Getting things done became a concept for export

Is there a place in which the disciplinary boundaries between technology, business and the arts are broken down in the spirit of creativity? A place in which students can transform vague ideas into successful products? Yes. Aalto University’s Design Factory is precisely that kind of place. A unique innovation workshop, the concept behind the Design Factory has already been exported to 10 countries without any active marketing.

Professor Kalevi Ekman, the so-called ‘Captain’ of the Design Factory tells us how the concept took flight: ‘The Design Factory was born out of our desire to train the best product developers in Finland. This required us to fully understand what the requirements for such a training programme are and how they take shape. We also needed to gain insight into the ways in which R&D can be best executed in a commercial setting.’

Expertise in product development is an increasingly important factor in maintaining a competitive edge, and throughout its existence Aalto University has provided multidisciplinary education to foster precisely the knowledge and skills required. The precursors to the Design Factory were Aalto University’s ever-popular Product Development Project courses and its Future Lab of Product Design research project. 

‘Both of these entities had reached the stage where the basic premise had been thoroughly tested and honed. This led to us to think about the bigger picture, which eventually gave birth to the concept of the Design Factory.’

Plenty of room for an enquiring mind

The Design Factory consists of a considerable amount of physical space, technology, and various machines and associated apparatus. It also offers plenty of conceptual space for enquiring minds to test the limits of what is possible.

‘We encourage each other to find new ways of working, to break down boundaries, and even to make mistakes. In fact, learning from one’s mistakes is often necessary before a true breakthrough can be made. In this way, practice compliments theory.’

Ekman is a firm believer in a self-directed model in which passion and enthusiasm is given room to grow.

‘Above all else, the Design Factory is a facilitator,’ he says.

Design Factory Aalto University

The Factory provides students and staff with a platform for collaboration, supervision, training, and support and assistance during the difficult prototyping, electronic engineering, testing, and procurement stages of the product development cycle. And a firm grasp of pedagogics is also important. 

Accidental global domination

The Design Factory concept has been successfully exported around the world almost as if by accident. In fact, according to Kalevi Ekman the team doesn’t actually actively market the Factory and yet plenty of enquiries still flood in from overseas. Indeed, there has been significant interest in the new university-level education that the Design Factory has to offer. To-date around 10,000 people a year have visited the Design Factory at Aalto University. And by the end of 2015 there will be 10 Design Factories in the following cities: Helsinki, Shanghai, Melbourne, Santiago de Chile, Geneva, Seoul, Porto, Riga, Leeuwarden, and Philadelphia.

This development has led to new models for cooperation between the Design Factories, with students working in interdisciplinary and multicultural project groups that are, in fact, physically located in different locations. This type of cooperation means that all the Design Factories speak the same language and use the same methodologies. ‘This remote cooperation, spanning several time zones, and using video conferencing and other technological solutions, has become part of the everyday life of our students’, Ekman explains. ‘It is hugely beneficial to them when they enter the world of industry, in which mastery of such working methods is essential.’

More space to create

So what does the future hold for the Design Factory? Ekman has a long list of plans tucked safely in his back pocket. ‘I’d like to gather together a core group of around 5-10 professors. And then I’d bring in a few more visiting teaching staff. There’s plenty of good stuff going on in the Design Factory in its current form and I wouldn’t really change anything other than the amount of space available to us, which is already close to running out thanks to the level of demand. Our teaching staff are working flat out, too. I’d want to markedly extend the workshops we have and fit them with a much wider range of tools and equipment. More teaching staff and trainers would be good, too.

Examples of some Design Factory projects

  • An electric off-road skateboard (AT Skate)
  • A heat-driven method of eliminating bed bugs (Bed Bug Kill)
  • Designing an interface for ship manoeuvres (ABB)
  • Making installation and maintenance easier with Augmented Reality (Wärtsilä)
  • Concept development and prototyping for new cooling units and service points (Norpe)
  • A bracket designed to make the pole mounting of cables easier (Ensto)
  • Structures for mobile weather stations and their terminal devices (Vaisala)
  • An app designed to improve information dissemination between hospitals and their patients (NetMedi)
  • Navigational smart sports shoes (Plink)