Future mobility, electric cars, inner city congestion

What is the Future of Mobility?

Nicholas Hill, Plextek

By: Nicholas Hill
CEO

13th March 2019

Home » Insights » Engineering

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The Problem

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The Solutions

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Recently, I found myself on the Shell booth at the MOVE 2019 event in London. The event was all about the future of mobility, so there was an eclectic mix of talks and exhibits on car sharing, electric cars, charging infrastructures, cycling schemes, autonomous taxis, smart parking and the like.

Anyway, I was speaking to a person who was canvassing for opinions on future mobility, and how we might meet our commitments in the Paris Agreement on climate change. She summarised my answer to the latter as “just do it”, as I had suggested making progress was very much about political will and vision, and rather less about enabling technology.

The solutions to many of the problems in this space need big, bold, joined up thinking that market forces alone will not deliver. In many cases, the supporting technology needed exists or we know how to create it, such as digital platforms for vehicle sharing or parking management, roadside charging facilities for overnight charging of electric cars, light rail systems, advanced traffic management systems and a low-carbon electricity infrastructure that supports mass charging of electric cars. What is definitely in short supply is the vision to imagine what an effective, efficient and integrated low-carbon transport system would look like in any given city, and the political will (and cash) to encourage its rollout.

It’s always striking to see how easy it is to get around London without a car, given that a bus (with a dedicated lane), tube or DLR train is never more than a few minutes’ walk away. Simply discouraging car use doesn’t seem unreasonable in that environment. In the city where I live, cars clog up almost every main road, and for the most part, public transport alternatives are insufficiently attractive. The train is fine if you are travelling from a distance, but the regular buses and park and ride buses all share the same clogged up roads as the cars. The city is too dense to allow for any meaningful widening of the roads. Indeed bus travel has got worse due to the expansion of cycle lanes, which have eaten into the few short stretches of roadway dedicated to buses. A solution to this is going to require some radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. Perhaps closing some major roads to through traffic altogether and installing light rail or dedicated bus lanes?

Parking is a nightmare, with many streets clogged with cars circulating, trying to find a parking space that simply doesn’t exist. Simply making parking more and more expensive isn’t fixing this problem. Much of the housing in the city centre comprises narrow streets of terraced houses, with very limited on-street parking. If I lived in one of these houses and wanted to buy an electric car, I’d want to know that there was a charging point close by my house, and that the space next to it wasn’t occupied by a petrol or diesel vehicle.

The push towards autonomous cars is mostly about enabling car sharing or ‘cars on demand’, and as such may have a very positive impact on our street parking issue. However autonomous cars certainly won’t help our rush hour traffic congestion because the same number of people will be in the same number of cars, albeit not in the driving seat. They might even make the situation worse, as people abandon fuel- and traffic-efficient buses and trains for the privacy of a temporarily hired car.

It was interesting, and reassuring, to hear from Shell about their work with other major players on solutions to some of these problems. Listening to a set of partners with sufficient scale and impact to make a difference, the holistic solutions discussed offered to join up electricity generation from renewables, improved electricity distribution and e-car charging systems, and pushed for the use of e-car batteries that are plugged into the network to assist with demand smoothing.

As a technologist, I went to the show looking for examples of how new tech was going to drive us to meet our future mobility needs and climate change goals. For the most part, I came away thinking about the policy, business and market problems that need to be solved first, rather than the technology.

By the way, the most thought-provoking tech at the show was an interesting application of ground penetrating radar (GPR) from WaveSense. Their system builds a reference map of the terrain underneath the roadway, using the GPR returns to map the subsurface features. A vehicle equipped with a GPR can use the sensor and its reference map to provide improved positional accuracy than a standalone GPS, or can assist with location when GPS is degraded in built-up areas. It’s a fascinating example of innovation through technology transfer across markets.

Also worthy of note is system from NIRA Dynamics, which can detect road surface conditions in real-time by using standard telematics equipment. The NIRA solution collects data from a cohort of telematics-enabled vehicles, applying custom fusion algorithms to build up a real-time picture of the roughness and friction of the road surface. The friction maps can be passed back to the vehicles, providing alerts on potential danger areas and reducing the potential for accidents.

