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Making the Ultimate Minimalist Pen

In 2012, Brooklyn's CW&T raised more than $280,000 on Kickstarter for Pen Type-A, a stainless-steel upgrade to the Pilot Hi-Tec-C, a plastic gel pen with a cult following among writers, designers and other pen connoisseurs. But almost as soon as CW&T shipped its last Kickstarter reward, its founders had a realization—they needed to make another version. The Pen Type-B"We designed the pen and we were super happy with it, but we realized that it's not something that we can take everywhere with us," says Che-Wei Wang, who founded CW&T with Taylor Levy. "I literally took a Pen Type-A and ground its edges off so that it could go in my pocket. And that was silly."So the duo set about designing a new version—Pen Type-B—that could fit comfortably in your pocket, thanks to its newly rounded form. But the new iteration is not only more portable. "There's a big difference in all of the parts," Levy says. "We've tweaked tiny little things about it to make the pen itself work a lot better." Indeed, Wang and Taylor spent four years refining their design, testing numerous materials (titanium, aluminum, steel, brass) and finishes (glass bead blast, polish, black oxide), and sending drawings back and forth with the multi-generation machine shop in Vermont where they fabricated the first pen. Like its predecessor, Pen Type-B is precision machined from solid metal for ultra-high tolerances that create a piston-like effect between the body of the pen and its sleeve. But the latest edition also introduces a magnetic closure, which posed a host of manufacturing challenges. While Pen Type-A was milled and turned from a block of 304 stainless steel, Type-B uses three types of stainless steel of varying ferritic properties to achieve that closure. The tip is 400-series stainless (magnetic), the cylinder is made out of 300-series stainless (non-magnetic) and the dime screw at the end (for replacing the ink cartridge) is cold-worked stainless (slightly magnetic, but just the right amount). "We're just trying to balance magnetism on both ends so that it feels right," Wang says.Finding the perfect magnet to embed in the brass sleeve of the pen also proved tricky. The team initially started with rare-earth machineable magnets, which—despite their name—proved exceedingly difficult to machine. One day when browsing K&J Magnetics for another project, however, Levy stumbled upon a doughnut-shaped magnet with an interior chamfer that could perfectly hug the ferrous tip of the pen. "It was literally the perfect magnet," she says. The brass sleeve is made from two parts, the barrel and the end cap. These pieces are joined together through supercooling the end cap, and allowing it to shrink enough to be slip-fit into the barrel; then the cap expands so that it's permanently fixed and the seam between the two parts disappears. Machined using a massive gun drill, the barrel has super tight straightness tolerances and a mirrored interior finish on the sleeve. A rubber piece on the interior protects the tip of the pen behind the doughnut-shaped magnet. In addition, a flat edge was added to the sleeve to prevent the pen from rolling—off your desk and far, far away. The sleeve is left uncoated to allow for a gradual patina to build over time.In addition to the doughnut magnet, another prefabricated piece is the ink cartridge itself. As with Pen Type-A, Type-B uses a black gel .3mm Hi-Tec-C ink cartridge manufactured in Japan. "They really are the best," Levy says. "But they can be a bit finicky sometimes and hard to work with." Levy and Wang made small adjustments to the tip's outer and inner openings to help improve ink flow, adding a radial pattern of tiny holes near the pen cylinder tip. Those perforations create airflow into the pen that assists with that flow of ink, and that also equalizes the air pressure on the ink cartridge as the pen is pulled from its sleeve. Each raw cartridge ships to the factory in Vermont with a small rubber cap for protection and to keep the ink from drying out. Wanting to use every piece efficiently, the factory even went so far as reuse the typically discarded rubber cap in the sleeve of Pen Type-B, providing a tight seal around the tip of the pen and ensuring that it won't dry out when not in use. "They're basically salvaging this tiny rubber thing stuck inside this plastic cap for each pen," Wang says. Since the cap is used to keep the ink fresh, the factory had to be strategic about the amount of time the cartridges spend un-capped from its rubber counterpart. "There was a problem for a while where, if there was a pause in production, the pens would dry out," Levy says. "Last week, we asked them how they worked around that and they showed us a jig they built, so that the last operation in the production takes the rubber thing out, squeezes it (since it's rubber) and shoves it actually under the magnet already embedded in the tip. They're totally in love with solving little problems like that."As with any additional introduction to the manufacturing process, adding a magnet to the sleeve of the cap or changing small diameters added new layers of complications that rippled down to the final prototypes — requiring even more incremental tweaks to the pen. "From the width of the flat on the pen to how far the pen sticks out from the cap, just these little things," Levy says. She and Wang went through several prototypes, making minute changes to the length of the barrel, getting the flat edge to be just the right size. "They're all like little picky things because we're picky people," Wang says. "We're trying tackle all these issues as early as possible so they don't show up when they go into production." Levy and Wang see their Pen Type-B as an exercise in reducing the writing instrument down to its essence. They also promise that this is their very last pen—they swear. But perhaps they shouldn't be too quick to abandon the product category, given what is clearly a powerful demand for such obsessively considered writing instruments. The Type-B Kickstarter campaign was fully funded in mere hours, and it has now raised over twelve times its goal of $12,000, currently clocking in at nearly $165,000. Nonetheless, the pair is already onto their next project, which they say they might to turn to Kickstarter to fund as well. "[Kickstarter] just works for us," Levy says. On the last day of their campaign, though, she won't be watching the dollars tally up. "It makes you kind of crazy," she says of the individual Kickstarter notifications that you can turn on for every backer. "It's a bit of an unhealthy habit."

