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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Engineered to smoke

Courtesy photo from Mauricio Romano
Courtesy photo from Mauricio Romano

Bored with his class, Mauricio Romano dreamt of opportunities outside the lecture hall. As the professor droned on about plastics and electrical engineering, he found no interest in paying attention. Then his ear perked up when they brought up something more creative.

Romano said it immediately captivated him when the professor defined industrial design as the merger of art and engineering.

He said he recalls texting his mom after the lecture to tell her he had found his niche, which would stray from his original plan to be a creative writer.

Since graduating last spring, Romano has built up a broad list of awards for his work, including the title of “outstanding graduate” for his class. Romano also won the Industrial Designers Society of America’s Senior Merit Award in April of 2015. He received one of the five awards given out across the nation each year. Romano currently works as a designer for Astro Studios in San Francisco.

The biggest accomplishment in his opinion, is a project that is on its way to becoming a mass manufactured product. Romano and fellow alumni Tai Geng, Paul Kalousek and Jordan Steranka created the Aura water pipe.

The device is designed to appeal to the booming market in the cannabis industry, Geng said. Their team won both student runner-up and community choice awards with this project at the Core77 Design Awards, a national industrial design competition.

Some of the features that make it unique compared to traditional water pipes include include easily removable, dishwasher-safe parts for cleaning, a splashguard diffuser and non-slip grip material for handling. It also has a wide platter bowl piece that can easily sit flat on a table, according to their website.

Though it may seem ironic, Romano and the majority of his team were not smokers when they started this project.

“I never smoked [growing up],” Romano said. “A lot of people never believe that, but it’s an important part of the story.”

Romano said his neighbor was the inspiration for the product. His neighbor had complained of the extensive issues that can come with water pipes, such as fragility, difficulty with cleaning and costs of replacing the hardware.

He remembers his first experiences in college and feeling a sort of uneasiness seeing bongs sitting out at friends’ houses. Romano acknowledged this association and wanted to work to get rid of the stigma.

After considering this and his neighbor’s complaints, he decided to approach it as an issues he, as a designer, could tackle. He returned for school in November of 2015 to start his senior year after a year-long internship with the Intel Corporation in Portland.

When he pitched the idea of Aura to his classmates within the program, they immediately got on board and began the extensive research and planning process.

“[Romano] brought us all together,” Geng said. “He had a vision of doing something in the marijuana industry, and making a change.”

In order to understand the mechanism fully, they studied everything from fluid dynamics and temperatures, to the centrifugal force of the air through pipes.

They wanted to understand how air flow works through pipes in order to determine what kind of shape would work best. Sometimes there can be issues with pipes not being able to cool the air fast enough before the smoke reaches the mouth, which is an issue the team wanted to address.

Aura_Studio_White
Photo courtesy of Mauricio Romano

The team brought in a couple of their friends who were habitual smokers, psyched on their final product and believing they would love it too, Romano said. However, they were disappointed when their friends hated it.

“We felt like we got sucker punched, and we didn’t know why,” Romano said.

After doing some reflecting, the team realized they were going about it as designers and engineers, but weren’t really considering the human experience aspect and what exactly people wanted out of it. They had not accounted for factors such as milking, cornering and other parts of the smoking process Romano had never heard of up until that point.

Milking is the act of pulling the smoke from the bowl to the mouthpiece, and can be more difficult in taller pipes requiring long breaths. Cornering means to only light only a part or corner of a bowl in order to extend the freshness of it.

They brought it back to the drawing board and revamped the design with more variables in mind from experienced users. At this point, they had no plans to take this project beyond a good portfolio piece and into a real company.

The team decided to patent their product at the advice of their industrial design professors and post the project online to a website in order to see if they could take their success any further after the Core77 competition.

“It blew up,” Romano said.

By summer of 2015, their website was receiving around 60,000 views a day and they were received hundreds of emails asking when and where this product could be bought.

Complications arose when they were shut down by multiple crowdfunding campaign websites who couldn’t support the production of a device affiliated with marijuana use, Romano said.

To their advantage, Geng had a connection with a Chinese manufacturer who agreed to take on their project for less than a third of what it would cost in the United States.

He said he has high hopes for Aura and launching it to the public in the near future.

“[I hope to] have a big impact not just in the marijuana industry but also in the design industry,” Geng said. “It’s a fresh, new thing, product-wise.”

Paul Kalousek manages the business end of the company. His role includes working with investors, partnerships with retailers and building a website to serve as their store platform.

At this point in the process they are looking to start pre-orders in the early spring, which will fund the molds for mass manufacture. These molds are an expensive part of the process; the manufacturer has to cut into steel the precise negative space in order to create a template for production.

“We have that lined up,” Kalousek said. “We’re literally just needing the funding to make it permanent.”

The team sees potential for buyers because of all the positive feedback from hopeful customers through their website.

“We have a bunch of emails from people that are like, ‘I can’t believe that no one has done this already,’” Romano said. “You give me hope and you make me proud to be able to smoke.’”

Romano mentioned one example of a person who suffers from seizures, and smokes to cope with the condition. The consumer is not offered many options other than a “psychedelic glass piece” which often lends itself to a certain image, Romano said.

When asked about how this project has shaped his views on industrial design as a whole, Romano also placed a lot of emphasis on the idea of a wow factor.

“The point of design is [that] you’re trying to resonate,” Romano said. “You’re trying to enhance people’s lives and experiences.”

As designers, factors are carefully considered when putting together a new project. The “wow” moments are when people identify those choices and appreciate them, Romano said. He said it’s important to be conscious of these things as a professional. Ultimately, it can determine how well a product will be received by consumers, Romano said.

The Aura team plans to start pre-orders online in the next two months and get the ball rolling toward a readily available product, Geng said. More information on their water pipe can be found at www.smokeaura.com.

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