In this series of interviews with members of our mechanical engineering community, MDF talks to Lyman Bishop, director of Star Labs Inc. Lyman is a mechanical Engineer with over 10 years’ experience designing and developing new products. He’s an expert Solidworks operator with extensive knowledge of all standard forms of prototype and manufacture. Primarily dealing in advanced body armor designs, non-lethal weapon systems and advanced robotic weaponry with remote detonation capabilities, Lyman has a background in a variety of fsacinating projects in the tactical/defense industry.
How did you get to where you are today?
I studied mechanical engineering and earned a Master in Mechanical Engineering in 1996 but I didn’t work in that field until I started using CAD during the development of a body armor project that I started in 2003. I worked alongside a design engineer and quickly realized that I had a natural understanding of how CAD software worked. Combined with my understanding of standard mechanical engineering processes I soon realized that I didn’t have to work for Boeing or Lockheed Martin to earn a solid living doing what I enjoy. I discovered ways to market myself on line and quickly built a respectable book of recurring clients. Once the ball was rolling there was no stopping it.
Why did you decide to become a product design consultant?
I have always enjoyed the thought process behind product development. Whether it’s a new idea or a modification to an existing one, coming up with solutions and working through the design process to create something that does what it’s supposed to is a great feeling.
As a child I used to think up all sorts of things. I remember buying a ski bike (a bike with 2 skis instead of 2 tires) in 3rd grade at a garage sale for $5. It sat in my garage for months until one day I looked at it and imagined putting snow mobile treads on the back to make what I called a snow cycle. I drew up a picture and showed it to my father who replied, and I quote, “It will never work”. With my ego crushed I crumpled up the drawing, threw it on my roof and watched it land in the rain gutter. Several months later I had a friend over and we were watching a science show that featured a snow cycle exactly as I had drawn it up. When I told my friend he of course didn’t believe me. That is until I grabbed a ladder, climbed up and pulled out my weather worn drawing. From that day I knew what I wanted to do and that I shouldn’t listen to anyone tell me otherwise.
If you weren’t a product design consultant, what would you be doing instead?
If I were not a mechanical engineer I would most likely have found my way into one form of military service or another. I love freedom and have dedicated the better part of my career towards the development of advanced component systems designed to suit military applications.
What inspires/motivates you as a designer?
Setting difficult goals and achieving them is something I take great pride in and is what motivates me as a designer. When I was able to develop a body armor platform that had 30% more efficiency than current designs, using only geometry to provide the advantage, it was an experience that gave me great confidence and motivation. Having the opportunity to demonstrate my work to a US Congressman in the lab and have it perform flawlessly was a definite highlight that pushes me on to this day.
What’s your ultimate dream project?
I would love to head up a design team to develop an advanced personal protection system that truly improves the soldiers capabilities through the use of climate control, protective panels, trickle charge systems, embedded antennas, heads up displays and integrated weaponry. I have a number of projects in early stages of development that if properly funded could truly result in a quantum leap in battlefield capabilities. SOCOM is currently working on similar technologies and I am very envious of whoever gets to run that project.
What makes a product design consultancy successful?
1. Listening to the client
2. Answering the clients questions and demonstrating expertise
3. Establishing a game plan that meets with the clients’ budget and expectations
4. Maintaining clear and regular communication with the client
5. Educate the client through the process by making them an integral part of the process
6. Guide the client through the process and help them avoid pitfalls and money pits
7. Give each project your full attention and see it through to completion
Will manufacturing come back to the USA?
Unfortunately I don’t see a future for a widespread resurgence of manufacturing in the US or UK anytime soon. Cheap labor and manipulated currencies of competing nations make direct competition difficult. I think we will see some ebb and flow as certain industries that require tight QC realize that direct oversight is required. Other than that, much of the trinkets of the world will have “Made In China” stamped on them for the next 50 years. More developed nations can take advantage of new opportunities in product design and development regardless of where the products end up being manufactured.
What advice would you give a young person starting out in the industry today? How have things changes since you started your career?
CAD design software is an amazing tools that has only truly surfaced in the last 15 years. I recommend that every young engineer take the time to study these programs and become familiar with how to properly design parts and assemblies. Learn about manufacturing and prototyping. Find a mentor that you can work with that will push your limits and expand your understanding.
What have you designed that you most proud of?
I have several projects that I am very proud of. Some of my favorite are classified. Attached are images of two such products that I am at liberty to disclose.
Electronic Distractionary Device (Flash Bang Substitute)
Advanced Body Armor (worlds first hard armor shoulder rifle plate; compatible with the DAPS system)Do you ever not know where to start with a new project? If so, what gets you out of the rut?
Yes, this has happened to me a few times. Oddly enough, when that happens I just turn off my brain and start designing. Once the shapes begin to take form it becomes much easier to envision where the design needs to go. Tolerances can be studied more closely and mechanical devices become much easier to work through in my mind.
Are you a mechanical design engineer or an industrial designer? Do you draw a distinction?
I am a Mechanical Engineer. In my experience Industrial Designers focus more on the aesthetics of a part rather than the design of complex mechanical parts, whereas most Mechanical Engineers are more likely to be capable of designing complex assemblies such as engines or machinery and typically have a broader understanding of manufacturing and prototyping solutions. Having said that, I must admit that I have worked with many Industrial Designers whos expertise was on par with most Mechanical Engineers.
What’s your favourite piece of design?
I love sportscars. The Ferrari 458 is, in my opinion, the most beautiful piece of engineering I have ever encountered.
How many projects do you work on simultaneously, and how do you cope?
I typically have about 6 projects going at any given time. This is made manageable due to the fact that each project is usually at a different stage of design. I may be waiting on a 3D print of 2 or 3 parts while I am designing 2 or three others. Having numerous projects can be an advantage in that you always have something to do and can take breaks from each project depending on where you are in the process. Taking the time to settle into design options over time helps to break through difficult issues and often times results in being able to give the client more options.
What CAD system do you use and why?
I started with CATIA but quickly moved into Solidworks. Unless you are designing a STEALTH bomber you dont need CATIA. Solidworks is widely accepted as the industry standard across the world and as such it is expected that every design outfit, prototype facility and manufacturer run Solidworks at their location making it the ideal choice for any designer or engineer. Having the ability to share native files can be critical and everyone uses Solidworks.
What manufacturing process do you most enjoy designing for?
I like machined parts. I find it very interesting to watch a part being milled from a block of metal. Design is often simpler with machined parts over injection molded parts as draft and wall thickness are, for the most part, a non-issue.
What’s your favourite part of the design process?
I enjoy the part of the process where I can test first stage prototypes. There is a lot of satisfaction that comes when you can test your theories and see that your design functions as expected.