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.

Website design

My ex-girlfriend has been trying to find a job, but has not had much success so far. As we are all aware (or experienced ourselves) the job market is quite competitive at the moment; one has to really stand out from the crowd to capture the attention of potential employers.

The latter is exactly what she has in mind: she has a great idea to try and land a job in the field of digital marketing, which is what she is after. In a nutshell: she will target potential employers with facebook ads and direct them to a landing page that contains her curriculum vitae. She worried her design and development skills were not good enough to create said landing page, so she called in a favour – of course, I was willing to help her out.

Regarding the design, she had a rough idea of the style and content. Basically, the landing page would be a single scrolling page and would form a short linear story, all as succinct as possible in a bright and fresh style. It would welcome the visitor, explain the purpose, describe work experience and education, paint a picture of her future goals, and lastly offer the visitor means of contacting her.

Through a few iteration rounds, the design took shape. The design was created in Illustrator to keep it as flexible as possible, provided photos were edited with Photoshop of course. To code the site properly and efficiently, a good friend was willing to help out – he’s absolutely amazing at coding, nobody works as structural and diligent as he does.

The final result can be found here. The site really reflects who she is (in all its quirkiness :P) and where her interests lie. Hopefully the effort will be rewarded and an employer will offer her the opportunity she’s been looking for.

Visiting CNC Speedform

I’m in Germany! Nothing special there I guess: my phone always seems to think it’s in Germany anyway. 😛 I’m here to visit one of our preferred suppliers for rapid prototyped parts: CNC Speedform. We need to make some arrangements regarding lead time, considering the current project is a rather fast paced one, but we also need to discuss our options for structural foam moulding.

Structural foam moulding (SFM) is a low-pressure foam injection moulding technique for thermoplastics that is well suited for the production of large technical structural elements and housings. It is a particularly good choice for medium-sized series in which high demands are placed on the stiffness and surface quality of the product. The design rules for SFM are quite different from regular injection moulding: for example, the minimum overall wall thickness should be 5mm, the wall thickness is allowed to vary a lot, electromagnetic shielding is possible, and surface collapse should not be an issue. As you can tell it’s an exciting production technique to work with that offers a lot of possibilities.

I’m looking forward to the tour of the facility: CNC Speedform has 9.500 m2 of production space and an impressive machine park. I will include pictures of the visit in this entry.

Wildfire update training

Let me start with a brief update: Benchmark offered me a contract which I could not refuse, so I’m back here once more. Considering recent events in my life and of course the excellent learning opportunities offered by Benchmark, I’ll hang around for a while. 😛

My contract starts coming Monday, but I really wanted to attend today’s training course. Benchmark has recently upgraded their PRO/Engineer CAD software to Creo Elements, and seeing as Benchmark use custom scripts to support their quality assurance, upgrading their CAD platforms can be quite an ordeal.

Today we’ll learn about all the new features that Creo Elements has to offer, which of course I can’t pass up on. Considering PRO/Engineer isn’t the only CAD platform used by Benchmark (it depends on the client which platform is used), every opportunity to improve on CAD skills is welcome.


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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