330 million years old – our oldest clients yet!

It isn’t often that there is an opportunity to engage with something as old as 330 million years but that’s just what we have been doing recently with Scarborough Museums Trust and their new exhibition – Ancient Seas.

A 50 Kg ammonite!
The sculptural 50 Kg ammonite!

Having previously worked on other exhibition displays for the Trust we were approached by them with a requirement to provide display stands for a range of large and small fossils ranging in age from 330 million year crinoids to 65 million year old ammonites. The ammonites ware spectacular and include some that weigh in at 32 Kg and 50 Kg.

The largest ammonite had previously been displayed in a heavy duty forged steel clamp that wrapped around the fossil and was a considerable distraction from the elegance of the sculptural shape.

Our brief was to design and construct free-standing and wall mounted stands for the heaviest items without obscuring their shape and also to enable the stands to display related graphics.  We were also asked to provide dedicated clear Perspex stands for a range of other artefacts including fish, starfish, a crocodile skull and an ancient turtle shell.

We surveyed all the fossils and created templates around which we could build the dedicated supports.  To do this the templates were scanned and brought into SolidWorks where we could replicate the fossil profiles and develop support profiles to follow the fossil contours.

A freestanding ammonite support

The larger stands were constructed from birch plywood and were designed to allow the fossils to be embedded in the top panel for stability and security. The stands also had flat side panels for displaying graphics.   Finally the fossils were completely restrained by 10mm thick Perspex hold-downs which clamped the fossils in place without obscuring their appearance.

The smaller fossils were supported on clear Perspex stands that were either bonded together from specially shaped profiles or clipped together using interlocking panels.

Custom Perspex stands

Which all goes to show that innovative design can be applied as well to incredibly ancient applications as well as modern ones…



How often do we see articles about waste, pollution and contamination; here’s a good (bad) one:


We need to consider all the possible ways that we can reduce waste – and that process starts with design. Whether process design, product design, building design… the amount of waste generated is embedded in those first elements of the design and, more importantly the design brief.

One of my favourite examples is the Christmas Cracker. The brief for Christmas Crackers must have gone something like this:

“A product wrapped in non-recyclable packaging that comprises a number of smaller elements that will go into landfill within 10 days of opening”.

Here’s a challenge: for goodness sake – rethink the Christmas cracker. Make a cracker that you can re-use and fill with a hand-made or upcycled gift. Put it in a brown paper bag.


This is a slightly silly example but, just checking the stats and it appears that in 2014 about 300 million crackers were pulled over Christmas, so maybe not so silly after all…

What I’d like to propose today is new law (!) that should be part of every design brief:


Now extrapolation is defined as:

“the action of estimating or concluding something by assuming that existing trends will continue or a current method will remain applicable”.

I would like to take the “continuation of trends” part of that for the new LAW, which is this:

The product or process should be capable of manufacture, use or operation indefinitely with no negative impacts.

Of course the big question is – how do you define “negative impacts”. I deliberately haven’t tried to do that as leaving it open encompasses everything, from environmental impacts to health impacts, economic impacts to quality of life impacts.

Just food for thought…

Podcasts Have Arrived!!!

What better way to explain what we do than to talk about it!

We recently recorded a series of Podcasts with Great Yorkshire Radio talking about design, about what we do and who we are; we’ll publish them over the next few weeks in parallel with the radio broadcasts, so here’s the first about our clients and how we save them stress and hassle!


The Complete Beginners Guide to Squiggles

SquiggleWe have recently recorded a series of podcasts about Makersmith, our clients and our design and manufacturing processes. During one interview the interviewer said “So actually, you start with a squiggle and turn it into a real product?” – and of course the answer is “Yes, that’s exactly what we do…” but, like most things it isn’t quite as straightforward as that.  First you have to have to ask what is a squiggle?, where does a squiggle come from? and lots more besides:

What is a squiggle?

The Oxford Dictionary definition is “A short line that curls and loops in an irregular way.” That’s sort of it, but not quite, our squiggle is much more than this…

Our squiggle can be:

  • A very rough sketch of an idea on paper – or a paper napkin – or the back of your hand
  • A thought that you can just about describe – in your mind – or in the mind of your client
  • A shape that you have seen and that you can describe in space with your hands
  • Something drawn in the sand on a beach
  • A pattern that you have seen – the pine needles lying on a path, the waves on a beach, the texture of a fabric
  • A set of words that describe what you want

And once seen, squigglers can say “I want it like this”; it’s a starting point on a path of design…

Where does a squiggle come from?   

Yoga shapesIn your dreams… . Ideas do come from dreams, perhaps one of the most fundamental was Niels Bohr when he was inspired to describe the structure of the atom by a dream. You may dream of products, structures, shapes, landscapes, machines…

The world around us: the natural world contains so many complex shapes, so many simple shapes and they can all inspire new products, new forms for products, new structures and inspiring buildings.

