Arup Explores Prototyping was held in London on March 8th. Forty-five delegates, half from outside the firm, including practitioners and business leaders were provoked by 15 short presentations in three sessions; access to tools, successful prototyping business models and scale. The event was part of a series of events that aim to explore trends and technologies that may impact on the future of Arup and was held prior to a related evening event with our friends at 100%Open titled “User Makers and Distributed Production”. Both events were great, with lots of positive feedback. My take away from the events are below.

Creating a space to think with your hands.

We had a great discussion around the desire for your own workshops and studios vs using other spaces and events as a catalyst to encourage the process of prototyping.

The benefit of your own spaces is the cultural shift that occurs, the design process changes, having a different toolset around you influences the way you think. At Arup we have the Light Lab “a place to flexibly experiment with lighting concepts”, Sound Lab “a place to listen to our designs”, a workshop in Arup Associates that builds on the strong tradition of making physical models in architectural practice and in many corners of the office we have emerging Innovation labs ranging from Arduino kit behind peoples desks to rooms with separate network infrastructure to allow prototyping of future ICT tools and networks.

“Other peoples spaces” provide an opportunity for greater collaboration and access to a broader toolset. But whilst many individuals probably have access to their old University workshops or emerging hackspaces I am not sure if we have ever formally looked at the potential for pooling resources to extend Arup into collaborative workshops. In addition to the spatial aspect there is also the benefit that a temporal one can bring. The focused activity of events such as Smartgeometry or Hackdays creates a platform for collaborators to come together, share experiences and develop their craft.

The purpose of the prototype.

Most of the speakers and participants had first hand experience of creating prototypes and their stories about why they were created was fascinating. For example, with Hintsights, the interaction designer exploring a service concept “didn’t intend to prototype initially but tools available meant it was really easy – this meant [he] kept making iterations [..] prototypes help us have discussions and test plausibility”. For Moving Brands the motivation for prototyping “off the job” was to communicate ideas and tell stories of what is possible without having to disclose client confidential projects. A really interesting concept when you take into account the learning that has now helped win fee paying client work.

Increasingly the prototype is no longer the final destination, rather part of the design process. And this seemed to be a common thread across most discussions. But the role of the prototype in the process does still vary. An interesting observation made by CRDM (a rapid prototyping shop) highlights the distinctions in different industries: “in automotive industry the virtual model is the part, in construction the virtual representations is a model of what may become real”. A discussion of scale then ensued, but to me it comes back to the level of detail in digital model – and that is why prototyping of this kind is interesting – it is the merging of the digital and physical skill sets.

The toolmakers

Several participants had made their own tools and spoke about the relationship between making things and then wanting to make the tools better to iterate their designs. The craft element of prototyping was a thread that seemed to run through many of the conversations during the event. Craft takes time, space and a certain level of freedom to pursue – and one that will always be difficult for management to nurture.

Other things I heard that I found interesting

“I wish we had an Arup Apprentice scheme to learn how to make stuff”

“3D printing is easy, the machine does that, the hard bit is giving it the instructions so that it knows what to do”

“Prototypes and the need to show someone something that works help us understand the integration issues”

“the problem with outsourcing prototyping is that the flow is lost, knowledge is lost and assumptions are made”

“Does it require a mindset change? First week people brought in 3D line drawings, now people are modelling precisely, your model is printed or not, 1 or 0”

“To the new generations of designers, engineers and architects, mathematics and algorithms are becoming as natural as pen and pencil.”

Whats next?

Colleagues in Australia (and hopefully US) will soon be organising region events using a similar model – I look forward to seeing the results of their discussions. Our tasks are:

Increase awareness and access to current toolset available.
Make it easy for people to access toolchain to create stuff.
Organise more lunch time Arduino “how to” workshops.

Questions still bumping around:
If we could develop an Arup Apprentice scheme, what subjects would it cover?
What are people doing in other Arup offices / regions?

UPDATE: more info also at:!/search/arupunion!/search/%23100openunion