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Sunday, November 15, 2009

Why does Google hate Design?

Decided to give SketchUp Pro a test-drive after discovering that Blender is problematic on the G5/PowerPC and that the free SketchUp is missing some features I need.

On the download page is the usual demographic survey, which includes this gem:

Industry:

  • Architecture
  • Cabinetry
  • City Planning
  • Civil Engineering
  • Computer Consulting
  • Construction
  • Contractor
  • Entertainment
  • Facilities Management
  • Gaming
  • GIS
  • Graphic Design
  • Hobbyist
  • Home Building
  • Interior Design
  • Landscape Architect
  • Marketing
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Software
  • Survey

First, note the lack of “other”. You are going to tell Google exactly what it is you do or you cannot download the software. How can you have data-driven decision-making when people can weasel out and choose “other”?

Now, note the horrid inconsistency in the hierarchies of the various industries listed and the amount of overlap in some of the categories.. We go from the extremely broad categories of “Entertainment” and “Software” to the very specific discipline of “Cabinetry”. I guess if you’re a furniture designer who doesn’t specialize in “Cabinetry” you’re just an “Interior Design” person. Or maybe “Entertainment”, because people sit on your furniture while being entertained. Isn’t “Gaming” a form of “Entertainment” and “GIS” a type of “Software”?

Of course, the only design disciplines mentioned are “Interior” and “Graphic”, I guess Industrial and Interaction Designers aren’t really designers, they’re “Mechanical engineering” or “Software”. It’s also interesting that the only two design disciplines called out are also the ones commonly (and incorrectly) associated with women designers: interior and graphic.

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posted by jet at 19:53  

Friday, November 13, 2009

baby’s first 3D printer

[This is the first in a series of notes about home-based 3D printing based on my experiences with a MakerBot Cupcake.]

In the 1980s the average person didn’t own a home computer. Those who did were likely to be gamers, hackers, tinkerers, or someone else interested in owning a computer as a hobby, not as an everyday tool. ~30 years later, computers are a part of everyday life, used for paying bills, keeping up with friends, publishing photos, and a whole host of other uses we could never have predicted back in the days of the SE and AT. We knew that home computers would change things, but we couldn’t predict how, no matter how many episodes of Star Trek or Max Headroom we watched on multi-generation VHS tapes copied from friends.

Today, 25 years after the Great Pagemaker Massacre of 1985, we’re on the verge of another massive change in how our world works. I have no idea how that change will manifest itself, but I’d like to be one of the first to find out.

I just built a MakerBot Cupcake 3D printer, which is itself based on the reprap project printers. Since the first question most people ask me is “how much did it cost?”, I’m going to start off this series of notes talking about the economics of 3D printing.

In raw dollars, the Cupcake cost a little less than my first computer, a Commodore C64 with monitor, printer, and omfg, floppy drive instead of cassette recorder, all of which set my parents back a bit over a grand. While a grand or so in the early 80s bought a fair bit more than it does now, like other home computers, you couldn’t just buy the computer. We probably spent another few hundred dollars on software, joysticks, blank floppies, that weird “computer-paper” that the printer used and so on. Most of those things came from third parties, so there was competition to keep the prices down — you weren’t locked into buying blank floppies only from Commodore.

Like the C64, one of the selling points for the Cupcake is that it’s a cheap, no-frills device. Part of the fun in having a Cupcake is the DIY aesthetic of figuring out how it works, why it works, and how to keep it working. Another not so obvious selling point, is that the Cupcake is based on opensource software and hardware. If you’re not familiar with the 3D printer market, you’re probably thinking “so? I bought a cheap PC built from parts and run linux? What’s the big deal about an opensourced 3D printer?”

Commercial 3D printer companies, like most 2D printer companies, operate by selling you the “razor for cheap then making it up on the blades”. The profit isn’t in the printer, it’s in the supplies the printer uses and the support contract to keep it running. Next time you see a really inexpensive inkjet printer for sale, research the cost of a set of replacement ink cartridges. Compare the volume of ink in the cartridges and their price and compare that with the price of refill ink, or look at the effort some manufacturers put into forcing you to only buy new cartridges by using DRM. (There’s an excellent eBay scam that takes advantage of the pricing disparities: buy a printer, pull the ink cartridges, then sell the printer “like new” for near what you paid for it to someone who doesn’t know how much the replacement cost of the cartridges.)

Two things you usually have to buy from the manufacturer if you own a commercial, closed-source 3D printer are the material to print with and the base that you print on. The printing material is probably a spool of ABS plastic in a vendor-specific housing and the printing base is also ABS and also vendor specific. There’s a nice article over at Time Compression that goes into cost details to be considered when buying a commercial 3D printer, but we’ll skip to the chase and say we’re talking about US$ 1-2 per cubic inch on the proprietary systems vs. USD $10 per pound of raw ABS from MakerBot. Oh, and instead of those $5 one-use print surfaces only available from the vendor, the Cupcake prints on a variety of surfaces available at any art supply store, some of them reusable for dozens of prints. (I’ve used a small piece of acrylic for ~20 prints on the Cupcake with no signs of wear and tear.)