These examples may not open the door to the brave new world of future mobility, but both offered real improvements to issues facing us in the here and now.

Further Reading

Internet of things, plextek

IoT Security in a Fragmented Marketplace

Rob Karplinski - Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

By: Rob Karpinski
Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

22nd March 2018

Home » Insights » Engineering

Since the rise of IoT, companies and manufacturers both large and small have rushed to try and capitalise on this growing technology and, arguably, there are now a lot of competing communication and connection methods for IoT products out there.

A lot of these are from the Eastern marketplace and are commonly produced by China to offer consumers a “cheap” alternative to Western products, provided by companies like Apple, Philips or Hewlett Packard.

This raises a couple of security concerns as consumers now face a commercial marketplace with a lot of similar looking products that all vaguely do the same thing but connect to the internet in different ways. A driving force in the popularity of Chinese products is their price, after all, why would you pay £179 for a Nest Cam Outdoor when you can get a cheaper Xiongmai camera module for a fraction of the price?

The Mirai Botnet

One example of unsecured IoT devices being exploited was the Mirai botnet scandal in 2016. To gain a competitive advantage in the computer game, Minecraft three college students unwittingly unleashed a botnet that spread across poorly secured IoT devices and wireless routers, slowing down or stopping completely internet access for nearly the entire eastern United States. The malware infiltrated a dozen different IoT devices (including CCTV cameras and digital video recorders) by scanning the internet for connected technology that still used the manufacturers’ default security setting. Researchers later determined that it infected between 200,000 and 300,000 devices overall (including Xiongmai products, initiating a product recall) – the largest distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) ever launched.

The “S” in IoT stands for Security

Due to the highly networked nature of Internet of Things devices and the rising privacy concerns over how device data is being used (or misused) in the profiling and targeting of people, ensuring a secure IoT device has never been more important for tech product companies that want to be perceived as trusted and innovative market leaders.

Playing an active part in this industry myself (both as an engineer and consumer of tech), I believe engineers should always stay focused on these technical, logical, and ethical challenges when evolving the use of this internet-connected technology. As a consumer, the majority of IoT devices are secure but always ensure you update your devices with the latest firmware and software updates.

Since the rise of IoT, companies and manufacturers both large and small have rushed to try and capitalise on this growing technology and, arguably, there are now a lot of competing communication and connection methods for IoT products out there.

A lot of these are from the Eastern marketplace and are commonly produced by China to offer consumers a “cheap” alternative to Western products, provided by companies like Apple, Philips or Hewlett Packard.

This raises a couple of security concerns as consumers now face a commercial marketplace with a lot of similar looking products that all vaguely do the same thing but connect to the internet in different ways. A driving force in the popularity of Chinese products is their price, after all, why would you pay £179 for a Nest Cam Outdoor when you can get a cheaper Xiongmai camera module for a fraction of the price?

The Mirai Botnet

One example of unsecured IoT devices being exploited was the Mirai botnet scandal in 2016. To gain a competitive advantage in the computer game, Minecraft three college students unwittingly unleashed a botnet that spread across poorly secured IoT devices and wireless routers, slowing down or stopping completely internet access for nearly the entire eastern United States. The malware infiltrated a dozen different IoT devices (including CCTV cameras and digital video recorders) by scanning the internet for connected technology that still used the manufacturers’ default security setting. Researchers later determined that it infected between 200,000 and 300,000 devices overall (including Xiongmai products, initiating a product recall) – the largest distributed denial of service attack (DDoS) ever launched.

The “S” in IoT stands for Security

Due to the highly networked nature of Internet of Things devices and the rising privacy concerns over how device data is being used (or misused) in the profiling and targeting of people, ensuring a secure IoT device has never been more important for tech product companies that want to be perceived as trusted and innovative market leaders.

