Skip to main content

Thoughts on better making

Ideas for better engineering.

I’m very passionate about applied and analytical material science with a background in leading startup initiatives. I had built a haptic wearable startup with synthesis gait analysis and haptic feedback through wearables, which exposed me to several schools of design and engineering, and on-ground impact. This had bought me to Boston at MIT to explore advanced forms of man-machine-interfaces. I have transcended from just being a techie, someone who enjoys impacting social problems using tech. In recent years, I have shifted from consumer devices into supply chain innovation leading to carbon offsetting, which exposes me to various operational, perceptive and implementation challenges. I come from a farming family first-generation engineer, born around the invention of the internet- in the early 90s I used to hear how repairability was a desired feature in tools around us, and local was the way to go.

In today’s hyper-connected time- being in design and engineering of products and technology we often come across soft problems such as dark patterns, addictive interfaces, hard problems such as planned obsolescence, fast fashion waste, e-waste, landfill, pollution, emissions. There’s a need for re-inventing the way we make and engineer things, and are taught school, to create a better society around us, and impactful business opportunities of the future. 

We are taught to be price-sensitive, and utilitarian because our parents have learned like that. My mom always taught me to bargain, and it's a skill I have learned for survival, she also taught me to not touch the plants at night, suggesting that it disturbs their rhythm (not sure if the research proves that). At school and work, I learned to collaborate with amazing people who can philosophize, build, write, design and engineer.

As creators, we create with our own bias and philosophy. Let’s go deeper into creation. 

Against the popular models. I try to put most creations, in three buckets:

  1. Need (N) - e.g. consulting, outsourcing etc. Emotional need
    1. Example, Timekeeping. Making a watch or a shoe as per the ask of the user. The user feedback is the main input here. 
    2. 3D printing services.
    3. Tailoring
    4. Desire to look/feel good, important, socially responsible

  1. Desire-  (D)/ Positive or Negative.  This forms most of the product design around the world. 
    1. A gazillion Shopify stores, apps fighting for user attention
    2. A new watch allows gaming or tracks fitness. For example what if a shoe came in colors inspired by butterfly's wings optical properties. I met Sarah yesterday.
    3. Haute Coutre Fashion

  1. Agenda (A) When the group of creators decide to build incrementally around new science, peer review and a fusion of their imagination.
    1. The watches have been analog pieces of art. But there’s so much more we do with that real estate. e.g. Apple Watch.
    2. Agendas can be, using engineering skills for planned obsolescence, or
    3. Fairphone: which encourages repair and reuse of phones.
    4. Sustainable clothing, clothing made from Seaweed (e.g. Pangaia)

Seiko UC-2000 wristwatch computer 4
Seiko's watch in 1980s
Apple Watch is a good example to look at this. In the labs, Seiko (TI) launched a model in the 80s. way ahead of its time that conducted computational activities through the wrist form factor. Here the watch isn’t fashion and utility- the watch is seen as a real estate by engineers, scientists, and researchers to gather quantified self data from. That’s Agenda (A) which encompasses D and N above.

In my world, I fit everything around us in the above brackets. A lot of times the latter will encompass the above. For example, a successful A will require D and N to be met.

Example, high heels is an Agenda, which speaks to an emotional need to stand apart and look good, (it definitely isn't utilitarian)

The interesting things to talk about that Agendas can be good, bad, at worse evil. Read facebook.

Most art is D and A.
Most science and tech is A.
Most service industries are N.

Assuming the readership of this article is western(ized) most of us will never know where our smartphone came from and where it actually goes, happens to it, what engineering practices made it happen. We have seen the advent of maker culture and how easy it has become to make things. From an education perspective, it gives individuals the power to conduct cross-disciplinary research, prototype. Fablab. Arduino etc. All tangible items we consume are produced and processed in factories which cause emissions, wastage, use the cheapest materials to scale production. This is how traditionally we are taught to source materials. What if as engineers and scientists we were educated, exposed to better options about the interaction of our design, material, choices with the environment and general well being of society.

