living.

I just knew that’s what I wanted to do. What they teach you in engineering school is how to create something from nothing and the ways to get it right. I kind of want to be able to do that, to create something from scratch.

I was [part of] one of the last years where we learned to draft manually. Computers were becoming introduced into the college marketplace, so that drawing skill came in real handy. I understood perspectives and views which made it pretty straightforward and easy. I just never really questioned whether or not I wanted to be an engineer.

How do you use technology in your work? How do you want to be using technology 10 years from now?
For me, the technology boils down to 3D computer design tools. Right now, it has taken us from the drawing board and having to match up drawings to make sure things fit, to be able to see it in three-dimensional space. 3D CAD work has made a quantum leap in how easy it is to do it right the first time. In the old days, we wouldn’t find problems until we were on the assembly line, and after the tools were built and made and the parts were purchased. That can be kind of expensive.

The next generation is finding its way into an industry, still in its infancy, called Oculus Rift. It takes what I am doing from a screen and puts it in front of my face, so I can spin it and turn it and it will allow closer collaboration between those responsible for the input of what the product will be, and those responsible for making sure that it is done right. So, I can take someone who may not know anything about the CAD software and I can put this thing on them and see what they are seeing and put it in three-dimensional space and get over it or under it. It can go from being a screen to being something you can almost touch.

You get to have one conversation with your teenage self. What advice do you give him?
Grow up. I was fantastically undisciplined all the way through, and after, college. I had a full four-year scholarship through the Air Force and I was too undisciplined to stay with the ROTC program. I dropped out of the Air Force program to focus on becoming an engineer. So, I’d say to take [high school and college] a little more seriously.

Is there anything else that you wanted to add about being an engineer?
I firmly believe that if you enjoy what you do for a living, you’ll never work a day in your life. I really enjoy what I do and I get excited about it. If somebody out there were to ask me “how do I know I want to be an engineer?” I’d say, let’s look at what you do on your own time for fun and go from there. There are a lot of kids who are getting into coding right now in a big way, and that is going to lead to a generation of programmers who have decades of experience before they even get to school. That’ll give them a serious leg up from where we started.

It’s going to be amazing to see what those kids can accomplish and where the tools they’ll use are going to go. The potential for radical change in that world is significant, based on what we are doing now.


Mitch Wenger received his B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Virginia Tech University. In addition to engineering, he has gained experience in such diverse fields as sales, marketing, manufacturing, engineering leadership, and organizational development. His most exciting project right now? Ozobot, of course, where we’re happy to have him helping us inspire more young artists/engineers in the making!