John Wilkes: Master Safe Cracker & mechanical engineer!

EngineeringClicks speaks to lock and safe expert, and mechanical engineering guru, John Wilkes. John trained in England as a safe cracker (a safe and bank vault engineer) and spent many years opening some of the highest security safes and vaults in the world. He got to see some amazing places and things. Now John designs locks and other security related stuff. John is married and lives in Cape Town.

How did you get to where you are today?

A very long flight. I packed a bag and decided to see if the quality of life was better in South Africa than in the U.K. I’m still here 20 years later, so that should mean something.

Career wise, I spent the first half of my working life as a “Poacher”. I’ve spent the rest of it, so far, as a “Game Keeper”. High security safes and vaults need a variety of specialised tools and equipment to persuade them to relinquish their contents, and from a young age I was fascinated with how to bypass locking mechanisms – one of my earliest lock related memories is of opening my Fathers’ Morris Minor car without damaging it. Not much of an achievement, but for a 7 year old it felt incredibly empowering. By the age of 15 I deliberately used to leave my keys at home and pick the locks every time I came back, and it is alleged that I had a full set of master keys to all the doors in my school.

Locks are a physical embodiment of our desire for not only privacy and security, but also our desire to control access by others through the virtues of superior skill and knowledge, and that was the trigger for me – Rubik cubes were O.K. but generic and a bit pointless. A good lock is unique (truly so), even from the ones before and after it on the production line, and it was specifically designed by someone to say “No, you can’t enter without the correct key” Challenge accepted…

I was extremely lucky to be taken under the wing of one of the best safe crackers in the world, and I can never repay the knowledge gained from the experience, but it was certainly a case of being dropped into the deep end without a lifebelt. It was one thing to open a door lock or padlock without damage, and a different world to be sent to the other end of the Country to open a high security safe. And, “Today, mind, don’t be back too late…”

That’s where my twin loves of lock picking and mechanical design began to coalesce as an 18 year old, with the realisation that if I could mechanically manipulate a safe lock in the same way that I could a door lock, my life would become considerably less sweaty – Safes don’t like having a drill bit pushed through them, regardless of what mechanical advantage you employ.

The problem with safe locks is that they are a long way down a small hole, and this considerably changes the dynamics of mechanically manipulating them, both in terms of available leverage and available space. You have to keep in mind that these mechanisms are specifically designed to withstand such attacks, and as such they employ a wide variety of mechanical advantages that severely limit any range of movement for a lock picking tool. This started in me a life long fascination with the efficient transfer of motion and energy through different axes.

Having spent many years designing, manufacturing and selling highly specialised tools to this arcane industry, I woke up one day to find myself designing locks, to keep people like me out of them… That’s hugely simplistic of course and it wasn’t exactly overnight, but that’s where I find myself now. It’s been an experience, to put it mildly.

It’s certainly challenging, whichever side of the line you stand on – mechanical engineering is hard enough as it is, without having the unwanted complexities of deliberate human deviousness coming into play.

If you weren’t a mechanical design engineer, what would you be doing instead?

Opening bank vaults. When the handle of a 20 ton, 2 meter thick vault door turns and withdraws the locking bolts, because you made it do that, it’s a feeling that you have to experience to appreciate. You’re on top of the world for the rest of the day. The whole week, sometimes…

Is there anything you wouldn’t design, and why?

There’s plenty – and that doesn’t necessarily fall within the usual ambit of weapons etc. Personally, I couldn’t be involved in anything that degraded the life of an innocent person or animal. That could be something as benignly simple as a foodstuff container mechanism that hurts the arthritic fingers of an older person when they attempt to open it, or something as malignant as one of those disgusting ‘shock collars’ for dogs that bark.

Design is an extremely powerful tool, one that elevates us beyond the primates, but like any power it has the potential for misuse and even abuse. Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

What’s your ultimate dream project?

No limits? Then it would be the design of a primitive but functional and adjustable limb system that would comprise at least 80% recycled material and components. One that could be put together in a garden shed for under $100.

