J.D. Warren: Mr. Roboto

By Charles Buchanan


J.D. Warren has cracked the code that turns work into play. After “many painful weekends mowing a rocky yard,” he invented the Lawnbot400, a remote-control wonder that makes the chore less sweaty and more fun. Now the 2006 UAB graduate and his robot have landed on the cover of Make magazine, a popular read for DIY hobbyists.

UAB Magazine: You earned a business management degree. Where did robotics come in?

Warren: During my sophomore year at UAB, I took an introductory engineering class where I built my first robot and had a blast. Motors have always interested me, so I bought some robotics parts and began playing. I focus on projects that can help me with tasks I don’t enjoy—doing something valuable while having fun is very appealing.


UAB Magazine: How long did it take to create the Lawnbot400?

Warren: My plan was to learn as much as possible while building everything from scratch and buying few premade components. It took about a year of researching robotics and electronics on the Internet, reading books, and then experimenting. The metalworking and frame design were fairly easy and took only a few weeks, but designing the electronic circuits and writing the programming code took several months of testing and debugging.

UAB Magazine: How did Make find you?

Warren: When I finished the Lawnbot400, I submitted the project to Make; within a day, the editor-in-chief said they wanted to pay me to write an article. Then they called a few weeks later to set up a photo shoot. I was floored when it showed up on the cover.

UAB Magazine: What’s next?

Warren: The Lawnbot400 has received some upgrades, and plenty more are planned, but currently I am writing a book, Arduino Robotics, due out in late 2010. I am also working on a robot for a local company and various bots for my book, including an automated garden irrigation system, an electric personal watercraft, and an automated chicken coop.

UAB Magazine: Can the Lawnbot cut my grass?

Warren: I have had quite a few requests—selling them may happen sometime in the future.


Check out the Lawnbot in action below, or click here for more videos from J.D. Warren.


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Lewis Menaker: Handcrafted Business

By Jo Lynn Orr

Lewis Menaker and his nephew, Mark, found inspiration for their family business in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Lewis Menaker always dreamed of starting a family business in Birmingham. When the perfect opportunity came along, however, it took him all the way to China—and involved not just a family, but an entire tribe.

Menaker joined the faculty of the School of Dentistry in 1970, when UAB was in its infancy and securing facilities and funding required a flair for entrepreneurship. By the time he retired as the dental school’s associate dean in 1993, UAB had blossomed into a world-class academic center. But those early entrepreneurial lessons served Menaker well eight years later, when his nephew returned from a backpacking tour of Asia with some dazzling artifacts and a business proposition.

In the foothills of the Himalayas, Mark had stumbled upon a remote village inhabited by members of the Bai tribe. For 3,000 years, these highly skilled artisans have transformed the region’s unique marble—noted for its unusual coloring and beauty—into vases and other hand-carved works of art. Although the village was until recently accessible only by donkey cart, it isn’t off the beaten path; Bai handiwork has been found in Chinese palaces since the reign of its first emperor.

“I bought a couple of the smaller pieces and took a lot of pictures,” Mark says. Back home, he showed them to his uncle. Menaker was intrigued—so much so that even though he “doesn’t travel well,” he had to go see for himself. That trip was enough to convince the Menakers to launch their own business—HML Enterprises—importing Bai marble vases, burial urns, serving trays, and other objects to the United States.

It wasn’t easy. “Just the logistics of finding someone in the region who spoke English was complex,” Menaker says. But the language barriers were nothing compared to the bureaucratic red tape of establishing a business in China and the challenge of moving marble to market. The pieces are trucked to the port of Shenzhen, then loaded on a freighter for California, and then shipped by train to Birmingham before arriving at the Menakers’ showroom in Vestavia Hills.

“I’ve never been a businessman,” Menaker says. “But I’ve been told that if you’re not selling something you believe in, you should get out, and I truly believe in this. The venture gives village kids a future so they can prosper in their hometown. And we are keeping this art alive.”


Contact HML Enterprises at (205) 276-9933 or hml@charter.net.

Click on the play button below to watch a musical slideshow of Bai vases from the HML Enterprises showroom (click the speaker icon at bottom right to mute music).


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Merrilee Challiss: Creating the City

By Charles Buchanan


Merrilee Challiss has designs on Birmingham. She helped take a concrete building amid warehouses and transform it into the unique BottleTree Café. And where others see vacant spaces in the Avondale community, Challiss envisions artist studios, a farm stand, a coffeehouse, and a vibrant street scene.

The Ohio native, raised in Birmingham, says the urban environment was one reason she transferred to UAB to study art. “It seemed to be a really accessible, user-friendly institution,” she says. After graduating in 1994, Challiss exhibited her paintings, drawings, and mixed media work nationwide—and even in Cambodia. She also returned to UAB for stints as a drawing instructor and visiting artist.

Natural science, medieval art, historical graphics, and anatomical illustration inspire Challiss’s art, but her biggest, boldest creation is rooted in the community. “BottleTree was born of my desire to make something happen in my neighborhood, rather than continue to complain about why something wasn’t,” she says. Avondale, a former industrial center near downtown Birmingham, was ripe for revitalization; Challiss, along with her brother and a partner, decided to help give it a push.

Making the transition from artist to entrepreneur wasn’t easy. “I have always been a do-it-yourself person and organizer of things, but I am not in any way a business person,” Challiss says. “It took us about a year to open, figuring it out as we went along. It would have made a juicy reality-TV show.”

Challiss and company created a café and live-music venue that also hosts art exhibits, independent films, comedy shows, and the occasional game night. In four years, BottleTree has become a popular spot, attracting up-and-coming musicians from across the country and patrons of all ages.

An artistic background also has benefited Challiss in one unexpected way. “Being creative helps me hone improvisational skills for anticipating what needs to be done—day to day and minute by minute—in running a business. ‘Adapt and overcome’ is my motto.” Now Challiss is helping other parts of Avondale adapt and overcome. She launched the BottleTree Craft Bazaar, which draws artists and visitors to the neighborhood, and she serves as an officer in Avondale’s merchants association. She believes that nurturing Birmingham’s music, art/craft, and film communities can help the city both culturally and economically.

“Whether they’re in school, just out, or moving here from another city for a job, young people want to know that there are cutting-edge things going on when they get off work,” says Challiss, who continues to create art in her spare time. “These things need to be vibrant and independent and give our city a sense of cultural identity. I’m always trying to encourage friends to open small creative businesses. They probably won’t get rich, but they’ll be working for themselves and doing something cool.”

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