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3 Top Tools with Jason Kelly, Model Maker

(Our “3 Top Tools with” series looks at the everyday work of Bresslergroup’s strategists, researchers, designers, and engineers through the lens of their top tools for product design.)

I’ve never held the same job twice, and at Bresslergroup I don’t think I’ve ever experienced the same day twice.

On a typical day I might start by applying labels to medical devices and after lunch I’ll be machining parts for a robot or painting 3D printed parts. I love the variety.

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As a model maker, I’m usually the last step in the design process — I build the alpha and beta prototypes that we present to clients. I need to be able to interpret all the designers’ and engineers’ ideas and make them physical. I take a great deal of pride in what I do and when it elicits a smile or a wow, I know I did the best I could for that project.

Model making for me started when I got my first set of Legos. Once you figure out there are ways to take the ideas in your mind and make them into things you can hold, play with, or use, this notion quickly snowballs until you find yourself in a series of messy basements and garages that annoy your parents to no end. Of course, now part of my job is to oversee the shop, and I never let it get messy!

When my work elicits a smile or a wow, I know I did the best I could for that project.”

The tools I use change with every job. Different things require different tools. (Quick tip: Take the time to pick the correct tool for the job, even if it means you need to get up from the bench to get it. Otherwise you might damage the tool, or worse, your model.) Here are my must-haves:

1. Measuring Tools: Digital Calipers & Tape Measure

Working with a model is like putting together a puzzle. All the pieces need to fit together in a certain way, and that fit is usually dependent on measurements. Recently, fitting the various parts of the D7 BDAS+ project required measuring features to make sure they didn’t interfere with the fitment of the trigger or mixing bar.

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The calipers and tape measure will tell you and guide you through the work you’re doing by giving you the accuracy you need. Most of the time the calipers are used for work that requires a great deal of accuracy or very small measurements, while the tape measure is good for quick measurements that let you know if you can get another part from a piece of scrap material.

2. Sharp Tools: Xacto Knives, Scissors, Drill Bits

Most sharp tools are multi-taskers — the Xacto knife can cut, trim, shape, or scrape material away. Scissors can do more than just cut paper — specialty ones can cut metal, fabric, paper, plastic, and wire all in the same pair. Even the drill bit can do more than just make holes. You can use it as a quick gauge pin, or wrap sandpaper around it for a mandrel.

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I picked up my dislike of uni-taskers from Alton Brown on the Food Channel. He rails against tools that only do one task, because they increase kitchen clutter and cost. The fewer tools you can use to get the job done, the better. This means less stuff to keep track of and more brainpower to focus on improving your hand skills.

3. Comfortable Work Area

I run our shop as if it’s my business and the designers and engineers are my customers. I need to keep the customers happy and efficient so when a problem surfaces, I try to address it without upsetting the balance. A big key to organizing a work space, especially one that’s shared by many different people, is to observe how they use it.

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It’s important for everyone to have a comfortable working area — organized and clean with a sturdy bench, ample lighting, and the right music playing (my own preferences range from Led Zeppelin to Glenn Miller) — because you’ll never do good work if you’re constantly fidgeting around, trying to prop yourself up. A lot of what I do requires a great deal of patience and focus, and discomfort would be too distracting.

Whenever I talk to people outside of work they have a hard time understanding what I actually do at work all day. They have an even harder time understanding the variety. People are usually in awe that I can switch constantly from one thing to another without missing a beat. The variety keeps my model-making skills sharp.

(Researchers and engineers and designers, oh my! Read the other entries in our 3 Top Tools with series to learn about other top tools for product design across Bresslergroup’s disciplines.)