I hold a deep seated, although if I’m honest, a fairly vague idea that with the amount of things that we constantly dispose of on an industrial scale throughout the world, there simply has to be a supply of end of life parts out there that with a little tinkering and bolting together could be re utilised and mean a new life for every impoverished amputee on the planet, and I’m sure the same holds true for animal amputees.

Many people reading this will live in first world countries, with wonderful care systems and technological assistance, but I live in Africa, where if you haven’t got the money, you don’t get the help.

Realistically? A lock that is impossible to bypass in any way, shape or form…

What advice would you give a young person starting out in the industry today? How have things changes since you started your career?

Firstly, get some practical experience. Secondly, see the first point. There is a huge gulf between knowing and being able to calculate how a certain component will perform under (for example) shear stress, and knowing how to actually make it, not even being aware if it is possible to be made as designed. Only with this real world knowledge will you become truly productive. Don’t look down on it – one of the most satisfying things in life is to sit down with a pencil and paper, sketch out a design, work out the requirements in terms of loads, forces, friction etc, transfer it to CAD, print out the drawings, walk into the tool room, roll your sleeves up, make it and assemble it yourself. Especially when it works.

You’ll get a far greater appreciation for engineering in this way. Think of it as driving a car – If you passed your test on an automatic, you can’t drive a manual (stick shift). But half the cars out there are manual. Become fully rounded and never stop adding skills to your mental toolbox.

What have you designed that you most proud of?

lockable fire escape mechanism

I’m equally proud (although I’m not a fan of that word) of two designs that represent polar opposites in terms of complexity and sophistication. Sometimes circumstances demand a cheap, robust design that can withstand user abuse and at other times, designs that contain extremely complex mechanisms that the user will never be aware of, just as long as it works.

For the first instance, it would be a lockable fire escape mechanism that is only a few pieces of laser cut and bent plates. Cheap as chips, withstands all types of abuse and as simple as it comes, but simplicity is always hard. It’s easy to complicate things.

Then, to complicate things, I’m also proud of my dynamo powered biometric padlock. Give the casing a twist or two, power it up and present your finger. When you hear the beep, twist to unlock. Locking is automatic when the shackle is re-inserted. If you aren’t    enrolled, power up the lock with a twist and then insert the micro USB memory stick with your details on for remote enrollment.

There are others of course, but some of them are too complex and involve multiple system specific components that prevent painting a quick picture, and others still that are only for bona fide locksmiths et al.

Dynamo powered biometric padlock

I’ve obscured/obfuscated some proprietary details in the image, but you should be able to see the principle.

Do you have a favourite design trick/technique you use when doing appearance design or mechanical design.

For appearance design, I do what everyone else does, either consciously or subconsciously, but I do it consciously. I copy, or perhaps more accurately, I impersonate. Appearance design is purely a fashion statement, and fashion is a fickle thing. So perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that I’m an avid follower of fashion, at least when it comes to commercial design.

I certainly don’t ‘copy and paste’ as it were, but I definitely allow current form and material selection to influence my input.

For mechanical design, I tend to use an empirical approach that draws heavily on prior experience (and yes, you can read previous cock ups in place of that…). I strongly believe that wherever possible, prototyping should take place at the earliest possible stage and on a fundamental level. Whilst it may not be possible to easily prototype an entire system, it’s usually very easy to replicate certain crucial properties of it and test them in isolation – a good example of this would be the co-efficient of friction between two different materials. I’m not really sure why theoretical tables of these co-efficients exist, because I’d rather consult Mystic Meg than rely on them. But it is something that’s easy to verify, so I’ll do it at a very early stage in the design.

And I’m not afraid (any more) to chuck the whole idea in the rubbish bin and start from scratch. I think the most important aspect of any design process is the most difficult of all. To consider yourself in abstraction, and review your decisions purely impartially. It’s an impossible goal, of course, but that doesn’t mean to say that you shouldn’t try your hardest to achieve it. I certainly haven’t got there, but at least I’ve had the chance to ‘have a word’ with myself on a good few occasions as a result of doing my best to be independently critical of myself.

