HCDE 451: Laser Cutting

Anna Schmitz
Oct 22, 2019 · 6 min read

During HCDE 451 this week, students’ most recent project surrounded a more technical kind of model-making than last week. Beforehand, students focused simply on creating forms with their hands, able to iterate and reshape as they saw fit without any technical hang-ups. Now, students were tasked with learning to prototype with laser cutting, a practical design industry standard and skill.

In this second class assignment, students were able to choose between several prompts around which to create their designs. These were: (1) a cell phone stand for shooting video of an object below it, such as for a paper prototype, (2) a phone or tablet stand for a usability test, or (3) a laptop or tablet stand to hold it upright in a useful position. All of these themes were about being useful for some other stage of the design process.

I selected the phone stand for a usability test. With that came several additional constraints:

  • Laser cut from a sheet of 18" x 24" chipboard
  • No glue, tape, or fastening materials
  • Able to be disassembled, stored flat, and transported

The chipboard provided was also incredibly thin and would bend very easily. This provided its own structural challenge in maintaining enough rigidity to support something as heavy as an electronic device.

While ideating on this topic, I began to think like an architect. I was also taking a class on Architectural Structure at the time, and a few immediate ideas popped into my head. Just like a building, my prototype had to be stable when stationary and able to support a significant amount of weight. I researched several truss designs that dealt with this issue.

Roof Truss Designs by A&J

An obvious common theme with truss designs is the repetition of triangles, the most simple and structurally sound shape. It therefore makes sense that my prototype have several triangular elements to it to keep it supported.

Preliminary Sketches

Each of my early ideations looked noticeably roof-like in form, referencing trusses found in homes. If figured if a roof could support the loads of rain and snow, a roof-inspired phone stand should support a device just as well. With the additional criteria of making the stand collapsible, I thought about mobility — in particularly being able to “pull it apart” so the center triangular pitch would collapse. That would allow it to be stored flat.

Again, with a limited amount and type of material, I had to get clever with how to construct this. Without adhesives, I decided to add tabs around the perimeter of my phone stand to hold it together. The tabs should be easy to to put together and hold enough friction to keep themselves from sliding back out. I also realized that I may not have enough room with a single sheet of chip board to make several cuts. So, I attempted to create this out of a single layer of material.

Dimensions for laser cutting, created in Solidworks

The concept here is simple — two halves of the part meet in the middle to “pitch” themselves into a roof, upon which a phone can lean. The wide base should keep the form from tipping over, and the roof should be tall enough to support a phone with enough degree to be useful.

Laser-Cut Forms

What I learned from this iteration is how important it is to test assumptions. While I expected the geometry here to be self-supporting (and for the most part it was), it lacked a bit of the integrity to hold up a large smartphone. The material was simply too thin, light, and weak to stand up to it. Rather than collapsing, the phone stand would simply “scoot away” the second anyone tried to lean anything on it. With another iteration, I would layer the material or widen the base to give it more integrity.

Another detriment is the form wouldn’t lay completely flat for travel, and if it ever did, it was harder to “pop open” when ready to be used again. This is because the roof form relied on a crease between itself and the base frame, and that crease became weaker the more it was used. In the future, I’d add curve cuts to the inside of that crease to encourage the material to bend that way without breaking.

Tab on the outside of the phone stand

The tabs holding the edge of the frame would have benefited from a few more iterations as well. While the form fit together snugly, the tabs were brittle and twisted easily. One false move while travelling and one might just twist off. The material itself was quite smooth as well, so occasionally the tabs would slip out of place. I would find an entirely new way to hold the frame together in the future. Tabs seem rather mechanical, and perhaps creating something more interlocking would make the form more sturdy.

Some of the things I think this project did well were to illustrate the concept of a roof in a more dynamic way. It utilized an industry-proven principle for an entirely different purpose, and added some movement to it. For that, I commend the creativity that this model exhibits. It requires very little assembly to set up, and is cut out of only two parts with plenty of material to spare.

At the end of the project, I walked away with a deeper respect and understanding for testing concepts early and fast. While I think I had a good inspiration to start off with, the project would have been far more successful in its end state with a little more troubleshooting. Many of the issues I identified were avoidable or presented design challenges in themselves. For example, how do you create a self-supporting structure with no adhesive? How do you make a functional object from as few parts as possible? And would someone actually use this? In the future, I would emphasize this project’s human-centered nature and troubleshoot the areas where I could see usability going wrong, and test to make sure this actually interesting to a potential user. I loved being able to apply my knowledge from another discipline in this project and I might experiment with that further in the future.

    Anna Schmitz

    Written by

    Human-Centered Design + Engineering at University of Washington. A relentless creator, musician, and reinvisioner of a better world.

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