The nature of invention comes from necessity. We build things when we need them, we improve on things we don’t think work well. Every day we walk around unsatisfied with products, food, and service in our society and can often think it’s an inescapable pod of mediocrity that requires a change in our own behavior to accommodate the inadequacy of these products. Inventors know they can change that. The mindset is about noticing how people use everything – what it makes them think or feel, if it’s an easy thing to use, if it looks attractive and makes people want to use it, and most importantly if it does what it is supposed to do when used as directed. The art of making things is a multifaceted monolith that can range from a fully automated motor powered door stopper that is beautiful and has all the right marketing, to the fork, that is overshadowed in simplicity, necessity, and universality only by the spoon.
A LEASH ISSUE
A friend of mine just got her first dog, a shy Bernese – Beagle mix. She recently upgraded from the faded pink and yellow nylon leash she was given by the shelter, to a shiny red retractable leash. This leash has a smooth, plastic handle with thin rope line that winds and unwinds with buttons pressed by the thumb. This mechanism lets the dog go farther while still being under the control of the owner. Someone thought the classic leash was not enough, that the idea of walking ones dog could be freer, more exciting, with the same sense of security. As my friend grabbed the new leash, she said “oh, how do you feel about these? I only use it sometimes, sorry.” She told me that there is a community of people who believe retractable leashes are more dangerous than they are beneficial. The huge unintended consequences of such a small change in mechanism is very interesting to me.
For every owner that felt an improvement in the quality of their walks via the increase in the dogs’ roaming radius, there is a victim of bad timing and interface flaws. A few years ago a woman found herself missing a finger after her dog took off at full speed chasing a squirrel. The thin rope wrapped tight around the finger when she tried to grab the line in a panic to regain control and pulled it off. There are many cases of user issues; when a person is in a panic, it is very difficult to predict what they will do.
The success and longevity of a product is also hugely dependent on the quality of its materials and assembly. I think one purpose of a product made with quality materials that was assembled with care is to reduce the possibilities of human error. This includes using materials that won’t behave like scissors when enough pressure is applied. There are too many unpredictable situations so we base our designs on flaws we’ve seen before. Then, when the worst does happen, the flaw seems obvious – dogs will pull on the leash, don’t make it out of line thin enough so it can effectively apply decapitating force when the dog pulls on the leash.
Assuming the consumer will utilize the product correctly, if it is made with inferior materials and or haphazardly put together, any normal function of the leash could become dangerous. In 2008 a company that manufactured very cheap retractable leashes recalled them because of multiple cases of injuries caused by the metal clasp breaking like shrapnel and lodging itself in anything nearby. A 2007 analysis of injuries directly related to retractable leashes by the Consumer Product Safety Commission found 16,564 hospitalizations were caused by the leashes. Something about these leashes was not working for the public, but how many of these injuries were caused by human error and how many were a flaw in the product?
INVENTING WITHIN THE PLANETARY RESOURCE BUDGET
As a species, Humans have achieved an incredible level of evolution. We are able to take resources from the Earth and utilize them not only to provide food, shelter, and water, but also an industry focused on quality of life. Humans have done the most manipulation of planetary resources and have created a powerful relationship with objects. These objects focus on communication, transportation, personal comforts, things that can make life a little bit easier.
During the early 1800’s humanity developed a new way to thrive through automated machinery. From machines that print text uniformly and quickly, ones that drive us farther distances faster, that let us communicate with others, we learned how to control fire – how to use combustion to our benefit. Like anything that is cool, new, and untested over time, society loved everything about these new brilliant milestones in human history. Factories were built, mines were dug, and a new age of convenience quickly overtook our populace.
With more control over our environment comes the ability to explore and try to understand it. The scientific and medical industry exploded with their own branches of mind blowing discoveries, and with this were able to indicate that we may have an effect on the planet with all this rapid development. Waste was building, the oceans were warming, the atmosphere was coughing, and at some point a community of scientists started spreading information about the repercussions. With basic mechanistic needs having been met by most people, the new adventurous trend in exploring the boundaries of discovery is eco-friendly gadgets and processes. Existing products are being revamped into energy efficient, lighter, and renewable versions trying to relieve the planet of our burden.
“Efficiency” and “sustainability” are now golden buzzwords in the design and production world, with everyone knowing more power consumption also means more monetary consumption. Though the development cost drives up the prestige of eco-friendly living, once achieved, provides a way bigger benefit on small and large scales over time. Energy efficient light bulbs, electric cars, solar grids, and wind turbines are some products that have been borne of necessity within this recent zeitgeist.
For a long time old rubber tires were piled up and burned. There became this huge issue of what to do with a now useless item made of materials that don’t decompose, so things like tire recycling plants were developed. Tires are ground into smaller, uniform pieces and repurposed. We have developed many behaviors to alleviate and cope with the garbage problem, but inventing a way to avoid the garbage in the first place is another step forward. Michelin is working on a 3D printed, biodegradable tire. The lifespan of each tire is significantly longer because when the tread wears down it is reparable by printing on another few layers. I think this is the perfect marriage of social benefit with ease of production and eco-consciousness.