Playing an active part in this industry myself (both as an engineer and consumer of tech), I believe engineers should always stay focused on these technical, logical, and ethical challenges when evolving the use of this internet-connected technology. As a consumer, the majority of IoT devices are secure but always ensure you update your devices with the latest firmware and software updates.

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Further Reading

The Future of Disposable Medical Devices

The Future of Disposable Medical Devices

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

7th March 2018

Home » Insights » Engineering

As one of the few sectors where waste produced is increasing year by year, there is a huge interest in the healthcare industry for disposable devices. The cost benefits of lower lifetime devices include maintenance, sterilisation and ease of convenience. These benefits are driving interest in and demand for medical devices akin to the “razor and cartridge” product model – inherently designed and produced to be, part or completely, disposable.

In the case of healthcare waste, the danger of cross-infection from re-using devices or recycling the waste is considered more important than the conservation of materials and energy. This is why many tools and devices used in hospitals are disposed of after a single use, and all the waste is incinerated. Based on current trends, the amount of waste produced by the healthcare industry is likely to increase over coming years, as more medical products become disposable. This trend can already be observed by looking at the increase in medical waste year-on-year. It is also possible that it may also decrease eventually.

Why make a product disposable?

Despite the culture of being environmentally conscious, all businesses ultimately have to follow financial incentives in order to be competitive in the market. When deciding whether to reuse a product in most industries, the main factors that need to be considered are:

A. How much does the product cost to purchase?
B. How much will it cost to store the product between uses and prepare it for its next use?

The word “cost” here means not only the monetary cost, but the cost in effort and time spent by whoever does the purchasing in the case of “A”, and whoever does the using, storing, and preparation of the product in the case of “B”.

If the “reuse cost”, B, is higher than “purchase cost”, A, the product is usually disposed of after every use. If A is bigger than B the product is kept and re-used. This is similar to the calculation to determine whether to fix a product when it breaks or to buy a new one: Is the cost to repair the product greater than or less than the value of the product?

What makes healthcare products different?

In the case of the healthcare industry, products often need to be sterilised before being used, which is especially important if the product has previously been used on another patient. The cost of disinfecting equipment is high since the staff doing the work need to be trained professionals. This makes the cost to reuse very high compared to other industries. Even after rigorous cleaning and disinfecting, the risk of cross-contamination cannot be eliminated completely, which introduces an additional factor: “risk to patient’s health”, which cannot be quantitatively compared to factors “A” and “B”.

It is the high reuse cost and the additional risk to patients’ health that has resulted in so many healthcare products being designed as single-use, such as gloves, paper gowns, syringes, and some surgical tools. Some of this waste is considered “hazardous” officially and therefore cannot be legally disposed of in landfills, so almost all healthcare waste is incinerated, including a lot of non-hazardous waste produced by hospitals, which is not kept separately.

Why might healthcare products become more disposable?

Advances in manufacturing and automation have decreased the production cost of many products, which has reduced their purchase prices. If this trend continues, products that are now considered too valuable to throw away will become so inexpensive that they will start to be considered disposable. This could include electrical products and complex surgical tools. Furthermore, once these products are designed specifically to be single-use they can be made from cheaper materials and processes that will bring the price down even more.

Why might healthcare products become more disposable?

Although disposing of more waste by incineration causes concern for the environment, in the case of medical technology, keeping costs low allows more people to have access to effective healthcare.

How could products become less disposable?

There is also a way that future advances in technology might reduce the cost of reusing products in the future and hence reduce the incentive to dispose of products in the healthcare industry. If automation can be introduced into the disinfection process for medical products the requirement for trained staff to clean the equipment manually could be greatly reduced, and an automated disinfecting process might even be more effective at reducing the risk of cross-infection. What’s more, the disinfection process could be combined with an automated inventory management system of the type already seen in other industries.

Government regulations and incentives relating to environmental concerns could also have a big impact on the market. For example, medical products in the UK are currently exempt from the Waste Electrical and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive but if that were to change, the cost of making any electrical medical devices disposable would increase.