This is opposite to how 2D printing has worked going back to the earliest days of printing. Once someone had the idea to cut blocks of wood or cast lead as type, the printer could control costs by simply buying raw materials for the best price they could negotiate and recycling them when possible. Cast some metal into type, then melt it down when you no longer need it. Screw up a print run? No problem, we can recycle that paper. Wore out your wooden printing block? Have someone carve another and get back to printing.

When I learned to type (“yes, grandpa, on a typewrier, we know”) it was on an IBM Selectric that used a ribbon and “typewriter” paper. The ribbon was sold by IBM, but replacements were available from third parties. Likewise, I didn’t have to buy my paper from IBM, I could buy it from any office supply store. I could even buy paper that IBM didn’t approve of (as if such a thing existed). If my typewriter needed repair, I didn’t have to call the IBM tech, I could go to any typewriter repair shop I choose.   

This is pretty much exactly opposite to how 3D printers work now. If you own a FooCorp X1000 you are pretty much locked into buying everything from FooCorp. Having problems with your X1000? Is your support contract paid up? Are you allowed to even open it and try and fix it yourself without violating your contract?

While the Cupcake is opensource, and one is not locked into buying ABS from MakerBot, it isn’t a completely self-sustaining ecology just yet. The first problem is that there’s no way to convert ABS models and scrap back into spools of ABS for printing . The technology to melt and extrude ABS plastic is there, it’s just a matter of someone building a melter/extruder that’s safe for home use. Safety might end up being the real problem as ABS fumes aren’t something you want to breath on a regular basis. Instead of recycling ABS on the individual level, perhaps the local door-to-door ABS recycling firm comes by and trades your scrap for fresh rolls of ABS, similar to the newspapers for toilet paper biz in Japan. One step further would be the ability to take broken ABS items and recycle them into replacement parts. If a knob or some other small part breaks, bring it over to my place, I’ll print you a new one then give the old one to the recycler in trade for more plastic.

So there you have the costs — under a grand and a dozen or two hours of your time to assemble it, adjust it, and get it running. Some of the money you’re “saving” by buying a DIY printer is going to be translated into hours of your time assembling, adjusting, and generally tweaking your Cupcake to get a decent print.   

Next we’ll look at who the real customer is and whether you should buy a Cupcake or just ship your STL to RedEye.

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posted by jet at 10:54  

Monday, July 20, 2009

a little design thinking inspiration for the day

[I got stuck while writing three journal entries at once so I went to Papanek for some inspiration and found this nice passage. Typos are due to OCR failures. –jet]

Victor Papanek, Design for the Real World, revised ed, p293 :

[…]

A more durable kind of design thinking entails seeing the product (or tool, or transportation device, or building, or city) as a meaningful link between man and environment. We must see man, his tools, environment, and ways of thinking and planning, as a nonlinear, simultaneous, integrated, comprehensive whole.

This approach is integrated design. It deals with the specialized extensions of man that make it possible for him to remain a generalist. All man’s functions — breathing, balancing, walking, perceiving, consuming, symbol-making, society-generating — are interrelated and interdependent. If we wish to relate the human environment to the psychophysical wholeness of the human being, our goal will be to replan and redesign both function and structure of all the tools, products, shelters, and settlements of man into an integrated living environment, an environment capable of growth, change, mutation, adaptation, regeneration, in response to man’s needs.

Integrated design will concern itself, for the first time since the Late Paleolithic, with unity. This must include locally autonomous planning, as well as regional and city planning, architecture (both interior and exterior), industrial design (including systems analysis, transportation, and bionic research), product design (including clothing), packaging, and all the graphic, video and film-making skills that can be generally subsumed under the phrase visual design. Dividing lines exist between these areas at present, but the lunacy of these divisions is apparent even on the most basic level. To use one example: what is architecture? Assuredly it is more than the skill of building arches. Consider today’s mix of civil engineering, speculative building, contracting, interior decoration, federally subsidized mass housing, landscaping, regional planning, rural and urban sociology, sculpture, and industrial design: what is left?

Architecture can hardly still be considered an area of its own (it lacks definition), and it overlaps with dozens of different fields. In view of all this, what is architecture? Could this be the reason so many architects have moved toward research, self-indulgent paper fantasies, heroic but ecologically unsound monumentalism, planning, and industrial design during the last decade? And during that same time, industrial designers have concerned themselves increasingly with the development of prefabricated houses and building components. Interior designers have developed furniture and tools and got caught up in such fads as supergraphics, nostalgia, brutalism, and so forth, while visual designers develop products and make films.

[…]

If we speak of integrated design, of design-as-a-whole, of unity, we need designers able to deal with the design process comprehensively. Lamentably, designers so equipped are not yet turned out by any school. Their education would need to be less specialized and include many disciplines now considered to be only distantly related to design, if related at all.

