Post-It Notes pinned to a wall

Design Insights: Accidentally on Purpose; Will There be More Accidents?; And a Vote for the Engineer

May 17, 2021
A review of the day’s top trending stories from Machine Design editors.

Accidentally On Purpose

Spencer Silver is not a name you’d know at first glance, but he was partially responsible for one of the most successful products in global history. Silver died last week at the age of 80, and if you have to make a note to yourself to look up his biography, you might use one of his creations to do it.

A 3M chemist and researcher, Silver invented the glue that gave us Post-It Notes. Silver’s unique glue composition could be stuck and unstuck repeatedly without harming the surface or losing adhesion. Another 3M colleague, Art Fry, used the glue on a small piece of paper, and a product empire was born.

Luck can be defined as when opportunity meets preparation. The ubiquitous Post-It Note was one such moment of luck, but it is inventors such as Silver who toil away on projects great (he had 37 patents in his life) and small but always keep looking for something new.

Will There be More Accidents?

Silver’s passing and the story of his invention is in contrast to a recent Machine Design article written by Wojciech Matusik, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science in the Mechanical Engineering Department and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.

Matusik said in the article that the emergence of artificial intelligence and machine learning will change the way researchers conduct experiments and develop innovations. The concept of “trial-and-error,” so much a part of Silver’s research, may become a thing of the past.

We’re on the cusp of a revolution in designing and manufacturing products,” Matusik writes. “In my ‘AI for Computational Design and Manufacturing’ course at MIT, I work with business professionals to help them understand how artificial intelligence and machine learning will soon affect products.”

And a Vote for the Engineer

Where does this leave the Spencer Silvers of the world? Not as far away from an active role as one might think. Another recent Machine Design article notes that while AI provides designers with a powerful, flexible and intuitive tool, it still relies on the idea itself to get the project started.

Jesse Coors-Blankenship, senior vice president of Technology for PTC, writes that the role of the design engineer might never have been more valuable. “These developments will shift the role of the engineer to curating parameters and test conditions, and then choosing the best design from a range of permutations generated by AI,” Coors-Blankenship wrote. “Eventually even the design-selection process will require AI assistance, as the sheer range of generated solutions outpaces the engineer’s ability to sort through them. Liberated from the tedious trial and error of refining their designs, engineers can focus on what their design needs to accomplish rather than how the design will be realized.”

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