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Exploring the Institute of Making

The Crafts Council's Young People’s Group visited the Institute of Making at UCL— here Kara Wong talks about the materials and techniques they discovered.

It is always exciting to explore subjects out of your comfort zone. On a lovely sunny day, we all went to the Institute of Making in University College of London with Crafts Council to see their collection of materials. It is a research space for makers to study materials and design prototypes for projects. I had been to the Institute of Making before, for a 'Fake Snow' experience during London Design Week, which was really fun, so I already had a good first impression.

Behind the striped walls of the Institute are hundreds of rare and remarkable materials. Once inside, I liked how the samples were displayed in cubes on the shelves – it reminded me of a game called Minecraft! We were shown a perfect mini studio and workshop area inside the building, where makers can turn their ideas into reality. The tools displayed on the wall were really well organised and a great use of space.

The second floor is focussed on digital making, with computer-controlled tools for creators to experiment with digital technology. They had 3D CNC milling, laser cutting and 3D printers that can print two types of plastic: a grey coloured one that dissolves in water afterward, and a white coloured one to use as construction material.

Our guide Sara Brouwer showed us a semi-transparent foam called silica aerogel that can collect dust particles in space for testing. Our sample had turned into yellowish brown because it has absorbed grease from hands. Sara introduced it as the world’s second lightest solid, and I would describe it as a cloud with dust in the middle.

As a product design student, it blows me away how material science can apply to fashion, architecture and industrial subject areas. I really liked the idea of self-healing concrete as a way to repair cities. If it were used, we would not need to throw away the whole damaged concrete piece in case of future structural failure: the bacteria inside this special concrete excretes calcites when it is cracked and repairs the fracture.

Sara showed us how different production processes help us design products. The shape of this kitchen tool handle made by Institute of Making Director and artist, Zoe Laughlin, was designed with ergonomics in mind. When I grabbed it, it fitted both of my hands to get rid of my problem with butter fingers! To test how the handle should be shaped, the maker explored how comfortable it would be by squeezing plasticine clay. The white handgrip I held is the test piece made using 3D printing, which is a relatively low-cost small-scale manufacturing process.

We found out about a fun thermoplastic called Polymorph, which is similar to resin clay. Polymorph granules take a few minutes to combine in boiling water. When it cools down, the clear material starts to become opaque and rubbery. It was so relaxing to play with the material and a fantastic way for students to create a 3D model using just their hands. My eyes started glistening when I saw what other people made, like earrings or bracelets! One of us shaped a gummy bear sitting on the table and waving— it looked so yummy.

There was so much more on the shelves that I would have loved to see: I am so curious about the future of sustainable materials, especially in packaging. I am excited to see zero-waste food wrap become commonplace one day!

The next Institute of Making public open day is taking place on Saturday 27th October from 1-5pm, it is free, open to all and drop in. It is about plastics and will explore all aspects or producing, making, recycling and problem solving with this special and contentious group of materials.

Find out more about the Crafts Council Young People's programme here and follow them on Twitter here.

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