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A Souped-Up Prototype

What has eight cylinders, flashing lights, and vibrates when you touch it? The tactile engine prototype Smithsonian Exhibits recently designed and built for the National Air and Space Museum.

An animated image showing the Ford Flathead V-8 engine prototype from a variety of angles
The Ford Flathead V-8 Engine prototype

 

This is a prototype of a hands-on interactive planned for NASM’s Nation of Speed exhibition, opening soon. NASM staff and volunteers will use the interactive in facilitated experiences to help visitors understand how engines generate speed and how they can be modified to go faster.

 

A design rendering showing a large gallery containing airplanes, spacecraft, and a race car
A rendering of the Nation of Speed exhibition, which will explore how the pursuit of speed has shaped American culture and our national identity. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.

 

The interactive is based on the iconic Ford Flathead V-8 engine, produced between 1932 and 1953, which powered hot rods and other modified cars.

 

A red and gray metal engine with a black fan at one end
A Ford Flathead V-8 engine. “1949–53 Ford Flathead V8” by Michael Barera is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.

 

This project was funded by the Smithsonian Accessibility Innovations Fund (SAIF). Our goal was to ensure that the resulting interactive is accessible to all visitors, including visitors who are blind or have low vision and visitors who are deaf or hard of hearing.

SIE, NASM, and Access Smithsonian met in November 2019 to kick off the project. To get us started, SIE exhibit specialist Enrique Dominguez tracked down a foam model of a Ford Flathead V-8 engine. (Who knew these things existed?)

 

A black and gray foam model of an engine on a red metal stand in front of a green metal cabinet.
A foam model of the Ford Flathead V-8 engine. Mechanics use replicas like these to test-fit parts.

 

The foam model provided an excellent starting point. But the team wanted to add more parts for visitors to handle, including cylinder heads, spark plugs, intake manifolds, carburetors, and exhaust manifolds. To help visitors understand what the different engine parts do, we decided to color code them according to their functions: blue for intake, red for combustion, and yellow for exhaust.

We also wanted to demonstrate how to modify an engine to make it faster. To achieve this, we decided to include interchangeable stock and performance parts. To help distinguish the parts from each other, we decided to color the stock parts a lighter shade and the performance parts a darker shade.

Once we had a plan in place, SIE designer Elena Saxton worked with SIE exhibit specialists Enrique Dominguez and Jeff Rosshirt to design the prototype.

 

A design drawing showing a model engine with text boxes pointing at blue, red, and yellow parts
A design drawing showing the different engine parts to be created.

 

We had originally intended the interactive as a purely tactile experience. But after some discussion, the team decided to incorporate additional multisensory features to make the experience accessible to a wider audience. These included audio clips of stock and performance engines running, touch-activated vibrations to simulate the feel of a running engine, flashing LEDs to demonstrate the firing order of the cylinders, and a digital display showing the engine’s RPMs (revolutions per minute). SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt took the lead in developing these components using Arduino, an open-source electronic prototyping platform.

 

Two men and two women stand around a table in a workshop. The man on the left stands in front of an electronic device with wires and circuit boards.
SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt (left) demonstrates the Arduino microcontroller’s capabilities to SIE’s team.

 

While Jeff was programming the Arduino, SIE model and mount maker Danny Fielding got to work making replicas of the engine parts. These needed to be light enough to attach to the engine block with magnets but durable enough to withstand frequent handling.

Danny used actual engine parts to make the molds. He encased the original parts in liquid rubber (silicone) and left them overnight to cure.

 

A cream-colored liquid covers a gray, red, and blue rectangular object in a wooden frame.
Molding in progress

 

See-through mold containing a three-pronged metal pipe
Some parts were molded using translucent rubber to make it easier to see the parts inside.

 

After removing the original parts from the molds, Danny cleaned and prepared the molds for casting. He tinted the liquid resin the desired colors and poured it into the molds, which he quickly capped off to stop the foam from expanding. Once cured, the foam engine parts were removed from the molds and filed and sanded to remove any surface imperfections.

 

Two yellow rectangular molds pictured at top with two gray rectangular models below.
Silicone molds (above) and resin casts (below) of the performance cylinder heads

 

Yellow and blue foam engine parts
Examples of the finished replicas

 

Four clear plastic lights with red and black wires leading into them
SIE embedded red and white LEDs into the clear cast spark plugs.

 

SIE exhibit specialist Enrique Dominguez added fiberglass to many of the parts for durability and installed magnets and pin locators to make them quick and easy to install and deinstall.

 

Technical sketches drawn in pen
SIE fabrication process sketches by Enrique showing a detail view of the piston construction and cylinder head wiring layout.

 

Once the parts were ready, SIE exhibit specialist Jeff Rosshirt installed the Arduino microcontroller.

 

A man connects multicolored wires from a white circuit board to a black foam engine model.
Jeff connects the Arduino microcontroller to the prototype.

 

Multicolored wires connect a series of white perforated circuit boards.
The wiring for the Arduino microcontroller is connected to solderless “bread boards,” which allow the flexibility needed for prototyping the electronics.

 

A man holds the bottom of the engine model, revealing wires and electronics inside.
The Arduino components are enclosed in the oil pan at the bottom of the engine block.

 

Once the Arduino components were programmed and installed, Enrique and Jeff assembled and mounted the engine block on a custom welded stand with locking wheels. The stand can be tilted up to 45 degrees in either direction to facilitate access to visitors in wheelchairs and small children. They also installed a tray underneath to store the engine parts when not in use.

 

Split-screen image showing two versions of the engine prototype. The version on the left includes light blue, red, and yellow parts. The version on the right includes dark blue, red, and yellow parts.
The fully assembled prototype with stock parts (left) and performance parts (right). Sticklers for details, SIE’s fabricators even added a dipstick to the oil pan!

 

The finished prototype can be operated in three modes: manual mode, which allows visitors to see the firing order of the cylinders in slow motion; stock mode, which demonstrates how the engine would run with stock parts; and performance mode, which demonstrates how the engine would run with performance parts. NASM’s facilitators can even simulate an engine breakdown and control the engine’s RPMs using an optional foot pedal. In fact, just about the only thing this prototype doesn’t do is drive!

 

A black foot pedal on the floor attached by a cord to the engine model
An optional accelerator pedal allows the facilitator or visitors to rev the engine.

 

Watch a video of the finished prototype in action below.

 

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented us from testing the prototype with visitors as we had originally planned. But stay tuned—NASM hopes to roll out the prototype at the Udvar-Hazy Center once it is safe to do so.

This project allowed SIE to explore the possibilities of incorporating multisensory components into hands-on interactives to make them accessible to a wider audience. We learned a lot and look forward to future opportunities to continue this important work!