A Kiosk That Spits Out Free Short Stories

While slicing fruit, crushing candy and swiping faces have become commonly accepted forms of smartphone-based time killing, can't we do better, in terms of our intellectual health? Entrepreneur Christophe Sibieude thinks so. Thus he started Short Edition, a French "community publisher" that has users of its smartphone app trading short stories that they themselves write and consume. The Short Edition community is open to all ("male, female, old, young, blond, bald…"), and in four years has attracted some 140,000 members.In an effort to further immerse society in humble literature, Sibieude conceived of a kiosk that would dispense, for free, short stories. Placed in a train station, airport or one of France's famously bureaucracy-saddled municipal services buildings, the device would allow the line-waiter to disappear into a story, if only for a few minutes at a time.It sounds crazy, but what's even crazier is that the machines have actually launched. The Mayor of Grenoble, a city of 150,000 colloquially known as "The Capital of the French Alps," ordered eight of the machines placed throughout the city center. Users can select a one-minute, three-minute or five-minute story, and the machine instantly spits it out on recycled paper. (Amusingly, the stories still appear to be shorter than your average CVS receipt.)"The idea came to us in front of a vending machine containing chocolate bars and drinks, Sibieude told Agence France Presse. "We said to ourselves that we could do the same thing with good quality popular literature to occupy these little unproductive moments."While it might sound like an impractical idea to some, RT reports that interest in the machine is high:"We are getting a lot of requests from all over the world for this invention. Once we will sort out our costs, we will ship these machines anywhere – for maybe a month, several months or even for a few years," Quentin Pleple, one of Short Edition's founders, told RT.There is an unembeddable, French-language news video showing the machines here.

Alexandru Duru’s Real, Working Hoverboard

It's just five days until October 21st, 2015, the date that Marty McFly traveled to and rode around on a hoverboard on. Which means Canadian inventor Catalin Alexandru Duru has just five days to paint his invention pink, make it a bit smaller and get it ready for McFly.Yes, Duru has invented a working, battery-powered hoverboard—actually, two of them—and unlike the one McFly used/will use, Duru's do just fine over water. Earlier this year the 31-year-old used his first version to break the Guinness World Record for longest hoverboard flight (275.9 meters) over Quebec's Lake Ouareau; now he's already got a second version ready. Though this second prototype was developed in secret, Canada's CBC was allowed to videotape Duru taking it on its maiden voyage:You gotta love the wirecutter throttle.Duru has formed a company, Omni Hoverboards, around his inventions, and the CBC reports that the plan is to "have hovercrafts available for purchase across the country." We assume they mean Canada, but like Michael J. Fox himself, perhaps the hoverboards will migrate south.

