Jan 142016

Ten years ago a joke going around was “what if Microsoft built cars?” The answer summed up the frustrations users had with personal computers and the differences in engineering standards between traditional industries and that of the IT sector.

As we enter the Internet of Things era, that tension between consumer devices and good engineering continues as shown by a software bug that rendered Nest thermostats useless.

That poor software would drain the battery without warning the user, illustrates how poorly designed many of these devices are.

Ironically Nest’s owners, Google, held a conference earlier this week where the company’s leaders flagged the importance of standards, security and privacy.

In a call to action for the IoT industry, Google’s lead advocate Vint Cerf, also known as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” warned that compatibility, security, and privacy could be obstacles to the IoT’s success.

Reliability is also important, particularly when talking about safety and security – Nest also make carbon monoxide detectors – where a device crashing or failing can have terrible consequences.

At present most of the Internet of Things is about the gimmick of connecting devices to the cloud and controlling them from your mobile phone. Consumers are not going to embrace IoT products if they add cost, complexity and risk to their lives.

Keeping it simple and safe are probably the most important things designers of IoT devices can do.

Dec 032015

The second day of Autodesk University 2015 in Las Vegas continued the focus on innovation and changing industries, the afternoon innovation session was particularly focused on some of the opportunities being realised in drones, pre-fabricated buildings and lampshades made out of fungus.

Brooklyn based designer Danielle Trofe gave a great demonstration of how she’s using fungus to create a range of sustainable light shades. Interestingly in a conversation earlier in the day with Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski the topic of growing products out of Mycelium, the vegetative part of a fungus that Trofe uses, was discussed in terms of smart packaging and biodegradable products.

Growing products out of organic material is one of the themes explored in Mercedes Benz’s Biome concept car which proposes to grow the chassis out of seeds. While realising that concept is some way off, Trofe’s Mush-Lume idea shows some products are already at that stage.

Rethinking prefab buildings

Following Trofe was Jos Mulkens, the CEO of Dutch building company Voorbij Prefab, who described how by using sophisticated design tools and 3D printing to make prefabricated building panels they had reduced to the time to fabricate elements from days to hours.

Mulkens gave a good insight into how design and production workflows are being accelerated with modern technology, particularly in replacing manual form makers to make the moulds for the precast panels. Voobij Prefab are flagging a lot of disruption heading for the building industry.

At one the media breakout sessions a group of senior Autodesk managers discussed the trends in design and materials engineering. This turned out to be an interesting session on the limits of current technologies.

Composite technologies

Max Moruzzi, Autodesk’s Principal Research Scientist, is a passionate believer in composite materials and the benefits they promise. However he conceded when challenged by his colleague Steve Hobbs, who joined Autodesk last year with the acquisition of  UK based Computer Aided Manufacturing company Delcam, about the structural properties of composites that we still have a lot to understand about how they behave and fail.

Bringing a touch of English scepticism to the panel, Hobbs pointed out almost all metallic components made by 3D printing require some sort of mechanical, subtractive finishing such as milling or polishing.

Hobbs went onto warn that we risk introducing a “hairball of complexity” into the design and manufacturing industries as people experiment with developing products with materials and techniques they don’t fully understand.

All the panel, which also included Carl White – Autodesk’s senior director of marketing for advanced manufacturing – and Benjamin Schrauwen who leads the company’s Spark 3D printing division, agreed that applying current design and manufacturing methods need to be rethought in the light of new methods being developed.

The limits of 3D printing

It was notable in the panel Q&A around the revelation that 70% of 3D printing projects fail, the panel put this down to the relative immaturity of software and machinery along with the technologies currently being poorly understood. Hobbs observed that for GE to 3D print their jet engine parts they rebuild and reprogram the printers they buy to their own higher specifications.

For the final session CEO Carl Bass and CTO Jeff Kowalski faced a Q&A from analysts and the media, that session was interesting in exploring some of the directions Autodesk sees industry and business heading and I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

Overall, the Autodesk University has been an interesting insight into the future of design and manufacturing along with the effects this has on other industries. With these technologies at an early stage, it’s a field that is going to evolve rapidly.

Paul Wallbank travelled to Autodesk University in Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk.

Nov 212015

What is the future of design and manufacturing in an age of 3D printing and powerful software? Computer Aided Design company Autodesk gives us some clues at how the world of design is changing.

Sitting in what was once the Southern Pacific Railway’s headquarters at the beginning of San Francisco’s Market Street is design software company Autodesk’s demonstration gallery showcases how design and manufacturing are going to radically change in coming years.

The first exhibit in the exhibition, which is open to the public three days a week with guided tours on Wednesdays, is a scale model of the Shanghai Tower that illustrates the power of simulations and the value computers add to the building and architecture industries.