Conclusion

The future of disposable medical devices is hard to predict since the market is driven by new technology while at the same time advances in technology are driven by market demands. With the advance of inexpensive manufacturing technology, more products may become disposable, but advances in automated sorting, cleaning, and storing could have the opposite effect. In addition, the culture of concern for the environment could also drive the government to change the relevant regulations.

For at least the short-term future, it seems more medical devices will become disposable and medical waste will continue to increase in volume per patient. However, any predictions about the healthcare market more than 20 years from now can only be speculative, due to the fast-paced nature of technological improvements.

As one of the few sectors where waste produced is increasing year by year, there is a huge interest in the healthcare industry for disposable devices. The cost benefits of lower lifetime devices include maintenance, sterilisation and ease of convenience. These benefits are driving interest in and demand of medical devices akin to the “razor and cartridge” product model – inherently designed and produced to be, part or completely, disposable.

In the case of healthcare waste, the danger of cross-infection from re-using devices or recycling the waste is considered more important than the conservation of materials and energy. This is why many tools and devices used in hospitals are disposed of after a single use, and all the waste is incinerated. Based on current trends, the amount of waste produced by the healthcare industry is likely to increase over coming years, as more medical products become disposable. This trend can already be observed by looking at the increase in medical waste year-on-year. It is also possible that it may also decrease eventually.

Why make a product disposable?

Despite the culture of being environmentally conscious, all businesses ultimately have to follow financial incentives in order to be competitive in the market. When deciding whether to reuse a product in most industries, the main factors that need to be considered are:

A. How much does the product cost to purchase?
B. How much will it cost to store the product between uses and prepare it for its next use?

The word “cost” here means not only the monetary cost, but the cost in effort and time spent by whoever does the purchasing in the case of “A”, and whoever does the using, storing, and preparation of the product in the case of “B”.

If the “reuse cost”, B, is higher than “purchase cost”, A, the product is usually disposed of after every use. If A is bigger than B the product is kept and re-used. This is similar to the calculation to determine whether to fix a product when it breaks or to buy a new one: Is the cost to repair the product greater than or less than the value of the product?

What makes healthcare products different?

In the case of the healthcare industry, products often need to be sterilised before being used, which is especially important if the product has previously been used on another patient. The cost of disinfecting equipment is high since the staff doing the work need to be trained professionals. This makes the cost to reuse very high compared to other industries. Even after rigorous cleaning and disinfecting, the risk of cross-contamination cannot be eliminated completely, which introduces an additional factor: “risk to patient’s health”, which cannot be quantitatively compared to factors “A” and “B”.

It is the high reuse cost and the additional risk to patients’ health that has resulted in so many healthcare products being designed as single-use, such as gloves, paper gowns, syringes, and some surgical tools. Some of this waste is considered “hazardous” officially and therefore cannot be legally disposed of in landfills, so almost all healthcare waste is incinerated, including a lot of non-hazardous waste produced by hospitals, which is not kept separately.

Why might healthcare products become more disposable?

Advances in manufacturing and automation have decreased the production cost of many products, which has reduced their purchase prices. If this trend continues, products that are now considered too valuable to throw away will become so inexpensive that they will start to be considered disposable. This could include electrical products and complex surgical tools. Furthermore, once these products are designed specifically to be single-use they can be made from cheaper materials and processes that will bring the price down even more.

Although disposing of more waste by incineration causes concern for the environment, in the case of medical technology, keeping costs low allows more people to have access to effective healthcare.

How could products become less disposable?

There is also a way that future advances in technology might reduce the cost of reusing products in the future and hence reduce the incentive to dispose of products in the healthcare industry. If automation can be introduced into the disinfection process for medical products the requirement for trained staff to clean the equipment manually could be greatly reduced, and an automated disinfecting process might even be more effective at reducing the risk of cross-infection. What’s more, the disinfection process could be combined with an automated inventory management system of the type already seen in other industries.

Government regulations and incentives relating to environmental concerns could also have a big impact on the market. For example, medical products in the UK are currently exempt from the Waste Electrical and Electrical Equipment (WEEE) Directive but if that were to change, the cost of making any electrical medical devices disposable would increase.