Our man-made world: often one idea, one shape or form or function will inspire others as contrast or reaction.

Necessity: sometimes only one shape will work or will fit in a space – only one squiggle will do…

leaf pattern2Competition: “I want one like that” or “ I don’t want one like that” are both powerful drivers for creators of things

Clients: your clients have their own squiggles that they pass on to you. You end up with a whole pile of the things – it would be great if someone could take those from you and resolve the squiggles into something concrete…

Where does a squiggle go?

For us, squiggles always go somewhere; we are presented with a squiggle of thought, words or drawing and take it through a sometimes huge process to come out at the other end with a product – a thing – that the was the intention of the original squiggler.   And the say “ah yes, that is just what my squiggle meant…”

Sometimes along the way one squiggle gives rise to others as we generate and select ideas, but always the squiggles become more fully formed as tangible shapes, components and processes develop.

That’s where our expertise lies – in taking the squiggle and delivering the living product.

Do you have a squiggle?

There’s always something that you can put into a squiggle. Our clients rely on us to take their ideas forward from that squiggle to the end product, we also generate squiggles, idea, concepts of our own for clients.

If you have a squiggle or your business has a squiggle, get in touch -we can make your squiggle live!lightbulb water


The Unconventional Guide to Client Projects

The types of projects that we undertake at Makersmith are so varied that each one brings it’s own unique challenges; no routine work for us!  As a result we have to make sure that we learn as much as possible from each project and embed whatever we have learnt into the next.

An important part of this is time recording; it’s really easy to significantly underestimate the time taken to carry out a design or manufacturing task as we naturally tend to be optimistic when we envision a process.  If, having carried out the task, we know exactly how long it took, then we are in a much better position to not only plan the next project timescale more accurately but to give our clients the most effective quotations for work.

Our Unconventional Guide is based on one day’s time logging for a project for one of our design team:

7:45am Arrive at work, coffee, review schedule for the day. Update project planner to record completed work.  Check emails, check client emails into CRM system.  Fire up SolidWorks ready to review project CAD model

8:22am Take call from client with detail query as they are on the way to work. Reassure them that we have resolved the query and will confirm with them by email before the end of the day. Log the call in the CRM system

8:27am First task this morning: resolve the design of connections between steelwork and timber components, build detail in to the outline concept model until it is completely resolved.  Compare the solution with the the requirements of the detailed Project Specification it’s in line with that.  Review the detail to make sure there are no untested assumptions.  Double check the availability of special fixings they are normally a stock item.  Record this and the full specification in the project Bill of Materials.

Designer's Coffee10:35am Really stop for coffee…

10:46am Prepare for client meeting at 1pm for new project. It’s great to have such an amazing meeting venue the Old Kitchen at the Abbey enough to excite any prospective client; make sure the room booking is confirmed…

Set up paperwork, initial documents and detailed specification questionnaire to run through with client.  Make sure the computer Works!

11:33am Review key issues for new project and carry out research into alternative materials and suppliers.

12:07pm Lunch a short walk in the woods and back for…

12:48pm To the Old Kitchen to check the setup.

1:15pm SolidWorks modelMeet clients with colleagues. Chair meeting and lead through client requirements, detail specification issues, identify areas where we need more client information and where more research is needed. Conclude with summary of our respective actions and timescales to complete.  All done.

14:30pm Return to office and complete meeting notes for project file/audit trail and summarise on CRM system.

15:07pm Check in the workshop to see progress of another project and evaluate stiffness of the structure having done the design originally it’s good to see it in the flesh and to feel that it is just as designed.

15:22pm Back to detail project work.  This time taking detail computer data out from SolidWorks for use in manufacturing systems to create laser cut steel profiles.  Also take timberwork profile data for production.

16:02pm Use CNC tooling program to check the correct machining sequence for the timber.  Revise the design slightly in SolidWorks to optimise machining time and re-check the CNC programme. All fine.

17:16pm Review emails that have arrived during the day and allocate responses to future time slots.  Reply as necessary.

17:46pm Shut down the computer to go home. Leave through the workshop where the CNC machines are still running. Out into the evening air with the hazy view across to the hills and stumble over a flock of Quail that seem to be wandering around the car park and perching on the cars…

Another day at Makersmith…

4 Hot Topics where Design meets The Environment

Thankfully there is now much more emphasis on environmentally positive design and this whole area is constantly evolving. Of course it isn’t just design, but manufacturing, construction, distribution, systems… everything that we do, make and use.

There’s no substitute for the “reduce, re-use, recycle” mantra that is in common use, the most important part is the first – REDUCE.   Our use of energy and resources and the demand to consume more can’t continue, so a reduction in our use – of everything – is essential.