A Rare Look at the Early, Pre-Memphis Work of Ettore Sottsass 

Ettore Sottsass is practically synonymous with the provocative, raw aesthetic of Memphis—the pioneering design collective that formed in Sottsass' own living room in 1981—but he was already in his 60's at the time, with a formidable, diverse career preceding the years of Radical Design. At Friedman Benda, a series of works from 1955 through 1969 highlight a far lesser-known stage of his career, one marked by intensely personal explorations and a will to devise objects that "touch the nerves, the blood, the muscles, the eyes and the moods of people." During this time, Sottsass began to collaborate more with his patrons in the Italian furniture industry while also traveling extensively and drawing on these experiences in early explorations with color, pattern and material. Through an array of personal and commissioned works, the show frames these rich, formative years during which Sottsass consolidated his design philosophy: that "decoration can be a state of mind, an unusual perception, a ritual whisper."Sideboard for Poltronova (1962) and collection of Tenebre vases (1962)Offerta a Shiva (Offerings to Shiva) series, 1964In 1961, Sottsass traveled to India for the first time and was deeply moved by the sensuous world he encountered. "In India I found very strongly a sort of dimension of sacrality," he said. "Every object could become something so related to your life that it becomes part of your vision of la sacralità [the sacred]." Unfortunately, he also contracted a kidney infection—with a terminal prognosis—that forced him into a lengthy convalescence in California. It was there that he met and befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac (among others), seminal writers who had been similarly marked by their travels to India. After his experiences in India, and later with the Beats, Sottsass began working on a series of expressive, hand-made ceramics reflecting the darkness of that time period, in which he so closely brushed with death. Each of the cylindrical forms in the Tenebre (Darkness) series represents a specific person he had known and lost—a set of intimate memorials. In a more optimistic tone, he created the 100 unique plates that make up the Offerta a Shiva (Offerings to Shiva) series as an offering of gratitude for being alive. Using earth tones and circular motifs, the forms are meditative and echo the iconography of mandalas. Tantra vases, 1968Grande Mandala, 1964-65 and Piccolo Mandala, 1964He would go on to make numerous subsequent trips to India during the following years and continued to absorb lessons from the country into his work. The monumental Tantra vases demonstrate that influence. Their ziggurat-like forms are three-dimensional interpretations of tantric diagrams, while their oversized proportions begin to speak to the playfulness that would define his Memphis work. View of installation including the Califfo Setee and a hanging lamp designed for ArredoluceMobile Barbarella (1966)View of installation including the velvet upholstered Canada setee and armchairs (1959), Lava vases and a mirror designed for Santambrogio and De Berti. Library (1965)Alongside the ceramic works are several little-known furniture designs, many of which are taken from his own house: a gridded screen, the cluster of coffee tables which were similarly assembled and a set of graphically patterned planters. "The experimentation in ceramics up against the furniture pieces shows the complete duality of what his career was," explains designer Jim Walrod. In contrast to much of the plastic and laminate work that would come later, most of these earlier pieces were made of natural materials like rosewood and walnut wood, often inlaid in contrasting tones to create graphic patterns. The biggest presence in the space, floating on a wall, is the bookcase he designed for an Olivetti executive in 1965. Though definitely functional, this piece also represents Sottsass' bold, subversive attitude—the typical structure of a library is upended, the bookshelves are vertical instead of horizontal. The exhibition is closing this weekend in New York but if your interest in Sottsass is piqued, we recommend the recently released biography written by London's Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic, Ettore Sottsass and the Poetry of Things.

Skybuds Wireless Earbuds Are a Clever Solution for Storage and Charging 

It's been a long road to arrive at truly wireless earphones, but a new crop of products entering the market are finally ditching that clumsy, behind-the-neck connective wire. Among these, Skybuds—the result of a collaboration between ECCO Design and Alpha Audiotronics—takes things a couple steps further than just delivering great sound, by incorporating the earphones into a storage and charging system aimed to "seamlessly fit into a user's existing behavior," as co-founder Jamie Robert Seltzer notes. The evolution of Skybuds through many rounds of prototypes. In order to create an earbud flexible enough to fit a majority of ear shapes, the team started the project with extensive analysis. They conducted hundreds of studies to map out different ear geometries, which they 3D modeled and used to explore possible ergonomic iterations for the Skybuds tip shape. In its minimalist design, the Skybuds system combines four everyday products: wireless earbuds, a bluetooth headset, an extra battery for both your phone and the earbuds and a protective case for your phone. Skybuds live in the accompanying, patented phone case and can be removed from the bottom with a simple push, like clicking a pen. The buds begin charging as soon as they are securely docked and have a 3-4 hour battery life. The case itself has an embedded battery pack, so a welcome side effect of using this system is that your phone will be recharged throughout the day. Through dozens of iterations, the team pared down the sleek case so that it's not too bulky on the bottom to make room for the earbuds. The final design features a slight taper, allowing the case to lie flat and the screen to be fully visible in a resting position.The focus throughout the entire design process was on minimizing bulk and hassle while creating a tool that addresses multiple modern-day needs. "The work of good design is to simplify complex issues so people can readily enjoy everyday experiences," explains ECCO Design President Eric Chan. "The most challenging aspect is to negotiate space between EE components, antenna design and performance and battery capacity, while getting the most comfortable and compelling form factor, all in a very small earbud." The earbuds include a set of useful functions: Buttons on both buds let users play/pause music and also answer, ignore or hang-up phone calls. The system uses a combination of wireless technologies but is really freed up by the use of Near Field Magnetic Induction (NFMI)—a technology previously only used in hearing aids—to send signals to both buds without needing to connect them through a wire. The benefits of magnetic induction are numerous—it is an efficient, low-power system that overcomes many of the drawbacks of radio frequency systems, like interference and security concerns. One of the frustrating aspects of wireless earphones is how easily they can be lost, but Skybuds has considered those of us who are prone to misplacing things. Though the case itself already helps prevent lost buds, they also created an app that contains a tracking feature—for those inopportune moments when you're searching for your earphones as you're running late to work. Though some will be disappointed to know that (for now, at least) the case is only compatible with iPhone 6 and 6s, there is a lot of enthusiasm for this clever, compact product—just a little over a day into their Kickstarter campaign, the project is already almost half-way funded.