Integrated design is not a set of skills, techniques, or rules but should be thought of as a series of functions occurring simultaneously rather than in a linear sequence. These simultaneous “events” can be thought of (in biological terms) as initial fertilization, developmental growth, production (or mimesis), and evaluation, the latter leading to reinitiation or regeneration or both, thus forming a closed feedback loop. Integrated design (a general unified design system) demands that we establish at what level of complexity the problem belongs. Are we, for instance, dealing with a tool that must be redesigned, or are we dealing with a manufacturing method in which this tool has been used, or should we rethink the product itself in relation to its ultimate purpose? […]”

posted by jet at 15:18  

Monday, June 22, 2009

japan and design 1: Welcome to the FUTURE!

Before landing in Narita, most of my exposure to Japanese design was stuff-for-export-to-the-US: toys, consumer electronics, anime, clothing, etc. It wasn’t until we landed at Narita and started making our way to the hotel that I realized just how different the two countries actually are. Sure, the language and cultural barriers are pretty steep, but there’s also some fundamental differences in how Japanese designers[0] address problems.

Here’s one example: luggage. In the states, luggage is all about ease of movement through airports or accessories that make your luggage clip to other luggage and so on. The problem is, “how do I move a bunch of bags from my house to the airport to the hotel and back again?” and the answer is the latest and greatest products from Victorinox, Samsonite, and their ilk.

In Japan, this problem is solved with an actual service, not better luggage. It’s trivial to drop your luggage off at the airport and have it delivered to your hotel, or delivered from your hotel to another hotel or back to the airport. Within Japan, we travelled only with overnight bags, our massive luggage were dropped off at the front desk of one hotel and delivered to our room at the next.

I don’t think that someone actually said, “how can we solve the luggage problem” as much as someone saw a business opportunity. Yamato Transport doesn’t just move luggage, they move pretty much anything from one point to another. Services instead of consumable products were everywhere. Instead of a stack of napkins at the restaurant, we were given steamed hand-towels. Instead of a bunch of signs at a construction site warning passersby of danger, a real, live human apologized for the inconvenience and directed traffic as needed.

When we checked in to our hotel — jetlagged and confused — we discovered a few other little touches that made a huge difference in our stay and how we thought about our environment. After finding our room and dumping our luggage, we were confused by the fact that the power was out. It took us a few minutes to find the slot by the door where you store your (RFID enabled) room key. When you’re in the room, you put your key in the slot, and the power is turned on for your room. When you leave and take the key with you, everything except the fridge and the washer/dryer are automatically powered down. Not only do you always know where you room key is, but you get a daily reminder of how much energy is wasted by standby power or lights that were accidentally left on.

We were also happy to find that our hotel had a “washlet“, and by the end of our stay we were trying to figure out how to smuggle one home. And also wondering if, perhaps, the Japanese think we’re a bunch of dirty savages when it comes to bathroom hygiene. I’m sure the toilet paper industry would not be happy about the mass adoption of washlets in the States, but I think it’s something that’d probably be better for us (and the environment) in the long run. Washlets are another case of the “service instead of commodity” thinking — instead of buying the best/nicest toilet paper you can afford by the pallet at Costco, why not have a toilet that does most of the cleaning for you?

I’ll end on a question that popped into my head while trying to find a trashcan on the streets of Tokyo,

“Can you design a solution that doesn’t create new consumption patterns?”

[0] For the purposes of simplicity, I’m not going to try and guess whether it was a service designer, interaction designer, UE designer, industrial designer, or whatever designer that designed things that I used.

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posted by jet at 14:30  

Monday, June 15, 2009

design and sustainability: recycle vs. repair

A couple of weeks ago, the battery in my 5G iPod, an older 60G, died for the second time. The last time it died, I paid something like $75 to have it replaced and waited a week because I wanted to keep my custom-etched cover. I paid something like $400 for it new, so paying $75 to replace a battery seemed pretty reasonable, if I’d wanted I could probably have done it more cheaply myself.

This time when I visited the Apple store, there was no mention of repair — the only option presented to me was that if I recycle it, I could get %10 off of a new iPod. So, what’s changed? Why is Apple more interested in selling me a new iPod that only holds marginally more media instead of charging me a fair chunk of change to replace the battery in the old one. The rumor is they don’t make profit on the iPod and that it’s subsidized by iTunes sales. Is the hope that in selling me a larger iPod, they increase the amount of sales, and does adding half-again as much space really make that much profit?

So here’s the design issue — why isn’t the iPod designed to be easily repaired by someone at the Genius bar? It’s trivial to swap out the battery in my state of the art Android G1 and it’s been trivial to swap out the battery in almost every mobile phone or mobile HT I’ve owned. I’m trying to remember the last bit of consumer electronics I owned that didn’t allow me to swap out the battery and I’m drawing a blank.

So what’s up, Apple? As a socially responsible company, why aren’t you designing products that can be maintained by the customer instead of designing products that have to be replaced?

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posted by jet at 15:59  
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