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Material Xperience

Material Xperience 2014

Based around an independent and continuously growing collection of over 2,000 innovative materials, Materia aims to connect professionals through various media such as exhibitions and conferences. Today marks the first day of one such exhibition at Rotterdam with the theme “The Smart Environment”, presenting a wide range of cutting-edge materials accompanied by a select number of seminars.

Products are becoming ever more complex in their functionality, yet are not becoming more complex to operate. On the contrary: products are increasingly easier to interact with and operate as the human-machine interaction is more closely moulded to our needs and our limitations. This advancement is made possible due to a high level of integration of all the various disciplines involved in product development. All aspects of a product, from PCB to ABS housing and active to passive, synergise to fulfil a common goal.

Of course, the above is from the perspective of a product developer working for an OEM’er. The real beauty is: the above does not only apply to products in the conventional sense, it applies to all things created artificially. New technologies with regards to materials and surface treatment make it so that anything that previously fulfilled its function in an exclusively passive manner (e.g. roads, walls, fabric) is now able to fulfil additional active functions. And that opens up a whole new world of marvellous possibilities.

Materia aims to stimulate the development of new applications for these innovative materials. Recurring topics of today’s exhibition are related to 3D printing and biomimicry; the latter is why I was most interested in attending, especially due to seminars by David Oakey and Michael Pawlyn.

It is interesting to hear first-hand experiences regarding successful large scale commercial implementations of biomimicry influenced products. Michael Pawlyn’s seminar was particularly inspiring: he has a hands-on approach to support the paradigm shift to move from an industrial society to an ecological based one. And that approach is quite refreshing to see in action: while there is a consensus that we need to be more sustainable, all means seem to focus on reducing severity of the problem (downcycling) rather than addressing the real issue (enabling cradle-to-cradle).

Pawlyn’s seminar addressed three crucial changes that we need to bring about the paradigm shift described above. These three vital transformations are, firstly, radical increases in resource efficiency. Shifting from a linear, and wasteful or polluting way of using resources, towards a completely closed-loop model is the next. The third, and perhaps the most challenging, is moving from a fossil fuel economy to a solar economy. Illustrated with a number of recent projects he shared his view on how biomimicry can be used to develop ideas that go beyond standard approaches to sustainability. Of course we still have a long way to go towards creating a sustainable society, but every step taken is one step closer to that ambition.

Due to an unfortunate simultaneous laptop and external hard drive malfunction I will not be able to add any photos of the event for the time being, but I will do so as soon as my data is recovered.

Introspection

The end of the year is ideal for introspection, with a fresh new year in sight carrying the promise of new opportunities. Time to stop and try to conceptualise the totality of our actions, to reflect on what we’re doing and where it is headed.

Personally I’ve always struggled with finding a sense of purpose, to find meaning in everyday life beyond what is biologically dictated and to act as morally good as possible. Most people seem to live in the moment and make choices based on the prospect of personal gain. The latter is something I still cannot fully wrap my mind around, and it never ceases to surprise me how prevalent this selfish mindset is.

While I acknowledge true altruism does not exist, I do not know how we can consider ourselves civilised when all we truly care about is determined by an innate sense of survival. And just look at what we value as a society: we celebrate superficial pop stars and football players, and look up to materialistic lavishness. We pay taxes to fund wars and rely mostly on philanthropy to eradicate global poverty and diseases. We flaunt our popularity and individuality on social media such as Facebook and yes, blogs, as we ever worry about appearance. It is indicative of the nature of our average conversation, as we spend it discussing people and events rather than ideas.

Yet ironically, trying to find a sense of purpose is possibly the most egocentric mindset of all: the idea that it would be sad if reality does not focus on the individual borders on megalomania. So where does that leave us, besides coming to terms with our insignificance, accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of Weltschmerz? To be honest I am not sure; it’s something that will continue to keep me awake at night as I write this unintentionally cynical blog entry while staring at the ceiling.

ISTA and MOTI

Today has been a day of acronyms. I have been on the road since 5:00 am to ensure samples of our newly developed medical product will arrive at an ISTA certified test facility in time, and to oversee proper implementation of our test protocol.

