Inspiration, Perspiration, and a Touch of Fire: MechE-Style Product Design

Product Development Collage
Photo credits: MIT News Office


Surprisingly dapper in his orange and black leopard-print smock and Fred Flintstone wig, Master of Ceremonies David Wallace (SM ’91, PhD ’95) presides over a festival to celebrate the creation of fire. Eight tribes of anxious celebrants—members of the red, silver, pink, blue, purple, orange, green, and yellow teams—unleash their human-powered fire-starting machines on Wallace’s signal. Within moments, flames sputter to life at strategic points around MIT’s Killian Court. The higher purpose of this gathering begins to emerge shortly thereafter as team members huddle around strengthening fires: they are vying to cook the ultimate s’more.

If you happened to stroll along the Charles River at that moment, you would be forgiven for interpreting this scene as a bit of undergraduate mayhem unleashed onto the massive front lawn of MIT. But there is, in fact, quite rigorous method in the apparent madness. The event is a class assignment—the brainchild of MIT Professor of Mechanical Engineering David Wallace and his teaching team for course 2.009—and it’s just another day in the life of MIT students who are studying product design. “For me,” Wallace says by way of explanation, “teaching design is all about building a passion for the process.”


The myth of the “aha” moment

The “aha moment”—that blinding flash of inspiration in which a breakthrough invention spontaneously materializes in the mind of the creator—is a persistent myth in popular culture. More seasoned hands recognize, however, that successful products are almost always born of a bit of sweat, perhaps a few tears, a solid methodology, and a whole lot of passion. It follows therefore that accomplished designers are mostly made rather than born. And that’s where MIT’s product design courses come into the picture.

Each year, with the help of Director of Undergraduate Teaching Laboratories Richard Fenner, MechE instructors and teaching assistants revisit a fundamental challenge—take some of the world’s brightest, most enthusiastic, but relatively inexperienced undergraduates and set them on the path to becoming thoroughbred designers. Three of MechE’s most iconic design courses, 2.00b, 2.007, and 2.009, are some of academia’s most important models of how such transformations can be accomplished.


Serious play

Affectionately known as the MIT Toy Lab, course 2.00b Toy Product Design was launched in 2004 by Barry Kudrowitz (SM ’06, PhD ’10), Professor David Wallace, and Bill Fienup (SM ’05) with research funding from Hasbro, Inc. Kudrowitz was doing Nerf-related research for Hasbro at the time, and the company asked him and a colleague to teach a sports product design course. Kudrowitz agreed on condition that the course focus on toy design.

The purpose of the Toy Lab is to get first-year undergraduates excited about product design while they learn to work in small teams of five to six students. “Toy design is accessible to freshmen, in part, because they can relate to the market,” says Wallace. “At the same time, the bar for toys is pretty high—they have to be crazy safe, they have to be inexpensive, and they have to be fun. It’s a stimulating challenge for a young MIT student.”

As the most recent addition to MechE’s pantheon of design courses, the Toy Lab has benefited from the iconic status of courses like 2.007 and 2.009. Toy Lab’s semester-ending product presentations are eagerly attended by executives from Hasbro and other toymakers, and many students have secured internships on the strength of their projects. Still others have gone on to found their own toy companies.


Battling robots

In contrast to the Toy Lab, Design and Manufacturing I (course 2.007)—arguably the most famous course at MIT—began quite humbly. The course had long required students to design and build a project, but until 1970 the purpose of the device was up to the individual student. The downside of this approach, according to Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering Emeritus Woodie Flowers (SM ’68, ME ’71, PhD ’73), was that many students spent so much time deciding what to build that they were scrambling to complete their fabrications at the end of the term.

Building RobotsThe remedy Flowers prescribed was to provision each student with an identical kit of wood and metal parts from which to build a simple device designed to roll down a ramp at a precisely controlled speed. Because every device was built for the same purpose, Flowers was able to introduce an element of competition. The course that year concluded with an elimination-style event in which the students’ devices were tested head-to-head until the most successful device was crowned. The competition, and the course itself, gained wide renown a few years later after airing on the PBS television program, Discover: The World of Science.

