makeLab Pilot Program

The following is a written reflection by Paul Wright.  Paul is an entrepreneurial business degree student who was embedded in the makeLab over the last few months.


I was given a great opportunity by Dr. Karen Evans to apply my entrepreneurial business degree, coupled with my decades of automotive prototype build experience, in an innovative new program idea she hatched with Professor Jim Stevens. The problem with many architectural and design students is they have a lot of creativity, but lack in practical business experience.  Karen knew “just the guy” to send over to help.  The plan was to put LTU’s School of Management students with the School of Architecture students to give insight into how to make practical things.

I was assigned to be Jim’s teaching assistant for a diverse group of talented students in his makeLab class. I was immediately hooked on what he was doing with the makeLab digital fabrication studio and knew I could help. I sensed a little bit of apprehension on the part of the students with this unusual arrangement.  Because I was a much older student, they didn’t seem to know what to make of me and what I was doing there.  Eventually the process of mutual creative discovery helped lower subtle social barriers and things started happening.

We first learned how to turn digital designs into executable code and use the CNC machine to make simple things. The immediate gratification of moving from an idea floating in your brain to something you can hold in your hand is inspiring. In my past life in the automotive prototype engineering business, it could take a very long time to get to this point. The process moved slowly from drawing by hand, to hand machining and fabricating parts. Now just about anyone can do it with home-built machines and a laptop computer.  Younger students may seem blasé about it, but for me this revolution is, well, revolutionary.

Once the competency projects were completed without anyone losing any digits, teams were created to handle the five project ideas created by Professor Stevens:

  • Eric Rito, Randy White and Saif Alawzi chose the task to design and build a new podium for the A200 Auditorium.
  • Randall Rozier and Chris Davis chose the “Inventibles Challenge”, where the students were to create something using unique items from the web site.
  • Sara Rugglio chose to design and create something that could be marketed on the web site for the “Etsy challenge” assignment.
  • Three architecture students from China; Wei Wang, Youyou Chen and Jing Xu; banded together and produce a CNC produced design element that would interact with existing lights.
  • Nick Catalado and Azubuke “Zubby” Onoye chose to design and produce dinner table chairs for the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Affleck house.

I was assigned to work with all the teams to make sure that financial and manufacturing limitations were kept on track. I would show them how to procure materials at economical prices, how to reduce waste, and maintain manufacturing feasibility.

One of the first projects that I saw needed help was Sara’s. She wasn’t sure what exactly she needed to make because that purposely wasn’t defined. She had an interest in fabrics and Jim suggested combining that with resin casting, a process she wasn’t familiar with, so there was some resistance at first. She was encouraged to just “make things” with it to see what could be done. Initially, she tried making a wood mold with the CNC machine, but the result did not produce a useful direction so that was abandoned.  She then used an ice cube tray as a mold, and the results were much better. She found some long and narrow silicone cube trays at IKEA, cut and applied fabric to the resin in the mold, and the end result was interesting enough to explore further.

Her idea for the final product was to string the molded pieces together into a “blanket” that could be used as a decorative window or wall treatment.  The resin magnified the fabric pattern, which was found very attractive by everyone in our informal focus groups. There was also some exploration in embedding LED’s into the mold to illuminate the fabric design. I assisted with the electronics and research. After testing, the artificial lighting had mixed reviews. The biggest problem was the complexity of embedding almost 100 LED’s plus the routing of the wiring detracted from the elegance of the basic design element. Sara was getting frustrated with the progress and time was running out for further development.  She abandoned the electronics and decided that natural light would be the better choice. Sara then turned her attention to experimenting with weaving fabric and casting the molds in sand to keep the shape more consistent.

Ultimately, she ended up with different shapes for the individual pieces, but despite all the temporary setbacks and frustrations, I think she made some creative breakthroughs. She has a real eye for design, that once she gets past the road blocks of inhibitions and resistance to unfamiliar processes, she can really do great work.

