The opening of Spark!Lab 2.0 is about eight months away and the whole team is busy getting the new space ready. I am new to the Spark!Lab team—my official title is the Interpretive Exhibit Coordinator. In short I get to create engaging activities for Spark!Lab visitors. I spend most of my time immersed in the process of invention. Each activity goes through the seven steps of invention as it is created. You may ask “what are the seven steps of invention?” Through years of research and work with inventors the Center has distilled the process down to these seven core components: Think It, Explore It, Sketch It, Create It, Try It, Tweak It and Sell It.
The inventions I am working on are not totally new things. They are simply new designs to meet the unique needs of Spark!Lab. Each invention is meant to remove minor barriers to the invention process for our visitors. Given that each of our activities will likely see 400-800 people a day interact with it, the activities need to be robust. It is also important that the forms and shapes of the activity mildly guide its use. For example, one of our upcoming activities will need robust electrical connectors that will disconnect with mild force and have no pins to break off. For this activity I went the way of magnetic electrical connectors. These are not a new idea. Apple has used them on their laptops, Little Bits uses them on their circuit building sets, and Modular Robotics uses them on their Cubelet products. Just like these companies, we chose to create a custom magnetic connector to suit our unique needs.
Like most inventions ours began with a thought: “Wouldn’t it be great to have an electrical connector that was easy to connect but hard to break.” The next two steps, explore and sketch, ran on parallel paths. As sketches were created and edited, exploration (research) was done on materials that would work best. The sketches were changed to reflect the sizes, shapes, and temperature resistance of magnets in the marketplace.
Once the explore and sketch steps were done it was time to create. This is personally my favorite step of any project. There is something inspirational and empowering about forming a thought into a tangible item. This project was a perfect candidate for my favorite inventive tool, the 3D printer. Using saws, sanders, and screws to make a project is great; however, creating intricate curves, adding logos, and making perfectly aligned shapes with the 3D printer is so empowering to a non-master builder like me. Using only freeware as a design creation tool I was able to create and test multiple iterations of our magnetic power connector. No cutting and only minimal sanding was needed to create a durable and intuitive form. The earliest design was a proof of concept. The next three designs were close but needed tweaks—½ mm here and 2mm of extruding there. Each tweak could be made in minutes and printed rather quickly. The design I settled on worked with some magnets we had on hand.
The end design did not look like my early sketches but it worked well and used materials we had on hand. The next big test will come when we try the connectors with our guests. From there we will surely tweak the connector a bit more. The last step is to “sell it.” In our case, “selling” this connector means that our guests choose to spend time using the connector, as they engage themselves in the process of invention. Short of some on the floor prototyping, the big sell will come in July.