Senior year of college, I spent countless hours designing, cutting, building, and iterating a double walled laser cut box (for my IncuBaby Project). One of the most valuable lessons I learned that year was the importance of learning and understanding my tools. Each laser cutter and each material used will react differently when cut. In addition, each machine has a different software interface and terms to describe its actions.
At the start of this quarter, I gained access to a wonderful lab with 4 laser cutters, two of which are Glowforge laser cutters. While my first assignment was tempting to jump in on, I remembered my vast knowledge of the settings of my previous laser cutter and took a moment to pause. Before I could create notches so that my 2D shapes would interlock, I needed to understand the laser cutter beam. Before I could cut a piece with confidence, I needed to know if the laser beam would cut fully through the material and that it would not catch the material on fire. Understanding these basics could be done through trial and error; however, that only leads to “getting-it-done” knowledge. Not a higher thought level that allows for better and more efficient designing.
Based on this, instead of jumping into creating my Omni-Animal, I started with a grid. The grid mapped out the power and speed ranges of the machine for cutting. On first pass, the grid included the full range of the machine. One the second pass, the grid narrowed in to fine tune the settings for even better results.
Unfortunately, confident in my first exploration, I decided to replace the MDF board with cardboard to create two additional test pieces. Assuming that since the first pieces worked on MDF I was fine, I started the machine. Within seconds, the cardboard caught fire. While the fire was not a major issue, this only emphasized the importance of thoughtfully learning and reflecting before starting.
While taking a step back applies to learning prototyping tools, it also applies to other tools, projects, and methods in life. For another class this quarter (marketing), my team jumped directly into working on the deliverable of a marketing experiment. Only three weeks in, did we finally put the breaks on planning our experiment and go back to the basics: What product are we marketing? What is the vision/mission of the company? Who is are target? These basics are critical for designing a useful and effective experiment. Without them, we may get to a useful conclusion, but this conclusion might take longer to achieve or miss the most important points.
It is logical to assume this is only an issue in school, where projects are a bit more arbitrary and teams thrown together. However, the same issues apply in the working world. In fact, they are often more prevalent. Too much work, conflicting priorities, similar previous experience and urgent deadlines often push you to jump right in. In fact, jumping in is often encouraged and seen as a sign of good employee. Instead, as my small laser cutter fire reminded me, take a moment to:
- Think about the learning of past experiences
- The differences between the current and previous work/tools/methods
- The big picture goal
Even if you then jump in, you can do so with a better understanding and hopefully a more strategic path forward.