Currently China’s tallest skyscraper and the second highest in the world, one of the notable features of the Shanghai Tower is how the designers were able to extensively model the shape of the building to reduce the loads on the structure. The cost and weight savings enabled the developers to create a far more lightweight building with a reduced environmental footprint.

For architects, builders and designers the Shanghai tower is an example of how desktop prototyping can be used to experiment with competing schemes to see what designs meet the needs of those using the building or product.

The biggest exhibit in the hall is the Mercedes Biome concept car chassis. First unveiled at the 2010 Los Angeles Car Show, the idea behind the vehicle’s design is an organic form similar to an animal’s skull to create a strong but lightweight structure.


Adding to the Biome’s exotic design is the proposal to ‘grow’ the car’s chassis out of genetically modified seeds. Essentially the vehicle’s structure wouldn’t be manufactured in our current understanding of the word at all.


While the Biome or similar vehicles won’t be seen on the roads in the near future – Mercedes predict the vehicle is at least 60 years away – the idea behind ‘growing’ industrial items is one that may well become commonplace in the near future for smaller items.


The other big exhibit in the gallery is the Lego dinosaur. Made up of 62,000 custom designed pieces, the dinosaur was assembled in at the company’s Czech Republic facility before being shipped to California.

One disappointing aspect of the dinosaur for some of the attendees is that these models aren’t made of solid Lego. Instead an internal brace is made that supports the structure. Again this is a feature of the design software that allows the creators to accurately calculate the weight and build a model that won’t collapse under its own mass.

At the other end of the size range, but no less important, is the display of 3D printed prosthetic limbs. It’s now possible to scan the remaining limb and create a device that closely replicated the lost limb.


Again, using 3D printing allows those limbs to be quickly made to the custom specifications, the design also allows weight saving features to be incorporated into the prosthetic. This exhibit shows just how life changing modern technologies can be.

Finally, one of the most intriguing devices is the The SOCCKET power generating soccer ball designed to promote physical activity and help children in developing nations access light to study by.

Uncharted Play Sokket ball

The SOCCKET charges up as kids play with the ball, in the evening an energy efficient LED lamp can be plugged into the ball. The Soccket retails for 99 US Dollars and for ball sold one is donated to a third world community.

Products like the Soccket, the prosthetic limbs and many of the other displays in the Autodesk Demonstration Gallery show the potential of a world where new ways of manufacturing join with modern design tools. It’s worth a visit to appreciate some of the ways our world is going to change in coming years.

The gallery is open to the public every Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a guided tour at 12:30 p.m. every Wednesday. Admission is free.

Oct 202015

A piece I wrote for IoT hub looks at how the design industry is changing as every day devices, even clothes, can start communicating with the world.

In researching the piece, it was interesting just how broad the possibilities are, particularly when we start considering main devices will be able to change their roles depending on the commands they receive or the environment they detect.

What’s clear is the design industry is facing a world of opportunities, and challenges, as not only do objects start talking to each other, but also new materials and manufacturing processes start changing how we think ordinary items should be made and used.

Oct 072015

Ensuring the next generation of IoT devices is secure and a good citizen of the wider ecosystem will be one of the challenges facing the next generations of designers.

Diego Tamburini, Manufacturing Industry Strategist of design software company Autodesk, spoke to Decoding The New Economy about how the IoT will change the design industry. “We’ve been designing equipment to connect to the internet for a generation,” he said. “What’s changing is that now the addition of software, electronics, networking and communication is breeding into objects that were purely mechanical.”

Melding the physical and software worlds doesn’t come without risks however, something that worries Internet pioneer Vint Cerf who foresees headlines like ‘100,000 fridges hack the Bank of America’ in an interview with Matthew Braga of Motherboard Canada.

Apart from the fact it could be a hundred million, Cerf has good reason to be worried. Most consumer IoT devices are hopelessly insecure and the recent stories of hacked cars only emphasises the weaknesses with connected household items.

Cerf and Braga make the point the ‘I Love You’ worm of the year 2000 became a crisis because the world had reached the point where personal computers were ubiquitous. A similar piece of malware in a world where everything from kettles to wristwatches are vulnerable would be exponentially worse.

These risks put a great onus on product designers, even more so given much of the functionality is based upon those devices communicating with others across the internet and cloud services, something that Tamburini emphasised.

“One important thing that is happening with thing being connected is we are not just designing things that function in a vacuum, we’re increasingly designing members of a larger ecosystem.” Tamburini states, “now we have to think of how the product will have to connect to other products and how they will collectively perform a function.”

