From chatting with him a few times, it is clear that Dennis Althar, president and CEO of Althar Audio (www.altharaudio.com), is one part Renaissance Man, one part self-professed Maker, one part technology fiend with a dash of philosopher thrown in. He is a people person and storyteller extraordinaire with a variety of interests and passions that revolve around technology and electronics.
You have been involved with FIRST Robotics for 13 years. Tell us about your work with them.
I had a friend who was a mentor to one of the schools involved. I found out that they needed someone to inspect the robots to make sure they met specifications. As an inspector, you need experience in electronics or technology. Then, in the last two years, I have worked as a judge. It’s not as technical because you are judging professionalism, interaction, how the team helps other teams, community involvement, the team’s Web page, the safety of its booth, documentation, and its video presentation.
It costs about $25,000 to do a robot. The students have to find mentors and sponsors. Each robot is built from the same basic kit and software but the students write their own code; so, there is opportunity for innovation in the traction system and performance of the robot, and the uniqueness of the idea.
“For inspiration and recognition of science and technology” is what FIRST stands for. Our country graduates about 70,000 engineers per year as compared with 350,000 in India and 600,000 in China (Cse.msu.edu). We need to close that gap.
What is your opinion of STEM versus STEAM programs?
Art is integral to design. Some things may work and do the same job but the artistry is important and what distinguishes one product from another. For example, there is a difference between one website and another. How does it look and interact with the user? Some design elements to think about that could use improvement:
- Elevators have the button on the wrong side. Now, there are kiosks with smart technology so that you push the floor button before you get on the elevator. The technology brings the correct elevator that is going up and to that floor.
- If you turn on the windshield wipers, your car’s headlights should go on.
- If you only have one printer, it should print immediately when you click “print” instead of having you click to print on the right printer.
- When you put a CD in the CD player, it should start playing without having to hit “play.”
- Why are the controls for a shower under the spray head where you need to reach through the freezing or scalding water instead of on the other wall or the side of the shower?
User experience is the art part.
What other student-mentoring opportunities are you involved with?
I speak at Cuyahoga Community College, Case Western Reserve University and Youth for Christ about careers and electronics since I’ve been doing technology since Apple II’s in the late 70s and electronics since I was five.
Tell us about when your love for technology started.
At age 5, I read books on electronics and science fiction at the library to get away from my home life. I started repairing stereos at about age 6 but never just repaired them; I modified them and improved them. The tubes took time to warm up; so, I would put a solid-state diode across the power switch to make them instant on.
Record players used to have 30 watts with one channel driven and only 20 with both driven. I would take the cartridge and flip one channel’s wires so that one was positive and one negative to change the polarity then flip the wires on one speaker. That way, I was able to get 30 watts per channel with both channels driven rather than 20 basically increasing the power by flipping two wires on each end, one pushing and both pulling back. Technology is about understanding what things do.
Then, I drove a car as a teenager with a knocking rod. This usually blows up within an hour. I pulled the spark plug wire so it wasn’t firing, took off the valve cover, removed the push rods from the intake valves and took the spark plug out so it didn’t suck fuel. The car ran on seven cylinders instead of eight and missed a little on the freeway but I drove it like this for months. I had a broken tie rod end and drove the car backward to get home to get it off the road. You can’t push it forward. Again, it’s knowing how things operate. Going back to the previous question, that’s what STEAM and STEM are: understanding the basic principles of how things work. To design, a person has to have a basic understanding of servicing things and the ability to look at the product as a complete system during its whole lifetime. They have to be able to service it, whether a robot or a TV, to see how things integrate.
How did you get involved in your current line of work, and what did you do in the past?
I left home when I was 14. A high school guidance counselor turned me onto Upward Bound where I went to college in the summer to be away from my bad home conditions. II was paid a $7 per week stipend and got to live in the dorms in the summertime. I just kept on going from there. I stayed with friends the rest of the time and was emancipated when I was 17. I slept in cars and anywhere I could, and I finished high school.
I also was in a foster home at 8 for about a year. There, I saw a different kind of life and could see possibilities. I was told I would never amount to anything or drive a nice car. I have owned Jaguars, Porsches and a limo. What doesn’t kill you motivates you; it gave me a heart for mentoring and foster programs. Although I knew electronics, I joined the Air Force so others would believe it, and I went through 2.5 years of training in eight weeks.
Out of the Air Force, I got involved with medical equipment and large-system computer equipment repair. Then I started my own business doing graphics systems for Bobbie Brooks; laser equipment for Richmond Brothers; research equipment for General Tire, BFGoodrich and all the rubber companies; and medical electronics repair and sales, Including the first ultrasound machines and heart stress testing. We then went into manufacturing.
I beefed up VCRs to work in cardiac cath labs to take in non-standard video and play it back on the monitors. After working with that ultrasound technology for years, I used it to apply to sound systems.
Tell us how that came about. How are they being used and where?
I had a separate business selling high-end home theater and laser discs in the 1990s. After 911, I let the medical stuff go as it went to big network PAC systems moving away from film. I went full time into sound system technology based upon medical technology. I basically retired after 911 and hung out and did fun stuff until three to four years ago.
But I would still repair the things I built and support my customer base. I never want satisfied customers. Satisfied customers go to McDonalds, pay the buck, get a hamburger and are satisfied. They also would buy from Burger King. Loyal customers go to Rally’s, not anywhere else, because they are excited and are evangelists.
Our current markets are churches, gyms, warehouses, factories, football fields and auditoriums. The systems are being used by St. Edwards, Central Catholic, Independence High School, Notre Dame, Gilmour Academy, Beachwood, Warrensville, Ursuline, St. Thomas Aquinas, Western Reserve Academy, Toledo, Riverside High School, Lear Romec Crane, AkzoNobel, Musicians Alex Bevan and Dan Bode, and on mobile billboards as the trucks drive around sporting and political events.
Communications are about getting what’s from my mind to your mind with as little destruction as possible, which you know well if you are married. You need a universal translator from Star Trek so that what goes out of someone’s mouth and into the other person’s ears is in synch. Our mission is to make intelligibility in communications, whether visual or aural. Your brain tries to make things fit to its experience. You can seldom have lossless transfer of ideas.
As an HGR customer, how did you hear about HGR? What do you come here to purchase and why?
For the deals and because it’s a one-stop shop. If you’re building a maker’s space like Dan Moore at Team Wendy and need a drill press, lathe, vacuum, etc., you can get it all in one place, save money, and keep items from going to landfills and scrapyards. HGR is full of more than just metal; they’ve made it so people can compete who couldn’t afford to buy a $200,000 spray booth. Companies may go out of business but something is still left in the ashes.
I was a customer of HGR’s founder’s prior company. I did work with Reliance Electric. One of its locations was across from that company, and I saw sign about surplus, which is my middle name. This was before the Web, and I wouldn’t have known it existed. It was serendipity, then I found out about HGR from word of mouth. We have bought electronics, lighting, lockers, carts, power supplies boxes, containers, a wire stripper, test equipment for our engineering lab, and material handling equipment. The place is full of too many cool things. For instance, I bought three skids of hardcover foam-lined cases made for ultrasound probes and found a use for them. I bought an ultrasound machine and donated it to The Cleveland Pregnancy Center. Sometimes, I buy an item because it looks cool then find a use for it later on. I seldom buy things that don’t work but if they don’t you can return them. What you guys get is eclectic; it’s like you say, you do sell everything.