Crash Testing Calculators: Product Engineering and the Road to Improved Durability
Finding ways to improve a product often means breaking it first and then brainstorming ways to make the product better so that it will last longer. Students can experiment with the engineering design process—and the ways in which engineers design and test new solutions—by trying to improve the durability of a simple handheld device. Making a calculator ironclad might make it harder to break, but would a customer like the new-and-improved version?
Have you ever seen an advertisement for a product that brags about the fact that it is so strong that you can even drive a car over it, and it will still work? You might wonder why the product would ever be at risk of being rolled over by a car, but such a claim is meant to highlight an important selling point for many products—durability. How much wear and tear can an item withstand? For consumers, this is an important question. When it comes to buying certain kinds of products and devices, like electronics, customers want a product that will last because the longer it lasts, the better value it may prove to be.
Finding the Breaking Point
Making something better sometimes depends on first seeing what it takes to break, tear, or destroy an object.It may sound counterintuitive, but for product engineers, finding ways to improve an item in terms of its durability often means first identifying weak spots. After she knows where the potential pitfalls are—What could happen? Where will it break? What kind of stressor or use is too much?—a product engineer brainstorms possible solutions, makes prototypes, and puts these new versions through use tests to see if the modifications bring improvement.
Does the improved product bring corresponding and measurable improvements in terms of durability? Do the changes add to the price of the product? Do the improvements change the size (footprint) or appearance of the product? Are the changes ones customers will like in terms of visual appearance as well as in terms of the added protection? All of these are questions a product engineer has to consider when trying to improve an item.
Cell phones are a great example of a device where durability matters. Because they are always with us, cell phones are often subjected to lots of bumps, accidental drops, spills, and even dunks. Whether the phone falls to the concrete when you get out of the car, drops to a hard floor, or gets crunched between hard objects, you hope that the phone comes out unscathed.
In the past, cell phones have not always held up well, but today a dropped phone doesn't always equal death of the phone. Hopefully, improvements in the design and manufacturing of the type of cell phone you carry have given it a stronger profile—added durability.
Putting Engineering Design in Action
In the new Crash! Can Cell Phones Survive a Drop Test? project idea, students get hands-on with the engineering design process as they simulate the steps that might go into improving a product like a cell phone.
While a science fair project that tests and then improves actual cell phones might be cool, crash testing a bunch of cell phones is not practical for most students. Using inexpensive calculators instead keeps project costs down but still lets students model the steps involved in product testing and development. How durable is a cheap calculator? Can it be improved, and is the improvement worthwhile in terms of the form factor and price of the device?
Students first put calculators to a drop test to assess (and quantify) starting durability. Then, they brainstorm design changes to try and address weaknesses they observed during their drop tests. After making prototypes of their new and improved products, students put the new models to the same drop test to see if the design changes made a difference.
What kinds of changes might you make to better protect the calculator from drop zone damage? Changes in materials are up to the student product engineer, so bring your creativity, your innovative ideas, and your willingness to crash test a bunch of calculators!
A Career in Product Engineering
Students who enjoy the idea of creating and improving products—and even breaking them first on purpose to pinpoint areas of weakness and figure out what might be fixed or improved—may enjoy learning more about product engineering as a career path. The following career profiles highlight career options for a student with an interest in building and engineering: Industrial Engineer, Mechanical Engineer, and Materials Scientist and Engineer.