Meet an engineer who tore apart your favorite childhood toy

If you follow our Instagram account, you may have noticed some interesting photos that look like product dissections. One of our more popular videos features the LUNAR engineering team disassembling an old Nintendo 64 game console to the Super Mario Starman theme.

The story unfolds through Elizabeth Marshman, a Mechanical Engineer who has helped LUNAR develop and improve an array of products, including wearables, small kitchen appliances, and consumer electronics. Elizabeth, who turned down Ph.D. offers at both Harvard and M.I.T. to join LUNAR about three years ago, has a particular passion for medical devices, a LUNAR specialty, and she hopes to one day apply her mechanical engineering expertise to improve medical diagnostics for patients in emerging markets.

Elizabeth took a few minutes to give us the backstory on that Nintendo 64 video. In the process, she revealed the various ways LUNAR teams use product teardowns to promote knowledge sharing, complement McKinsey’s design-to-value (DTV) process, and create powerful, empathetic client experiences.

First, tell us a little more about what you do as a LUNAR mechanical engineer. 

Essentially, I have two jobs as a mechanical engineer. The first is to support our industrial designers and do everything in my power to realize their design vision. I work with them to bring their renderings from a computer into a manufacturable reality that hits our clients’ cost targets.

The other involves doing novel R&D or engineering of the internal components inside an industrial design package. Most recently, that’s meant coming up with answers to questions like: How might I create a hidden release or spring latch that you don’t notice until you need it? How can I melt butter and spray it in a fast and safe way that still uses cost-effective components?

What’s the coolest project you’re working on right now?
A collapsible personal transportation device we’re currently calling “Moonshine.” We’re engineering a device that delivers the same functionality as a foldable scooter, but breaks down into a much smaller package via easy – and hopefully delightful – mechanisms. One of my colleagues on the project is fond of saying that the device “should collapse like magic.”

Let’s turn to the Nintendo 64 teardown. Why would you, as the post put it, “tear apart [our] childhood memories”?
At LUNAR, we use product teardowns in a few different ways. The first is at the start of standard LUNAR product development cycle, where before we design and engineer a product, we tear down competitive products in order to immerse ourselves in the design standards of a particular product category, and rapidly identify quick wins and industry standards for the different features. From that foundation, we’ll begin our design and engineering brainstorming with an understanding of the product landscape.

We also perform teardowns in joint McKinsey-LUNAR DTVs. Since the acquisition, we’ve been rapidly learning McKinsey’s best practices for DTV and bringing our unique LUNAR skillset to these teardowns, a combination we like to call ‘DTV Plus.’

And then the third kind of teardown we do—the Nintendo 64 teardown falls into this category—is designed to promote team learning in a playful environment. Once a month, the entire engineering team meets specifically to tear down a product that a member of our team, be it the director or the intern, finds inspiring. As you can imagine, this has brought us a variety of products, including the Sphero BB8, the Dyson bladeless fan, and the recently popular hoverboard.

We’ll spend about an hour together disassembling it to learn what we can about how it’s designed and engineered. The sessions are casual and unstructured, but there’s always a lot of knowledge transfer.

How so?
Everyone contributes their individual insights. For example, we might get a sense of what background and experience a new engineer brings to the team from devices they’ve built in the past. Staff-level engineers can see some concepts or designs they’ve studied applied to an actual product, while more experienced engineers can point out clever or unusual manufacturing choices and identify the clues the product leaves behind that show us why its manufacturer may have made those choices.

And everyone talks about technical decision making around the material or particular design of a part or mechanism. We’ll often find one or two items that make us say, “How the heck did they make that?” This leads to a lot of discussion and debate—and sometimes bandsaws and microscopes—to uncover the mystery.

Once, we looked at a cheap, waterproof Bluetooth speaker that can float in the pool. We started taking it apart, and a colleague who’d been here for years looked at it and asked an interesting question: “Hey, we’re working on trying to make a medical device waterproof right now,” he said. “What can we learn from how they designed this gasket that we might be able to apply to our current project?”

