Plastics made a difference in novel designs

Tom Shelley reports on this year's RCA student Work in Progress show, which showed an exceptional amount of degree of ingenuity in some of the designs

A common theme among most of the particularly ingenious ideas put forward as potential products at this year's Work in Progress show was uses made of the special properties of plastics and polymers. Graduates of the Royal College of Art have for some time been noted for their acute business sense as well as their artistic design skills and it was noteworthy that most of the designs on show were not only working prototypes but clearly capable of finding commercial markets. We were shown round the exhibits by Max Wehebrink, who with colleague Tim Sutcliffe, recently shared the 25,000 euro first prize in the pan European Creative Intelligence competition run by Visa. Their winning idea is to have cards made of polypropylene laminate that can be folded in three and plugged into a USB port in the back of a computer to give the user an instant breakdown of spending activity. Max's contribution to the show was an illusion lamp called 'White Lie'. It is in fact nearly flat but looks from a distance like a round table lamp. He said it is inspired by anamorphic art in which drawings and paintings appear distorted and almost unrecognisable to the unaided eye but may be easily interpreted as recognisable images when they are viewed from a particular perspective or by using a decoding device. Tim's development is more practical. Made of polypropylene, the 'CanMan' consists of tiles with circular cut outs surrounded by lugs to hold cans. The tiles may be incorporated into a wall or even the underside of a shelf. The can rims are pressed into the cut outs and may then stored securely and tidily in a way that makes better use of cupboard space. The 'Drugbug' devised by Andrew Nias is a pill container that is child proof but not adult proof. Pulling one of the sides outwards allows the inner pill container to be partly swung out. It can only be fully released, however, by inserting the full length of one's finger into the opened aperture, to reach and depress a button on the far side of the inner container. This allows the container to be opened fully. Children do not have sufficiently long fingers, and the path for the finger is too curved to allow operation by inserting a screwdriver or pencil. Most conventional childproof bottles rely on force to squeeze in or push down to open, but in order to defeat children, they require more strength to operate them than is available to many adults. Also aimed at the less than totally fit and agile is the 'Magneet', devised by Anthony Clough, which allows the easier changing of light bulbs. The bulb is held in a bayonet fitting that is in turn coupled to a magnetic coupling suspended from the ceiling. A sharp pull on the bulb fitting removes it from the magnetic fitting, to which it is normally attached by a ring of small, high powered permanent magnets. Only one hand is necessary to remove the fitting or put it back, the bayonet uncoupling and coupling being undertaken on the ground. The permanent magnets are strong enough to ensure good electrical contact when the fitting is replaced. The plastic housings ensure accurate location. Testing the prototype at the show demonstrated that it worked reliably and easily. Another plastic electrical fitting with a difference was to be found in the interaction zone. The 'Power Point' is an otherwise conventional three pin socket devised by Jon Arden with a bar graph meter to indicate the amount of power being drawn. This makes it immediately obvious how much electric current a particular plugged in appliance is using. Furthermore, by utilising X10 technology, which allows information to be sent through power cables, it is possible to turn off sockets pre-defined as non essential in the event of power failure. This allows reversion to alternative sources of power, likely to have less capacity than the full mains, and reduces startup power when the mains supply is restored. Other clever ideas dependent on the properties of plastics alone included the 'WashAway plastic washing bag devised by Maja Kecman. Not only is the bag water soluble, so that clothes do not have to be removed from it, but it also includes areas of detergent. Visa Europe Card Design Competition Royal College of Art Max Wehebrink Max Wehebrink email Tim Sutcliffe Andrew Nias Anthony Clough Jon Arden Maja Kecman Eureka says: Its marvellous what you can do with plastics if you really try. The latest crop of young industrial product designers honing their skills at the RCA show possibilities that are worth all designers taking a hard look at Pointers * Many novel uses can be found for living hinges in products made from plastic sheet * Novel electrical and electronic devices and fittings are easy to mould in plastic * Plastics allow the incorporation of simple mechanisms in products at very low cost *Novel uses can be made of colour changes of thermochromic polymers in response to temperature