Making the Next Generation of Designers

by Jon Gabay, engineer

Each generation of engineers brings new technologies to the table… and forgets many of the underlying tricks that got us to where we are today. As older technologies become obsolete and fade into the past, newer technical building blocks become available that absorb and encapsulate older know-how into more obscure black box-like solutions.

This is not a new trend. It would be hard to find an expert buggy whip maker today since that technology has all but disappeared from modern life. The same can be said about carburetor designers. It’s just a plain and simple fact that older technologies fade out while newer solutions arise.

We see this happening today. Mechanical engineers don’t draw and whittle to create new parts. They use screen-based software, 3D printers, and CNC machines, allowing them to be more precise than they could ever be by hand. Modern-day electrical engineers don’t use logic templates anymore. They use sophisticated Computer Aided Engineering tools for schematic capture and PCB layout. In both cases, this permits more sophisticated solutions that are often smaller, lower in cost, and more easily replicated with uniformity and consistency.

A benefit young and aspiring designers have is the Maker culture that allows consumers to be creators too. Encouraging Do-It-Yourself (DIY) contributed solutions also provides somewhat canned solutions for those who just want to build a project that interests them. Other builders can improve on the design and share their experiences to let projects grow and evolve, like an open-source project, enabling better mousetraps to emerge.

For decades, semiconductor device makers have provided application notes describing the theory and procedures for using their sophisticated parts. This evolved to reference designs, and modern eval kits and development kits allow engineers to quickly and easily test and evaluate new technologies they are learning.

This expanded philosophy extends to the Maker movement, which can take advantage of high-level building blocks like single board computers, video capture, image processing systems, speech recognition technologies, and even AI. This copy-and-paste approach saves time, money, and multiple design iterations before creating anything worthwhile.

While many project builders will build projects in kit form, many will become more artisan-like, merging projects, combining technologies, and fulfilling visions, enabling them to create something new and useful. This aspect is ideally suited to work with the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) effort the help make students more effective and competitive in a world environment.

It is important to understand that modern development involves multiple disciplines. It is one thing to have a motion control processor running on a printed circuit board or breadboard, and quite another to see a robotic arm performing a new function. And this is one area where the Maker Movement shines.

Fablabs, hackerspaces, Artisan Asylums, Techshops, and local and globally accessible groups have opened their doors to a new generation of designers and builders. Former President Obama even went so far as to open national research and development facilities to the public. They provided high-level and well-thought-out source material for metal fabrication, software libraries, 3D printer source files, hardware schematics and assembly drawings, and highly skilled technical resources and people at the top of their respective industries. For example, a SpaceShop Rapid Prototyping Lab at Ames Research Center has opened up its vault of know-how in Silicon Valley.

Universities are partnering with the Maker culture, like MIT and Carnegie Mellon, with Hobby Shops and Robotics clubs. Countries like Singapore have set up teams and hackerspaces, training and encouraging new technology students to thrive.

The Maker world brings aspiring designers a modern and expanded blend of disciplines and technologies to work with. This includes standardized and specialized design automation tools.

They use professional 3D design and drafting tools like Autodesk, Solidworks, and Rhinocerous 3D, especially the low-cost or free student versions, which provide a complete set of capabilities if you take the time to learn them.

More straightforward and free 3-D design software like FreeCAD and Fusion 360 can be downloaded and used locally, and even cloud-based resources like remote hoisted TinkerCAD and Onshape. These software tools can generate outputs that drive laser and plasma cutters, sheet metal fabrication machines, CNC machines, and  3D printers for metals and plastics.

The brains of your projects can still be your micro designs, but single-board computers have become the adopted standards for control and user interfaces. And all the major players are in the game. Single-board computer companies like Raspberry PI, Arduino, and Beaglebone all provide hardware and software tools to encourage and support Maker project designers. Even major chip makers like Intel make Edison and Galileo computer boards for Maker use.

The combined disciplines and resources are the wave of the future, especially as we venture out into space. Moon bases or bases on Mars will need these design and fabrication technologies to make replacement parts or new parts for new machines. Waiting for spares from homeworld will not do. We will still need artisans, though. The ability to design and create non-canned designs will be critical, and problem-solving is vital.

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