Presently we are in the final phase of our project for Edwards Lifesciences and are running all test protocols on the final product and its peripherals to verify if it adheres to the requirements. Since the deadline for this project has been moved forward significantly the entire team has been making sacrifices: putting in extra hours in the evenings, on weekends and during the holidays – all done in pursuit of the deadline.

The test protocol initiated today is an ISTA packaging test and will take a couple of weeks to complete. ISTA (International Safe Transit Association) is an organisation focused on the specific concerns of transport packaging. Often underestimated, packaging is a paramount and integral part of a successful product introduction. After all, a (medical) product has to arrive at the end-user as intended to avoid potential malfunction of the product which could lead to dangerous situations. Of course this is in addition to the standard motive for performing packaging tests: avoiding loss of valuable finished products in shipment.

On the way back I took a quick detour to visit the Museum of the Image (MOTI): a museum dedicated to visual culture and a great excuse for a lunch break.

A museum for visual culture belongs in a time where disciplines merge together and an explosive amount of images have become a part of our daily lives. The world of visual communication has become a sanctuary for text, images, dynamism and change. By broadening its horizon from graphic design to visual culture the museum attempts to show the dynamic world of film, design, photography, fashion, visual arts, architecture, science and gaming. In the previous century the field of graphic design has laid a foundation for the present-day visual culture. The craft used to be a niche and avant-garde, now it is ubiquitous and for everyone.

The current collection highlights the above nicely and is a great source for inspiration – I’ll just consider it a delightful reward for getting up so early this morning. 😛

(E)motion

“We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath … a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than the Victory of Samothrace.”, Filippo Marinetti

MV Agusta F4 1000R

The futurist in me has finally succumbed to the allure of (how appropriate) Italian motorbike design, or in plain English: I’ve bought an MV Agusta F4 1000R.

It has 174 hp at 199 kg, has a top speed of over 300 km/h, is disliked by insurance companies (as I’ve noticed), and can reach 126 km/h in first gear alone – incredible power. And it sounds absolutely amazing with its four pipe under tail exhaust; the excerpt from the Futurist Manifesto at the start of this entry could not be more accurate in this case. I’ll take a picture of my bike later on, for now you’ll have to stare at one I found online.

This year I have obtained my driver’s license for the motorbike and I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience. It requires some additional forethought compared to driving a car, as you are indeed quite vulnerable. Oftentimes drivers completely overlook motorbikes (having a black and grey motorbike probably doesn’t help), which is where the sound comes in as an unintended form of multimodal warning system. One can only imagine how accident prone electric motorbikes are.

Anyway, the MV Agusta F4 1000R is absolutely stunning. All details are perfectly balanced in this temperamental brute; this superbike is a perfect amalgamate of engineering and design. What better daily mode of transportation than this inspirational feat of Italian design?

MakerBot Replicator 2X update

It’s been some time since we started using the MakerBot Replicator 2X, so I figured a brief update was due.

Initially we experienced a fair share of issues, most of them related to the build platform as the models did not remain stuck to the surface during the build. Since then we have experimented a great deal, resulting in changes to the build platform, preferred material, and extruder head.

The main change was to stop using polyimide film altogether on the build platform: it was too fragile, did not provide a perfectly even surface, did not keep the product in place, and had to be replaced frequently. Instead, we mounted a thin glass plate on top of the aluminium build platform, as this provides a perfectly even surface that is easy to clean. In addition, prior to each build we smear a mix of acetone and ABS on the build platform. This mix will create a thin layer of ABS on the surface, ensuring the model will adhere to the surface during the build.

Given how unreliable PLA has been as choice of material (the temperature was too fickle, and the material always ended up blocking the extruder), we have abandoned PLA altogether. We are exclusively using ABS now as build material, significantly increasing the odds of running an uninterrupted build.

Lastly, we have adapted the extruder head assembly by printing a modified version, as available on Thingiverse. The modified version ensures a more reliable throughput of filament, as verified by lead users. It manages to do so by pressing the filament against the drive gear with a constant force, using a spring-loaded system.