Conclusion

The future of disposable medical devices is hard to predict since the market is driven by new technology while at the same time advances in technology are driven by market demands. With the advance of inexpensive manufacturing technology, more products may become disposable, but advances in automated sorting, cleaning, and storing could have the opposite effect. In addition, the culture of concern for the environment could also drive the government to change the relevant regulations.

For at least the short-term future, it seems more medical devices will become disposable and medical waste will continue to increase in volume per patient. However, any predictions about the healthcare market more than 20 years from now can only be speculative, due to the fast-paced nature of technological improvements.

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Further Reading

4 Steps to Designing Products That Delight Your Customer

4 Steps to Designing Products That Delight Your Customer

By: Polly Britton
Project Engineer, Product Design

7th February 2018

Home » Insights » Engineering

This year Plextek encouraged me to attend a two-week course on Product Design taught by Magnus Long at Central Saint Martin’s College.

During my time there, I was taught to approach product design in four stages: Research, Ideation, Development, and Communication. I’m going to give a brief introduction to each of these using one of my own designs as an example.

The project brief was to “Improve the experience of ‘privacy’ within shared workspaces.” The product also had to be suitable for the Opendesk brand, meaning that it had to be constructed from simple plywood shapes.

Stage 1: Research

Before you can design for a specific problem you must know about the scenario. Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? Why is it happening? When is it happening, time of day, time of week, time of year?

“Where” was specified in the brief so I started the project by going to shared workspaces: the British Library, the University Library, King’s Cross Station, and Costa Coffee. I watched people working, asked them about their experience of privacy and working in shared spaces in general, and I thought back to my experiences of working in the university library when I was an engineering student.

What I found was that nobody was bothered by a lack of privacy and many of them enjoyed sharing the space with others because it helped them to focus. I thought about improving privacy, rather than increasing it, and about the Plextek office where we work side-by-side and I only need to turn my head to address another engineer in my department. In this instance, improving privacy meant decreasing it.

During the research stage, you might also want to create a user persona to keep in your mind as you develop your design. My persona for this project was a student I met in the university library, who went there to study for exams and write up course-work, but a persona could be an imaginary combination of real people.


Stage 2: Ideation

The ideation stage is your chance to let your imagination go wild. You are probably familiar with brain-storming and talking through ideas over a meeting table, but there are other techniques that you can try. The most important thing is giving all ideas a voice. Perhaps you can think of an existing product that can be improved on or re-purposed to solve the problem, or you have an idea that does not even obey the physical laws of the universe. Sometimes, thinking about what would make the problem worse can help think of a solution. Instead of thinking about why someone else’s idea won’t work, try to top it with an even crazier idea. This will encourage everyone’s creativity and lateral thinking.

After all the ideas have been recorded you can start to eliminate the impossible, the unsafe, and the illegal, then the unfeasible, the prohibitively expensive, and the offensive, etc. until you are left with the best of them. Depending on how long you have for the project, you could bring a few ideas forward to the next stage or just one.

I only had two weeks to finish my entire project so I brought just one idea forward: A desk chair that became two seats, for when two people want to work together at one desk.

Stage 3: Development

Even with just one idea there can be many ways to execute it, so you may repeat the ideation phase to explore the possible embodiments of the idea.

I sketched some different ways the chair could work; a stool could be stowed under the seat, a flap hinged on the side that extended the width of the seat, a similar extension that slides out from under the seat. The solution I settled on was to divide the chair vertically and have the two halves kept together by the back of the chair. When the back piece is slid out, the chair becomes two stools.

For this concept to work, the seat must be stable in its combined form, as well as each stool being stable on its own. This involved the application of basic principles I learnt in the Mechanics module of my Maths A Level and some intuition.


Stage 4: Communication

In my last blog, I discussed some ways to think about product personality, how it is communicated, and how it relates to company branding.

