Name: Matthew Borgatti
Home: Brooklyn, New York
Makerspace: NYC Resistor
Day Job: Running Super-Releaser, the soft robotics research, development, and design company. I also consult on design engineering, industrial design, and mechanical design projects for clients ranging from Cadillac to Google X to NASA (through a subcontract with Final Frontier Design, the spacesuit design company in the Brooklyn Navy Yard).
How did you get started making?
Although I’ve always kept a sketchbook and sculpted little clay things, I started out my professional making-stuff career in high school as an illustrator and web designer. In college I switched majors from illustration to industrial design – in large part due to the influence of professors Jonathan Bonner and Merlin Szasz. I enjoyed the challenges they presented for solving problems in physical space. During school I landed an internship at The Character Shop, working on animatronics for Snakes on a Plane, and a full-time job at ADI, machining parts and building mechanisms for Alien Vs Predator 2: Requiem. As my career progressed, I started seeing how much digital fabrication could speed up what I was exploring, and that put me into contact with the maker community.
What type of maker would you classify yourself as?
Dielectrical Materialist. Seriously though, I do think about how being excited to make things and solve problems with stuff you’ve built can make people miss the root causes of problems. You always have to ask why the problem you’re trying to address with any design is there in the first place, and whether your intervention is going to address those material conditions. You could call this etiological design, if you wanted to box it up in snappy academic jargon.
I tend towards working with my hands, making a lot of quick iterations on ideas, starting with sketching and working from there, and leaning on CAD for spatial problem solving and simulation (I’ve been using SolidWorks for 15 years now). I like combining digital fabrication (laser cutting, 3D printing, and CNC machining) with quick and dirty building techniques to get things out into the physical world as quickly as possible to evaluate and understand. I’m also a big advocate of multidisciplinary design and casting a really wide net on potential solutions to problems and what other research is out there before falling in love with your own ideas.
I can highlight how this multidisciplinary thinking really amplifies design with an example from a project my collaborator Kari Love and I did for Google Wing. We needed to figure out a way to make impact resistant drone shells at scale. The biggest challenge was that the Google team wanted to make the drone use the visual language of something you’d want around your home like a lamp or a piece of furniture rather than a slick futuristic surveillance bot. We started looking to fashion, garment design, origami, hat making, shoe design, and furnishings for inspiration. We bought a ton of materials and made quick physical sketches. Simultaneously, we reached out to experts in hat making, costuming, soft goods, and any field we could think of that shared some of the same space as the problem we were tackling. Eventually, an expert haberdasher advised us about a cool natural fiber that could be formed like a plastic, and a professional broadway costume material sourcer connected us up with an artificial flower shop that could press the material into any shape we requested at any volume we could hope for. If we hadn’t broken the problem down, asking about the essential features we needed and what fields could provide solutions, we never would have come up with a solution that fit the problem so well.
What’s your favorite thing you’ve made?
I’m pretty fond of the soft robotic spacesuit airlocks (called Wrist Dams) I designed for the Mechanical Counterpressure Glove System in the next-gen EVA spacesuit. That project involved a lot of work making the process for casting complex silicone parts quick enough to iterate on. It’s so hard to model the dynamics of these soft mechanisms. You really have to make one and test it to see what it will do – every hour I shaved off the time it took to make a casting added up to a bunch more shots I had at perfecting the design within the time and budget constraints of the contract.
I’m also really proud of the microscopic tardigrade aquarium I made for Midnight Commercial and Google ATAP. It was this microlens-array powered microscope that looked into a tiny self-contained biome of waterbears, algae, and other microscopic critters we mixed up as an artificial biome – all designed to live in your phone and let you watch this little world through your screen. I got to do everything from design biological research experiments, to diving into whitepapers on micro-optics and tardigrade lifecycles, to simulating EDM cut sheet metal flexures, to figuring out how to cheaply duplicate micro-machined lenses using silicone casting.
Any advice for people reading this?
Everything has history. Always look for mentors and people with experience who have been around the block a few times. I find that people are really eager to talk with people who are excited to solve problems, and they really want to prevent them from hitting the wall on the same challenges they’ve faced.
You don’t need to be a world expert to try something, but you should always be looking across your field and others to make certain you’re not reinventing the wheel or ignoring important complications that weren’t on your radar. Don’t hesitate to try new things. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, even if they might make you sound dumb.
Find and solve the underlying, fundamental problem whenever you can. If you don’t bring moral ambition, the needs of the user, and the impact of your intervention into your work, who will?
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