Artificial and Natural Selection in Design

Open source design is evolutionary in nature. A design can be copied by someone, edited slightly, then redistributed as something different. This new design is a mutated species of its previous version. Both versions, the original and the mutation can exist at the same time in digital form on the internet as it is being shared, copied and downloaded. Perhaps one of the designs proves to be better than the other and the mutated design becomes the new normal (original 2.0,) and the original design stops being copied. Or, both designs are used for different applications, and they become separate species.

This is a simplified explanation, but they same evolutionary process happens in nature. An organism is reproduced or essentially copied. The copy is not an exact duplicate; it might be shorter, shinier, stronger or more colorful. Some copies can even have a substantial mutation, like being albino and turning completely white. Plenty of these mutations give the copy a disadvantage in life, and thus they might die too early to be copied themselves. Some mutations however give benefits, such as the albino animal mentioned earlier. An all white animal might be terrible in most environments, but with the right conditions, like an ice age, an albino bear would have a much better chance at reproducing than a black bear.

In my thesis, I identify two types of evolutionary processes that occur with open source design: artificial selection and natural selection or mutations. An example of artificial selection would be if someone from the UK designed a very nice kitchen table and shared the design on the internet. Someone in Japan loves the table and decides to make one for their own home. However, in Japan, there is a cultural difference that tables for serving food are lower to the ground. Therefore, the person from Japan alters the table leg design to be shorter, and shares his design on the internet. Now, two table design species exist in the internet ecosystem. I’ve illustrated an example of artificial selection in the animal kingdom to accompany this example.

dog evolution

Every dog, from man’s best friend to a bomb sniffing police dog, was artificially selected over thousands of years from one common ancestor; the wolf. You can see in the graphic how each dog has a very specific task that it has been slowly bred for, whether it is for hunting, fighting, or companionship. Some dog breeds have lost their original use and nearly become extinct, such as the Great Dane which hunted bears before guns were common. Now this breed of dog has found new meaning as companions and loyal friends. The beauty of this iterative evolutionary design is that now humans have access to any dog that will fit their needs. We don’t need to invent a new dog breed to fit a new world purpose such as drug sniffing, because we already bred a dog with a great nose hundreds of years ago. It’s this kind of design bounty and diverse ecosystem that open source design can eventually give people. After years and years of designs published with open source protection on the internet, many solutions won’t need to be invented, only retooled.

The next open source design iteration I’m exploring is mutation or natural selection. This is something that is lost or added in translation accidentally, but might actually benefit the design. The organic example I use to best explain this is the Peppered Moth. The moth’s evolution can be traced within the last 200 years, going through the industrial revolution. At one point in time, nearly all Peppered Moths were mostly white, because they trees were white and they would blend in well. Some would have a mutation that would make them more black than white, but they would be eaten quicker. After the industrial revolution, the bark on trees were covered in pollution, and turned a darker shade. Now, a darker mutated moth would be the one that would blend in, and the white moth would be eaten faster. If some part of the reproductive process didn’t make mistakes or mutate, than the moth might not have sustained through the industrial revolution.

PEPPERED MOTH PHOTOSHOP

I have identified mutation and artificial selections in my own thesis project. These are bound to happen in collaborative open source design, because just like an animal reproducing, I am transferring information to another organism to try and duplicate my design. Something will get lost the the process, either by happy accident, lack of communication, or disagreement in design.

An example of mutation or natural selection was when I was working with Austin Diehl. I had created the design for the Grid Wall, which uses horizontal members which attach to the wall, and then components which attach to the horizontal members with bolts. I had explained this idea to Austin when he designed the Media Desk for the wall, but something was lost in translation, because he attached the components directly to the wall, not using the horizontal members at all.

wall itteration drawing

I have come to realize that my original design was over complicating things, and that Austin’s design made more sense. Why did the shelf need to bolt into the members if it can just connect directly to the wall? In the natural world, Austin’s design would be copied more often than my design, and would most likely become the new normal for Grid Wall attachments. However, the bolted design could be better for some applications, such as interior shelving, or things that are often rearranged, so maybe this is an example of how a mutation creates a more diverse ecosystem. This is a small change, but it’s these little tweaks in nature that has created every insect, human, plant and bacteria in the known universe.

An example of selective evolution was with my work on the Maker Bench by Eric Schimelpfenig at SketchThis.net. Eric had originally designed the bench to be mobile because he was creating a series of these benches to be showcased in a Maker Faire, and for jobs that require temporary locations. For this reason, the way he connects the bench parts is with furniture screws that can be unscrewed and dismantled. I had a different environment in mind however. The bench that I created is going to be used in a high school drafting classroom, where I imagine it will sit for years on end. I didn’t need my bench to be mobile, so it is safe to say that I could alter the design slightly without losing the main goal.

