Increasingly as I write, I find myself considering the political implications of the materials in question. The plastics industry seems
to reflect, as with most things, a wider political debate.
To use a cliche (and perhaps extend it a little) to illustrate my thoughts; biopolymers appear to be a rather small fish in a rather
large pond … The pond is full of bigger fish as you might expect. All the fish, both big and small take in sustenance to survive,
the small fish feed on renewable plant matter, whereas the bigger fish feed on oil. However the two are competing for the same space
if not the same food, so one fish, probably the smaller, might be threatened by the other. The problem starts on that day where the
small fish no longer have the space within the lake to survive, and are forced to extinction. The larger fish continue to power on,
until that day when their choice of sustenance no longer exists, and they too face extinction.
Obviously this is a rather single track minded, worst-case-scenario way of looking at the issue. To pull away from the cliche, it seems
that in such a saturated market, where there is an unfathomably vast amount of investment in non-renewable polymers, which have been
tailored and tinkered with to produce a product which meets the immediate customer demand and return maximum profit, biopolymers face
a Goliath. The synthetics industry has a research and investment head start. The relative costs of biopolymers are higher, making direct
competition difficult. The decision to choose the more costly biopolymer has to be an ethical one, with an acceptance that costs to
yourself as a designer, and your customer after you, will increase. Similarly, it would seem the same for making the decision to invest
in biopolymers rather than synthetic polymers. The risk is much higher, and so from a business sense, or at least a capitalist business
sense, synthetics might seem the most likely to return profit on investment.
The most positive factor biopolymers do have on their side however is their renewability, whether the synthetic polymer industry are
prepared or not, the tides will one day turn. When there is no longer the oil remaining to prevent prices from rising above that of
alternative materials, then a renewable shift has the opportunity to take place. Quite when this will happen remains a topic for debate.
Perhaps among the few people able to bring about that change sooner, are the designers and manufacturers of products. If they decide
to take the risk of an ethical shift as a unified group and produce an increasing amount if renewable products, this might change things
much sooner. This however, in a world governed by money and business, seems highly unlikely.
I entered my third year of study with a predominant sense of excitement. Over the previous two years of study I have grown in confidence, skill and tact. I used the summer months, prior to third year, to reflect and prepare myself. I spent periods of two to three weeks at a time investigating potential major project ideas. These included ideas for a pram using alternative materials, bicycle safety helmets, cancer hair loss treatments, and asthma treatment. Upon returning I had established a title for my Technical Report and had started the research. From reading previous examples I understood that the opportunity provided by a Technical Report allowed me to explore both research and design, and so I was keen that the design stage be of value for my end of year degree show. Many successful individuals in the past have produced work of considerable enough quality to be presented.
I believe the initial stages of writing my essay were fairly slow, owing to my focus and desire to submerge myself within my major design process. I believe that the period around Christmas has allowed me to learn and develop skills of time management and balance. I tend to find that I work best when I can immerse myself in work and tend to be capable of working through the whole day and into the early hours of the morning comfortably. I enjoy the work I do. I feel that my working philosophy and commitment is a testament to this. I am optimistic that my work reflects this too. I have noticed that my skills have developed in the previous year, and that I am more inclined to self reflect and not just accept the need for improvement, but strive for it.
In the previous year, I have also learnt more about how I would like my future to be shaped in terms of a design career. I have had more exposure to medical design, having had tours of PDR and discussions with former students who now work within the medical design sector. I am keen to maintain strong relationships with my tutors. I find their words both encouraging and supportive. I have also recognised my desire to continue my education within design. As already mentioned, I strive for self improvement, and as such I want to be the best I can be at what I do, as opposed to simply sufficient.
In terms of my technical report on biopolymers, I enjoyed researching the topics needed for the content of my report. I drew on understanding from my Chemistry A-level studies, which formed a backbone to expanding my knowledge. I realised that in order to explore the technical detail of biopolymers, there was first a need for an understanding of broader polymer science principles, which included; polymer formation, chemical structures, degradation, and terminology. I also felt that it was pertinent to give understanding of the history of all polymers to contextualise new knowledge about biopolymers. Understanding biopolymers solely would be inadequate, I hope that my technical report has displayed both technical knowledge and also provided detail into why the knowledge is important within the world of Product Design and Manufacture today.
