Engineering, Aesthetics, and Materials – making vital connections

Successful products require Engineers and Designers to collaborate, often around materials choices: balancing performance with aesthetics for the ideal product experience. Engineering curricula don’t always recognise the importance of this connection. Engineers and Designers get only a limited understanding of each other’s work, while Materials is often an under-appreciated subject. Cambridge Engineering Professor, Mike Ashby, published the book “Materials and Design” in 2009 and has worked on several learning tools to inspire Design and Engineering students about each other’s subjects, and about materials. But it has proved hard to marry the quantitative engineering perspective with descriptions of aesthetics that are often variable and culturally-dependent.

It wasn’t until the 5th International Materials Education Symposium in 2013 that Prof Ashby’s latest idea began to take shape.  The Symposium included a session on Materials and Design, exploring how to engage student interest. It discussed a prototype database for use with the CES EduPack teaching software, enabling students to explore the linkages between materials and design. Camilo Ayala was one of the participants who was inspired by this idea. But, as an architect, he wanted something more design-oriented. His enthusiasm led him to outline what such a database could look like and to collaborate with Mike Ashby, Granta Design, and others on its development.

Inspirational materials talks delivered at the 5th International Materials Education Symposium in 2013

Initial steps towards what became the ‘Products, Materials, and Processes Database’ included agreeing the database structure and finding out how to get the right information on products directly from designers and manufacturers. An early decision was made to focus solely on objective aesthetic attributes—i.e., those that had a physical basis that could be modeled using materials properties. This was inspired by Mark Miodownik’s Symposium talk on the taste of food eaten with spoons made from different metals.  An apparently subjective attribute, taste, can be related to an objective physical property, standard electrode potential. In another example, how cold something feels is related to how much heat it takes out of your hand, i.e., to the property thermal conductivity.  These contrast with other aesthetic attributes, such as “fashionable”, which are subjective, unrelated to physics, and depend on who you are and where, and when you live.

The CES EduPack Products Materials and Processes database provides product examples such Kasimir the Hedgehog Cheese grater courtesy of Kozoil (made of PMMA by injection molding)

It was also decided that products, rather than materials should be central to the learning experience. The database includes an extensive library of products and it is images and descriptions of these that are first presented to the students, intriguing them and drawing them in to explore more.  This is achieved through a highly visual, interactive home page. When teaching, Mark Miodownik has found that the advantage of using this model means his students are provided with “an intuitive way to understand how materials properties are related to the whole range of products from kitchen equipment to jet engines.” Students then ‘dig in’ to find what products are made of (materials) and how they were made (processes).

The database was reviewed during development by some of the experts who attended the original Symposium. It soon became clear that the inspiring nature of the product examples would be useful on both introductory Engineering courses and Product Design courses.  Due to the great response, Granta has decided to make this resource available to everyone using CES EduPack, at no additional cost, on Granta’s Education Hub. We’re sure that the database will not only enable better communication between Designers and Engineers but will inspire students to learn more about materials properties that they potentially previously took for granted.

 

If you would like to learn more about the CES EduPack Products, Materials, and Processes database check out this short video below…

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