I also had some limitations that made me change other areas of design. On a technical scale, I didn’t know how to quickly make halfway cutouts with the CNC mill; I had only made through-cuts on my past designs. Also, Eric has his own CNC mill and can take a little extra time, while I am working on a shared mill, and I needed to go through graduate assistants to allow me access to the mill. These factors make production speed more valuable, so some changes reflect a need to cut faster. Below you can see some minor changes I’ve made to the legs of the bench.

MAKER BENCH ITTERATION DRAWING

I’ve learned that there are some important rules for this evolutionary iterative design to occur. First, you need momentum. You need to be constantly pushing for replication and production of these designs if there are going to be any iterations. Second, you need good documentation. In the natural world, the information to duplicate a design is ingrained into the physical object in its DNA. This is not the case in the built environment, so the DNA of the Maker Bench or Grid Wall needs to be documented extraordinarily well in order for reproduction and iterations to occur.

Interactive Directions for a Digital World

With digital fabrication, all of the information to manufacture a product can be digital. In the past, to share an idea, the designer would need to explain how to build a product with some sort of blueprint or instruction manual printed on paper. To share my designs, I was originally going to create IKEA style drawings.

IKEA_instruction-mistakes

This method of visual representation is effective at displaying how to build this cabinet. However, even if it is digital, it is still influenced by paper printing methods. In my instruction manual, I tried to embrace digital technology and representation. My instructions have movement and interactivity. You can go through the tabs and look at the isometric views just like the IKEA instructions, but you can also flip to the other side, delete parts, or move things around.

The way that I present my information is just as important as the files I create, because everything needs to be easy to understand and approachable. It’s meant to be accessed through Sketchup, because you can flip through the tabs to see each step.

Capture

This image above shows four pieces of information: The visual construction of the wall; The tabs that take you through the steps; The scenes which give you extra information; and the instructions for how to access the steps.

Take a look at the video, which is the steps you would take in the sketchup file.

You can download the sketchup file and video file here. 

3D Printed PVC Connectors

In the architecture building, the 3D printers are one of the most valuable tools in a student’s arsenal. However, most of the time, the 3D printer is only used as a way to visually share their formal ideas. Models and complex shapes can be printed without laborious time wasted on craft. I, on the other hand, am using the 3D printer to create purely functional, structural objects that I would otherwise need to buy or craft by hand. Rather than creating models or site plans, I am manufacturing machine precise objects that can actually be used outside of conveying an idea.

I’ve written about these connectors in a previous post, so I will only speak briefly about them here. They are connection details to interlock PVC pipe legs to a plywood table top. The idea is to make things as easy as possible to assemble. I want to avoid cutting, marking and drilling as much as possible. 3D printing means that someone with zero skill in craft work can download and create these objects with ease. It’s enabling a new system of production; away from mass global to local specialized.

The print turned out well. Please view the photos below! And as usual, you can download the files to make this yourself here.

Media Desk for the Grid Wall

My good friend Austin Diehl  has designed a component for the Grid Wall! I think he did a great job and what I like most about it is that he literally took it in a direction that I did not consider; perpendicular! He also used a material other than CNC milled plywood, which I was also not thinking about; PVP pipe. This is also the first design that features 3D printed materials, which adds another area to explore for my thesis project.

Before I get into the specifics of the design, I want to mention the open source process here. I approached Austin to ask if he could help my by designing anything for the wall system I was creating. Every 2 weeks we would talk online about an updated file that he had worked on in his spare time. Early on, Austin was interested in designing a desk that would partition a space into two areas: one would be a computer work area and the other a TV entertainment area. After a few iterations, and using some details that I provided, Austin reconfigured the component to be a desk area with storage shelves.

Inviting other people into your design also invites new ideologies and assumptions, which is can be healthy as a design strategy. In the natural selection process, sometimes an organism can have a mutation, such as an albino bear. If this mutated bear thrives, and the organism lives on and reproduces, it could create a new species, like a polar bear. There are a few “mutations” in Austins designs that I didn’t expect which came from different assumptions and maybe even a lack of communications. These are welcomed and I’m interested in how they will live; if they will live on and reproduce or die out.

One mutation is that I assumed every component will be attached to the Grid Wall with nuts and bolts. Austin however just cut out the plywood pieces in conjunction to the horizontal structure members, eliminating the need to use bolts. Another mutation is using PVC pipes, because originally I only thought about using CNC milled plywood. I’m not sure if I 100% agree with it, but I want to try it out and see how successful it is.

Thank you again Austin for working on this project. I will be building the Media Desk for my final presentation. BY THE WAY the competition is ending April 3rd. You don’t need to create as much stuff as this to enter; it could be a very simple, small digitally fabricated design for the Grid Wall.

