Day in the Lab

XXVII.2 March - April 2020
Page: 16
Digital Citation

Bureau of difficult things

Pepijn Verburg, Tijs Duel

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How do you describe your lab to visitors? Within our studio there is a healthy blend of design and engineering. Design drives our engineering processes and vice versa. We often do work early on in the innovation process, which requires constant iteration, reflection, and multidisciplinary work: One day you are soldering, the next day sanding wood, and the day after, programming. You can see this in our portfolio: It ranges from explorative form studies for data embodiment in payment terminals, to in-the-field deployments of algorithms that predict ship motion at sea, to helping healthcare professionals better understand data patterns in the symptoms of sick babies. Most of the time our projects are related to data and on the crossroads of academic research and commercial product development. The ability to hop between these types of projects is something we feel lucky to have. This is also one of the reasons our studio is called Bureau of Difficult Things; the name captures the essence and diversity of the challenges we address.

ins01.gif Overview of the office space with small islands of team members.

What is a unique feature of your lab? We are a total of 11 people, all of whom have studied industrial design at the University of Technology in Eindhoven. You might wonder how such a shared background can create a multidisciplinary environment that supports a wide range of projects. One of the strengths of this educational background is diversity in specialities and skills due to the freedom in large chunks of the curriculum. These skills vary from full-stack development and embedded engineering all the way to user research and product design. The shared understanding of design drives our internal collaboration, and our specialities allow us to gain depth in different design challenges.

ins02.gif Single workspace for software engineering.

Briefly describe a day in the life of your lab. We would describe a day in our lab as dynamic. We often have 15 or more projects running in parallel. Within these projects, up to five people from our studio and up to 30 from clients have to collaborate. The variety in our work, the project size, and the team dynamics can make it hard to estimate the time required. We quickly adopted a planning style that avoids micromanaging. On Monday we have our weekly update meeting, where we gather around the LEGO planning board. Here we discuss the global planning per half-day for the upcoming four weeks. This moment is also used to ask for an additional pair of eyes on the harder design challenges. However, we often see that during the day, plans are adjusted where needed. For example, a newly manufactured PCB comes in, and testing requires more time. Others might shift their planning to jump in and help. This openness makes a big difference in dealing with the unpredictability of our projects. It invites everyone to help others, explore, and take risks, all of which add to personal growth and a friendly atmosphere. Around lunch time, a "lunch train" starts in our Slack channel. Those who board the train will join in on a refreshing walk to the supermarket.

We approach projects not as a sole entity, but rather as a part of an expanding ecosystem of products, services, cultures, and technologies.

ins03.gif LEGO planning board with colors for each project, spanning a total of four weeks.

What is one feature of your lab that you want and do not have? As a collective of design and engineering enthusiasts, we love tools and automation. We always have a few internal projects running to create new powerful tools or resources for ourselves and other designers. Currently we are working on a digital tool to democratize machine learning called AI-kit. The goal is to make machine learning easier to implement early in the design process. A longside this, we have been discussing a set of half-fabricates that can easily be linked together to create interactive prototypes and systems within seconds. This would be a great addition to meetings, providing people with additional tools to express themselves and actively join the design process on a technological level. Having more of these, preferably evolving, tools is very important to us.

ins04.gif Easy-to-use machinery for basic adjustments of materials.

How would you describe how people interact in your lab? We all share the same space, and the organization is quite flat—everyone can be a project lead based on their expertise. This allows for a free flow of ideas and thoughts, resulting in an open and energetic atmosphere. Helping each other is key for our design and engineering processes, especially when discussing multidisciplinary challenges. Being honest and direct about the problems you encounter is essential to making this possible.

ins05.gif The (SMD) soldering setup for assembling and testing the first versions of prototypes.

What is the one thing you see as most important about the work you do there? We tend to join projects at an early stage. We use this as an opportunity to consider the project holistically. At our studio, we approach projects not as a sole entity, but rather as a part of an expanding ecosystem of products, services, cultures, and technologies. Technology frameworks are put together meticulously so they can be built upon to address emerging client or user needs during development. This means carefully defining user interactions, shape, materials, graphic interfaces, databases, electronic components, communication protocols, and more. It is a great feeling when a new feature is requested, and we can tell it's easy to add to the design and implement technically. However, what really makes our day is when we observe a shift in the mindset of our project partners, where they start to envision the project as the beginning of a portfolio of work and not a one-off solution.

ins06.gif 3D modeling of a data probe for academic research to measure flows of people.
ins07.gif Installation of one of our machine learning servers in the basement.
ins08.gif A speculative design artifact exploring machine learning in everyday products exhibited during the Dutch Design Week.

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