Widgets Magazine

Building it Bigger: Design Comes to Life at the Product Realization Lab

For Ankur Shah ‘11, a mechanical engineering student, the Product Realization Lab has been the “bread and butter” of his time on the Farm. Shah started working in the lab during his junior year, but continues to work on projects in the lab on a regular basis.

“A lot of my project classes took place in the lab,” Shah said. “Sometimes I went there at the end of the quarter for projects. Sometimes I had to spend much more time on it–for example, when I was taking ME 203, Manufacturing and Design. But I totally loved it.”

(YIBAI SHU/The Stanford Daily)

The lab is housed in Mechanical Engineering 610, conveniently located just across the street from the Axe and Palm. At the lab, a light is almost always on. People swirl in and out of the building and the noise of buzzing machines reverberates throughout.

Professor of mechanical engineering David Beach, a co-director of the lab who has been working at Stanford for 39 years, described the lab as one of the most unique teaching projects in the world.

Most engineering students have some experience taking courses in the lab, such as Manufacturing and Design, Medical Devices Design and Computer-Aided Product Creation. But the lab is much more than a place for students to do coursework.

Students can pay $184 a quarter for access to the lab facilities from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., 15 hours a day, seven days a week. Most choose to spend more time in the lab than their classes require.

Under the philosophy that Stanford graduates should not only be good citizens but also excel in a profession, “making things” has been an important part of a Stanford engineering education, Beach said.

Every year more than 500 students, from freshmen to doctoral students, use the lab. Two thirds of the people who use the lab are undergraduates. Sign-up is simple, and the shop-license fee is relatively affordable, given the array of high-tech machines and equipment available, Beach said.

Students from any major at Stanford, whether mechanical engineering, material science, product design or even English can pursue projects at the lab. Final products can range from skateboards, guitars and golf putters to complex machines.

While many of the projects are related to students’ research, some are simply an extension of students’ hobbies.

“We don’t tell people what to do here,” said Craig Milroy, professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the lab. “We help them do what they want to do.”

Milroy described how his mechanical-device design class uses the lab.

For the course, Milroy brought in doctors to work with 10 different student teams on developing medical devices. For example, one team worked with a physician to develop new tools for tonsil removal operations.

For many students, one of the biggest perks of the lab is access to its machinery.

“The cool thing is that we have standard equipments, and we have [the] best equipments in the world,” said Peter Miller, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and a teaching assistant for ME 203. Some of the lab’s cutting-edge machines have even won world competitions.

For example, the laser CAMM can be programmed to cut out any shape in a wide range of materials, from fruit to plastic. The lab also features one Haas 3-Axis VF-0 machine. Apple uses 4,000 of these machines to make iPods, iPhones and all the Macbook models.

Collectively, the lab’s machines are capable of producing almost anything that could be manufactured in a real factory.

The lab has often served as a stepping-stone for students interested in innovative entrepreneurship. Students sometimes get patents for projects they worked on in the lab. Others generated ideas and found teammates while working in the lab with whom they later worked to build their own enterprises.

Most importantly, students have been using the knowledge and experience they gained to benefit people around the world, particularly in developing countries.

“We’ve got two teaching assistants working on a device for children from Cambodia as a foot replacement,” Milroy said.

A course named Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability often receives attention for its social entrepreneurship projects. It is a graduate-level project course where students design solutions to challenges faced by the world’s poor.

Some of the successful projects, such as Mighty Light, have been used worldwide and have been helping people in countries such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Panama, Guatemala, Rwanda and South Africa. The the lab can claim much of the credit for several of those projects.

Another successful project incubated in the lab is Driptech, an extremely low-cost water-efficient irrigation system for small-plot farmers in developing nations. Its low-tech design eliminates about 90 percent of all the parts of a traditional dripper system.

Many Stanford graduates from the lab go on to work in highly innovative engineering teams after graduation. According to Beach, about 40 percent of the engineering staff at Tesla Motors are lab alums. Both of the co-founders of Icon Aircrafts are, too.

The lab’s success has inspired the formation of similar creative workspaces in other Stanford engineering buildings, such as Room 36 in Huang Engineering Center, as well as commercial workshops beyond campus in Oakland and Menlo Park.

Although many universities have created similar labs, the caliber of Stanford’s remains unrivaled, Beach said, noting that the number of students who use the lab and the degree of integration between design and manufacturing.

Beach said that the emphasis on constructing actual projects as opposed to only conceptualizing designs on a computer screen is what makes Stanford’s product realization lab so special.

“Engineers and designers are much more powerful if they have built things,” he said.