At times I felt frustrated by the technical nature of the report, in so far as not being able to express particular view points on the topics discussed. In particular those points on the environmental and health impact of some polymers, which I have personal opinions about. I believe that a lack of this opportunity made it difficult to discuss the diplomatic issues surrounding biopolymer development to the fullest extent. I learnt much about the subject I chose to research and noticed that my views developed throughout my writing. For example, prior to researching PVC, I was unaware of the depth of the potential issues with its use. I can’t help but feel that more should be said about the dangers of materials such as this, and yet it was difficult within the format of the report, to extend my views beyond facts provided by others. I was surprised that I was unable to find any major negative points surrounding biopolymers. Whilst there were several minor negatives, such as current cost and negative press surrounding use of food stocks (which proved to be unfounded), the use of biopolymer as an alternative for many synthetic polymers seems sensible and forward thinking. As such, I feel the way I will consider manufacturing options in my own design practice will develop. I will now give consideration to biopolymer as a realistic option when designing polymer components.
I believe another positive from my technical report was the opportunity to carry out primary research. I took the opportunity to carry out an experiment into the production of my own biopolymer. Although I was unable to fulfil my aim of producing a biopolymer capable of being formed into a bag, the experience was enriching and added a new depth to my understanding of the material. It was an intriguing experience being able to produce my own plastic on such a small scale with such basic ingredients and tools, and it made me consider whether this might be a way we develop our means of manufacture in the future. As many experts already predict, the 3D printer may soon become a common domestic product, but if so, why not too the facility to produce our own packaging materials, or even fabrics, using simple biopolymer ingredients?
Looking forward, I hope to build on the skills I have developed during the production of my technical research report for the remainder of my studies. I have found this stage in my studies to be engaging and rewarding, I hope to do more academic work in the future, and apply the knowledge I have gained. I also hope to display the composting unit I produced during the design stage of my report at the product design end-of-year show in recognition of the knowledge I have gained during the process.
It seems to me that when it comes to considering the material and manufacturing process for any component, it is constantly an act of
compromising. The considerations are:
– The properties of the material.
– The scale of manufacture.
– where it can be manufactured.
– The method of manufacture.
– How the material is produced.
– The end life of the material.
– The cost of material.
– The ethical issues relating to each of the above.
Inevitably, at least one (but usually more) of these factors have to be compromised in order for a material to be chosen. When I started
my degree in 2012, I found myself considering manufacturing at the end of the design stage, over two years on, and manufacturing has
become a my principle consideration as early as the the initial concept stage of my design processes.
It seems to me that biopolymers have much to offer in terms of relieving the issue of compromising in the material and manufacturing stage of design. If there really is a renewable and compostable material which can replace a non-renewable,
oil reliant, often toxic, non-biodegradable, heavily-relied-upon material, then it begs the question; why isn’t there more of it around
today? Surely it can’t be that simple, can it?
The reason I’ve chosen to base my technical report on biopolymers is down to a few factors:
– My desire to learn more about long term alternatives to synthetic polymers in manufacturing.
– Biopolymers are still finding their place within product manufacture but there is lots of research out there, I want to know more
about what makes a biopolymer a biopolymer.
– I want to find commonalities between the properties of common synthetic polymers and the most common biopolymers to find out why we
are still using synthetics over renewable polymers.
As the writing in my technical report will be solely technical, devoid of opinions and feelings about the topics discussed, I will use my blog to counter this and develop my own ideas and opinions on the topics discussed in the essay.
This morning, we took part in the crane challenge assessment. I felt it went very successfully, we managed to move five of the six matchboxes, being the most successful group using a micro-controller. We were also the only group to move more than one match box in one single lift. Having observed all the groups today, I believe the combination of servo motors and potentiometers gave us a good level of accurate control, which was not afforded by the combination of switches and standard motors. Given more time, I would focus on developing the arm length of the crane to give us more reach.
We started the project by researching cranes in Cardiff bay, finding a rail based, boat lifting crane particularly useful. This crane had a lifting arm which was mounted on a rotating bed about half way up the tower (see blog for images). We also observed the workings of traditional construction cranes. From this point we were able to start sketching some basic ideas about how the mechanism could work, realising that it was likely we would require three motors to move the hook through three different planes. We agreed that the crane didn’t need to be unnecessarily tall, as we were lifting things along the same plane. Unnecessary height would only unstable the design.