Part of that risk is that should those devices malfunction, either deliberately as part of a botnet or malware attack, or accidentally as we saw with the connected home being disabled due to a defective smart lightbulb flooding the network with error messages, then the wider community may be affected in ways we may not expect.

Cerf believes it’s going to take a big, catastrophic hack on a grand, connected scale before a shift in security begins to happen, and before people begin to even consider that such a vulnerabilities even exist.

If that’s the case, it will be that society has ignored the clear warning signs we’ve seen from events like the Jeep hack and the Stuxnet worm, not to mention the massive privacy breaches at Target and Sony. For designers of these systems hardening them is going to be an essential part of making them fit for today and the future.

Sep 162015

“I always believe small companies usually illustrate big shifts faster than larger companies. In many ways big companies are responding to the shifts being driven by smaller businesses,” says Andrew Anagnost, the Senior Vice President of Industry Strategy and Marketing at Autodesk.

Anagnost was talking the Dreamforce media contingent after a tour of his company’s San Francisco Gallery where possibilities of today’s design and manufacturing tools are displayed.

Those possibilities are changing business, not just in design but across most industries as the means of financing and building new projects changes along with consumer demand as production methods change.

Anagnost breaks these changes into four major trends – the way things are designed, how they are produced, the nature of demand in a world where things can personalised and the very notion of what a product is.

“What people expect in from products today is very different.”

A supercomputer at your fingertips

“Every generation brings something new to design,” says Anagnost. “Imagine the generation that grew up with social media, online gaming, all the things that previous generations did not grow up with.”

This generation will be more collaborative and the idea of working in fluid, unstructured groups where many of the members will never physically meet anywhere.

Cloud computing is the other factor Anagnost sees as changing design as “it puts a supercomputer behind every screen”, which brings to the desktop great power in testing designs. “The designer gets a chance to explore options they couldn’t access before.”

That supercomputer at your fingertips changes all businesses, giving them processing power to carry out complex analytical tasks and modelling in all industries.

Financing the change

Another change to the production process is how people are financing their products. Increasingly platforms like Kickstarter are creating new ways for entrepreneurs to raise funds and also to test the market for a product before investing money and time.

“Before people would have to pitch their ideas to a larger manufacturer, an investor or a VC but now they can pitch it to anyone,” says Anagnost. “The means of financing products is now changing.”

The new means of production

‘Fabless manufacturing’ promises to change manufacturing by reducing the need for massive factories as micr0-factories start to change the economics of making products. These miniaturised robot factories are easily configurable and can be located locally rather than across the country of oceans.

Coupled with 3D printing, again it becomes cheaper and quicker to bring products to market and changes the dynamics of getting goods to market. “When it gets cheaper to deliver a complex product, the field gets levelled and more people can deliver innovative products to market,” says Anagnost.

The other trend within manufacturing is prefabricated assembly. While nothing new, improved design tools and manufacturing methods are making it easier and more efficient to assemble things like buildings onsite, coupled with 3D printing this is going to see massive changes in sectors like the construction industry.

Generational changes

Changing manufacturing and designs creates changed consumer expectations, as design becomes more accessible and personalisations easier customers are increasingly going to want products that meet their specific tastes and needs.

Another aspect to this is generational change, where younger consumers expect personalised products and don’t identify the same way with major brands as their grandparents and parents did.

“We’re going to see a move from rampant consumerism to a more selective consumerism,” says Anagnost.

This means markets are going to be far more volatile as the brand loyalty erodes in the face of a demanding customer. You’re only as good as the last conversation you had with your customer and if they aren’t happy they’ll go elsewhere.

Connected devices

The final factor Anagnost sees is the world of connected devices, increasingly consumers will demand products that have online functionality built in.

Increasingly we’re seeing this with motor cars and in the near future we’ll be seeing devices as diverse as motorcycle helmets and light bulbs being shipped with networked capabilities.

“Everything in your home is going to be connected in some way and people are going to have that expectation they will be,” says Anagnost. “Sensors are getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. There’s an assumption of connectivity.”

What Anagnost and Autodesk are flagging is business is changing, barriers we thought were unsurmountable are increasingly falling. For every industry, easily accessible computing and manufacturing power is changing the competitive landscape.

Paul travelled to San Francisco as guest of Salesforce.

Aug 152015

Two years ago this site interviewed New Deal Design’s Gadi Amit about Google’s Project Ara.

Project Ara is an experiment in creating a modular phone where users can customise their devices by adding or removing components.

PC World now reports the mooted soft launch for the Project Ara phone in Puerto Rico has been cancelled.

While Google aren’t saying the project has been shut down, the sporadic and cryptic messages around Ara don’t bode well given the way the company loses interest in and then abandons products.

If it is being abandoned, it will be interesting to see where the intellectual property from the project ends up.