“Keep it simple” sounds like such good advice, but what exactly is the “it”; what parts of a project should you try to keep simple? You can’t always make everything simple, can you? Are all kinds of “simplicity” equally valuable, or are there aspects of a design where simplicity has multiplier effects on the rest of the project?
I ran into two seemingly different, but surprisingly similar, design problems in the last couple weeks, and I realized that focusing on keeping one aspect of the project simple had a multiplier effect on the rest — simplifying the right part of the problem made everything drastically easier.
The first example was a scratch-built airplane design. I’d made a few planes over the summer, focusing on plans on the Interwebs that emphasize simplicity of the actual build. Consequently, the planes were a bit heavy, maybe not entirely aerodynamic, and probably underpowered. And this is because the effort you expend building the plane doesn’t fundamentally have anything to do with flight. Keeping the build simple doesn’t necessarily get you a good plane.
Weight, on the other hand, is central. Wings produce lift, whether measured in grams or ounces, and anything heavier just isn’t gonna fly. But reducing weight has a multiplier effect. Less weight means smaller and lighter motors and batteries. Structures don’t need to be as stiff if they’re not subject to heavier bending forces. And, important to the noob pilot, planes with less weight per wing area fly slower, giving me (ahem, the noob pilot) more reaction time when something goes sideways. Trying to simplify the design by trimming weight has knock-on effects all around.
My latest fully-DIY design threw out anything that brought weight along with it, including some parts I thought were necessary for stiffness or crash resistance. But with the significantly lowered weight, these problems evaporated without needing me to solve them — in a way, the complexity of design was creating the problems that the complexity of design was supposed to solve. Ditching it meant that I had a slow plane, with simple-to-build wings, that’s capable of carrying a lightweight FPV camera. Done and done! Simply.
At the same time, I’m building a four-axis CNC foam cutter. I’ve built many 3D printers, and played around with other folks’ DIY CNC machines, so I had a few design ideas in my head starting out. My first iteration of an XY axis for the machine runs on metal angle stock with a whopping eight skate bearings per axis. It’s strong and rigid, and clumsy and overkill, in a bad way for this machine.
3D printers want to move a relatively light tool head around a small volume, but relatively quickly. CNC mills need to be extremely rigid and shoulder heavy side loads, subject to some speed constraints. A foam cutter has none of these needs. The hot wire melts the foam by radiation, so there are no loads on the machine because it doesn’t even contact the workpiece. And because it cuts by melting, it has to go slow. These are the places in the design where simplification will bear the most fruit.
I write this in retrospect, or at least from the perspective of a second prototype. I wanted the first design to hold the cutting filament taut, hence the rigid frame. But separating the tension from the motion, by using a lightweight external bow to keep the filament tight, meant that the machine could be dead simple. I could use smaller plastic sliders instead of complex bearings, on thin rods instead of bulky rails. In a day after having this realization, I got twice as far as I had on the previous machine design in a week, and it takes up a lot less space in my basement.
So take your KISS to the next level. Brainstorm a while about the binding constraints on your design, and what relaxing any of them can do. Do any particular simplifications enable further simplifications? Those are the ones that you want to start with. Keep it simple, smartly. And because it’s not always easy to find these multiplier effects, tell your friends!