We live in a hacking culture where we break down and repurpose everything from IKEA furniture to power tools, redesigning them to fill a need or solve a problem for which they were not originally intended. By applying some of the basic design-cycle steps of Ask, Research, Imagine, Plan, Create, Test and Improve, engineering-minded product designers are turning what might have once been considered science fictional solutions into reality.
By sharpening your engineering skill set, you can put yourself in a unique position to address some pervasive everyday problems. Which would you like to take on? For a little inspiration, take a look at some real-world everyday challenges, big and small, that have been alleviated by some rather innovative engineering solutions.
Squeezing Out the Last Drop of Liquid
We’ve all experienced the frustration of attempting to squeeze the last drop of ketchup or toothpaste from their containers. That could end very soon, all thanks to a unique slippery coating that keeps thick, gooey substances from sticking to solid surfaces.
Called LiquiGlide, this material was initially was created to line oil and gas pipelines to protect against buildup.1 It worked so well that the team developing this technology at MIT decided to explore other commercial applications for it. They researched and tested different combinations of materials to create new variations of LiquiGlide, including food-grade and medical-grade versions. These can help reduce product waste and enable viscous liquid medications to efficiently empty from tubes to improve proper dosing.
Holding Hot Coffee Without Spilling It
The coffee cup sleeve: With such deceptively simple design and such obvious value, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t invented sooner than it was, back in 1991. The idea was born two years prior, when piping hot coffee in a paper to-go cup burned the hands (and subsequently spilled on the lap) of future Java Jacket founder Jay Sorensen.
Sorensen did considerable research on the potential market demand for such a product, the kinds of materials that could be used to cost-effectively create it and the most successful physical design. He produced and tested several iterations of the sleeve before landing on the prototype that is still used today.2 Now, the nearly ubiquitous coffee cup sleeves are helping save the fingers (and laps) of countless hot-java-drinking commuters—not to mention engineers.
A Far-Reaching Solve for Getting the Group Shot
By freeing us from having to rely on a willing passerby to take a group photo in front of a tourist attraction or a silhouette shot against a stunning sunset, the selfie stick has certainly made an impact in today’s social-media-savvy world.
Wayne Fromm didn’t invent camera-on-a-stick technology, but in 2005 he did patent a version that could hold almost any camera and, eventually, nearly any smartphone.3 That’s the version that began to resonate with consumers worldwide.
Since then, the original selfie stick concept has evolved into several iterations by Fromm and other manufacturers to answer the demand for more uses—including ones that extend telescopically at the push of a button so you can fit more people or more background into your shot, that allow you to snap a shot via Bluetooth without needing to set the camera timer, or that take blur-free photographs and video while skydiving or partaking in other action sports.
Walking Your Way to Health at Work
Dr. James Levine, a medical doctor who researches obesity, found that sitting for several hours at a time negatively impacts our health much more than initially thought, even for those who regularly go to the gym. He argued that our increasingly sedentary lifestyle, fueled by demands at work requiring us to be at our desks, has contributed to a culture of people with poor posture, lack of energy, and increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.
Levine came up with a rather unusual solution: He rigged a used treadmill under a raised bedside tray.4 Perhaps this prototype he created in 1999 wasn’t the most attractive setup, but its goal was clear: to give people a way to be active while working and help reduce sitting-related health risks.
Levine worked with a manufacturer to produce the first official treadmill desk, released in 2007. Today, many companies promoting a healthier workplace offer employees the option to have such a desk instead of a traditional one.
Overcoming Fear of Public Speaking
Sophia Velastegui, an influential engineer in the technology sector, applied several engineering design steps early in her career to conquer a common phobia: speaking in front of a crowd.5
Velastegui did this by:
- Identifying specific problems to address: her shyness and fear of public speaking
- Looking into ways to work on them (such as volunteering to speak at company meetings)
- Setting up a plan of action to overcome her shyness with strangers: research people to meet at conferences, contact them, choose discussion topics and maintain regular contact
- Continuing to improve her speaking and networking skills through constant practice
Velastegui’s process improved her public speaking—and her confidence and management skills—so thoroughly that it has been invaluable to her rise through desirable positions at top companies. Not only that, she was named to Business Insider's list of most powerful female engineers in 2017.
Eating With Confidence, Without Spilling
Many of us take the simple act of feeding ourselves for granted. But for anyone with trembling hands, it can be a frustrating struggle to keep food on a fork or spoon long enough to reach their mouth without it winding up on the table or their clothing. Liftware Level™ utensils were created by inventors with loved ones experiencing such limitations.
Liftware uses sensor technology that makes real-time adjustments to accommodate any mild-to-severe shaking and trembling movements.6 This improves accessibility and independence for those suffering from conditions such as Parkinson’s disease.
Liftware developers are taking their testing to a new level: They created an app that records motion data using an accelerometer sensor found in smartphones. They use this data when creating prototypes for versions of other common products that can be used by people with disabilities.
Diagnosing Deep Gastrointestinal Diseases
In 1981, inspired by a friend experiencing small intestine pain with no apparent source, rocket engineer Gavriel Iddan wondered if there was a way to create a “missile”—complete with a camera—that could be launched into the intestine to snap photographs in order to help physicians make accurate diagnoses.
Applying his knowledge of rocket engineering to a completely unrelated problem led to his invention of the ingestible camera. “PillCam” actually took 17 years to become reality, thanks to Iddan’s diligence and the development of micro cameras, transmitters and LED lights that could fit into a large pill-sized capsule.7
Now the diagnostic standard, doctors can properly identify conditions that are deep in the digestive tract, areas previously unreachable by other nonsurgical methods.
Put Your Engineering Skills to Use
The world is full of countless challenges waiting for that one solution to be created or tweaked that can make life just a little easier, healthier or better. What problems are you planning on tackling with an engineering approach? What inefficiencies are you improving? And better yet, how many more opportunities might present themselves as you continue to hone your engineering expertise?
Using your engineering knowledge, there’s no limit to what you can do. Explore our online graduate engineering degree programs at Case Western Reserve University to get started improving the world around you today.
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from liquiglide.com/
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-the-coffee-cup-sleeve-was-invented-119479/
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from businessinsider.com/wayne-fromm-is-the-inventor-of-the-modern-selfie-stick-2015-8
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from newyorker.com/magazine/2013/05/20/the-walking-alive
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from businessinsider.com/how-this-engineer-hacked-her-career-and-became-a-gm-at-microsoft-2018-2
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from launchforth.io/blog/post/invention-spotlight-liftware-level/2335/
- Retrieved on September 8, 2018, from epo.org/learning-events/european-inventor/finalists/2011/iddan/impact.html