The Inventibles Challenge team had its share of dead ends, too. They selected several items from the site, super-stretchy plastic, a wire spring that changes length with the application of electricity and moldable plastic.  Chris and Randall tried a number different ways to combine all the materials. As with Sara’s project, their solution was to abandon complexity and focus on simplicity. The Nitinol helical wound wire had the most interesting properties with the ability to lift a heavy ViceGrip™ off the ground with just a little bit of voltage. They decided to build an interactive ceiling exhibit that would use cast weights suspended with Nitonal wires behind a stretchy fabric. It would be activated by a motion sensor as students walked by. The effect was intended to be eye-catching and intriguing.

Unfortunately the giddiness of the creative process left them ungrounded in the realities of the project parameters. Multiplying the number of weights and wires required more current than the initial single-weight test prototype used. Making the weights move independent of each other added a lot more wiring complexity than the budget or time allowed.  The structure size  required cross supports that they wanted to be adjustable for varying the effect. This created the problem of supplying current to the cross beams without a tangle of extra long wires to accommodate the distance changes. I suggested using copper conductive tape as a “buss bar”.  I advised them on where to get it, and that was the extent of my contribution to this project. It worked out well, but the wire gauge they used for the connections was a little too small for the amount of current they were dealing with. The project was too far along to rewire so they made do with what they had.

The decision to cast the weights using condoms as molds was the most controversial aspect of this project. Coupled with the choice of black stretchy fabric, the effect was decidedly sexual in nature. There was a bit of denial at first that it was not the intent of the project, but there was no getting around the obvious. If the outcome wasn’t the intent, then the design wasn’t well thought out.  The decision was made to embrace the outcome, change their design intent to match the result and declare victory.

The final design review dinged them for poor craftsmanship and poor selection of materials.  When the project was in place, the light from the window above  shown through the thin fabric and revealed the inner workings in an unflattering manner, which removed the mysteriousness of the device. The fabric looked cheap as did the particle board.  Because the wire couldn’t handle the current, the movement was slow and inconsistent.

They made the classic mistake of designing solely for themselves without considering the customer, the business case, the mechanics and materials, or details about the site location. Not to be deterred, this was a good learning experience for them. They plan to correct all the mistakes and work on an even better design.  I’m willing to bet it will be fabulous!

All teams struggled at some point, but I think the lighting design team had the most difficulties. Part of which was the fact that English was their second language and their unfamiliarity with the intricacies of American culture and local sources of materials. Their initial design looked fairly good on the computer, but didn’t translate well when built.  The first basic shape was a tapered plywood square that would be replicated on the CNC. These ¾” thick pieces would be screwed to a thin sheet of plastic to make a bendable light shade.

While the CNC can produce the same element over and over, it seemed inefficient to me to turn a big piece of wood into a lot of little pieces, a big piece of scrap wood and a pile of sawdust.  The end result was awkward to assemble causing a great deal of time consumed assembling them together. Even with cheap labor I would have still sought an easier way to execute the project.  After fabrication, the interaction of the squares didn’t give the effect they desired, so frustration was setting in. I suggested they look to nature for elements that nested together.  That sparked some creativity and they end up with a four leaf clover design that made more sense.

There still was the problem of making the parts from wood. I think they weren’t comfortable with searching for and testing alternatives, so they limited themselves to what they could find in the supply room.  Another thing that hindered the process was that the location for displaying their project wasn’t considered carefully.  At one point it was going to hang from the ceiling under a light in the stairwell.  The School ‘s refusal to allow drilling holes in the light fixture precluded that.  The team decided they were going to suspend the design from strings that tied to the exiting light fixture to get around that problem. But they hadn’t actually measured the size they would need to completely cover the area or calculated the amount of materials needed.  Once we did that, it became readily apparent that they would have the equivalent of a 4’ x 8’ sheet of ¾” plywood hanging, literally, by a few strings over student heads. By not considering the site requirements they made the same mistake as the Inventibles team.  The solution was to change the site location and instead of hanging the project, they placed it on an in ground landscaping light outside the architecture building. The effect when lit is very interesting.

