Office visit: Product design, Arup style

On the ground floor of the Arup headquarters in London’s leafy Fitzrovia district sits a glass-walled model shop designed to support the large-scale architectural and infrastructure projects the firm is best known for. But today, visitors are just as likely to find staff members tinkering with biodegradable packaging prototypes or virtual reality headsets.

Product designers Lucie Barouillet and Joe Smith working on a prototype virtual reality headset

Product designers Lucie Barouillet and Joe Smith working on a prototype virtual reality headset

Founded in 2006, Arup’s product design group got its start with prefabricated flooring systems and stadium seatingStephen Philips, a self-described “chair design fanatic” with a background in furniture, product, and lighting design, joined in 2008. Over the next few years, he worked with colleagues to broaden its mandate, moving beyond buildings-related, royalty-funded products to a wider variety of market sectors, scales, and revenue streams.

Barouillet and Smith with Stephen Philips (center)

Barouillet and Smith with Stephen Philips (center)

For one recent project, the team collaborated with Tokyo designers Nikken Sekkei to enter a Royal Institute of British Architects competition exploring the future of train design. Their short-listed solution, called the Air Train, featured air-filled seats that can deflate as needed to provide additional standing room. A manufacturer specializing in inflatable products helped them design, build, and test pneumatic seating and ventilation mock-ups.

Air Train model

Air Train model

Another train-related mock-up, this one full-size, sits next to Arup’s visualization team. It offers rail project stakeholders an understanding of how different train design options will affect the passenger experience. Seated in the model wearing a virtual reality headset and headphones, they can take a simulated journey demonstrating how changes related to window configuration, seat spacing, and other design elements will affect factors like views, noise levels, and legroom.

ProductDesign-7997_VER_CharlesAydlett

As the product design team’s reputation has grown, it has taken on more work and more people, doubling in size over the past four years. The latest hire, Lucie Barouillet, joined last September, not long after finishing a master’s degree in product design.

Barouillet cutting foam for a mockup

Barouillet cutting foam for a mockup

Although the team members spend much of their time shaping 3-D CAD models at their desks, the model shop has played a key role in their success, Philips said.

Francesca Tesei, an architect who works full-time in Arup’s model shop

Francesca Tesei, who trained as an architect, works full-time in Arup’s model shop

As digital modeling has become ubiquitous in industrial design, many product studios have phased out their workshops — an interesting reversal of the trends seen in broader culture with the rise of the maker movement and in-house design labs. In a field where hands-on experimentation often leads to better outcomes, Philips believes this is a mistake. “It’s one of the things that make Arup a better place to work, really, because you can model and mock up product ideas through to detailed connections relatively quickly. Otherwise, you’re missing how things are actually made.”

 

Arup’s model shop

Another important asset for a product designer: easy access to the firm’s in-house experts in materials, manufacturing, and more. “We have a dedicated specialist materials team here in the office, which we sit next to — there are materials scientists, metallurgists, mechanical, structural engineers. We can also walk down the hall and talk to people from a whole host of other Arup groups, like transport, lighting, sustainability, and city planning. All this is really handy for us when we need to work through what’s best for particular projects. When it comes to materials and manufacturing we have a generalist knowledge, but it’s really unusual to have people in the same company who can give much more in-depth advice.”

Arup’s London materials library, whose mobile furniture was designed by the product design team

Arup’s materials library, whose mobile furniture was designed by the product design team

These resources may become even more important in the coming years, as the team seeks to create a more sustainable supply chain by diverting discarded products from landfills. “Waste streams will become of increasing importance as a raw material for the future,” Philips said.

 

 

Questions or comments for Stephen Philips? Contact stephen.philips@arup.com.

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