In the wake of climate change- Industrial production is now changing and what is seen to be alternative right now will be defacto ways to measure production value. A great model is proposed by SROI (Social return on investment). Another model called Considered Design, Nike is able to produce shoes that are higher performance, more innovative, more sustainable, and better selling than its rivals’ shoes. Today, Nike’s best-selling running shoe, the Pegasus, is a Considered Design, reengineered from the ground up. It uses environmentally friendly, low-energy materials like water-based adhesives and recyclable rubbers and foams, such as Nike Grind, Nike’s own recycled rubber, and cuts out unnecessary materials entirely. Result? A 13 percent lighter shoe with an 83 percent recyclable sole that commands better margins—better for runners, better for Nike, and better for society. Now that’s thick value”  Today Nike’s Considered Index assesses the environmental footprint of its shoes. It measures waste through design and production, the toxicity of treatments such as harmful solvents, and the sustainability—in terms of energy use, water use, recycling intensity, and carbon impact—of the materials utilized in production. With the Considered Index, Nike is beginning to understand how much its shoes deplete a broad range of natural resources—from the water table to the atmosphere, to land utilized for landfills—and where to shift to renewable materials and inputs instead. This model is gaining high traction and creating consumer goodwill and inspiration for other smaller companies and industries.

One of the companies we worked with, Doconomy, an initiative by Mastercard is a pilot carbon footprint tracking to understand consumption is an audacious experiment. Each month on the billing statement user will get to see what is the carbon footprint of each of the items you purchased, giving you a better sight and analysis of your choices. This is great because it puts pressure on companies to innovate and consider being local and circular to be able to create better products. We do not know if this will succeed or fail as a startup, but sure this points at the future on what value systems will companies design products on. 

Over a drink last week I met someone at Harvard who didn’t believe in climate change. It's a similar topic. I did not debate with the guy- I don't blame him, he’s always lived in Boston. While climate change is hard to notice with your own eyes, it’s very apparent what is happening in South America, the Middle East, and Asia, where the smog and pollution levels have gone up (Almost 2/3 of the world's population resides in those areas).

I visited Ludhiana, Punjab last year and saw massive landfills of electronics, fabric, tire and pollution waste. To simplify, we have the privilege of being ignorant here because it doesn’t affect us directly (at least in the short term). I clicked some photos and shared them with my friends back in Boston. It's one of those things no-one wants to talk about.

There was a funny comedy show where the kids thought that the meat is something that is sold in the supermarket because that’s all that is shown to them. For most of us, eating meat is okay because we directly don't have to deal with the animal. A series of factories now grow, raise, GMO ingest, slaughter the animal and process the meat that comes to us, nicely packed in the trader joe's where that kid saw that packet. 200 years ago, we would buy from a butcher around the corner, our clothes were made by a local factory, and our radios were fixed and upgraded with parts. Manufacturing is something that we are no-more exposed to. They say that half the people will quit eating meat if they see where there meat comes from. The kid who doesn’t know anything doesn’t have to be blamed here, in a hyperconnected world as today’s its hard to know what’s coming from where. Or as designers and engineers we have failed in communicating this to consumers.

There’s a lot of jargon around this, e.g. organic, sustainability, circular economy. Back in the day that’s exactly what we were doing, things were local, circular. Today I open my fridge I have olives from Mexico, French butter made in Paris processed in Louisiana, spices from India, beers made in Ireland, and everything around it made in China. I call it hyperconnected consumption- imagine a wiring diagram to each of the items which will show a complex ontology, international database and information flow where each of the things has come from. I am not sure if there are systems like that already. Sourcemap is a great startup around this concept.

Every creation around us is perceived to the 'great' based on many levels that are taught to us at that point in time. Most people look for features and prices. At another complex level, people look for the brand, perception, ecological contribution, etc. If you’re a student of engineering or design, the education system teaches us electronics, bioengineering, design, skills to optimize for functionality, and aesthetics. the rules of affordance, minimal or functional philosophies. Do we optimize for cost, or do we optimize for the environment? How are these inter-related? 


1. Fabrication: When we learn the skill of how to mold plastic, or how to 3D print, we learn about PLA curing, Print speeds, resins and how 3D printing will change the future. Often times we see the material as an abstracted input in the design process such as resin- we aren’t taught about how much power 3D printer consumes when it’s idle, or what happens to the resin when it's disposed of. Sure the engineer working on the electronics of the 3D printer doesn’t consider power optimization as a high priority item on their list, because the topic is amiss from the discussion. Engineers have to be trained in better engineering and the overall impact of their engineering practices.