That gives design, environmentally sensitive design, a truly world changing role. There are some interesting areas of development and some where the work is only just beginning:

 Tiny House  Tiny houses

There’s a big movement towards Tiny Houses at the moment. These trailer or container sized homes can provide an effective housing solution where land and/or money is short. Of course, being relatively tiny they are much more able to be fully resourced by integrated renewable energy, water recovery and composting toilet systems.   There are some downsides too – apart from the lack of space; having a larger surface are to volume ratio than conventional properties means that they could be more vulnerable to heat loss or heat gain unless that’s addressed by integral shading or insulation.  Maybe the next step should be to develop earth-sheltered tiny homes? Being small, the usual problems of living underground (access to natural light and escape in the event of fire) could be more easily mitigated.  Maybe the next big thing could be Burrow Living…?

composting-1431541_1920Composting Toilets

Surprisingly the flush toilet has been around since the Bronze Age in various ways. Following significant improvements in technology during the Industrial Revolution it has become a very effective waste disposal system that unfortunately uses one of our most precious resources – water; so the water flushed toilet has become the norm. Composting toilets address this by, as the name suggests, turning human waste into usable compost without additional water. These toilets are currently mainly used for off-grid applications and do need careful management to address the problems that arise from pathogens and contaminants in the waste. There would also be a lot of scalability and infrastructure problems to be addressed if everyone were to install a composting toilet…

There’s a huge design challenge here; design a universally usable human waste disposal system that is as user friendly as the flush toilet – but without water. Answers please – soon…

Distributed Generation

It simply very logical that power should be generated near to where it’s consumed. As renewable energy from solar, wind and geothermal sources become technically more cost effective it’s also becoming easier for that energy to be stored and used at source.

What we do need to be careful of as designers is the total energy cost of doing this. We have to ask ourselves what is the real energy and environmental cost of producing the turbines, generators and batteries, getting them to site, or building them into a product, maintaining them and disposing of them as compared to a more centralised system?

Providing that equation is positive then distributed generation makes sense – only let’s not make any untested assumptions about the true environmental cost.

welder-673559_1920Distributed Manufacturing

Another “Distributed” topic! This is going to be big…

What if, instead of your washing machine being made in Germany, or China and shipped around the world, it was made in your town, or your village?

It could be any product that we need or use, and it’s a great challenge to product designers. We need to reduce the environmental and energy footprint of products, could making them locally do that? As with power generation the energy balance would have to stack up.  It means looking at products in an entirely different way and considering not just what they do, but why they do it.

What is the purpose of a washing machine working in the way it has always done or looking the way it always has? How do we persuade or enable people to wash their clothes less so that the machines can be simpler? It’s a huge area for development and has already started in a small way with small spare parts being manufactured locally by 3D printing; scaling it up will be the challenge.

So the key thing is for us all to start thinking about the environmental impact of design on the whole product lifecycle – whether your product is a house, a washing machine or a widget, and above all, design to REDUCE first!

Modular Design

Modularity is a great concept – in buildings – in products – in transport systems; anywhere there’s a need for flexibility combined with cost effective production.

But what is modular design? Put very simply it’s LEGO®; lots of pieces produced in quantity but capable of assembly into a number – or in the case of Lego, an unimaginable number – of design combinations.

We also ought to distinguish between modular product and pre-fabricated product as there’s often confusion between the two.

Pre-fabricated products are those which are made and assembled in one place – usually the factory -and then shipped complete or mostly complete to their point of end use. As opposed to assembling the product at the point of end use.  This most often applies to building structures which traditionally were built from individual components – bricks and mortar for example – on site. Pre-fabricated buildings are built in a factory and moved whole to the site, this eliminates a lot of risk, cost and effort on site in favour of a more streamlined factory process.

Pre-fabricated products are also often modular as well, but they don’t have to be.

The key issue in modular design is the interaction of the various elements when they are assembled in their various configurations. The ease of assembly and the correct interfacing between the modular elements requires considerable design thought.

This is one of the huge benefits of using computer aided design systems (CAD) as most mainstream packages have features that facilitate modularity.

Here at Makersmith we use SolidWorks as our core 3D CAD system and this allows us to completely visualise and test designs before they are manufactured or constructed. In particular, SolidWorks has a “configuration” feature that allows you to easily create variations of a basic part design as well as easily assemble multiple parts into a range of different assemblies.  This process works equally well for large structures such as buildings as it does for simple individual parts.

The short video shows how a simple model of a piece of pipe can easily be configured with length and diameter variations – all with the same basic geometry. It’s really a very powerful tool indeed.

Modular Structure

We use the same process to construct modular structures that are assembled from many hundreds of parts:

The great thing about doing this is that it’s easy to check all the interfaces and connections to ensure that design detail is fully resolved and that there are no unanswered questions.