The A200 Podium team had their preliminary design work done fairly quickly. They matched the theme of the auditorium and captured the customer’s needs in the initial design. The computer design became a small-scale model, and after some revisions it seemed like this was going to be a slam-dunk, except for one small detail:  One important rule of program management is that when it comes to procurement,  you have to  identify your longest lead item in the bill of materials to be sure everything is ordered in time for the required date. About one week before the project was due and in the middle of construction, they came to me about the source for the LTU blue laminate I had located during the planning session.  I found the web site again, but the special color material would be coming from Wisconsin, IF they had it in stock. If not, then it would be at least weeks for special order. Oops.

Out of necessity, they had to paint the inner cabinet rather than use the much nicer smooth laminate that was originally planned. The project had a good start but typical project setbacks ate up time and the podium wasn’t completely finished on the review day. I think they realized they would have benefitted from more disciplined program management techniques.

The last project is the Affleck House chair project. The task of building a set of chairs for the Affleck house was no minor undertaking. The design had to be compatible with the “Usonian” design of the house. Not only did the chair need to be considerate of the design intent, materials, and mass, but it had to in no way replicate any existing element. The chairs needed to be stackable, have the necessary frame rigidity, and have a comfortable seating surface and angle.

Professor Stevens picked Nick’s flexible plywood as the core design element. The “Pli-wood” process is documented elsewhere on the site, but it incorporates a milled pattern that allows the wood to flex and bend while maintaining compressive strength. The process was confined to the curved areas and the flat surfaces were kept intact, except for CNC milling of tube retention slots and curved seating area. The project would showcase remarkable makeLab achievements in a practical way.

The first step was the requisite CAD 3D model. That was quickly accomplished and ideas were bantered back and forth.  The approach to fabrication was considered early on. We wanted to try to minimize material costs and cutting waste, so it was decided to eliminate the arm rests early in the design process. This allowed two chairs to be made from one, standard size 4 x 8 sheet of Plywood. The tubular frame looked simple in the CAD model, but my experience saw issues with bending stainless in so many tight curves.

The next step was to make a scale model. After some issues with deciding on the exact scale to use, welding wire was bent to make a replica frame, and balsa wood was used to stand-in as plywood. The lab’s CNC laser cutter was used to cut the miniature pli-wood pattern into the balsa wood.

From the scale model process, improvements were identified, and the optimum material sizes were estimated. It was thought that ½” diameter stainless tubing would be the ideal size. This allowed a minimum of 15/16” radius bends while maintaining enough rigidity for a 300 pound person. 304 seamless tubing was specified for corrosion resistance, low maintenance, and the ability to take a pleasing natural, polished, or brushed finish. ¾” birch plywood was selected for the wood. No fasteners were required but we needed 3/8” stainless dowels to ensure straight alignment and strength for the welded joints.

A secondary project was undertaken to set up TIG (Tungsten Inert Gas) welding station in the makeLab fab room. I helped with getting all the necessary equipment together and up and running. Then I gave Nick some TIG welding lessons, and after a short time he was ready. Fortunately, he had prior experience with wire feed and stick welding, so he wasn’t exactly a total novice and adapted quickly to the new technique.

The stainless tubing was expensive, but the material was perfect for the application and Usonian theme.  Nick was able to find a wholesale source for the tubing which cut out all the middleman costs. The savings were a whopping 70% less than retail. Nick had wanted to build each chair using only one standard 20’ section of tubing, but reinforcements required after the full-scale prototype added a few feet to the BOM. We could have special ordered longer 24’ sections, but since the 20’ length was a stock item, it was deemed more prudent to just order an extra length. The project came in under budget, and the full-scale prototype was on time.

At this time the chair is still being refined, but the end result is sure to be fabulous. I imagine guests and visitors to the Affleck house will take notice of the unique design and strike up a conversation about it.  Professor Stevens envisions it being so notable that people will want to buy a set. We discussed making and selling copies online. The funds would be used to help expand the makeLab into new frontiers. This could lead to designers, engineers and business students working together to run a working mini-business laboratory.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to take part in this pilot program. I have looked forward to every Tuesday and Thursday class session.  I think that once you get  the makeLab spirit in your blood, you can never get over it. I plan on hanging around this summer to see how the projects turn out and what’s next. This is what education should be about. Teaching theory and practice in an interesting, meaningful, and practical way.

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