As I develop new projects for my classroom this summer, a recurring theme has been to explore just how many times it takes to get a new design right. As far as I’m concerned, nothing ever comes out perfectly the first time. It’s useful for students and new learners to a subject to recognize this. Programmers call this iterative development, engineers use the engineering design process, both of which are relatives to the scientific method. Sure, just about anything can be fixed with duct tape and zip ties, but to get beyond a temporary kludge, you need to put some time and thought into analyzing the problem and crafting a proper solution. Most of us are used to devices like our phones, which generally work consistently when we unbox them. Our first moment with the new device is well along the cycle of the development.
While some people spend loads of time making the perfect design first, and plan out every step before starting, another approach is to just get started. Even though it won’t be perfect, you will at least have something done that will help you gather information about what works in your design and what doesn’t. Next, you can pick away at the things that aren’t correct in the design while retaining the best aspects.
One of the projects I’ve been developing is a cellphone holder. Several of the desired qualities are: can hold my phone securely at an angle for easy viewing, has a way to attach it to my bike’s handlebars, and it can be printed on the MakerBot. Initially, I started with a few quick sketches on a bit of a paper bag. That slip of paper floated around my pocket for a few days before I found the time to design it in SketchUp. After a bit, I got around to printing it. I was pretty confident that the first one wouldn’t fit, and indeed it didn’t. The openings were too tight and it couldn’t accept the phone. I made several minor changes to the size and shape of the openings, learning some new techniques and tools in the process. The second version did fit, but was still too tight. I’ve saved each of the revisions of the cell stand, warts and all, for future reference.
Fortunately, the process of designing on the computer and fabricating with CNC tools allows minor changes without having to start each next version from scratch. I’ve found that it takes from three to a half dozen iterations to get the design settled.
I’ve also been using a similar process to develop a project for sewing cellphone cases by hand or with with a sewing machine. With these pouches, it also seems to take several tries to get the design just right. While each one does work, the ability to change the design, add features and try different details makes each completed pouch a unique solution. It also took about a half dozen versions to make a new knob for the washing machine.
Working with the Engineering Design Process, it takes both patience and persistence to create the design, make the object, test the object’s fit, and other features, identify the needed changes, implement the changes and make another version so you can repeat the process. Designing in this cycle can be enlightening, empowering or discouraging to students, who are often accustomed to using devices and systems that have got well crafted designs and interfaces.
If you’re a teacher or are working with students to develop more complete designs, how do you encourage learners to stick with a project so that they can reach more amazing solutions than they would achieve on the first go-round? What resources and tools of encouragement do you use? As a student or a person learning a new skill, how do you manage your efforts and projects to get the very best solution as you work? What approaches do you use to keep track of your various revisions while working on a project? Some people save files in certain locations, with particular naming conventions to help keep the digital information straight. Pictures and screen shots are a way that many people use to track the process. Notebooks are a time honored tradition among makers, artists, scientists and engineers. How might these techniques be employed in the classroom to help people learn about designing more effectively?