Generative Design at Ivy Tech Lightens Load for Former Animatronics Operator

July 13, 2021 Redshift Video

When a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis forced Justin Baker to rethink his career in animatronics, he returned to school to study mechanical engineering technology. An introduction to generative design at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana gave him the inspiration he needed to meld his former career with a new one.

During his studies and participation in the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight Network, Baker turned his attention to the heavy, manual puppet controls that animatronics operators must hold for hours at a time. Not surprisingly, repetitive-motion injuries are common in the industry. “I wanted to find a way to make these devices lighter so they have less impact on the operator’s body,” he says.

Baker, now a fabricator and designer, used the generative design capabilities of Autodesk Fusion 360 to reduce the weight of a puppet controller from about 55 pounds to 11 pounds (or 25 kilograms to 5 kilograms). “The first thing I think of now when I design in CAD is, ‘Can I apply generative design to this?’” he says. Watch the video to learn more about how Ivy Tech is helping students like Baker find new avenues for their inherent skills.

[Video Transcript]

Jamie Hamilton, Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering, Ivy Tech Community College: In my 10 years at Ivy Tech, I can tell you there’s a handful of students that have had a huge natural inclination for using software like this. Justin is on the very short list of people that I remember as being truly exceptional. Justin is someone that I can show something to, and I come back even just a few days later, and he is 10 miles past whatever I showed him.

Justin Baker, Fabrication Artist, Student at Ivy Tech: I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when movies were made by hand, and all of the props were made by hand. If you saw something beautiful, someone made it with their own hands. And I fell in love with that. I very much fell in love with that.

As I got older, and I started becoming involved with small makers and the immersive event community and the live-action event community, I found that I had a bread-and-butter item that I could make reliably, and so that is really why I decided to make props.

I’d actually been out of school quite a while—from high school and the military and such—and I was running a pretty successful business. In 2012, I started having problems with my hands. It got so bad that I had to wear braces on my hands 24 hours a day. It took three to four years to figure out that I have rheumatoid arthritis. Because of that, I have a hard time using the tools that I used before in my trade, because mechanical vibrations translate through your hands and agitate arthritis. So I wanted to come back and learn how to make the robots do it.

Hamilton: I love working at Ivy Tech Community College and teaching our students because I love hearing what their stories are. We have a lot of nontraditional students at Ivy Tech. It’s always interesting to meet a new person and see where they came from and how they ended up here and what their goals are and really coaching them through that process.

The skills gap means that students come in, many times, with not a lot of technical background, if any. They may have a very good traditional educational background, but they haven’t spent a lot of time doing, making things hands-on, designing, problem solving. And so we’re trying to teach those students how to take the fundamental skills they already have, whether it’s math skills or science skills, and start to apply those to real-world problems.

Baker: When I returned to college, I had not passed a basic algebra class. I was very, very new to math in general. So I had a lot of reservations about returning to school and being bombarded with information and technology that I never had my hands on before.

Hamilton: Software accessibility is a huge thing for our students because that’s something that they can take home with them without a huge cost attached to it.

Baker: Since I’ve come back to school and have been introduced again to CAD software and, specifically, to Fusion 360, it is so intuitive and easy to use and welcoming that I can explore with it anytime I need to. It’s just a really accessible tool.

When I was first exposed to generative design through Fusion 360, one of the very first things the instructor talked about was the fact that you’d use less material to do the same job. Being environmentally conscious and wanting to save resources and make things lighter at the same time and more accessible, that was it; that was all that it took. You could use 35% less material if you used this system to design your parts.

The first thing I think of now when I design in CAD is, “Can I apply generative design to this?”

It’s a critical part of our education to understand materials science and use. Going forward, we know that we need to use less, and we need to do more with less. So sustainability and manufacturing, I don’t even know if they can exist without each other going forward.

The piece that we’re opening is a 3-axis puppet controller designed to be 75% lighter and contain at least 50% fewer components than the original. I achieved that by reducing the parts to one-third of the original and the weight from 25 kilograms down to about 5.

It’s amazing to be able to design something that is so futuristic and so bleeding edge—and to open a box and pull out this thing that’s not only exactly what you saw on the screen but exactly what you hoped for on the screen. It weighs less. It functions better. It looks incredible.

Hamilton: It always makes me feel very accomplished as a professor when I see students like Justin come to me and explain to me what they’re working on, and I’ve lost the ability to understand it.

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