For my project, I chose to put my trust in Opendesk’s branding and style, since they have managed to build a business on it already. I used their most popular products to inspire my chair design so it would look natural in the collection. I added curves in some places and straight lines in others and drew a few variants, which I showed to some other people to get their opinion. This is the ½ scale miniature I submitted for my final design:


How can this help you?

In the competitive world of design, there isn’t always time to go through this entire process, and it isn’t always appropriate. In some circumstances, companies often develop technology before finding an application for it – their clients might even save them the trouble by laying out exactly what they want with a detailed specification.

However, if you can identify a problem that a significant number of people have and provide a product or service that solves that problem, your customers will pay you not just for the work but for also improving their lives. Different projects require different approaches, but when it comes to design you can never have too many conceptual tools, ready to be applied when the right project comes along.

This year Plextek encouraged me to attend a two-week course on Product Design taught by Magnus Long at Central Saint Martin’s College.

During my time there, I was taught to approach product design in four stages: Research, Ideation, Development, and Communication. I’m going to give a brief introduction to each of these using one of my own designs as an example.

The project brief was to “Improve the experience of ‘privacy’ within shared workspaces.” The product also had to be suitable for the Opendesk brand, meaning that it had to be constructed from simple plywood shapes.

Stage 1: Research

Before you can design for a specific problem you must know about the scenario. Where is it happening? Who is it happening to? Why is it happening? When is it happening, time of day, time of week, time of year?

“Where” was specified in the brief so I started the project by going to shared workspaces: the British Library, the University Library, King’s Cross Station, and Costa Coffee. I watched people working, asked them about their experience of privacy and working in shared spaces in general, and I thought back to my experiences of working in the university library when I was an engineering student.

What I found was that nobody was bothered by a lack of privacy and many of them enjoyed sharing the space with others because it helped them to focus. I thought about improving privacy, rather than increasing it, and about the Plextek office where we work side-by-side and I only need to turn my head to address another engineer in my department. In this instance, improving privacy meant decreasing it.

During the research stage, you might also want to create a user persona to keep in your mind as you develop your design. My persona for this project was a student I met in the university library, who went there to study for exams and write up course-work, but a persona could be an imaginary combination of real people.


Stage 2: Ideation

The ideation stage is your chance to let your imagination go wild. You are probably familiar with brain-storming and talking through ideas over a meeting table, but there are other techniques that you can try. The most important thing is giving all ideas a voice. Perhaps you can think of an existing product that can be improved on or re-purposed to solve the problem, or you have an idea that does not even obey the physical laws of the universe. Sometimes, thinking about what would make the problem worse can help think of a solution. Instead of thinking about why someone else’s idea won’t work, try to top it with an even crazier idea. This will encourage everyone’s creativity and lateral thinking.

After all the ideas have been recorded you can start to eliminate the impossible, the unsafe, and the illegal, then the unfeasible, the prohibitively expensive, and the offensive, etc. until you are left with the best of them. Depending on how long you have for the project, you could bring a few ideas forward to the next stage or just one.

I only had two weeks to finish my entire project so I brought just one idea forward: A desk chair that became two seats, for when two people want to work together at one desk.

Stage 3: Development

Even with just one idea there can be many ways to execute it, so you may repeat the ideation phase to explore the possible embodiments of the idea.

I sketched some different ways the chair could work; a stool could be stowed under the seat, a flap hinged on the side that extended the width of the seat, a similar extension that slides out from under the seat. The solution I settled on was to divide the chair vertically and have the two halves kept together by the back of the chair. When the back piece is slid out, the chair becomes two stools.

For this concept to work, the seat must be stable in its combined form, as well as each stool being stable on its own. This involved the application of basic principles I learnt in the Mechanics module of my Maths A Level and some intuition.


Stage 4: Communication

In my last blog, I discussed some ways to think about product personality, how it is communicated, and how it relates to company branding.

For my project, I chose to put my trust in Opendesk’s branding and style, since they have managed to build a business on it already. I used their most popular products to inspire my chair design so it would look natural in the collection. I added curves in some places and straight lines in others and drew a few variants, which I showed to some other people to get their opinion. This is the ½ scale miniature I submitted for my final design:


How can this help you?