A Desktop Robotic Arm That Can 3D Print, Mill, Plot, Carve, Etch, Assemble and More

The prevailing form factor for consumer-level 3D printers and CNC mills is a box, dictated by the axial/gantry-style mechanisms of these machines. But entrepreneur Zaib Husain and engineer Azam Shahani were thinking outside of the box, literally, when they devised their Makerarm prototype. An articulated arm is cantilevered off of a column mounted to a worksurface; the arm has a 180-degree sweep, ten inches of Z-travel and a maximum reach of nearly 16 inches. So what does this arm do? Well, everything. The creators have designed a series of interchangeable tool heads that can hold an almost absurd variety of: Cutting heads for milling and engraving, nozzles for 3D printing either FDM-style or resin-based, a laser cutter, a soldering iron, a pen plotter, and even a series of pick-and-place tools like a claw gripper, an electromagnet and a suction cup. Check out its range of operations: I found the auto-leveling feature shown in the video the most fascinating, where the head tracks the slanted surface of the workpiece. The sensors that must be contained within to perform such a feat make me wonder if the arm can also automatically index off the corner of the workpiece. Holddown–not to mention bolting the arm's base to your worksurface–is presumably still the user's domain.Unsurprisingly, the $999 early bird special is already sold out on Kickstarter. That was for just the Makerarm and a single head pack including the electromagnet and pen plotter. The fully-loaded version that ships with all of the heads (see below) is going for $2,199.Though they've still got a long way to go, it seems certain the project will be funded. Though the campaign is only in their first few days, they've already raised $145,653 of a $349,750 goal, and there are still 28 days left to pledge. And assuming they do make it, they're planning on shipping by October 2016.

Parking As a Transformative Act

Parking cars today means putting them out of the way while they are not being used. It is a necessary evil in our ever-growing, auto-centered cities and the cutting-edge of parking technology does little to revolutionize our strategy. Advancements have primarily focused on two things: parking more cars in a given space and being able to put car parks in places where they might otherwise not be possible. Conventional automated parking technology does have a number of good—but relatively limited—benefits, including increased security, decreased damage to cars, and reduced space requirements. When done correctly, there is also additional efficiency in getting cars in and out a car park or garage. But the time has come to start thinking about parking as more than storage for automobiles, and start considering its potential as a culturally transformational act. This shift is made possible by autonomous driving technology, smartphones, thoughtful data analysis, and inexpensive, ubiquitous sensors. These enablers highlighted below can facilitate a number of changes in the near term, especially when coupled with public/private partnerships. All illustrations by Eli Myers. IMPROVE THE WORLDIn North America, a quarter of cars cause 90 percent of automotive air pollution. Badly tuned cars pollute the environment and expose people who live near multiple roads to as much as 10 times more pollution than the average citizen. City and local governments could use passive-emission detecting technology in parking lots to sniff out offending vehicles as they enter and leave. Those owners could then get an offer for coupons to get their emissions checked and systems fixed or updated. Parking lots are ideal places to install these services; cars are in relatively controlled environments, where data can be collected from a large sample of vehicles over time, easily identifying those in the top quartile of polluters.SAVE TIME AND MONEYMaintaining cars saves gas and makes them safer. While today's parking lots provide basic valeting services, including car wash and oil change, the abundance of applications that use the on-board diagnostics (OBD2) port built into most cars since 1996 (such as Voyo) allow service people in parking garages to do more than just check the tire pressure and clean windows. Drivers can opt to have their cars run through suites of diagnostics to make sure they are working optimally and to identify possible problems before they happen. While drivers are at work, shopping, or watching a sporting event, they could get an alert that says their timing belt needs tightening and elect to have a technician fix it right away.MAKE PEOPLE SAFER AND HAPPIERWhat if your car could be where you want it to be, when you need it? Even before autonomous cars are available, tomorrow's parking facilities could be the place where your car starts a journey to where you need it, whether you drive it there or not. Maybe traffic is crazy, or you had one beer too many, and you take the train home after the game? No worries, because the service you signed up for will make sure your car gets where it needs to be, well after peak traffic is over.CHANGE THE EXPERIENCE OF CITY LIFEWhile we are reinventing driving and parking, we should change the essential definition of parking itself; why does an autonomous car need to stop moving? Need to go to the store for five minutes? No problem. Just hop out of your self-driving car and let it be parked in motion, circling the block for a fee until you are finished. The same principle applies if you are late for a concert. Simply jump out and let the car go where you want it to be when you are finished, based perhaps on the outflow of the venue or where you plan to go after the concert. Maybe your car parks itself in someone's driveway during the show — we could call it Airbnb for parking — and you pay a small fee. Imagine the reduction in uncertainty. You would only need to know how long it would take you to travel to a venue in order to arrive on time — no longer would you need to anticipate the parking situation in order to determine the amount of travel time required for important events. This article appears as part of frog's 'The Ride Ahead' collection, which focuses on the future of personal transportation.

