Machining and Manufacturing


Today, as attention shifts towards developing digital products and services, attention has shifted away from understanding how physical things are created - for example, those “Made in China” plastic toys in a Happy Meal, a cast-iron waffle maker, or a vacuum-insulated stainless steel Swell bottle - and being able to visualize the process that go into making the physical products around us. Perhaps it is because we don’t need to understand these processes as machining and manufacturing shifts to lower margin businesses, labor shifts overseas, and supply chains are automated with machines running on code.

But it was a fascination with the unknown, that initially drew me to mechanical engineering, I could wrap my head around how to program Karel to move around my screen in Java, but I had no idea how pieces in an injection molding machine had to come together to create a small toy, or how to visualize that process based on where the gates in the plastic are. Or even, the process by which mental is sourced, turned into large cylinders en masse, and then carved out into tubing that we use in almost every building project today.

In fact, one could argue that the only part of the natural world that most people interact with directly is food; if we actually get fresh produce and turn it into a meal on our own.

I recently found one of my course reflections and thought I’d share (also, you can find a picture of the final product on the About page):

Taught by Dave Beach, it was one of those courses where all your friends knew you were taking it: usually you were sleep deprived with lots of mini styrofoam models and sketches littered around your room, you were flaky for every social engagement because if a slot opened up at the machine shop you had to go, and no matter what you always had blackened fingernails from the machine oil and sanding processes.

This course was a tipping point for me. For the first two years of school, I was Human Biology major, potentially on a path to becoming a surgeon. But I emerged from this ten week course, curious about whether I could spend my last two years taking mechanical engineering with a focus on product design.

Every part of the process required breaking down some mental and physical barriers - from brainstorming, to prototyping, to manufacturing - and to consider how the user will interact with the product every step of the way. How the product will feel when someone holds it? What feeling it will invoke? Will it cause them to develop a meaningful relationship with it?

The beauty of this process is that it can be used to build a digital product, or even an organization too. Because at the end of the day, people want meaningful relationships with things, people, and communities alike. And the underlying thoughtfulness that goes into crafting the user experience for all of those is the same.

The pride associated with finishing the project, building something with my hands, and understanding even a small fraction of how things are built pushed me to eventually submit my major change form.

Naomi Shah