Friday, April 18, 2014

The Art of Product Design


The Art of Product Design: Changing How Things Get Made
Manuscript Version by Hardi Meybaum
I often wonder what story history is going to say about the times we live in now.  So much happens across the globe in the blink of an eye that there is no way a single historian can account for it all.  Between war, politics, revolutions, climate change, medical advances, and ethical and moral dilemmas, there is no room in the history books to tell the story of industry.

Clever names are concocted to describe the times we live in now.  One of those is known as the Maker Movement, or the Second Industrial Revolution.  In my opinion, these names change with winds to make room for the next passing fad.  But, at its roots, a change is happening in the design, engineering, and manufacturing industry.  In his book, Hardi Meybaum shares his unique vantage point.

Beautiful Estonia, located in northeastern Europe.
Hardi hails from a small country in Eastern Europe.  Estonia was once part of the Soviet bloc. Since the breakup of the USSR, Estonia has experienced some radical changes in government and economics while maintaining their cultural heritage.  During the process, Estonia became a technological powerhouse rivaling many neighboring countries.  Estonia has become so important in the world's political scene recently that envoys have visited to assure their independence.  Estonia has become so important on the international scene, that I wouldn't be surprised if some Estonian company would be capable of world domination.

From these roots, Hardi moved to the United States with no more than $3000 and started his own technology company GrabCAD.  It is from this vantage point that Hardi tells his story about the art of product design and the new way things are getting made.

Book Review

I like the book.  There is no doubt Hardi has an interesting perspective on the changes happening in the world of design and manufacturing.  His position in the industry and his background in living through change gives him key abilities to recognize a revolution.

Hardi takes us through our memories of manufacturing as it used to be - a bunch of white shirts and pocket protectors passing 2D drawings over the wall to machinists and metal workers to figure out how to produce these designs.  The first major shake-up was CAD and the ability to visualize complexity not otherwise possible with 2D prints. The second major shake-up is cloud computing and the seemingly endless possibility of raw computing horse power and data storage.  The third major shake-up will be combining CAD with the cloud, something GrabCAD does very well.  New tools will converge in the cloud, new business models will develop around the cloud, and the walls between design and manufacturing will crumble.

Too Big to Fail

Hardi compares innovation, then versus now.  What he sees is astonishing.  Large companies are slow to adapt.  They have years of history and thousands of people to move.  That's a big ship and big ships take time to change course.  Start-ups, on the other hand, are fast and nimble.  Not long ago a start-up company couldn't find the capital to take the risk and invent something new.  But today, with crowd funding and cloud-sharing ideas, a handful of individuals can do in weeks what it used to take behemoth companies years to develop.

A Personal Touch

Interjected within his perspective on the industry, Hardi relates personal stories and (GrabCAD) customer case studies.  These prove that his anecdotes are more than just hearsay.  The way things are made is changing now; not tomorrow, not the next generation, but now.  People resist change even though we know change is inevitable.  As individuals, we can either embrace the change and ride the winning tide or resist the change and find ourselves treading water.  Hardi's book relates many success stories from those who embraced the change.  Even behemoth companies like GE recognize the how things are made is changing and have taken steps to successfully embrace the change.

Final Thoughts on the Book

I think Hardi did a magnificent job telling an intriguing story of the art of product design.  By taking us through history and into the common day, through storytelling and factual proof, Hardi emboldens us to recognize the revolution that is happening right now.  The only thing I didn't like about the book is that it will soon become dated.  Many of the references used in the book are applicable to today's generations.  In as little as a decade from now, the industry will have changed dramatically and many of the terms used in the book will not easily translate.  The book will become obsolete and irrelevant.  I would still highly recommend the book, though; just buy it soon.

The interesting part about being in the middle of a revolution is recognizing that you are in it.  Seeing the forest through the trees, as they say.  For that, I can't recommend this book enough to any person who wants to capitalize on the changing ways how things get made.

You can get it through Amazon or find it at your local bookseller.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Kids These Days

When I was 16 years old, my dreams were focused more on my first car and the pending freedoms that come with accessible travel.  Although my decision to pursue a career in engineering had already been solidified in my mind, it wasn’t something that occupied every waking moment.  Even my hobbies focused more on non-engineering things like sports, music, and girls – in no particular order.  I had outgrown LEGO, plastic model building wasn’t cool, and Lionel was for young kids and old guys who couldn’t golf.  Other than my drafting class in high school, I was a “normal” 16 year old boy who appeared, at least from the outside, like I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Those who knew me, though, realized I was a bit of a “whiz.”  (That’s what we called smart kids back then.)  I wasn’t scared to turn a computer on or off.  I took hold of my first CAD program, AutoCAD 10 on an MS DOS-based IBM desktop computer, like I’ve been pressing F8 and snapping to keypoints all my life.  I taught myself LISP.  My elders were amazed at my inherit abilities.  But, that is nothing compared to kids these days.

Take Alex Maund, for example.  Alex is 16 years old living in the UK, assumingly going through the normal activities of any 16 year old boy growing up in that part of the world.  Sitting with his friends one day, enjoying a hot beverage, Alex noticed that the cup is terribly designed.  The beverage inside is too hot for his liking, and the cup hot enough to toast his hand.  Conversely, the beverage cools too quickly.  Alex was never able to find the Goldilocks formula to get the perfect beverage temperature.  With nothing more than a science background from secondary school physics classes and his own curiosity, Alex went about redesigning the cup as we know it.

Variable Insulating Cup - Convection Cup

Alex’s school has educational licenses of Autodesk Inventor.  With a combination of the free tutorials, online resources, and sheer proficiency from just “using it a lot,” Alex was able to design his first and second prototypes of the cup using Autodesk Inventor.  The first prototype was little more than a couple of cylinders.  But as he expanded his concept and grew in proficiency, the second design was much more aesthetically pleasing and practical.

Alex didn’t stop with a virtual design.  Using Instructables, Alex had a 3D print made of the cup for free via Autodesk.  Then he heard about the 123D Design Challenge.  Alex finalized his Variable Insulating Convection Cup using Autodesk 123D and took home the grand prize in the competition.
Grand Prize Convection Cup for the Autodesk 123D Design Challenge

Designing the Grand Prize Cup

Alex is fond of Autodesk 123D because it is accessible by everyone, including 16 year old high school kids with an idea they would like to see take shape.  Because of his background with Autodesk Inventor, Alex didn’t need many external references to learn 123D, such as tutorials or online help.  He found the software easy to use but limited in features, especially compared to Inventor.  But, he says, anyone can create full parts with 123D’s features by applying “a bit of creativity.”  Alex’s Pro Tip: When making cylindrical objects, get to know the Revolve command.

If you hadn’t met Alex before, you would think he was a seasoned designer.  Besides having the obvious curiosity and creativity that makes for a great engineer, Alex’s design process is based on sound techniques.  “Start with a sketch,” Alex says.  A conceptual sketch is key to visualizing your ideas and is an excellent reference to maintain the big picture.

A Bright Future

First things first, Alex has to finish school.  Then, he plans on pursuing a Mechanical and Electrical Engineering double major.  He also doesn’t plan on stopping his hobby.  Take a look at a centrifugal force puzzle box he designed and several more projects on his Shapeways and Instructables pages.  Now there is an impressive CV.


Any hiring managers reading this should keep an eye on Alex Maund, that is, if he doesn’t get a full-ride scholarship to MIT and fulfill his dream of inventing new technology.  As for me, I think I’m going to start working on something to add to my CV and portfolio.  If this is what constitutes kids these days, years of experience may no longer be an equivalent qualification.