Like engineers, artists are practitioners as well. A lot of artists who work around the environment as themes aren't aware of better options than regular chemicals they source from the market (e.g. resins, paints, varnishes, aerosols). This is slowly changing now, and there's a reason why sustainability and impact is becoming important every day. 20 years ago it was seen as 'vegan' or alternative. The world has evolved a lot since then.

The user of 3D printer/inventor here using the 3D printer optimizes for creativity using the tools they’ve learnt spent time with. He’s trying to make his prototype tool. Can we make design choices as a designer that also consider the environmental interaction of the material we produce? Letting people do better design of electronics and tools “How will we reclaim discarded outputs to be reproduced?" "Can we push 3D printing companies to design materials that can be re-used?" There are in-situ material science projects today that talk about regenerative materials. This will create a shift in the way we design, and the creator has to play an important role here. The company Biocelletation is doing exactly that. The founder told me that they turn unrecyclable plastics into recyclable materials, and companies are willing to hence pay higher prices for such business models.

The point to bring you back is that plastics wouldn't have been such a big problem in the first place if Harry Wasylyk (the inventor) didn't stop at what plastic bags, ended up being a huge problem. He could have pushed an Agenda, and not just a Need and a Desire. As chemists and scientists, there's an education framework that is needed in what our inventions do to the world. The idea isn't mature in my head yet.

2. Generative Engineering: Shift from deterministic to generative design: Frustum’s GENERATE software is a tool that allows users to rapidly explore multiple component designs that match performance and manufacturing parameters that were recently acquired by PTC. Space wrench is a good example of this philosophy. It uses lesser material and provides more structural strength which is a WIN-WIN on both environments, costs, and the BOM of the materials. Less is more. What if we are taught 3D modeling and machining with these ideas in mind. 
40% less material and 1.5x torsional strength in the third wrench
3. Synbio: Pat Pataranutaporn pointed me to look at directed evolution which aims to use special strains of bacteria such as Pseudomonas aeruginosa to clean up heavy metal pollution. By growing successive rounds of bacteria exposed to copper, the researchers have already produced strains that show a greater ability to grow in the presence of toxic levels of copper ions. By selecting the bacteria more likely to survive, and allowing them to produce new mutated strains, the researchers harness the power of natural evolutionary processes in order to produce bacteria that do what they want. This process is known as directed evolution. This is powerful because it presents less toxic ways to deal with toxicity. The learnings from the past models are being re-adapted in wake of new problems we are tackling. The same is happening with electronics, plastics, and other industries which per Moore’s law is becoming more and more ubiquitous. Again a good example of Agenda.



Popular posts from this blog

What if phones were made like shuttlecocks!

Now evolution is a slow process, and as humans and smartphone users this evolution to 'not drop things' is going to only happen in a million years. It's easier to redesign bodies/smartphones. I shattered two phones in the last two years, two screens I got replaced were expensive and quite a hit on the pocket. Humans drop things. What I don't understand is that the screen is the most sensitive part of the phone yet it shatters easier than feather. The phone has other parts too- an incomprehensibly well made PCB, modem, battery, and the casing . Observing a smartphone physically: Now the parts above with respect to screen are packed in this fashion primarily for three reasons: packing, protection and function. The case's job is to protect, the electronics are for function, and fasteners/glues for packing.  It's pretty clear that current design of smartphone fails pretty badly at protection: one of the most expensive parts, the screen(alumi

Intuitive Gesture Pad for Hindi typing

I happened to stumble across a gesture pad devised by Shekhar Borgaonkar. Needless to say, its one of the most wonderful innovations as per inputting Devnagri(Hindi) script is concerned. Due to its complexity, the Hindi based keyboards used today aren't user friendly at all. A beginner cannot think of using the same for text entry. Interfacing the same to a touchscreen/stylus-input make it intuitive, and hence cut down the learning curve required to type hindi into Computers/cellphones. Exactly as Shekhar says "I think this will benefit India because many people will be able to interact with computers for the first time in their life. " The demo of the concept is downloadable here