The Design and Optimization of a Lighted Kinetic Art Surface Display; Uncovering the Truths of Plastic Recycling: An Application of World Risk Society to a Current Technological Fix

Purcell, Jack, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Garner, Gavin, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dep, University of Virginia
Seabrook, Bryn, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

The technical work of this portfolio aimed to create a dazzling kinetic art display that would motivate and inspire future generations of mechanical engineers at the University of Virginia. The STS research of this portfolio aims to better inform the public on the state of plastic recycling in the United States with the goal of influencing consumer decision-making processes. The idea for this research originated from the changing political climate surrounding plastics and the increasing national focus on environmental-friendly technologies and policies. While motivated for two entirely different purposes, these seemingly unrelated projects are connected through the use and focus on plastic products. This undergraduate research portfolio therefore provides two separate approaches for analyzing the state of plastic consumption and recycling in the United States. The Capstone project accomplishes this goal indirectly, by allowing the researchers to experience firsthand the ease of access and use of plastic material during the prototyping and product development phases of engineering design. Through this project, the researchers (and implicitly, the reader) note the importance of plastic manufacturing techniques as well as the accumulation of plastic waste during engineering design. On the other hand, the STS research paper instead takes a more direct approach, analyzing the state of plastic consumption and plastic recycling and discussing the role of plastic recycling as a technological fix for underlying risks in a modern world risk society. Through this project, the researcher and the reader begin to understand the ramifications of certain plastic choices, like those made in the Capstone project design, as well as note the perceptions of plastic and prevalence of plastic recycling in American society.
The technical Capstone project is a practical application of engineering design, machine design, and product development that specifically focuses on the mechatronic aspects of the mechanical engineering curriculum at the University of Virginia. The research team, composed of Megan Mazzatenta, Jack Purcell, and Philip Renkert, decided to create a fully programmable and movable kinetic art display that minimizes manufacturing time and cost in response to a need to highlight the component of optimization in design that is growing within engineering education. The technical report outlines the iterative process of design, manufacturing, and assembly that the research team took during the Fall 2019 semester to create a modular, programmable, and actuatable kinetic art piece that uses lighted acrylic rods to create a unique visual effect. The implicit focus of the technical report is to show the team’s progression of design optimization of both assembly and production time as well as resource and manufacturing cost.
The STS research focuses on comprehension of the state of plastic recycling in the United States and seeks to understand the perceived risks associated with this problem by answering the following research questions: why can plastic recycling be considered a technological fix for the culture of plastic consumption in the United States, and how do the misconceptions about plastic recycling as well as the policies and regulations surrounding plastic recycling perpetuate this mindset? This research first employs wicked problem framing and documentary research methods to better define and analyze the problem of plastic recycling and then applies world risk society theory and the idea of the technological fix to understand and respond to the proposed research questions. Through this investigation into the current state of plastic recycling, the research expects to outline the relationship among public perception and misconceptions, perceived risks, and the development of plastic recycling. The research also expects to discover that the concept of the technological fix explains the role, unearths a few causes, and suggests the importance of plastic recycling in the context of modern society. The first step of many, this research opens the door for honest discourse about the plastic recycling problem. By simply creating discussion, the perception of plastic recycling will change to reflect the truths instead of the misconceptions, hopefully influencing policy makers and the average American to make more environmentally-conscious decisions regarding plastic consumption.
The overlapping timelines of these two separate, yet connected projects created a more comprehensive learning experience. The pairing of a sociotechnical analysis of plastic recycling and part of the consumer culture in America with a practical application of engineering design and optimization that inherently emphasized the convenience and prevalence of plastic products allowed for a deeper understanding of the two sides to the plastic consumption and recycling problem. The influence of deadlines, cost, and resource availability in determining plastic usage in prototyping and engineering design was experienced firsthand, and the relationship between these components and the convenience and misconceptions surrounding plastic consumption and recycling was better emphasized due to the combined approach of these two projects. Additionally, by completing these projects simultaneously, the researcher noted that sustainability in design does not occur naturally, and instead must be a consistent and conscious effort in order to be effective.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Technological Fix, World Risk Society, Plastic Recycling, Misconceptions, Plastic Consumption

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering
Technical Advisor: Gavin Garner
STS Advisor: Bryn Seabrook
Technical Team Members: Megan Mazzatenta, Philip Renkert

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