Humans Invent went to their workshop in Hackney to find out more about this mysterious matter that dry-cures in the air and adheres to almost any material.
Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh, founder and inventor of Sugru, shows me around the offices, currently in a state of flux as they rapidly expand to meet the demand for the product. Jane introduces us to her partner James who is wielding a fencing foil upon the handle of which Sugru has been moulded. He explains they have recently been working with established fencing equipment manufacturers Leon Paul to modify the handle.
James says, “They wanted to customize their handles for about a decade but couldn’t find the technology to do so. In light of this we’ve designed with them a handle that is incomplete or unfinished so when the athlete buys it they modify and build it to their specific grip. What is really interesting and exciting is that they are not just squeezing a handle and making a shape with their hand, they are actually adjusting the overall shape of the handle based on their use and behaviour.”
It looked like wood but you could throw it on the floor and it would bounce
Team GB Olympic fencer, James Davis, is using Sugru on his handle and it is this interaction with the user that makes this material so compelling. James says, “These people who were never trained in design are now thinking like very skilled designers and iterating changes to the handle. It’s very exciting because it really demonstrates the potential of building a product incomplete. I think it is really disruptive.”
We go into the meeting room where floor to ceiling whiteboards are covered with brainstorming diagrams and idea-generation lists. Jane tells me she came up with a rough prototype whilst studying product design at the Royal College of Art back in 2003.
She says, “I mixed silicon bathroom sealant with some waste wood dust from the woodshop. It was a very crude material that was very smelly. When I mixed those two things together, ten to fifteen minutes later I would have something that was very rubbery. It looked like wood but you could throw it on the floor and it would bounce.”
Jane started using this material around the house, adapting a kitchen knife or modifying the sink plug which was too small for the plughole. She quickly realised anyone could use this material, not just hobbyists or DIY enthusiasts.
Jane says, “It is like the oldest technology ever: people’s hands. What is the most intuitive thing that anyone can do? Everyone starts with Play-Doh when they’re little kids. I started imagining where it would be useful and I filled up notebooks with thousands of ideas, playful to pragmatic to silly and at my end of year show at the RCA I presented a little book of 100 ideas for what you could do with this material if it existed and I held up a prototype which was basically an evolution of my silicon and sawdust creation.”
After garnering interest at her end of year show she received funding and started developing the material, setting up a small lab in Bethnal Green and training herself up as a lab technician.
It is like the oldest technology ever: people’s hands. What is the most intuitive thing that anyone can do?
Jane experimented on the material for the next two to three years to create a material that met all her demands: one that didn’t smell, dry too quickly or slowly, was flexible but hard in its final guise and easy to handle.
“When we launched we found out there were a lot of people online who were interested. We sold our first 1,000 packs in 6 hours on the first day. From there we had to step backwards, we only had our lab and it had taken us 2 months to make 1,000 packs by hand. We closed down for 6 months, moved up here, bought bigger machinery, employed more people. We found it much easier to raise investment because we’ve managed to show there is demand for it. It’s grown pretty fast, this year our sales are up three times on last year which is pretty amazing.”
I was given a pack of Sugru before I left which I immediately put to good use. My computer plug had been split in two though all the wires remained intact. I moulded the Sugru around the two broken parts – previous attempts with various kinds of tape had failed – and let it set overnight. The Sugru had dried by the morning though it wasn’t brittle and held the broken part in place perfectly. It is incredibly tough stuff; you would need to take a saw to it to break it apart. On the verge of buying a new power adapter, I’ve just saved myself 60 quid!