This Terrifying Mobile Tree-Harvesting Machine is Like a Robot Koala Bear with Chainsaw Limbs

Earlier we saw that loading logs into containers is still a primitive process. But thanks to Finnish forest machinery company Ponsse, the process of creating those logs is super high-tech.Ponsse's Scorpion King is an eight-wheeled monster designed to "endure tropical heat and arctic cold, travel without destroying the terrain and briskly climb the steepest slopes." That's because it's designed to get to and cut down trees down in tricky areas. And Ponsse has developed a "cut-to-length" method whereby the trees are stripped of their branches and cut into logs of precise length on the spot.To achieve this, they designed a fairly terrifying saw-wielding robot koala bear suspended from the end of a massive boom arm. Watch as it outstretches its greedy little arms, eagerly embracing and mutilating one arboreal victim after another:Ponsse's official product video for the machine, below, gives you a better idea of the design work that went into it. The hydraulically-balanced cabin self-levels, and the articulated chassis can handle challenging terrain. Especially cool are the in-cabin shots, where you can clearly see how well the machine has been designed for panoramic visibility and see the digital readouts used by the operator. It's also amusing that, from the operator's perspective, it kind of looks like the koala bear is defecating, well, logs:

Strange, Experimental Phone Designs from China

Are phones designed for users, or for the companies that produce them? What features might you design into a phone that didn't have to pass Apple or Samsung's strict internal guidelines? Those are questions posed by MIT Media Lab and production company mssngpeces, who teamed up to create this video look at phone production in China. On the ground in Shenzhen, the production crew found a bewildering array of locally-designed devices with features meant to appeal to the local market. What if a cell phone had a built-in telescoping reading light, for those living in areas with spotty electricity? What if a phone could be used to charge another phone? Or how about a phone with multiple SIM-card slots, so the traveling user can switch to whatever carrier they'd like? MIT Media Lab Knotty Objects: Phone from m ss ng p eces on Vimeo.However weird, unlovely or downright tacky we Westerners might consider some of these, we think China should do more to promote this kind of local-targeted design work. They've got the consumer base to support it, and trying to solve users' needs that have been passed over by the big dogs is a sure path to innovation. That would go a long way towards repairing their piracy-riddled reputation, and perhaps even help to stamp it out.

Vertically Parked Cars, Sauna-Equipped Motorcycles and Self-Shortening Coupes: Hilarious Vehicle Concepts by Steven M. Johnson

The brilliant cartoonist/inventor Steven M. Johnson has been dreaming up kooky product concepts for 40 years. Luckily for us the man saves his work, and this year he released a new book, "Patent Depending: Vehicles," that rounds up four decades of his automotive concepts. The $19.95 book contains over 400 drawings of "ludicrous, whimsical or marginally-plausible inventions relating to the automobile, as well as to vans, motorcycles, bicycles and unique personal conveyances," and I really wish some car company would hire him. (He actually worked for Honda R&D for nine years!) Here's a sample of what's in the book:Ooh—maybe VW is now in such dire need of distraction that they'd consider taking Johnson on?Via PrintMag & The Atlantic