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Sand castles

July 07, 2012

We’ve arrived in Mancora, Peru, a small but popular beach town on the northern coast, and we spent our first day playing in the sand. Ella (my 5-year-old) and I built a large starfish out of sand (sea star if you prefer, though I really don’t feel the need to be politically correct around invertebrates.)

Living in Madison, Wisconsin and preferring the mountains to the ocean, I’ve forgotten how awesome sand sculpting is. It’s really one of the perfect Dad activities since you can:

  1. Spend countless whine-free hours with your kids
  2. Take a creative or a labor-intensive role
  3. Not worry about mistakes or destructive kid behavior, since repair is quick and easy
  4. If the kids do start to get in the way, you can bury them (just up to the neck and always remember to dig them up before high tide)

The sculpting got me thinking about form creation.* As an engineer I’ve done my fair share of fabrication, working in machine shops and labs. I’ve never been much of an artist/sculptor/whittler though. I do have a deep but uninformed interest in aesthetics and form, one major factor that brought me to product design. Spending time around industrial designers and solid modeling experts has gradually increased my understanding of surfaces, proportion, primary, secondary and tertiary elements of form (isn’t tertiary a ridiculous word? It’s to ordinates what February is to months). But my tools to create forms have never included sculpting, and I think that’s a limitation. I’m sure this is obvious to any first year industrial design student, but when you are taught in a lecture hall and given SolidWorks and rapid prototyping machines instead of a ball of clay, this is what happens.

I do have a deep but uninformed interest in aesthetics and form, one major factor that brought me to product design.

The sand starfish demonstrated that the mind and the eye can conspire to construct a clunky shape based on preconceived primitives and transitions that just don’t work. Imagine a coconut with legs — that’s what my first attempt looked like. My hands, on the other hand (or the other hand) figured out the mistakes I made, feeling the surface discontinuities and providing an elegance that might have required any number of iterations (or complete recreations) on the computer.

Sand is both additive and subtractive (similar to clay) which let’s you carve with abandon since you can always add a dollop if you make a mistake. In our shop, some of our industrial designers sculpt with solid foam, essentially a subtractive only medium. The car industry still relies on clay and I’m starting to understand why.

Maybe clay is an option for us, too. One of our engineers, educated at the Stanford Design School likes to rapid prototype the guts of a mechanism and build clay over it to experiment with human factors elements. I’m wondering if there is a role for carve-able rapid prototyping materials, like Z Corp’s plaster and binder system. We’ve never really used it since they material doesn’t come close to simulating plastic (its main advantages are speed, cost and color printing). But could our design and engineering team iterate form more quickly by generating a computer model, printing it, carving it, re-modeling it, printing it, rinsing and repeating? Maybe.

I’m gonna have to end the post here. My kids are begging me to dig them up.


*We are approaching the end of a three-month sabbatical in Peru. For the first month and a half, I rarely thought about work. As the end has approached, my thoughts have returned, and a creative spark has lit. It’s been interesting to witness this arc of rejuvenation.

Editor's note: Jesse Darley, director of mechanical engineering, is currently on sabbatical from Design Concepts traveling throughout Peru with his family. Their amazing adventure began in May, 2012, and will come to a close in August, 2012. Along the way, we've asked Jesse to share stories of his experiences, including a couple of engineering challenges he's experienced along the way.