At this stage we developed our mechanisms with some further sketching and model making. We established some basic guidelines, including the minimum arm length necessary to reach the lifting and dropping area. We followed this up with some 2D cad modelling, keeping the forms simple and a little larger than necessary, knowing that we would need to modify and adjust mechanisms and structures later. The key here was to give us the best platform to apply our iterative design skills to building the crane. We chose to remove circular pieces from the panels, as this would give us further material to build motor mounts, but without the detriment of losing strength in the structure.
Among the most challenging parts for us was developing a working code for the Arduino. Our original idea was to use H-Bridges to power motors which would then run gearboxes that we had laser cut ourselves. We found and modified codes, but struggled to understand how we would be able to power three H-Bridges with one Arduino. We then came across the idea of using three way switches, which we intended to use for two motors, leaving one H-Bridge (with superior control and a potentiometer link) to power the final motor. At this stage, we considered using a combination of gearboxes and rubber pulleys to ratio the drive.
As it transpired, this idea developed again. Later, when attempting to test our gearboxes, it became apparent that plastic cogs had warped during laser cutting which was causing jamming in the gearbox. Now at home, and without access to a laser cutter, I felt the best option was to switch to servo motors. I replaced all the gearboxes with servos which gave better torque and control. I developed a code and established the wiring. For a short period this worked, but after a period of testing the crane started to vibrate. I consulted the internet and found that this was either due to bad wiring, or a lack of power. As a result I used capacitors and reduced the number of servos to two, with the intention of using a second Arduino to power the final servo.
We were now back in Cardiff, and we carried out some testing. At this stage we realised that a 180 degree servo did not provide enough rotation for the winch. We decided at this stage to apply a recycled dynamo-radio gearbox and a standard motor to the body of the crane, to serve as a winch. We applied a drum directly to the mechanism to take in the winch line. This worked very effectively with a three way switch, and was strong enough to lift the crane arm alone.
All components on the crane have either been made from scratch using the laser cutter, or have been recycled from other products. The baring between our arm cabin and base are taken from a recycled drawing board. The pulley system which rotates this cabin from the base uses recycled copper wire and recycled lollypop sticks which work very effectively. The gearboxes have all been recycled from various mechanical products. The base has a recycled ice-cream box filled with gravel, which simulates small rocks considering the scale. This could be replaced with water or sand to provide balancing weight. We chose to use plywood as this didn’t warp as badly on the bed of the laser cutter and provided good strength. The arm was made of two identical pieces with spacers to provide a gap for the winch line.
Having got to a stage where our crane was working, following a fair amount of testing, we then found ourselves with some major issues with one of our servos. I had decided the arm should be mounted directly onto the servo, however this servo was now having issues and as a result was failing to lift. We removed the component and tested it externally and it still had the same issues. We considered how we might be able to modify this component and agreed that we would remove this servo mechanism and replace it. At this stage we considered whether we might be better developing a system more similar to the construction cranes with a stationary arm, as opposed to a lifting arm, however, due to the limited time remaining and a lack of knowledge of this mechanism we decided to stick with our lifting arm idea.
Instead, we designed a spool on the side of the cabin of the crane, and positioned a servo lower on the cabin with a large lollipop arm. To the end of this arm, we attached a cable which then ran around the spool and then back around and attached to the tip of the arm. This was effective, as it removed the continual stress from the servo as it had originally when the arm had been attached directly to the servo. We also decided to use two Arduinos as we had the knowledge to wire these and ensure that enough power could be applied to operate both.
Throughout the development period of the crane, we faced issues with friction and weight. Overcoming these by removing material where necessary. If I were to work on a project like this again, I would definitely spend more time planning the process, developing 3D CAD models to better develop the arrangement of the structure. During this project I’ve learnt many new things which I feel I can apply to my product design practice. I’ve learnt how to use an Arduino to make working models and prototypes, I’ve gained experience in using basic electronics, I’ve learnt some principles of mechanical design which I can apply in future, these include developing gears, pulleys and winches.