We may not have thought to make a connection between immersible electronics and medical devices, but the teardown gave us that opportunity.

Another example: Before LUNAR, I was working on my master’s thesis at Stanford with a MacArthur genius, who received an old mechanical music box as a gift. The mechanism of the music box inspired us to create a new design for medical diagnostics that was cheaper and simpler. (You can read about it at Popular Science.) That’s the kind of insight teardowns can spark.

What kinds of insight did you take away from the Nintendo 64 teardown?
Nintendo made an interesting choice in how they designed their joystick. Essentially, it’s a plastic stick (that your thumb knows well) kept in tension by a spring with a ball carriage/ball joint underneath. As your thumb moves the joystick around, two wheels with tiny notches in them move as well, and an infrared sensor measures the radial travel of the wheels and knows how you moved the joystick.

This is called an optical encoder. (Some computer mice work like this too.) It’s interesting that they chose this because I know that many other gaming consoles use more durable and advanced components, such as potentiometers that can determine how hard or fast you pushed a button and have the game you’re playing respond accordingly. It may be that this subsystem of injection molded plastic parts was simply cheaper than the subsystem that the potentiometers would require.

Our designers, meanwhile, were more focused on the controllers’ grips: How is it that these controllers feel good in everyone’s hands? How did they think about button placement to create an intuitive gaming experience?

And although at LUNAR we focus on mechanical and not electrical design, we know enough to look at the electrical components and ask questions that are relevant to the products we work on: Given what we know about this product, is this circuit board larger or smaller than we would expect? What can we learn about the components they chose? How could the wiring scheme be changed to make assembly easier?

Tell us about DTV Plus engagements. How does LUNAR complement McKinsey’s DTV process?
There are a few ways LUNAR adds value to DTV. For one, we’re able to audit and provide feedback on products through different lenses. For example, we’re able to tell a client how well the product’s aesthetic speaks to the larger brand, and assess the user experience from the product touchpoints.

We also have expertise in both high- and low-volume manufacturing processes of typical products, the materials used with them, and the fit and finishes that make a product feel premium. Our team has seen and designed hundreds of products from dozens of industries. That knowledge and experience often informs these engagements.

From a mechanical engineering standpoint, we’re able to look at a product holistically and say, “You’re trying to achieve this function; here are some ideas for more elegant and cost-effective ways to achieve it.” Then, we can quickly deliver 3D prototypes that illustrate our insights in a very visceral way. This helps clients embrace recommendations they might otherwise be hesitant about.

When you add those capabilities on top of our well-established McKinsey DTV process and the Firm’s business acumen, you’re able to empower clients to make deeply informed decisions through a really distinct experience that delivers significant impact. We can do this in many industries, from consumer electronics to medical to housewares; from LOPs to full product development engagements.

Let’s close with a recent example of what that client impact and experience looks like. Anything recent you can share?
Last year, I worked on a DTV Plus project for a client that manufactured surgical devices. We set up a mock operating room in our Life Sciences space, complete with dummies that served as surgery patients. It allowed us to physically walk through full user journey from opening the package through the surgical procedure to the product’s end of life. This helped us spot opportunities for design changes from a user-research and ergonomic standpoint.

When we did this walk through with the client, the physical experience enabled the client to immediately be brought on board with these opportunities, including improving the weight and grip of the device and changing the awkward positioning of a long lever arm.

We also tore apart the product and identified the potential sources of a few quality issues, as well as major opportunities for redesign. We developed a clear map, including concept sketches, of options for the product going forward. It ranged from quick fixes to a complete redesign, and it addressed the user needs we identified through the ergonomic study.

In the end, we were able to identify additional opportunities in design for manufacturing, usability, and design-to-cost that reduced the device cost by about 30 percent.


Authored by John Wilwol & Elizabeth Marshman

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