Mei 25, 2024

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Dr Thomas Ask

Fifteen years ago, I was researching wooden fishing boats from my office at UTM. Things have changed since then. Now I am also looking at medical devices in my design work. What do Malaysian fishing boats and medical devices have in common? Engineering. The rules do not change, only the target of our attention. Engineers know how to learn and adapt. Engineers know how to deal with a changing world.

Mathematics and foundational courses in engineering build a solid foundation for adapting to change. In addition, the challenging courses in engineering programmes provide the deep learning that engineers need to gain the public’s trust. The public needs to trust what we design, and we need to earn that trust by ensuring that engineers are properly trained and intellectually capable of the work they do.

But engineers are not just clever mathematicians, they also understand people and communities. Engineers can learn how to use their observation and interviewing skills to improve their work.

My engineering work infuses ethnography is incorporated into the design process. Ethnography utilises anthropologically rooted methods as another research instrument that can be combined with engineering concerns. These ethnographic methods are simple. They use approaches such as observations and surveys, but they improve engagement with diverse and distinctive populations and provide more appropriate design solutions by identifying unspoken needs and unarticulated rules.

The following products are examples of work I have done with my students using a broad range of ethnographically driven design approaches.

Medical Products

We have developed surgical tools and a variety of medical devices for very specific applications. We have combined traditional mechanical design principles with ethnographic techniques to fulfil the requirements of surgeons, patients and other stakeholders. Whilst we routinely develop our prototypes on 3D printers, we are currently working on a large radiographic accessory that is designed to be easily 3D printing. This will allow the large device to be manufactured efficiently using 3D printers. The combination of ethnographic approaches with engineering and 3D printing has enabled rapid development and easier access to medical devices.

Palliative Care

In addition to the medical devices, I worked with pain and palliative care physicians to develop an approach to pain management and long-term care in low-resource settings. This involved holistic treatment along four pathways: physical, psychological, relational and spiritual. These pathways were further categorised into key problems for which practical treatment options were developed. The end result of this research included a cost-effective package of pharmaceuticals and artificial intelligence guidance for care. With my students, we also designed products for patients with chronic digestive conditions and cognitive impairment.

Athletic Equipment

We have developed mechanical training aids for various sports. We have also designed shoes and insoles to improve performance. These projects are similar to medical devices, as the athletes or other professionals explain their needs and we translate them into concrete products. Tiny improvements in footwear and other personal equipment are important for high-performance athletes.

Dog Scent Trainer

Perhaps the most extreme example of the fusion of qualitative methods, animal behaviour (ethology), and engineering is a product we have developed to improve training efficiency for narcotic scent identification in dogs. While this research was not anthropocentric, it included input from experienced dog trainers. When the dog’s nose pressed a button on the device, a large cylinder with a custom pump system and microcontroller dispensed a dog treat. Each button corresponded to a nearby scent tray. The dog was rewarded with a treat when it found the right scent.

Ethnography allows us to explore areas with which we are not familiar. It allows us to identify the rules that govern gatekeepers and behaviour within a discipline or community. The inclusion of qualitative data from ethnographic studies improves the suitability of a design for a particular target group. The ethnographic elements are more nuanced than the giant innovations created by materials and technology. However, these contributions connect a design to the material culture and individual preferences of users. Powerful designs emerge when ethnography is combined with engineering knowledge of mechanical and electrical design.


Dr Thomas Ask is Professor of Industrial Design at Pennsylvania College of Technology (USA), an affiliate of Pennsylvania State University. In 2009, he was a visiting professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at UTM. Before his faculty appointment at Penn College, he worked in industry for seventeen years in various design and management positions. During this time, he designed dozens of commercialised products and systems.

Dr Ask is a licenced professional engineer and won the Middlesex University Goulding Prize for Professional Excellence for his ethnographically based boat design. He is the author of twelve books, including Wooden Wonders: Traditional Malaysian Fishing Boats and Reeds Marine Surveying.

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