Disruptive Participatory Design

  1. Conduct research to grasp the client’s obstacles and opportunities
  2. Brainstorm to identify a unique solution, while factoring in any constraints
  3. Test and improve a prototype until you exceed client expectations
  4. Adapt the solution for application in related scenarios or industries

If you think this is the formula for a successful machining operation, you’re partially right. These principles also drive design thinking, a tactic propelling the growth of two established innovation consultancies: IDEO and frog. The method combines evolved creative problem solving with a social focus. Analysis is facilitated by asking human centric and systemic probing questions such as: What will the impact be on people and are we sure our solution meets their needs? How do we balance our client’s vision with their customer’s desires? How can we better collaborate with the end user in mind?

Thus the techniques of design thinking, in this age of connectivity that grants access to diverse viewpoints, hold the key to democratizing the design of both products and processes. The holistic strategy is transferable to a wide variety of fields. For example, frog started with industrial design in 1969, but now consults firms specializing in consumer electronics,  telecommunications, healthcare, media, education, finance, retail, and fashion. IDEO also serves the furniture,  automotive, office, toy, and food and beverage industries. Among the most impressive displays of design thinking’s capabilities are the reimagining of medical devices like the endoscope and brace at prices affordable in developing countries with the help of injection molding.

Design thinking, with its assertion that tech should serve people, not people it, is a refreshing counterweight to the cult of technology. Google bus protests in SF are a sobering reminder of the preeminence of the human factor and simultaneously question tech’s ability to cure social problems. Today’s innovative corporations and governments are adopting design thinking methodologies to understand and appeal to their user base in order to co-create a better tomorrow. May it be one in which the IDEOs and frogs of the world – the innovators that strive to resonate with an engaged and loyal audience –  are the norm.

Future 3DP will complement, not supplant, machining

GE Aviation will utilize 3D printers to manufacture fuel nozzles for the LEAP engine. Made in Space has partnered with NASA engineers to launch a 3D space ready printer in 2014 and put a more advanced, public version on the International Space Station by 2015. CRP has created Energica Ego, a 3D printed electric motorcycle. Is manufacturing as we know it undergoing a revolution?

Hardly, as executives at NASA’s Office of the CIO readily admit. Jet design can be perfected on a printer, but the final product is still manufactured by machinists, who offer superior structural durability, material choice and finishing services. Meanwhile, CRP only printed a motorcycle body, not the mechanical or electrical guts that still had to be manufactured traditionally. It would appear that additive manufacturing (AM) is limited to prototypes which then require professional post-processing to be commercially viable. Most of what we have seen is hype.

On the other hand, it will be interesting whether the hype develops into reality in the next few decades. The beauty of 3D printing (3DP) is that it replaces the different components and phases of assembly with a single, complex print job, reducing the necessity for retooling, part numbers, inventory, labor and inspection. Moreover, the structural complexity can be precisely calculated to produce partially hollow objects, with just enough of a lattice inside to render it sound while minimizing weight and material. In unique scenarios where current alternatives are simply inferior – emergency spare parts in outer space, or personalized medical devices such as hearing aids, or customized personal items, or disaster relief in remote areas – AM/3DP, supported by service centers like Shapeways, will generate new industries, disrupting supply chains, retail and business models. Already, it has sped up and lowered costs of development, a function which will further evolve as printers become capable of extruding a wider array of metal alloys.

Though this technology presents great potential for niche markets and entrepreneurs with CAD experience, in the future it will complement, but never be an alternative to commercial production. Besides a weaker Z axis inherent in the layering technique, another limitation of AM/3DP is maximum object size and quantity. Materials for extrusion, expanded from just plastics to a single basic metal or ceramic, are more expensive than the raw material. Unless one unique item is required, production will likely be cheaper using the traditional route, and becomes prohibitively expensive when the requested product no longer fits in the palm of your hand. Casts for a metal part can be used to rapidly produce many identical parts, while a printer is still working on the first. Due to all these detriments, AM/3DP will not supplant current manufacturing or machinists any more than TV killed the radio or digital made photographers obsolete. It may reduce the necessity for warehouse stocking or shipping and decentralize production, but it will not render programming, design, skilled craftsmen or precision machining processes extinct.

Open Source Space Exploration

Start with the latest technology in the form of nanosensors, pick a social issue, namely the lack of youth engagement in science, mix in social media platforms to obtain crowdfunding, and finally give the masses access to the final product. This recipe captures the premise behind NanoSatisfi, the startup founded by CERN physicist Peter Platzer and NASA engineer Jeroen Cappaert providing the average Joe access to space, a world which had previously been the purview of governments.

Recent technological developments and social platforms have eliminated previous legal and financial barriers to individuals’ presence in this frontier. Likewise, a skilled team of experienced developers assists with programming challenges to facilitate collective but private satellite launches intended to grant anyone the opportunity to run experiments and collect data. This ensures security while simplifying and democratizing space exploration. Initially, NanoSatisfi is targeting students and educators, but hopes to secure capital to scale up and offer metereological data gathering services superior to those currently available to enterprises.

As for the nitty-gritty details, ArduSats have a lifespan of about two years before they are upgraded. A week’s worth of access to programmable units onboard the inorbit satellite costs $250. The individual can construct a custom sensor, or buy a prefabricated kit from the company, choosing from standard sensors including an Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Camera, Geiger Counter, Infrared Thermometer, Light Sensor, Magnetometer, Spectrometer, Sun Sensors (Photodiodes) and Temperature Sensors. The tech savvy user’s interest might be further piqued by the fact that developers who submit applications now will not be subject to a revenue share model and can pocket all profit.

We look forward to seeing how the doors that NanoSatisfi flings open with its truly novel concept revolutionize a new era of space exploration and wish them all the best!