Design lessons from cancellous bone

Image of Nestlé Aero bar Bodo via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Image of Nestlé Aero bar by Bodo via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Bone is like an Aero chocolate bar. It is not a perfect simile, of course, if only because my American friends rarely encounter an Aero bar. Nevertheless, comparing images of the two reveals important structural similarities: a dense outer shell, and a porous inner core. Continue reading

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Design lessons from the Mars Climate Orbiter

Artist's rendition of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Artist’s rendition of the Mars Climate Orbiter. Image courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Alexander Pope famously wrote that “to err is human.” In doing so, he was probably referencing Seneca the Younger who said something similar about seventeen hundred years earlier: errare humanum est. Both quotes suggest that mistakes are a fundamental part of the human experience. If we are honest, all of us would confess to having erred on many occasions. Most of those mistakes were small. Some were large. Thankfully, few of us will ever have to admit to a mistake that cost over $125 million! [1] Continue reading

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Design lessons from the silent snap

Image  by Eoin Gardiner via flickr (CC BY)

Image by Eoin Gardiner via flickr (CC BY)

Football stadiums can be incredibly loud places. On September 29, 2014, the fans of the Kansas City Chiefs set the world record for the loadest roar at a sports stadium.[1] The crowd noise was recorded to be 142.2 dbA, or roughly equivalent to the sound you would hear standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. Continue reading

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Design lessons from the Nalgene bottle

Image courtesy dren88 via flickr (CC BY-SA)

Image courtesy dren88 via flickr (CC BY-SA)

Consider the Nalgene. Anyone who has done even a modest amount of camping will be familiar with these colorful bottles. They are ubiquitous on college and university campuses. You will find them in people’s offices, in people’s homes. In short, they are everywhere. This popularity can be ascribed to a number of features such as their durability,[1] their wide mouths, or the way they don’t affect the taste of their contents.

But the Nalgene originally had a much more narrow focus. It was a laboratory container, one of many developed and sold by the Nalge Company of Rochester, New York. Continue reading

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Design lessons from the badminton birdie

Image by Rebecca Partington via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Image by Rebecca Partington via flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

One may not naturally associate badminton birdies with space flight, but Burt Rutan saw a connection. A shuttlecock inspired his solution to a significant engineering problem.

The Ansari X-Prize was created in 1996 to spur the development of private space travel. Ten million dollars was offered to the first team capable of designing a re-usable system that could take three people 100 km above the Earth, then return them safely to the ground, and do so twice within a two week period. Rutan’s company Scaled Composites, in collaboration with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, developed a vehicle called SpaceShipOne which won the X-Prize in October 2004. Continue reading

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