Although the parts and tools have evolved to include industry-standard computer-aided design, microcontrollers, and servomotors, and the competitive tasks have grown more complex, the essential spirit of 2.007 has remained constant. “No one owns 2.007, 2.007 owns you,” says Alexander Slocum (BS ’82, SM ’83, PhD ’86), the Neil and Jane Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. When teaching this course, he adds, “you are just the current caretaker.”

The ethic of continuous improvement has always driven the evolution of course 2.007. Following on the heels of former Professor Harry West (PhD ’86), now CEO at Design Continuum, Inc., Slocum introduced several key innovations. The project scheduling and decision documentation requirements he inserted in the mid-90s reflect actual industrial engineering design practices. Slocum also added teaching assistants to help manage the increasing complexity of the course.

Daniel Frey (PhD ’97), Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, took charge of 2.007 in 2009 and is the course’s current instructor. The latest 2.007 innovation is a 40-minute video created by Professor David Gossard (PhD ’75) that illustrates the agonizing twists and turns of the design process—brainstorming ideas, narrowing the options, prototyping and fabrication, and conceiving fixes for broken parts and flawed designs. “We showed it the second day of class this year, and it was a huge hit,” says Frey. “It laid bare the raw nature of the process. It definitely lowered students’ anxiety and made them more willing to experiment and risk failure early in the process.”

Frey continues to up the ante on the course-concluding competition event. It has to be challenging, of course, but not impossible. It should be entertaining for spectators. And it must be doable by multiple strategies using only the equipment supplied in the kit. Frey and his team spent in excess of 1,000 hours devising and building this year’s competition table. The theme was MIT’s hacking tradition. To win, the competitors’ robots must score points by performing tasks inspired by four of the most memorable pranks in Institute history—the midfield weather balloon at the Harvard-Yale football game, the Class of 1994 Super Ball drop, the MIT Campus Police cruiser on the Great Dome, and the “theft” of Caltech’s Fleming Cannon.

For all its bells and whistles, 2.007’s core challenge remains the same. “It’s about one person, one machine,” Frey says. “This is probably the first and very likely the last opportunity most of our students will have to conceive, design, and build a functional product from scratch as an individual. They will spend their entire careers working in teams, and I think there is great benefit to doing it all yourself at least once.”


Immersed in the story

A crucial next step in the training of a MechE designer is provided by Wallace’s Product Engineering Processes (course 2.009). The course description begins with a premise, “You are part of a successful product development firm that prides itself on being on the cutting edge of technology…. Each year your company challenges a select group of teams to propose and develop innovative products in a new strategic direction.” And so begins the latest installment of the 2.009 story.

“We work in big teams of 15 to 19 students because that’s the real world of product development,” says Wallace. “By immersing them in a story, we are giving them a full industrial experience in a supportive context that allows them to try, fail, and keep on trying until they get their designs to work.”

Like 2.00b and 2.007, course 2.009 places heavy emphasis on highly structured, active learning experiences. Every class is a combination of lecture and activity/challenge that engages students with the day’s content. Techniques like prototyping and teardowns, scheduling and project management are reinforced with exercises like creating a fire-starting device in an hour or predicting and then documenting the time it takes to build a simple origami ball. “These little challenges become the building blocks for the second half of the course,” says Wallace. “That’s when they have to figure out which of their hundreds of ideas is the most promising.”

Once their ideas are set, the teams spend the remainder of the semester in development and production mode. The role of the teaching staff shifts at this point. Critiques become an essential part of the learning process, and group design reviews are conducted every two to three weeks for the remainder of the course. Instructors and industry professionals post their comments online so that all the teams can see and learn from each other’s critiques.

The goal, as Wallace sees it, is to create an environment where students feel comfortable floating any idea or even saying they don’t know or don’t understand something. “Ideally, 2.009 sets up MechE design students for whatever they want to do with the rest of their lives,” says Wallace. “It shows them how they can use their passion for engineering to make a valuable contribution to the world.”meche logo