Digital-Physical experiments from the DT Lab.

Many of us at DT consider ourselves “makers.” As a result, we encourage each other to design, build and blow stuff up in the DT Lab. It’s how we learn to meld digital with physical, and test-market our ideas to become real products for our clients.

We thought it would be fun to pull back the curtain and give you a glimpse into what we’ve been working on. For now, we’ll focus on two areas:  1) Various materials, techniques, and settings we’ve tested in our laser engraver, and 2) a responsive, experiential design project made with LED light tiles.

Blinded by the light — more about that later…

The maker lab at DT started organically as a space to blow off creative steam without any agenda. We won’t be releasing a secret formula to world domination in this post; however, we do want to highlight how important the trend in Micromanufacturing has become for design firms, and how it has allowed us to expand our ideas into reality like never before.

In the past, if you had a great idea it could take months, years or even decades to do what can now be done in many small hobby shops in days or even hours. Micromanufacturing is the rise of making smaller product runs in smaller locations using “desktop” tools. This doesn’t just cut costs, it expedites the time needed to get a great idea out into the world.

 It allows for more experimentation with less risk. Things like PCB rapid prototyping are possible using our desktop laser, which is mind-blowing. This means people like us can literally make anything we dream up in our minds.

TechCrunch Manufacturing the future

Part 1: Experimenting with materials

Let’s get started and talk about one of my favorite things: materials for the laser engraver! The first thing you will notice when getting a laser machine is that EVERYTHING YOU OWN SOMEHOW ENDS UP ENGRAVED. For me, it started with engraving the back of my iPhone, MacBook, then basically every single item in my house and office. I even had little wood tags to organize my tea collection at home… it’s a sickness.

Cutting 3mm plywood in a single pass

“Measure twice, cut once” — that’s what my Dad always said

Painter’s tape is easy to cut through and helps hold material down

Our countless experiments resulted in a whiteboard full of suggested starting points for power and intensity on a range of different materials we used most.

Here are some of our findings:

1. 3mm Craft Plywood  This material quickly became our favorite to work with. We ended up using plywood to make everything from business cards to holiday gifts for our clients. In fact, we just sent out a little engraved tag to promote our new Sprint Room.

3mm Craft Plywood – Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 50% power 50% speed
3mm Craft Plywood – Epilog Laser: Vector Cut Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 89% power 30% speed

Keychains for Sprint Room clients

Flexible book binding

Wood playing cards

Mandala coasters

Beard combs for Joe’s Barber Shop Chicago

2. Foam Core Gone are the days of cutting custom bevels and shapes with an Exacto knife. We now toss foam core directly into the laser’s path when making things like photo frames or presentation boards. So fast and so clean.

Epilog Laser: Vector Cut Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 30% power 50% speed

3. Cedar Fence Planks These can be purchased at Home Depot or any lumber supply store. They are intended as pre-finished planks to build a yard perimeter. We found them to be a nice cheap material that can be leveraged to make a number of great projects when cut into smaller sections. One project that was really fun was layering three sections together to create a small iPhone desk speaker.

Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 70% power 50% speed

4. USB Drives We started engraving these as thank you gifts for clients, then realized they are one of our favorite things to engrave and give away. They are easy, well-finished and look super custom when a logo or design is engraved into the surface.

Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 50% power 50% speed

5. Pens — These make much more memorable leave-behinds than a standard business card. I make these for friends and clients from time to time as a quick “thinking of you” or “thank you.” They also make the perfect device to sign a UX contract with! { wink wink }

Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 50% power 50% speed

6. Leather Journals
 Basically the coolest thing since sliced bread. Now you won’t only have the coolest journal in your next design meeting. People will be jealous and wonder how you got “People I Want To Punch In The Face” engraved right on the cover of yours.

Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 30% power 60% speed
Epilog Laser: Vector Cut Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 89% power 30% speed

7. Cardstock
 Cardstock can be used to cut complex or custom shapes. I love to make my own cards or postcards for the mail with complex die cut shapes. It only takes a minute to send a quick note in snail mail to a friend you don’t thank enough. I am a big fan of the written note!

Epilog Laser: Vector Cut Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 30% power 50% speed

8. Black Walnut — I love this as a go-to for signs or fancier finished items. In the past, I have used this to make everything from an iPhone speaker to a desk lamp base, and even a highly detailed cutting board. The coolest thing about the cutting board is grain that shows through the cutout design. WOW!

Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 70% power 50% speed

9. Cork Tiles These are perfect for staying organized. I made this one with a photo I shot on my iPhone; it’s a photo of my dog Gus. I pin notes to his tiny cute face! I am sure you could dream up a million more useful ways to print on cork — organizational templates, etc. — but the point of this experiment was just to gauge image resolution on the cork material.

Epilog Laser: Raster Settings 40w Epilog Laser Machine: 30% power 50% speed

Part 2: Making a room to breathe

A bunch of us love to meditate during the day at work. We recently designated a new meditation room at our office and then set out to design a unique experience for it — something to help us feel more present and grounded during a busy workday. We wanted to help the meditator be more mindful by making the room come alive in a way that infuses calming vibes with real-time bursts of delight.

The thing I wanted to make most is a light that responds to the user breathing in the room. Even with your eyes closed,  ambient light, sounds, and smells can impact your meditation experience. I chose to experiment with light; specifically LED’s that can be programmed to breathe along with you, changing the entire mood or light temperature inside the room.

The easiest way I could figure out how to realize this dream was using pre-made LED panels that could be programmed to do whatever I want. ** insert evil laugh here** Then, framing the panels and hanging them on the wall as if they were framed pictures in a gallery.

The Frame
We used the laser machine and 3mm plywood from our list above to make the frames that would hold together our LED’s. Using Illustrator to design the frame template, we then laser cut each section. (Extra credit: To make your project look fancier, try layering laser cut frames to build up depth in your design.) Another thing we tried was laser cutting holes in the wood to be used as a mask. In the end, the standard cut frame was what we chose to roll with.

Download Illustrator Frame File

Download Illustrator Mask Frame File

The Breathing Lights
It would not be cool enough if the framed LED lights just turned on and off, we wanted them to breathe along with the user. The idea was to have a subtle feeling of light as you breathe in and out during meditation. The easiest way to get audio was to record the breathing sound using a simple MacBook and microphone setup. Remember this is a prototype, so it’s not totally perfect! The sound is recorded and translated into an animation on the tiles. Since the user can’t be tethered to their laptop during meditation, this whole thing needed to be wireless. In order to achieve this, we had to get the LED panels to respond over WiFi with a variety of functions. We chose to start with LED tiles from Pixel Plane and modify the response using sound reaction in our room.

Here are a few different light experiments that we tried out. In the end, we decided to use fading white light with our tiles.

The following examples are being sent over WiFi from a standard Macbook Pro:


Responding to sound:

GIF animation sequence:

Simple video files:

Color Array:

Color With Fade:

More Soon, Please

It was killer to see how our material experiments eventually gave way to some real projects. People inside the office started to see how many different things are possible using light as a cutting source. Some things worked, and some things started on fire; but in the end, really meaningful things started to evolve.

 For now our humble hobby shop is another tool we can use to realize our ideas. Innovation on a small scale helps make us sharper in all areas, and makes the products we use more meaningful.

This experiment is far from done, and like everything at DT, continually growing and evolving. We plan to leverage our learnings and experiment further with larger scale LED walls. It is my hope that we also expand the output of our tiny “Micromanufacturing” space, as more people in the organization get the maker bug. For now we are happy making and sharing some of the things we try out. It’s one of our mottos here at DT to experiment early and often, always trying new things.

It would be fun to hear from other makers in the community. If you are currently experimenting, shoot us a note — we would love to see what you are making!

 Let’s make something together!