The latter development I find infinitely interesting, and is something that excites me most about 3D printing entering the consumer market: you will not only receive software updates anymore, you will also be able to receive hardware updates. The implications of this change are tremendous and will enable true decentralisation and modularity of product development.

MakerBot Replicator 2X

MakerBot Replicator 2X

It’s past eight and I don’t want to leave work just yet; security may have to kick me out. 😛

The reason I’m staying a bit longer at work today is because we recently acquired the MakerBot Replicator 2X (an experimental 3D printer) and I’m giving it a whirl. The MakerBot Replicator 2X is considered the best low-end 3D printer currently available and is hopefully ideal for quick and dirty prototyping.

For anyone who isn’t that familiar with rapid prototyping, all 3D printers basically follow the same principle: they build the shape layer by layer. The thinner the layer (higher resolution), the better the quality of the model, but also the longer it takes to produce. The low-end segment of 3D printers tend to make use of FDM (fused deposition modelling): a filament is fed into and deposited by an extruder, with more extruders you can deposit different materials and/or colours. The high-end segment makes use of SLS (selective laser sintering) for plastics (and metals alike): a fine powder layer of the base material is selectively sintered by a laser. As a rough comparison: FDM is a lot cheaper, faster, less accurate, less reliable, allows for a combination of materials/colours, and is more efficient with its material compared to SLS.

Most initial attempts with the MakerBot failed due to various reasons, such as the model not sticking to the build platform, wall thickness issues, deformation of the model during production, file conversion errors, etc. Also as it turns out, tweaking the temperature can be quite crucial, as a mere 5°C adjustment can make a world of difference. It becomes clear pretty quickly this is still far from a consumer product: if a loaded STL file has some sort of error according to the MakerWare software, MakerWare’s buttons simply stop functioning without warning. Well, there is a warning, but you’ll have to dig through the background service log to locate obscure errors.

Considering the low initial purchasing costs and use costs, it is no surprise the expected quality of this rapid prototyping technique (FDM) is considerably lower than that of SLS or SLA. Hopefully it’s just a matter of ironing out the issues and getting used to working with the software and hardware, because while the lower quality is not an issue, reliability is. I have to admit I expected a bit more from the MakerBot.

For example, the MakerBot Replicator 2X features dual extruders, allowing for depositing multiple types of materials and/or colours in a single setting – a feature that sets it apart from the high-end 3D printers. However, the standard software does not allow individual temperature settings for the extruders, so you cannot use an ABS and rubber filament at the same time unfortunately. MakerBot does offer alternative software that allows you to change these settings and more, however this only exacerbates using the MakerBot. Ideally you want to load in a CAD file, select materials, and have the software take care of the rest – you don’t want to end up fiddling and tweaking for hours on end to get it right.

Hopefully we’ll continue to see 3D printing develop at a rapid rate, as the opportunities opened up by 3D printing are absolutely endless. 🙂

Water, water, design for caregivers, and more water

Water water water

It was absolutely pouring it down today, haven’t seen weather like this in a while (see the picture). A puddle decided it would be fun to swallow my shoes as I got out of my car. 🙁

Anywho! That was just over 4 hours ago and I’m still sopping at the end of these lectures plus workshop. It was an event organised by the IDC (Industrial Design Centre); an initiative aimed at bundling (local) knowledge and experience in the field of Industrial Design with the intent to increase its (inter)national presence. The IDC aims to make businesses aware of the importance of industrial design as a competitive tool and demonstrate that integration of design in business activities can really contribute towards a successful business strategy. The IDC organises lectures and workshops on a regular basis with a wide variety of topics – today’s topic was “design for caregivers”.

The lecture highlighted useful design tools when designing for the medical market, as part of the IDC’s upcoming online “design for caregivers” toolbox, similar to the existing 55+ toolbox. The toolbox sounds interesting, though the design tools highlighted during this lecture were unfortunately rather trivial and not of any added value to the experienced designer.

