Wonders of wood

October 26, 2015

By: Prince George Citizen

The building has a name that has to be lived up to, and Emily Carr University is already well on its way to being the innovators of wood design called for in that title.

The Vancouver-based university is moving in and setting up its engineering programs that will focus on ways of making wood work for society well beyond lumber and linear furniture. It’s something their faculty has been catalyzing for years, and it is anticipated to reach new heights with a UNBC partnership and industry connections in the heart of the forest industry – at the Wood Innovation and Design Centre in downtown Prince George.

It’s where art and industry come together, with a wooden foundation for the future.

“I was hired to bring a wood component into our design programs at the Granville Island campus,” said Christian Blyt, a longtime and award-winning associate professor at ECU. “They wanted to have design being applied at a higher level to the provincial fibre supply. They wanted to infuse entrepreneurship into the forest industry, to move the thinking way off to the side of lumber.”

Blyt will now be one of the principal minds bringing that train of thought to the new Prince George station. He said the possibilities for wood were almost endless, because of its obvious properties of rigid surfaces easy to shape but construction-grade strong. But what about the building blocks of wood, like the organic compound lignin? If 3D printers were using similar stuff to create tactile objects, why couldn’t wood lignin – a cellular organic polymer – become such a material?

He pointed to some of the things wood was already being used for, in the hands of ECU students. A miniature prototype was on display of a wooden outdoor playground structure that had parts set on springs and interconnected with hinged walkways. Kids could conceivably play a game of grounders in which all the suspended streets and avenues moved multiple directions – safely – under their feet as they ran and delved in delight. More than playground entertainment, it is also a subliminal physiotherapy tool, adding layers of fitness to the common scurrying around on normal outdoor adventure structures.

Also nearby was a lamp all of wood sitting prominently in the room. It was sleek and attractive, almost a piece of minimalist sculpture, and its bulb was LED so as to be cold to the wood’s touch. What was most remarkable was the way you could swivel the light’s head all around its axis post. How was this possible? Many lamps do this but only to the point the wires twist to their limit. The secret is: no twisting wires. By using the plugs from a guitar pickup, the lamp’s bulb could spin on its base all day long with no mechanical impediment. It’s simple, yet revolutionary.

“Our students learn from getting their hands dirty, and using materials,” said Blyt. “Then you figure out what to do with the materials. How do you apply it to design? The material informs the design, instead of the other way around – getting a design idea in your head then trying to figure out how to build it. It’s a reversal of the usual direction of a design course.”

The innovation flows not only from the ECU students. Like a science professor has to do research to maintain relevance in the classroom, or an English professor has to produce poetry and prose, these design instructors have to work on their own inventions using the tools and materials of their ECU labs.

Haig Armen, associate professor of design, for example, is out on the cutting edge of parental safeguards for the video game generation, and wood plays a part in his technological advancement – a simple machine already set for the retail market and getting international tech-media

attention.

“Minecraft is not mindless gaming,” he said, referring to the world’s most popular online activity among kids these days. “It is virtual Lego, and you build with it in the computer or personal gaming devise platforms, collaborating with other builders online. Teachers are now using Minecraft as a classroom teaching tool, because of that construction and design basis it has, and that interactivity.”

His own son loved Minecraft, but he had his gaming innocence punctured by a “griefer.” Just as there are throngs of peers eager to help you build your Minecraft structures and societies, there are a few vandals too. These “griefers” will pretend to be your friend (they are anonymous online strangers, just like the legitimate game players), then implant destructive commands into the scenes people are building. Imagine building an intricate sand castle at the beach, someone comes along and offers to help, but instead pours water on the tallest tower and runs away laughing.

When his young son got hit by a griefer, Armen’s professorial mind started whirring.

“The problem I found was, Minecraft and all those multiplayer games are open to inappropriate behavior that children can be exposed to,” he said.

He created an attachment that plugs into your computer that acts as a gatekeeper. Only trusted and invited other players get to have access to your Minecraft game. It is a collection of circuits, plastic and wood. It is small, light, cost-effective to replicate and so it is cheap for the consumer.

He is therefore able to bring an innovative wood product to the classroom, as a practical example of what they can do with the stuff of trees, complete with a business case.

“You need tech folks to figure out the machinery, business folks to figure out the assembly line and marketing and distribution, you have intellectuals on the engineering side to determine what the consumer actually wants and then try to provide that before the customer even asks for it. We teach that,” he said.

Even before ECU opened its doors, their students were already succeeding here. One set of design students pitched their classroom project at a Startup event in this city, and ended up obtaining $50,000 in outside investment to make their project into an actual consumer product. Imagine what will happen when those projects are being pumped out the WIDC doors in numbers, every year.

“Design is the lost component in the world of engineering and fabrication,” said Armen. “And that is what we do. UNBC is going to develop the culture of engineering, and we will be right alongside them helping to teach the design skills that will complement the raw engineering and the raw business culture UNBC is working on.”

“I really like connecting real life with learning interests,” said Blyt. “It is so important for students to get practical applications learned in a safe, supervised environment where they can make mistakes that will inform them, not destroy them, and experience the successes that will propel them forward into professions and interests that will benefit them and the community.”

For information on Emily Carr University programs in Prince George and in Vancouver, visit their website.

– See more at: http://www.princegeorgecitizen.com/entertainment/local-a-e/wonders-of-wood-1.2093375#sthash.nlV3H8kQ.dpuf

By: Prince George Citizen

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