Meadville Tribune

May 6, 2013

MASH student's winning design shows his 'bright future'

By Mary Spicer
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — In preschool, he impressed his teachers with his precision cutting skills. While still in fifth grade, he knocked the socks off faculty members at Rochester Institute of Technology with his computerized 3-D modeling skills.

Now a sophomore at Meadville Area Senior High School, 16-year-old John O’Laughlin’s “ZeroTrim Solar Lawnmower” recently captured the best in category award in design in Cleveland Institute of Art’s first 2D3D National Art & Design Competition. The category includes graphic, industrial and interior architectural design.

A total of four entries, one each in four categories, were selected from among 852 entries submitted by students representing more than 265 American high schools; each category winner will receive a cash award of $500 and a $10,000 annual scholarship — a total of $40,000 for four years — to CIA if the winner chooses to attend. Other winners are from West Palm Beach, Fla.; Moreland Hills, Ohio; and Garland, Texas.

In the formal announcement of the awards, O’Laughlin’s solar-powered lawnmower design was described as requiring “imagination, problem-solving and advanced mechanical and computer abilities, as well as good draftsmanship.” At the moment, attending CIA to major in industrial design is high on his list of post-high-school options, O’Laughlin told the Tribune during a recent interview.

Making things better

“The reason I do everything that I do is to make something better,” O’Laughlin, the son of Meadville residents Dennis and Pam O’Laughlin, said. While cars hold a special place in his heart and one of his most recent projects is redesigning stereo headphones, the desire to make things better also applies to other areas, including songs he makes up to play on guitar and trumpet.

“My whole motivation is to make everything better,” he continued. “To improve upon everything.”

When it comes to the current state of “stuff” in general, “I think a lot can be done,” the young designer said. “The whole energy source right now is pretty inefficient. I feel that there are other options that would work, but we’re not really exploring them. Solar. Wind. Electrical energy. Solar and wind have been explored, but not to their fullest extent.”

His winning design gave him ample opportunity to explore several better ways.

“I decided a lawnmower would be a good place to start because lawnmowers are kind of clunky and you need to fill them up with gas,” he said. “You have to push them. You have to start them, and that takes awhile.”

Armed with a list of ideas, he sketched them out. Then it was time to switch over to Modo, his 3-D design program of choice for a bit of computer-aided modeling.

All the gasoline-related problems were eliminated by switching to electricity as the power source. Adding a solar panel to the top of the machine took care of any fear that the battery will run out at a crucial point in the mowing process. The pushing problem was eliminated by placing a motor-driven track in each wheel position.

“You kind of walk behind it, basically,” O’Laughlin said. “Each wheel has an individual electric motor instead of having just one central motor, so you have a lot of torque.

“In theory it would go pretty fast.”

The design also includes what he describes as regenerative braking, which puts the electric motors into reverse when brakes are applied.

“They act as a generator, so you’re putting power back into the battery; so you’re driving more efficiently,” he said.

The competition was created “to recognize talented young American artists and encourage them to pursue career paths in art and design,” according to the announcement. To see the winning artworks, visit

Aesthetics matter

“Aesthetics are pretty important when it comes to products,” O’Laughlin said, “because if something doesn’t look nice, no one’s going to want it, even if it does work pretty well.”

While the developing artist is a seasoned veteran when it comes to computer-aided designs, he’s also intent on developing more traditional skills. During the current school year, he’s studying drafting at Crawford County Career & Technical Center and next year will be entering the school’s two-year commercial art lab, where his father serves as instructor.

“Drafting is very important,” O’Laughlin said. “We started out with pencil, paper, ruler, protractor and all that stuff on the drafting board. Computer software can pretty much do the drawing for you, but it’s really good to know everything about setting up a drawing — line weight and everything like that, so you know what’s going on when it comes to the computer software. You know if you did anything wrong.”

Drafting, also known as mechanical drawing, helps with the perception of objects, he continued. For example, like when you take an isometric view from a worksheet and you have to make a 3-D drawing on the board, being able to draft it yourself “really helps you look at each part of it and where everything goes,” O’Laughlin said.

In addition, “starting off on the drafting board really helps a lot when it comes to CAD software like AutoCad,” he said, echoing a familiar theme. “It’s really good to have a solid learning of everything so you can basically do everything better.”

Between now and the end of his high school career, O’Laughlin is looking forward to competing in the annual RoboBOTS competition — his team’s entry finished fifth this year — and perhaps making a connection with a local tool shop.

“I really do like the physical manufacturing process of product design,” he said. “We have a few machines at the school like a mill and a lathe, and I really do enjoy using those. It’s a good time.”

Mary Spicer can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at