Amongst the lecturers were caregivers from Carinova, a professional home care organisation. They gave some insight into their work, their daily struggles and their views on the future of home care. There was also one lecture by a designer from Panton, a healthcare based design studio that aims to apply design in an intuitive, effective and thoughtful manner. Healthcare related products are often complex; Panton’s take on it is that there is a strong need for clarity, which can be achieved by designing with and for users. Their design cases were quite interesting and showed a distinct preference towards bridging product and interface translation using basic easy-to-understand metaphores. This approach works very well when dealing with users who require extra time and attention (infants, people suffering from autism, dementia, etc), though may come across as patronising to the regular user.

Perhaps I was biased due to already having experience developing medical products, or perhaps I expected too much, but unfortunately the added value of today’s event was minimal. Hopefully the next IDC event will be more promising.

I, for one, welcome our new robot overlords

Apple: iDystopia

In the past I’ve joked about Apple leading us to a dystopian future. Not one as we know it from scifi as George Orwell’s 1984, but a very ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing dystopian future instead. It seems I’m not the only one to have that concern, after listening to Eben Moglen’s lecture on how software already violates Asimov’s first law of robotics, a lecture kindly pointed out to me by a good friend.

The science fiction author Isaac Asimov devised a set of rules in the 1940s that have formed the fundamental framework that bolster the behaviour of robots designed to have a degree of autonomy. While we are not surrounded by robots of this degree of complexity as portrayed in scifi, the most ubiquitous of bots in our lives do demonstrate a certain level of autonomy: the smart phone.

According to free software pioneer, futurist and activist Eben Moglen, the fundamental first law of robot ethics has yet to be coded into the smartphone. We carry them in our pockets. They see what we see. They hear what we hear. They always know where we are. But they do not work for us, and they are not programmed to obey the first law of robotics. Profit made them and profit runs them. The complexity of autonomy may not be that apparent to us, which makes it seem all the more innocuous. However, this is our first step towards integrating intelligent robotics into our everyday life, a step we should not take lightly.

Proto A series

In just over 5 months time we have managed to create a functional proto A series for one of our clients: an incredible achievement made possible due to diligent planning, hard work, parallel development processes, and close cooperation with our Malaysian department.

The latter proved particularly fruitful due to the difference in time zones: at the start of each day their day would come to an end, allowing for a few hours of overlap for deliberation. At the end of our day, we could bounce information their way again and they could continue where we left off. This sort of international joint-cooperative development is quite a powerful tool once you’ve got it up-and-running, though as I experienced it requires a lot of communication, management, and quality assurance to keep it on track.

The project has been quite challenging overall: not only regarding lead time, but also regarding tolerance control (some parts required tolerance control within several µm), analytical performance (constant thermal management within several degrees), and X-ray safety constraints (scatter, material choice, and production process control). Of course, this is on top of the general constraints one has to deal with when developing industrial products (low series and thus relatively high tooling costs, short component life cycle versus engineering costs of a redesign, etc), as this is a completely different league compared to consumer products.

Hopefully I will be able to share more detailed information once the product has launched, up until that time I’ll have to cloak my excitement with vagueness. 😛

Mechatronics in design

“The mechatronic designer needs a wide knowledge with medium depth”, Dieter Müller

Products are becoming increasingly more complex from a developer’s point of view; they contain more functionality, feature an ever increasing difficulty of said functionality, and touch on more disciplines than ever before. The term often used to describe systems that integrate multiple disciplines is mechatronic systems.

Mechatronics is the multidisciplinary field of engineering, combining mechanical, electronic, computer, software, control and systems engineering. It aims to move away from designing separate mono-disciplinary systems to a design process where all different fields of engineering are combined and fully integrated, for example by using models and principles to translate concepts across domains.

Projects at Benchmark involve mechatronics to a varying degree, as there is a wide variety in ratio of disciplines and project size. Good communication between the disciplines is clearly key in order for the project to be as efficiënt as possible, but also to avoid error and redundant work. In general the team, supported by the program manager, is capable of handling this process very well.

Seldomly though, a project presents itself that is highly complicated in project member amount and structure, as well as on a component level. In such cases a systems engineering approach proves imperative in order to efficiently coordinate such a large multidisciplinary team.

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