Looking for simple solutions

Sometimes the motivation for picking a solution to a problem is to be able to do something interesting. Finding a complicated solution to that problem is easy when you have a CNC machine, because complexity comes free! There are other times though when you need to try to find the simplest solution that will solve the problem. That doesn’t necessarily mean that your solution won’t also be interesting, but just that “being interesting” is not the main driver.

The Global Humanitarian Lab

At the DigiFabCon conference a couple of months ago, my friend David Ott asked if I had any ideas for a way to package and ship the bits and pieces of the Fabkit that they are working on. David is the co-founder of the Global Humanitarian Lab and I really wanted to help out.

David and I met again at the Makers for Global Good conference just recently and talked a little more about their needs. The solution had to be simple and easy to CNC fabricate anywhere in the world, be strong enough to survive bouncing in the back of a truck in some pretty remote parts of the world, and require a minimum of specialty tools or hardware. It had to be modular and re-configurable, with everything contained within the footprint of a standard pallet.

A Telephone crate

My first impulse was to use the “telephone” system that Robert and I have been developing to design a bolt-together crate for the GHL. It would be very strong but requires bolts and threaded inserts that could be lost or cross-threaded in the field, tools to assemble and dis-assemble, and small pieces that can be tricky to fabricate. It would work great for a strong outer crate to protect the contents, but I wondered if there might be an even simpler solutions for individual boxes within that outer box.

Back in my boatbuilding days we would hold the panels for a boat together with cable ties before we bonded the joints with epoxy in a technique called Stitch and Glue.

Cable ties are strong, cheap, and easily available. Robert and I had used cable ties to assemble a geodesic dome for Triangle Week in my wife’s classroom, and designer Will Holman created a very cool chair that is held together with cable ties.

Stitching the Dome
Will Holman’s Ziptie chair

Cable ties seemed like they might be a possible solution for David’s needs, but really the only way to tell for sure was to build a prototype and see how it workedGlobalHumanitarianLab out.

First cutting on our ShopBot

So far I’m pretty happy with the results of the first couple of prototypes. It’s strong, can be modular and customizable with only a few rules governing the cutting so can easily be made script-able. It’s easy to open with a set of clippers or a knife and can be re-assembled and re-configured on site if a pack of ties is included as part of the kit. And if you run out of cable ties, wire or even string can be used in place of the ties.

The system is material agnostic so can be cut out of just about any material that’s close to the suggested size. If it needs to be super strong you can stitch it at every pair of holes, or skip a bunch if it doesn’t need quite as much strength.

Dividers and hinged lids to hold smaller parts are possible
Larger dividers can be added as needed

A couple of different designs for dividers and hinged lids make it more versatile, and keyholes cut into the panels let you add removable handles to help carry the boxes, but remove them when they aren’t needed and might be in the way.

Rope handles can be attached, or removed for easy packing
A washer keeps the handle firmly attached, but can be removed through the slot
The ties can be made flush if needed.
Stitching a corner with paracord. The “needle” is a piece of drinking straw with heatshrink

I’m not sure if this system will fit the GHL’s needs, but if nothing else it’s been fun to work out and has potential as a general solution for simple, re-configurable containers for some other projects I’ve been working on.