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The 8 plywood pieces that make up the component. All of the plywood pieces are interlocking and connect with plywood pegs included in the cut sheet.
Side elevation showing the PVC structural columns.
Side elevation showing the PVC structural columns.
This perspective shows the 3D printed pieces in blue which act as an easy to assemble connection detail between the PVC and the plywood. Electrical cords can fit through the 3D prints and the pipes to power a laptop or computer.
This perspective shows the 3D printed pieces in blue which act as an easy to assemble connection detail between the PVC and the plywood. Electrical cords can fit through the 3D prints and the pipes to power a laptop or computer.
Detail showing the connection of the 3D printed objects and the PVC pipes.
Detail showing the connection of the 3D printed objects and the PVC pipes.
Plan View
Plan View

If you’d like to see more information about how to build the desk, click here.

If you’d like to download the sketchup file and 3D printed files, click here.

 

Fabricating the Alcove Component

Just a quick photo dump of build I did on Friday. I learned some things worked out better than I expected, while other things went wrong that I didn’t see coming. Take a look!

Here is Ball State's CNC machine. This build takes 2 sheets of plywood.
Here is Ball State’s CNC machine. This build takes 2 sheets of plywood.
1/4" nuts, bolts and washers from any hardware store near you! These attach the components to the wall.
1/4″ nuts, bolts and washers from any hardware store near you! These attach the components to the wall.
Here is the completed project! The chair space is actually quite comfy and a good height.
Here is the completed project! The chair space is actually quite comfy and a good height.
The overhanging shelf component holds up my old backpack! This surface isn't level, but it can still support some weight.
The overhanging shelf component holds up my old backpack! This surface isn’t level, but it can still support some weight.
Now switching to the other end of the wall, we see the storage space and shelves. As a friend pointed out, the shelves are too deep to be nice for books. Maybe this could have boxes or sliding cabinets attached so you can access the deep end.
Now switching to the other end of the wall, we see the storage space and shelves. As a friend pointed out, the shelves are too deep to be nice for books. Maybe this could have boxes or sliding cabinets attached so you can access the deep end.
Here is a shot of the 2 plywood pieces, attached by a bolt. The 3/4 inch plywood is on bottom for the wall, and the 1/2 inch plywood is above for the shelf. Thanks to Huy for renting out your books for my photo shoot!
Here is a shot of the 2 plywood pieces, attached by a bolt. The 3/4 inch plywood is on bottom for the wall, and the 1/2 inch plywood is above for the shelf. Thanks to Huy for renting out your books for my photo shoot!
Inside the shelf, I added slots to allow for space for the plywood pegs of the wall. Turned out nice!
Inside the shelf, I added slots to allow for space for the plywood pegs of the wall. Turned out nice!

Here is a video of the piece being cut out from the CNC mill at Ball state. The video is a bit loud.

A few things that need to be improved for the next iteration:

1. The desk needs more structure. It will hold up a laptop but I don’t think you can lean on it…

2. The desk might need more room. Maybe it extends past the wall. You need more space if you use a mouse and keyboards because as of right now it doesn’t fit.

3. Some sort of cross bracing should be added. Sometimes it shifts and there is nothing stopping it from torquing.

4. Bookshelves need something to make them more efficient. Maybe sliding drawers, boxes, or something like that.

5. Rail or some sort of object to rest your feet up on. Especially important for the short people out there.

6. Adjustable seat height.

Sketch This | Maker Bench

Taking a break from the development of the OSBuilt site development, I am submitting a design for the open maker bench competition hosted by Sketch This, Eric Schimelpfenig and Sketchup. The basic idea is to hack and redesign the top of this workbench to adapt to some specialized purpose. Some of the designs will get built and featured at a Maker Faire.

1

Here is the basic bench with no alterations.

2

This is the actual piece that you are supposed to edit and hack.

3

My design proposal is for a trace table. This is something that I’ve used quite a bit early in my school years when we were drafting mechanical drawings or graphic designs. There was only 1 table for the whole studio, so it was always occupied. It would have been great to have a few extra up in our studio. This would also be great for an artist that draws on paper by hand.

4

The design uses a 24″ LED lamp. I used the dimensions from a model I found at Lowes. There is also an opening in the table top where 1/4″ acrylic or glass would be placed. I’ve painted the bottom of the shelf space white to reflect light better. I’ve also blocked off the openings to keep that light from escaping out the sides.

5

Here you can see the lamp section pulled out of the table. The lamp will attach to the plywood with screws and the plywood can slot together. Add a little wood glue and it should be nice and solid. One side would have a switch and the other would have a power plug.

6

Here you can see the glass or acrylic slotting into the table. It will be flush with the rest of the table to make for a nice drawing surface.

This competition mirrors my own on OSBuilt.org. One difference is that this competition asks to hack a piece that is already included in the design, while mine asks to invent new a piece that will plug into the design. I like both methods of design and I’d be interested in trying their method for my next open design competition.

If you’re interested in this particular design, I’ll talk to Eric and see if I can share it in my site. Otherwise, at some point all of the maker benches will be free and available at some point in time on SketchThis.net