AfterHours – Marty Jacobson

My favorite part of teaching BMED 2300 and instructing students in the BME Machine Shop is watching students take vague ideas and objectives and turn them into a tangible, testable, usable things. I know how hard it is to do that, yet how addictively empowering it can be.

What I learned after graduating and having designed dozens of consumer products, user environments and architectural spaces, is that there is no secret to originality. If one is not coming up with innovative solutions, one simply does not understand the problems or the material properties well enough. Most ideas are not valuable on their own. The challenge, and the power, is in the application of an idea.

If you ever get stuck, go back to the user and the problem. Good design comes from knowing the constraints.

In fact, this is the process we teach in BMED 2300 – it is not complicated, yet, its simplicity may be why it can often be intimidating. How do you know when you have a good idea? How do you know when the project is done? How long is the process going to take? How do you convince clients that at the end of this process, you will provide them with something of value to their business?
Quite frankly, you don’t know any of these things. To succeed, not only do you just have to be committed to understanding the problem diligent in finding an elegant solution to the problem identified.

I built my first musical instruments in high school after a friend told me that it wasn’t all that hard. I realized that he was wrong after I tried it, but I was still able to make better instruments than I could afford to purchase. Unfortunately, I was spending 200 to 400 hours working on a single instrument. I knew that there was no way I could make money spending that kind of time, especially when the instruments were sometimes spectacular failures.

As such, I stopped building instruments and began working full-time. I also took on multiple simultaneous, freelance jobs as a designer, project manager, marketing consultant, and commercial photographer. Through these, I learned a lot about business and manufacturing, but I was always disappointed to be cut out of the loop right at the most exciting part – making the idea real.
After I started working at Georgia Tech, I applied the same design process currently taught in 2300 to make my own instruments again. My goal was to produce high-quality, small-shop instruments here in the United States at a better price, superior quality, and greater level of customization than the high end, mass-produced imported instruments.

Specifically, I set a goal to build mandolins efficiently. My idea was simple and great – or maybe it was really simple and dumb; I spent two years designing and building thirteen different machines before finding a way that I could work with the idea, but now that I have the process, I have a competitive edge. It is a proprietary method that looks great and works great, in addition to reducing the product from several dozen components to nine pieces, which is always a good thing in manufacturing.
All in all, I now have another method, which is more efficient and will allow more flexibility in my product line. Still, I never would have gotten here if I had not pushed through the process of developing the application of the simple idea.