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Meet the team at Cambridge Design Partnership – a brief profile of the experts, engineers and interesting people that work here. This month we’re talking to our real ‘rocket scientist’ Aki Laakso, Mechanical Engineer.

Why did you join Cambridge Design Partnership?

After spending three years in a purely technical role at NASA, I wanted to use and expand my knowledge and experience in other industries and gain more understanding of the commercial aspects of engineering. I was impressed with the wide scope of capabilities at CDP and how the team incorporates technical expertise with a deep understanding of softer areas of usability and design. I visited CDP for some interviews and loved how passionate everyone seemed about their work. Since joining, I’ve realized how crucial that positive atmosphere is to the ideation and creation process and it’s clear that everyone here believes in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.

What background do you come from and how do you apply this knowledge to your current role?

Before CDP, I was working as a mechanical engineer at NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center, just outside of Washington, DC. My main focus there was designing state-of-the-art deployable systems for small satellites and sounding rockets. I designed a few other things too, including a 9-channel photometer that’s now anchored to the International Space Station.
In my current role, I bring my experience in designing fail-safe systems to projects with strict safety requirements, such as drug-delivery devices. Big-budget NASA projects involve ground-breaking technology development while at the same time having a tremendous focus on reliability. Hardware has to survive the spaceflight environment and the severe structural loading encountered during launch, and there is obviously very limited access to fix or replace failed components. The medical industry often has comparable reliability requirements, so it’s good to bring some insight from one industry to another.

What interesting projects are you working on at the moment?

A few months back we were awarded a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design the next-generation condom as part of a mission to address the growing HIV problem in parts of the developing world. There are so many factors involved - cultural, social, economic and technical - and while we have a specific focus on the technical aspects of condoms, we’re incorporating usability and human factors understanding into our ideation and development process.

What do you see as the hot trends in your area at the moment and what is coming up in 2014?

I expect to see an increasing number of clever solutions that allow our smart phones to interact with the existing infrastructure around us. While phones, tablets and computers can feasibly be upgraded every few years, many aspects of our lives – our homes, our cars, our bodies – are more continuous and long-lasting. I think there will be a wider range of upgrades available for controlling and monitoring things in our lives like home security, energy usage and health. At the other end of the spectrum, low-cost consumer goods will feature increasing amounts of technology as brands continue to differentiate themselves from their competitors. Alternative manufacturing methods like 3-D printing and printed electronics are completely redefining what’s possible in product design. In the mechanical world, we’ll be seeing better use of smart materials and composites.

What product do you wish you’d designed?

I’m always inspired when I come across a product that’s both deceptively simple and completely genius. One that comes to mind is the butterfly corkscrew. It’s such a pure piece of mechanical engineering with the entire operation visible in plain sight, but there’s still something magical about it. It uses fundamental principles – a rack and pinion in series with a worm, with lever arms used to exert force on the pinions – but the resulting product adds so much value to the user in terms of ease of use compared to a waiter’s corkscrew. Also, the design has a very humane aesthetic which makes it fun to interact with.

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