There are 268.8 million registered cars in the US, all using tires that will get worn out and thrown away. Though it would be ideal to equip every vehicle with some 3D printed tires and alleviate one damaging industry, the cost and feasibility need to be accounted for. Reports about how the tires performed on various terrains and seasons over time, how they do on hot roads, on frozen roads. The time it takes the tread to wear down and how often the tires require maintenance need to be tested and estimated. I want to know what it takes to break one of these tires, what to do with a broken tire, how it behaves when its broken on a moving vehicle, how much pressure the tires can withstand. 3D printing is reaching new levels of affordability now that the technology is being streamlined and normalized, but the cost of mass produced 3D printed tires is still unknown and can be a huge blockade in whether or not this technology takes off.
Quick product change and design that is coupled with the efficiency of growing technology and manufacturing also has a huge effect on culture and the speed at which it changes. Anthropologists in one thousand years will have the evolution and growth of Apple catalogued as epochs in human development. The rise and fall of civilizations happen in between updated versions of your Iphone. This necessitates introspection about how this rapid change can look like in various other socio-economic and governmental facets.
The article A Practical Approach to Teaching Abstract Product Design Issues from the Journal of Engineering Design (Vol. 20, No. 5, October 2009, 511–521) written by Wouter Eggink from University of Twente, Faculty of Engineering Technology had this to say about the role invention and engineering has on cultural shifts, and how this knowledge can be utilized in the classroom, “…we are aware that it is not only important that the students practice with emotions and meaning, but also that engineers are aware of the societal consequences of product design and the matching responsibility of the designer as an actor in a societal context. In the end, it is also a means of coming to different products than the obligatory mobile phones, coffee makers or mp3 players.” Eggink talks about using abstract and philosophical themes with his students to get them to understand the bigger effects something they create can have.
A pivotal stage in early human development can objectively be identified as when we started cooking our food. A richer and vaster range of nutrients was able to develop the human brain and lead it into the modern level of functioning. I read an interview between Ira Flatow of npr and Bee Wilson, author of Consider the Fork, regarding the evolution of kitchen utensils and the role silverware had in changing our jaw structure. He talks about how recently jaw bones shifted from an “edge-to-edge bite” to the overbite we all have. “If anthropologist called C. Loring Brace is correct, the adoption of the knife and fork at table, which happened roughly 250 years ago in society at large in Europe and then in the States – if he is right, then the adoption of the knife and fork actually had these profound implications on the structure of the human jaw.” The bones of many people have told us that this overbite shift happened too quickly and recently for it to have been a result of evolution, so the conclusion comes to the tools we use to eat our food. When thinking about the social implications of product development, I never thought about the physical ramifications if the invention were to become prolific. Would it be fair to compare a fork to the modern cellphone? How do you think a smartphone could change our physiology over time?
Like the cellphone, the concept of a fork came from a want for convenience, started with crude early versions, and were developed over time. When humans began cooking food there was born the need for a tool to hold the food while it cools and to cut it into smaller pieces to avoid burning the mouth. Henry Petroski’s The Evolution of Useful Things taught me a ton about the history of the fork. He writes about two-tined beginnings in Italy, its coevolution with the blunted butter knife, and its growth to the sleek four pronged masterpiece we have now.
What I recently came to realize was just like any other new concept, the whole population wouldn’t be so quick to embrace the new fork rage. Petroski brings up a quote in the Western Literary Cabinet from 1853 in observance of fork culture it likens using one to eating soup with a knitting needle. Bee Wilson had this to say about the slow growth of the popularity of the fork, “it encountered huge resistance when it was first introduced. And for a long time in Europe, it was only the Italians who used forks. The reason being pasta, as we all know, forks are the perfect implement for twizzling long strands of noodles or spaghetti. But in the rest of Europe, particularly Britain, they thought that forks were just these weird, effeminate, unnecessary objects, which we could do fine without.” This amazingly simple and nearly universal concept, it’s funny to imagine, began as a trend that spread and stuck.
Everything we use has been manufactured to cater specifically to peoples’ senses. The process of making and selling products, regardless of the purpose, is an interdisciplinary endeavor. Things like colors, shape, texture, size, and materials being used plays pivotal roles in the success of a product. The general public wants something intuitive, aesthetically pleasing, and easy to handle. Putting product design into a few simple categories helps sort out the oceans of data that needs to be considered when marketing to the public. But your public is 7 billion individuals of infinite needs, mental and physical disabilities, varying levels of intuition and common sense, cultural and language barriers, economic and ecological considerations, available materials, machines, tools, and machinists. Making something consistently and universally simple to use is the most complex process in product design.