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Engineering in the fun

Jonathan Spangler feels like he has played “Folsom Prison Blues” to more audiences than anyone in history.

He doesn’t have roadies or a tour van. He’s a patent lawyer and entrepreneur who packs his guitar with him on business trips in case he can find a new venue and melt some faces. Traveling with a guitar is annoying and stressful. You never know what the baggage handlers may do to your axe as they shove it under the plane and onto transport carts.

What if Jonathan could carry his guitar onto the plane and safely stow it in the overhead bin? Several companies have designed travel guitars and while some are intriguing, they all fall short for a few reasons:

  • They are still too long to fit in a small case
  • When deployed, they don’t look like a normal guitar
  • The transformation process is difficult (i.e., managing the strings or having to tune the guitar).

Delve and CIARI clearly defined the requirements for the end product – it must be lightweight and fit in a backpack, it must control the strings throughout the transformation process, and it has to look and play like a normal guitar.

The solution? A neck that breaks in the middle so it folds exactly in half and backwards, keeping the strings under tension the whole time so they don’t turn into a rat’s nest.

This architecture required a complex over-center, spring-loaded mechanism to allow the strings to move as the neck folded and to lock the neck in place. Initially we addressed three major technical challenges:

  1. Design a mechanism that fit in the space and provided an ergonomic user interface for locking and unlocking the guitar. This required the creation of a kinematic model of the proposed over-center mechanism to estimate the forces the user would encounter.
  2. Create a CAD model of the ideal fret board profile that would provide the “action” required on the strings. This CAD model allowed us to determine how to correctly design and tolerance the hinges so the guitar played and sounded great.
  3. Balance friction and spring force to maintain tension on the strings during transformation while stressing the strings as little as possible to avoid kinking.

Plenty of blood, sweat and beers were spilled as we mitigated risk and figured out how to design and manufacture each component of the guitar. It was lots of work, but it brought a deep understanding of the design and allowed the team to enhance the experience of the guitar in a few key ways. In other words, we were able to engineer in a bunch of fun.

First, the mechanism turned into a work of art. The team decided to put a clear back on the guitar to show it off. We did a round of refinement of the mechanism to remove some extraneous parts and swap in some cool-looking fasteners. This fastener simplification had the added benefit of cost reduction.

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Then we turned our attention to the tactile experience of the throw lever. Early prototypes felt “grindy” and didn’t have a definitive detent when locking or unlocking the guitar. As Jonathan said, “This lever needs to feel like a BMW door when it closes.” The team worked to eliminate friction points in the mechanism and changed the linkage design to make the lever clunk firmly into place. None of these changes added a penny of cost to the system and took the CIARI Ascender guitar from functional to fantastic. Time to melt some faces.

How do you reach the “fun zone” on a project?

How does a product jump from functional to fantastic? Simple. It just requires a brilliant idea, a customer-centered development process and flawless execution that enhances that initial vision.

Okay, it’s not that simple. But let’s dig into the execution part a little bit. That’s where we as engineers often live in the process. What’s the secret to maintaining an inventor’s or designer’s initial vision and even unlocking new potential as details are added and compromises made? I like to call this “engineering in the fun.”

It hinges on one simple word: yes.

This flies in the face of the stereotypical engineer who typically is responsible for delivering bad news. “That feature will cost too much.” “If we have to make that device smaller, we are going to miss our deadline.”

This reflex to say “no” is natural. Often engineers don’t understand the importance of the requirements they are asked to follow. Features aren’t prioritized so the problem they are asked to solve is close to impossible. They may not know what customers respond to or understand the impact of subtle details of the user experience. With incomplete information, they struggle to buy in to the work they are performing.

We constantly balance two roles as the engineer responsible for understanding and mitigating risk and optimizing the solution space and as the product developer considering the ideal customer experience and wanting to delight.

“Engineering in the fun” also requires understanding a hierarchy of responsibilities as a product design engineer. At the base of the engineer’s responsibility pyramid we need to understand how we can solve the stickiest technical challenge. What equations define the function of these critical details? By mastering the physics, we can move the design in different directions and be confident in the results. Having a deep understanding of the underlying physics will allow an engineer to experiment with possibilities and eventually unlock the fun.

The next level up considers safety and failure modes. We need to mitigate as many of the risks as we can early in the design process, so we don’t have to patch up the design at the end.

The final stage is figuring out how a product will be made. This taps into the hardest of the hard skills of a mechanical engineer: materials, processes, part breakup, CAD modeling, prototyping, testing and refinement. This is also the point of negotiating tradeoffs and compromises to the original vision. Tight communication with the designer avoids disappointment and allows further inspiration.

Making sure your project goes to 11

On many projects, the engineer and designer call it a day at this point and start manufacturing the product. But this is a huge missed opportunity because it is time to climb on top of the pyramid, a place I affectionately call the FUN ZONE.

At this stage, we have mastery of the design (the physics, the risks, and the design and manufacturing details) and should be able to bend it to our will.

What’s possible in the fun zone? Pretty much anything. We can add features to molded parts “for free”. We can substitute materials to enhance the perceived and real quality. We can reveal elements of the technology to the customer to show value. We can iterate on user touch points to dial in audible, tactile, and visible feedback. These small tweaks make the difference between good and great products.

To paraphrase guitar great Nigel Tufnel, sometimes you just need to crank that speaker to 11. By taking the extra time and effort to bend the design and look for new chords to play, you can, indeed, melt faces with any product you are developing. Let’s have some fun.

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