Of course, the downside of this is that you immediately doubt everything you do and end up experiencing a psychotic episode. Touch wood, not happened yet…

Do you ever not know where to start with a new project? If so, what gets you out of the rut?

Every single time. After all, there has to be something missing, doesn’t there? If there wasn’t, everyone would be doing it. But it’s really a question of time I think. Sometimes it takes a few seconds or minutes to have a brainwave, and at other times it appears intractable. It depresses me to say this, but sometimes I think there are no new mechanisms or designs, and that all we do is use our brains to filter out the inappropriate and then collate what already exists and merge them into something suitable for a particular problem. And that’s definitely a product of experience.

Are you a mechanical design engineer or an industrial designer? Do you draw a distinction?

I’m an industrial designer that has learnt mechanical engineering the long, self taught, way round. University simply wasn’t an option for me, for several reasons. I would certainly draw a distinction between the two disciplines if they’re considered as different ends of the spectrum, mostly in terms of approach.

But I’ve learnt that any good designer/engineer, with experience, will draw equally heavily on both of these spectrum ends in order to achieve the goal of getting the product to market. It’s no good knowing how to surface (for example) a plastic two part model if you aren’t aware of not only the stresses it may undergo when the screws are tightened up, but how those stresses may affect it’s drop resistance.

Equally, it’s no good being able to calculate those stresses without being aware of the fact that your model may not have an achievable split line for the mould, or that the type of plastic you specified isn’t U.V. stable.

Of course, that’s one example in a million, but the fundamentals hold true. The more knowledge you have, the better. And the more seemingly disparate that knowledge is, the more beneficial it will be in the long run.

What’s your favourite piece of design?

The roundabout (traffic circle). For the price of a tin of paint, you get relatively seamless traffic flow. And for the price of many thousands of Dollars, you get a set of traffic lights which no matter how technologically advanced they are, will still leave you staring at a red light when the way is obviously clear to proceed. It’s a pet hate of mine, but think of all the millions of litres of fuel per annum that could be saved globally if vehicles weren’t constantly forced to stop and then re-start their progress.

The 2-pin plug: uniformly atrocious
The 2-pin plug: uniformly atrocious

Most overrated consumer product?

As I don’t actually own any Dyson products, or an electric banana peeler, I’m going to go with the 2 pin plug. In a way, I feel bad about that, as the principle is sound – you can’t wire it up the wrong way. However, the execution of the principle (in terms of design) is uniformly atrocious. It’s the most irksome and tiresome piece of crap that I encounter on a daily basis. And not to be content with a single piece of crap design, we have multiple ‘improvements’, most of which are non interchangeable. Committees, you’ve got to love them…

Most underrated consumer product?

My car. Or your car. Or any readers’ car. When you consider the multiplicity of failure modes that such a hugely complex system undergoes on a second by second basis, and also the tremendous variation of inputs to the system as a whole, whether that be dynamic, environmental, inertial etc. it’s little short of miraculous that we have this level of reliability in our lives for the amount that it costs. And on the rare occasion that we turn the key and it doesn’t start? Nightmare – this piece of s**t…

What CAD system do you use and why?

I’m from the SolidWorks camp – moaning about it is one of our favourite pastimes at the office, but despite all that, it’s still the most intuitive and ubiquitous parametric modeller that there is, in my opinion.

What manufacturing process do you most enjoy designing for?

Machining. It’s less stressful than die casting or injection moulding etc. If I get a machined part incorrectly made, it’s usually relatively painless to rectify the error as long as there’s good Q.A. in place, regardless of who was the guilty party. That’s not true for any process that involves a cavity, even though it is machined…

What’s your favourite part of the design process.

That first glimpse – especially when it isn’t yours yet. But you know you want it, and you know you can do it.

Where does art end and engineering begin?

When it becomes repeatable.



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