In the competitive world of design, there isn’t always time to go through this entire process, and it isn’t always appropriate. In some circumstances, companies often develop technology before finding an application for it – their clients might even save them the trouble by laying out exactly what they want with a detailed specification.

However, if you can identify a problem that a significant number of people have and provide a product or service that solves that problem, your customers will pay you not just for the work but for also improving their lives. Different projects require different approaches, but when it comes to design you can never have too many conceptual tools, ready to be applied when the right project comes along.

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Further Reading

5 More Things to Think About When Building a Combative Robot

5 More Things to Think About When Building a Combative Robot

Rob Karplinski - Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

By: Rob Karpinski
Project Engineer, Embedded Systems

18th October 2017

Home » Insights » Engineering

We all knew this day would come. The success of the show’s revival back in July 2016 reminded everyone how much fun it is to watch homemade robots smash each other to bits. Now Robot Wars returns for Series 10 this weekend.

By way of celebrating the show’s return and the community of new robot inventors it has inspired, here are five more things to think about when building a combative robot; the follow up from my first blog back in June.



At this stage, you would have established a good team and divided up the responsibilities, chosen your robot’s chassis and materials, decided on an exciting weapon, picked your motors and steering system and drawn up an eye-catching design that will wow the audience – now it is time to prepare for war.

1. Build as much as possible before the deadline

If you haven’t dedicated a good amount of time to the assembly yet – do this over the next two steps. In this sense, the saying “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” comes to mind, give yourself plenty of time to build the best robot possible instead of rushing it in the last 24 hours. You will need to be realistic when planning and building your robot so make sure to factor in time to correct mistakes. You will thank yourself for doing so. The application forms for competitions and the hit BBC show also requires time to fill out so it’s best to get started as soon as possible.

2. Design for repair

You will take damage. Most competitions will give you time to fix your robot between arena battles but this will soon fly by as you start tinkering. Make the best use of this time by designing your robot to be easy and quick to repair. You can do this by having easy access to key components like motors and wheels for starters. Practising the dismantling and assembling of your robot with your team also makes a massive difference here as multiple people can work on multiple parts of your robot at once. The faster you can get back into the arena the better.



3. Have spare parts

Repairs often involve replacements. If you are going to replace damaged parts from matches, you ideally want to replace them with an identical model part so it’s easier to fit. Should an identical or similar part be hard to come by then you will need to become familiar to adapting fast. Bodging things together is definitely fun and is as pressured as you would expect, however, relying on these last minute “that’ll do” fixes isn’t a great idea.



I would advise having spare wheels, drive motors (these are both very likely to get damaged) and pieces of metal to support or replace damaged armour panels. Depending on the cost of your robot, it can be hard to balance what to buy spares for and whether they will be used against your total budget. A robot can be expensive enough without factoring in spares; however, if they are common parts, like a popular motor size, then you may be able to reclaim some costs back by selling them second hand if they go unused.

4. Look after your batteries

A popular choice for most robots now is Lithium Polymer batteries, most commonly found in today’s phones (except these ones are much larger). These batteries are much lighter and more powerful than the types of batteries used by builders back in the original Robot Wars series. So robots can be better protected and hit harder but can be rather dangerous as a popular phone company found out in 2016. These batteries will need to be charged with the correct charger and frequently monitored so that they are not completely run flat after you’ve finished a match.

While size and capacity of your battery packs is generally unique to your robot, brushed motors typically expect around 24 Volts and brushless motors, though rare to source, can accept higher voltages around 48 Volts. Calculate how much power you are drawing from your battery during an entire match and then ensure you have enough capacity to easily meet it.



5. Practice, Practice, Practice!

You’ve built the robot and applied but you can’t sit back and relax just yet. Practice makes perfect and you should be getting used to the controls and thinking about tactics. What methods you apply in a match will largely depend on your robot’s strengths and weaknesses but here are some general rules to follow.

