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My Four All-Time Favorite Workarounds

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Jun 18 2014

In my 15 years at IDEO, I’ve had a hand in roughly 130 projects. Some of the technologies I’ve worked on have become obsolete, like component research that required dozens of part catalogs (now, we just use the Internet). Many, though, have become the foundation for newer technologies, like discrete components, which were developed into MEMS sensors. And some, like the first Olympic torch to use LEDs rather than a flame, have been the very first of their kind.

Throughout all those years, from the machine shop to the digital shop, regardless of the technology we’re using or the problem we’re trying to solve, what has really gotten things done is ingenuity and creative thinking—especially in the face of dire cost and time constraints. A little bit of luck never hurts either.

So without further ado, here are my four favorite workarounds of my last decade and a half at IDEO.

2001: Using an Oscilloscope to save the sunroof

The challenge: The sunroof in your car is an invitation to luxury—catch some rays, feel the wind in your hair. The problem is, when driving at certain speeds with the sunroof open, a distinct and unpleasant booming noise can occur, making the experience rather less glamorous. The sound, a quick, repetitive thumping, is called “buffeting.”

Carmakers couldn’t figure out what to do about it. A luxury automobile company hired IDEO to find a way to make it stop.

IDEO’s workaround: My colleague Thomas Enders and I borrowed a brand new Mercedes-Benz and went for a ride! We brought along an oscilloscope (or “O-scope”) to measure the frequency and intensity of the sound waves of the buffeting effect at various speeds. With Thomas at the wheel, I held the O-scope, connected to a barometric sensor. This way, we were able to measure what was happening every time the buffeting started up.

What we discovered was that closing or opening the sunroof a small amount would change the dynamic of the air space in the car, and the buffeting noise would stop. So we designed a circuit that could detect buffeting and automatically adjust the opening of the sunroof to get rid of the annoying noise. Cruise on, in unimpeded luxury!

2002: Turntable-testing stylus materials

The challenge: Handspring, a company that produced hand-held PDAs (remember those?), looked to IDEO to find the best, most durable material to use for their stylus pens. We narrowed it down to a few polymers of various densities, but we had to figure out how to effectively test the materials for wear and friction over time.

IDEO’s workaround: We bought an $8 record player at the local Salvation Army, and replaced the needle with the various materials we were testing. Then we started it up and used a tachometer to track revolutions and measure distance and speed. Now we can brag about our DJ skills.

2012: Making the functional fashionable with paracord

The challenge: We worked with Vodafone and fashion designer Richard Nicoll to create a purse that could charge a mobile phone, while also being stylish enough to work the catwalk at the London Fashion Show. Part of the design was a small charm that hung outside the purse and flashed LED lights to signal incoming calls and text messages. We needed to find a coating for the charm that would protect the LEDs without being a fashion faux pas.

IDEO’s workaround: While we were brainstorming materials, I looked down at the bracelet I was wearing. It was made of paracord, commonly used for the strings of parachutes. Paracord is extremely durable, and it’s sold in a plethora of colors and patterns. We ordered a few strands online and found that we could remove the sheathing from the outside of the cord. We dressed the charm’s electrical cord with the sheathing from paracord, and voilà ! It gave the high-tech handbag a clean look and feel that was fit for the catwalk.

2013: Cooking circuit boards in a toaster oven

The challenge: Today’s electronics can be minuscule, and that means soldering up a printed circuit board (PCB) by hand can take forever. People who build a large number of PCBs use reflow soldering technology, but the necessary equipment is extremely expensive.

IDEO’s workaround: We decided that, given the type of rework electronics we do, it would be a good idea to tap into the mindset of the DIY community. Taking a page from their book, we bought a standard toaster oven. We fired it up and tested different temperature profiles and various types of solder paste, and soon came up with a working reflow soldering system.

Illustrations by Ina Xi

  • Mark Harrison

    IDEO Alum
    Mark Harrison is an electrical engineer with a passion for debugging, failure analysis, and electronic architecture. Early in his career, Mark focused in computer troubleshooting and repair as well as owning his own appliance repair service company for 5 years.
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