Designing and developing modular systems is really satisfying and it’s great when they go together and simply work; it’s probably because we still enjoy playing with LEGO®!

If you want to see more about an early modular building system then this is a great article:


Why Design Processes are the Best Thing Since Sliced Bread…

In life there is always a tension between rules and freedom; how much do you restrict freedom in order to preserve it?

The same tension exists in the product design and manufacturing process. If you don’t have some ground rules then there’s a probability, actually a really high probability, that you won’t get anywhere meaningful with the design, let alone get something made at the end the process.

The trick is that the rules have to facilitate the freedom – and no more. You could say that so as long as whatever rules or systems you have don’t get in the way of your end objective then that’s OK.  But that’s not good enough, your rules and systems have to have a really positive benefit and not merely not be neutral.

Here at Makersmith one of our main services is to design and make special products and projects for Built Environment specialists – that’s architects, builders, interior and landscape designers. To do that really effectively we have a process, a framework, that we go through in order to ensure that we get the design- and the end product – right first time.

mark-duffel-422279-unsplashWorking within a defined framework means that designers have more freedom to focus on being creative without having to think too much about the overall process and whether they are on the right track. It’s a bit like going out for a walk and going from waymarker to waymarker.  You can explore and admire the view but when you get to the next signpost you know you are on the right route to reach the end.

What we do isn’t radically new but, because we do it every time, it works. So if you are our client our waymarked process goes like this:

  1. We listen to you and find out what you really want to achieve with the design – or project. Sometimes we realise that what you really need isn’t what you are asking for – in which case we’ll tell you!
  2. Your objectives are embedded in a complete specification that will roll all the way through the project and includes every factor and influence.
  3. You get to sign that off.
  4. We then indulge in our freedom to design – within the rules of the specification – and come up with viable design concepts. These are always 3 dimension computer models so that you can really see what the design looks like.
  5. In a meeting with you we agree the best option and you sign it off.
  6. The detail design is then worked out to give a really efficient and cost effective end product.
  7. Just to make sure we sit down with you to make sure that you are entirely happy and then you get out your pen again and sign the design off to production.
  8. There’s not so much freedom now but instead we focus on cost effective manufacturing processes; we make the project.
  9. Finally of course, we ship, or deliver and install the project. Unsurprisingly it looks just like the computer model and matches the specification.
  10. You are very happy.

That’s it in a nutshell, it works, and better still, it means that you know throughout the process how things are going and what your project is looking like. We don’t go off into a corner and suddenly produce a finished product that isn’t quite what you wanted.

So – that’s why design processes are better than sliced bread…

Toast anyone?


Getting Creative for Autumn

I know it’s still August and it’s still holiday time but it’s beginning to feel just a little like Autumn is on the way… It will soon be time to tidy to tidy up outside, clear out those odd corners and think of new things to do with the garden.

So this autumn we are focussing on how to make best use of your garden: one really useful thing would be to put in a new shed… well, not just a shed; you can buy those from B&Q or one of the many standard shed manufacturers. But how about something a bit different:

– A little eco-space with a cushion and a kettle
– A micro-library where you can relax with your favourite book
– A studio where you can (at last) enjoy your hobby
– Two rooms – one for each of you – linked by a glass porch
– A space with a mezzanine, a view and a woodburning stove

A standard shed would be just a little boring wouldn’t it?

The great thing about having a bespoke structure is that you can really do what you want with the space. Even if your garden has odd shaped corners or a steeply sloping site something can be made to fit.

There are lots of possibilities and we have lots of experience of turning your ideas into reality in all sorts of materials. So start sketching or cutting out pictures of ideas that you like and get in touch with us to see how we can help.

Please also bear in mind that we produce an excellent, bespoke product and it will cost more than a standard shed – but yours will be the only one in the whole world!

Blue shed with trees
A special place…

Boot Stumps!

Oak logs ready for making into boot and coat racks
Oak logs ready for making into boot and coat racks

We are just starting a great pro-bono project with a local playgroup; they were looking for bespoke wellington boot and coat racks with an outdoor/natural flavour and really fancied something woody… They also had a large quantity of old broom handles inherited from a local Guide group…

The solution – we acquired some oak logs – complete with moss and bark, and are starting to cut down the broom handles and plug them into the logs to make the custom boot racks.

We’re enjoying recycling and working with natural wood all in one project. It’s also fun not to be working to a rigid design and instead being able to make up the design as we go along.  There will be some more pictures to share once we have finished but in the meantime it just goes to show that whether it’s a simple improvised design made from logs or a complex detailed bespoke project made on our CNC router – we can do it!

See what else we can do here

Stump with boot supports
A boot stump underway!