Avoid the front of robots that have flippers, being catapulted into the air may look majestic but the landing on impact can be devastating
Stop spinner robots from spinning up to full speed
Don’t just focus on the opponent, use the arena fully and take advantage of any environmental opportunities to cause damage
Having a team member whose job it is to point out new tactics or situations can help give you a competitive edge during battles

The more experience you get with driving and testing tactics during practice, the better you will do in the competition. It’s also a good way of finding any problems with your robot before entering the arena.

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We all knew this day would come. The success of the show’s revival back in July 2016 reminded everyone how much fun it is to watch homemade robots smash each other to bits. Now Robot Wars returns for Series 10 this weekend.

By way of celebrating the show’s return and the community of new robot inventors it has inspired, here are five more things to think about when building a combative robot; the follow up from my first blog back in June.



At this stage, you would have established a good team and divided up the responsibilities, chosen your robot’s chassis and materials, decided on an exciting weapon, picked your motors and steering system and drawn up an eye-catching design that will wow the audience – now it is time to prepare for war.

1. Build as much as possible before the deadline

If you haven’t dedicated a good amount of time to the assembly yet – do this over the next two steps. In this sense, the saying “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail” comes to mind, give yourself plenty of time to build the best robot possible instead of rushing it in the last 24 hours. You will need to be realistic when planning and building your robot so make sure to factor in time to correct mistakes. You will thank yourself for doing so. The application forms for competitions and the hit BBC show also requires time to fill out so it’s best to get started as soon as possible.

2. Design for repair

You will take damage. Most competitions will give you time to fix your robot between arena battles but this will soon fly by as you start tinkering. Make the best use of this time by designing your robot to be easy and quick to repair. You can do this by having easy access to key components like motors and wheels for starters. Practising the dismantling and assembling of your robot with your team also makes a massive difference here as multiple people can work on multiple parts of your robot at once. The faster you can get back into the arena the better.



3. Have spare parts

Repairs often involve replacements. If you are going to replace damaged parts from matches, you ideally want to replace them with an identical model part so it’s easier to fit. Should an identical or similar part be hard to come by then you will need to become familiar to adapting fast. Bodging things together is definitely fun and is as pressured as you would expect, however, relying on these last minute “that’ll do” fixes isn’t a great idea.

I would advise having spare wheels, drive motors (these are both very likely to get damaged) and pieces of metal to support or replace damaged armour panels. Depending on the cost of your robot, it can be hard to balance what to buy spares for and whether they will be used against your total budget. A robot can be expensive enough without factoring in spares; however, if they are common parts, like a popular motor size, then you may be able to reclaim some costs back by selling them second hand if they go unused.



4. Look after your batteries

A popular choice for most robots now is Lithium Polymer batteries, most commonly found in today’s phones (except these ones are much larger). These batteries are much lighter and more powerful than the types of batteries used by builders back in the original Robot Wars series. So robots can be better protected and hit harder but can be rather dangerous as a popular phone company found out in 2016. These batteries will need to be charged with the correct charger and frequently monitored so that they are not completely run flat after you’ve finished a match.

While size and capacity of your battery packs is generally unique to your robot, brushed motors typically expect around 24 Volts and brushless motors, though rare to source, can accept higher voltages around 48 Volts. Calculate how much power you are drawing from your battery during an entire match and then ensure you have enough capacity to easily meet it.



5. Practice, Practice, Practice!

You’ve built the robot and applied but you can’t sit back and relax just yet. Practice makes perfect and you should be getting used to the controls and thinking about tactics. What methods you apply in a match will largely depend on your robot’s strengths and weaknesses but here are some general rules to follow.

Avoid the front of robots that have flippers, being catapulted into the air may look majestic but the landing on impact can be devastating
Stop spinner robots from spinning up to full speed
Don’t just focus on the opponent, use the arena fully and take advantage of any environmental opportunities to cause damage
Having a team member whose job it is to point out new tactics or situations can help give you a competitive edge during battles

The more experience you get with driving and testing tactics during practice, the better you will do in the competition. It’s also a good way of finding any problems with your robot before entering the arena.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

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