Your Newest Colleague? A Machine That Makes Design Suggestions

This computer watches you work, making suggestions about what you might do next. Whether you agree is up to you.

Are we in the midst of a second industrial revolution? The curators behind The Machine, a group show in Genk, Belgium, think so. “The [first] industrial revolution was a revolution for engineers,” they explain. “Now designers are at the forefront of a new revolution.” The Machine attempts to demonstrate how computer augmentation is heralding a new age of design. In one piece, a 3-D printing kiosk is placed on a curbside for public use. In another, an inexpensive shoe repair system is supported by an online tutorial system.


But the exchange between machine and designer isn’t always so simple. One piece, from young German designer Christian Fiebig, examines how intelligent systems can affect traditional skills, like spot welding. “We shouldn’t be afraid of using technology to enhance traditional handiwork,” explains Fiebig, who developed Computer Augmented Crafts during his final semester at Design Academy Eindhoven. “I designed a computer interface that actually makes suggestions to the designer while he’s working.” It’s up to the designer to either follow the suggestions, or rebel against them.

Though it could be adapted for other situations, Fiebig built his first prototype to augment the process of spot-welding a web of thin metal strips. It’s a pretty simple setup. On a table, a computer with a webcam sits next to a welding machine, metal cutter, and white work stage. The camera records the movements of the designer, measuring and recording the length and orientation of each piece of metal he cuts and welds. An open-source program built with developers and Martin Schneider feeds the inputs into an algorithm that makes an educated guess about what the designer might do next. Via a simple user interface, the program suggests the length and orientation of the next piece of metal. “It’s like having a colleague in your workshop, giving you direct feedback,” says Fiebig.

The idea isn’t necessarily to speed up, or simplify, the designer’s work. Rather, Fiebig hopes that by extrapolating the results of organic process, the machine will set up a feedback mechanism, which the designer can choose to rebel against or collaborate with. Or, a combination of both. “Ideally it will enable the designer to create something nor him or the computer itself could have come up with,” he explains. Fiebig is encouraging other designers to adapt the source code for the program and sensors. Check out the open-source download here.

About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.