Prototyping, Education & The Maker Movement
Maker Festival is delighted to have the generous support of George Brown Research & Innovation. We spoke to Professor James McIntyre of George Brown College’s Centre for Advanced Engineering Technologies about the Maker Movement, education, and how it relates to the program he runs at U of T.
Our Mechanical Engineering programs have embraced the value of “making stuff”. I like to think that Ontario’s colleges are “the original maker movement” as we have always been in the business of teaching people hands-on skills in everything from cooking, to jewelry design, to plumbing, machining and even welding. Some student are looking for careers and others just exploring a hobby. I think that the value of making is being rediscovered at the college for a couple of reasons: first of all because it is a terrific way to engage students in learning and building something yourself is really the proof of knowing it. We also consider today’s economic climate which is made up of many smaller companies and startups who are looking for people who can do a variety of technical things, often on a limited budget. Graduates with strong technical skills who can also fabricate are a real catch. At George Brown, we work really hard to find the right balance of academics and hands-on skills.
You get your students to work on real problems with real companies – which must be a lot of work to organize. What’s the value in that kind of learning process?
It is a ton of work!; but it’s such a meaningful experience for our students that the effort pays off. Many of our graduates tell us that it was the hardest, best thing that they ever did during their educational experience. Our industry partners come to us with difficult design challenges and we put student teams into the pressure cooker to come up with a solution, on time and on budget. It’s as real world experience that you can get. In previous semesters, we’ve built everything from pinball machines to electric motorcycles to coconut slicers. Our students often have to figure out some new technology along the way to make the design work. They also learn a lot by working in small teams and working with external clients. It’s a very different experience than sitting in a calculus class. We’re often surprised by students who discover their motivation in a difficult problem and come up with amazing results. Some groups need some more hand-holding – others we just need to get out of their way.
As an instructor it can be challenging because there’s no textbook and no answer in the back. I find myself sometimes saying “I don’t know if this will work– nobody’s ever done something like this before, we’ll just have to try!”
What kind of effects, good and bad, do you think the internet and our connectedness with one another have on prototyping?
Obviously the internet has had a huge impact on education and prototyping. On the positive side of things, the last five years have seen an explosion of available content related to how to make things. Need to know how to run CAD software or how to make a fiberglass model? There’s a multitude of tutorials available for free. With a little searching, one can find a multitude of open-source and shared designs, so there’s often something available to use as a starting point started. The growth of content coincides with development of new low cost prototyping tools such as 3D printers, CNC routers, open-source embedded controls(Arduinio) and even free CAD tools such as Autodesk 123D and Eagle PCB. When it comes to designing products and services, the internet is a rich source of information about competitors and customers. When researching new designs about bicycle carriers for cars, we were able to find videos showing hundreds of competitive products and even customers who posted video of how they use they products and suggestions to improve them.
There’s a downside to this technology as well. The sheer quantity of stuff out there can be overwhelming and somewhat paralyzing. Hours spent surfing the net looking for information might be better spent at the bench working problems, and building skills through experiment and discovery. We try to steer students towards more low technology solutions (paper and pencils) to get them started, and convince them to minimize their exposure to “time vampires” like Google.
Our students are incredibly net-savvy but often lacking in real world life experience. Their exposure to the world is principally through screens and search engines which can give students a false sense of understanding and competency. We have them visit stores, interview potential customers and make phone calls to suppliers. We have them experiment in the shop, take things apart and send them to places like Active Surplus with the instructions to ask questions and “touch everything!”
How do you wish your own education had been different?
I think my undergraduate degree in engineering was pretty typical of what one can expect from a university experience (even though it was some time ago!) I spent a lot of time in lecture halls and working in physics lab. After graduating, I think I had a good appreciation of just how complicated the world of physical things actually is and I approached my professional career with care and good sense of humility. I think humility is an important aspect of education. I gained experience and grew confidence in my abilities after I started designing and fabricating things on my own. Experience is really just of thousands of tiny mistakes that I won’t make again. I wished that my undergraduate education had more design and fabrication elements; I could have started making those little mistakes earlier.
Many of the graduates from our Mechanical Engineering program will go on to university after they are finished with us. We encourage all of our students to consider do so. I think the experience that we give them at George Brown gives them a solid base on which to build their future academic and professional careers.
What’s your number one piece of advice for someone who has a great idea, and isn’t sure how to bring it to life?
We encounter plenty of people in this situation who come to the college for help. My advice would be:
First – get to know your customers and learn everything about them that you possibly can. If your idea is going to be a success, it’s really up to customers to decide..
Second – talk to people. Many inventors are reluctant to share or discuss their idea with others, usually they are fearful of giving up intellectual property. Many miss out on the feedback of others which could improve the idea, or even suggest a better one.
Next – prototype quickly, cheaply and often. Getting an idea off paper or even out of a CAD model and into the real world is a huge step. Inventors often wait too long and spend too much, only to discover their design needs revision. Prototypes are fabricated to explore designs and minimize risk. We want to spend a small amount of resources early on to figure out what is not going to work, so that problems are sorted before we invest in more finely tuned efforts.
Finally, get your prototype in front of your customers as soon as possible and listen carefully to what they say.