“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.

Heat, smoke and molten metal

Non-Ferro Gieterij Oldenzaal

The product we’re currently working on features custom metal components, which has allowed me to brush up on my metallurgy. From raw shaping to surface treatment, all aspects come into play, and forms a nice break from the usual polymers.

One of the metal components is used to contain X-rays, which makes the choice of material, as well as proper process control, paramount. Steel for example blocks radiation quite well and is relatively easy to process, but you require a thick wall to block the radiation. Bronze is more efficient at blocking X-rays, but has a higher viscosity during casting compared to steel and foundries consider it a more exotic material to work with.

Casting defects such as blowholes will locally reduce the wall thickness and form a potential radiation leak. Thus these defects need to be controlled and compensated for.

One could ask: why not simply apply a lead lining if one wants to block X-rays? ROHS compliancy prevents such extensive use of lead, not to mention that applying the radiation blocking layer would be completely reliant on the quality of assembly – the latter is quite a risk, not to mention labour intensive.

Other components are oil-filled sand casted aluminium parts. Surface quality and treatment are a bit of an issue however with this (cheap) production method. The sand casting process is a manual process, so each product will be unique with its own slight blemishes. Vibratory finishes followed by sand blasting and/or glass bead blasting will aid in smoothing the surface, but may not be sufficient. Electroless nickel or galvanised chrome may be used to harden the surface and make it scratch resistant, but their cosmetic effect is limited. Unfortunately anodising for a decorative effect is not an option with sand-casted components, as it will lead to a blotchy surface. All-in-all it’s quite the learning experience.

Today I’ve been lucky enough to receive a tour of the foundry here at Non-Ferro Gieterij Oldenzaal (after reviewing samples), which has both a modern and a more traditional workshop. Out of all metal manufacturing processes I have to say that sand casting has got to be my favourite one. The process is just so raw, pure and tough. All one needs is sand as mould material held together by some wooden planks: in goes the molten metal, and out comes the desired shape. All accompanied by intense heat, sparks, smoke, and the fiery smell of burning metal that will linger in your clothes and skin for days on end: it’s awesome. 🙂

Bedrijvendagen (business days) Twente

During the Bedrijvendagen (business days) at the University of Twente, a series of activities are organised which promote contact between students, PhD’s and graduates on the one side and potential employers on the other. Every year about 2,000 students and graduates meet with approximately 125 companies at this event. As a company with a branch in Twente, Benchmark Almelo was asked to attend. Along with several of my colleagues I’ve been asked to represent Benchmark at this event, to put a fresh face on the rather dusty image engineers seem to have in the public eye.

Like other OEM’s, Benchmark struggles with having a presence on the job market. Due to the nature of their work, confidentiality prohibits them from sharing the majority of their projects, which exacerbates attracting talented personnel. By attending business events such as the Bedrijvendagen Benchmark hopes to change this. Today’s been quite succesful; we’ve had contact with a decent amount of genuinely interested students and graduates, and we’ve managed to put the company name out there. Hopefully Benchmark will continue running this course, as attracting talented employees is paramount for innovation.

RapidPro 2013

The third edition of RapidPro is currently taking place, which features all the latest in the field of rapid prototyping / additive manufacturing for consumer and industrial applications alike. Rapid prototyping is maturing at a fast rate, offering benefits from manufacturing methods for small series to hardware customisation options for consumers.

The latter is something that genuinely excites me: we can expect the hardware equivalent of open source software to create custom objects. It will bring the producer closer to the consumer, stimulates modularity (ultimately leading to less wasteful consumerism, as contradictory as that may sound), and promotes decentralisation (another great development I could talk about for hours on end).

At Benchmark Electronics the focus lies on high-end industrial and medical products; both types of products tend to be produced in relatively low numbers, so it is very important to select the appropriate production method in order to be as cost-effective as possible. Rapid prototyping is on the opposite end of the scale when compared to large series injection moulding (and there is a whole world in between), so it is definitely valuable to stay up-to-date with the latest techniques.

At the moment I’m most interested in developments regarding metal sintering techniques, high definition lithography, (simultaneously) printing materials with widely varying characteristics, and 3D scanning. All of which are represented at this event, so consider me pleased. 😛 By the way, please remind me to put up pictures later.


My blog describes events from my life related to design and engineering. Hopefully it will give you more insight into my work processes and personal interests.

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