ARTICLES AND CASE STUDIES
Is Manufacturing the Natural Extension to Design?
There is a common belief that to be a successful industrial designer one has to be a ‘maker of things’ at heart. Making objects, whatever that might be, is a very satisfying way to spend time working because at the end of the day there is a definite physical result, something very tangible, something others can relate to. Making things and designing things are both essentially creative: one has to have an agenda or a brief/objective to fulfil a requirement. The difference between the two is that to make things is physical while to design things is largely imaginative. Obviously some people are naturally better at designing things: their background might have enabled them to train their 3D thinking and therefore allow them to visualise the imagined result.
Designing and making are therefore naturally very closely aligned.
For the industrial designer to efficiently produce workable results for a manufacturer they do not need only a well-defined brief, but one that is a life document which remains adaptable to the findings and revelations that a design process brings. Designers cannot be 100% familiar with every manufacturing process there is. Often the designer has to quickly learn what the individual process demands whilst being able to isolate elements which need to be resolved by specialist expertise. This essentially turns the designer into a facilitator of various disciplines which are used to orchestrate their specialty areas. Under the guidance of the designer who upholds the design intend and mediates the outcome in the interest of the end user, the previously defined attributes culminate in the character and performance of the product. Sounds a bit like wizardry, but it is merely the controlled ‘unfolding’ of methodology common to the discipline of the industrial designer.
Without the manufacturing sector industrial design would be a breadless art. The two are natural partners and, in my opinion, one cannot really be successful without the other.
Over the last fifteen years our small consultancy has repeatedly poured considerable resources into the development of our own product ideas. There have been many and a few of them have faltered for one reason or another, not least due to us as designers always learning what it really takes to make the product. Let alone the mission of getting it to market and in front of the customer.
During the same time we have also approached numerous manufacturers with existing brands for design collaboration. The secret here is to sell design to a manufacturer who has never thought they needed it, and only too often the designer is misinterpreted as someone to make ‘it’ look more attractive without adding any real value. The designer is often left feeling empty while still thinking: I can do better!
Let me get to the point: For years I have praised our design skills to one of our local manufacturers, a large established metal working family business which makes its own range of products and otherwise manufactures to contract. My approaches were always rebuffed, although I always knew that one day I might be designing such products. Manufacturing is difficult for designers as we do not have the necessary plant. However, we are analytical thinkers and soon we realised that this particular manufacturer’s products only had between 10%-20% of components made in-house and the rest was simply bought in. We figured that this 20% advantage for the manufacturer would easily be outweighed by our own ability to add value, innovation and uniqueness to a product range with few complexities. Furthermore, as designers we have the highly developed ability to show what does not exist through our visualisation and presentation skills.
Serendipity took care of the rest. A chance meeting, if there is such a thing, allowed me to pitch a variety of product presentations to a potential customer who followed up with the question of: Can you supply? Our intimate knowledge of the manufacturing sector and the interested goodwill of many trusted suppliers allowed us to say yes, with the result a substantial order being sold off the plans! Without owning a factory and any of its costly inventory or overheads we had become a supplier on the home turf of an established manufacturer.
Was it just luck that made it possible? We soon realised that we had provided ourselves with a clear brief for the outcome. We had defined the manufacturing processes to stay local and worked diligently to develop a level of finesse the competitor did not have in their ageing range of product. In short it is the design, the intellectual property the designers created for the manufacturer, in this case Designbrand itself. We pay a fair price for the components which make up our products and we are learning fast how to respond to a particular market. The biggest surprise came in the form of the financial results. Even after the cost of design, prototyping, essential tooling and the glitches of a first run did the exercise run a small profit. This goes to show that applied design can pay for itself, not just in the long run, and that design created the competitive advantage.
Does Design Equal Trial and Error?
In the never ending effort of finding new clients we often approach manufacturers and pitch our design skills as an improvement over their current product development efforts. This is not an easy task and can be very frustrating because of the seemingly impossible task of breaking the cycle of manufacturers accepting their own developments of ‘me- too-products’ as fully resolved products. Designers are by no means perfect; they can, however, offer a holistic approach to product development with their ability to grasp the requirements of the client while considering overruling constraints.
Designbrand has recently attracted a manufacturing company as a new client. Although we are well seasoned as professionals in our field, every approach to new product development and design has to be idiosyncratic and specific to a client’s particular needs. Based on our obligation for confidentiality and not willing to give away a competitive advantage I would like to describe following design approach in more generic terms. One could almost define it as a clever mix of design and marketing, while it is arguable whether one precedes the other one, not unlike the egg and the chicken.
This client’s sales department is hard at work ‘sniffing out the deals’. The constant sales effort reveals opportunities to pitch this manufacturer’s product at a competitive price and most often the deal is closed with the one competitor who offers the best deal, combined with equally competitive quality. On occasion, and increasingly so, all the competitors’ products do not quite hit the mark in all aspects and the sales team report back with a wishlist of what the buyer wants to see in an alternative product. This is where an established relationship with a design company can be of great benefit to the manufacturer. The above mentioned wishlist can be evolved into a design brief which can then be interpreted by the designers. Sounds too easy?
In essence this is exactly what has happened to our new client recently. Through their sales team they knew that the opportunity for a sure fire sale was evaporating on the notion that their own product only partially fitted the buyer’s needs. They knew an approximate answer to the buyers needs but did not have the resources of answering the brief with a prototype in time which would be unrefined in many aspects. Not all the product attributes could possibly be included in a first trial and the likelihood of having to re-work the prototype meant that the sale might have slipped away.
Repeated interaction with the client had resulted in a high level of confidence that Designbrand could make a difference. The designers reacted immediately and, through intimate knowledge of the manufacturers technical capabilities, were able to translate the designbrief into a short series of concepts for presentation to the buyer. Although still quite sketchy, these concepts, when presented to the buyer by the sales team, were sufficient to ‘stall’ the decision making at buyer’s level and effectively gain sufficient time for a more refined concept.
It was the refined concept which allowed our manufacturing client to make the sale. The bottom line surprise of this anecdote is the fact that the cost of engaging the product designer was considerably lower than the cost of a ‘trial and error’ development which, most likely, would have withdrawn valuable labour resources from production. Instead a high quality representation of the future product was key in affecting a sale without compromising resources elsewhere. The designers were able to turn around the follow-up detail design work in less than a fortnight and the guarantee of the sale made the initial commitment to a design fee almost negligible. Besides making the sale through design and innovation by selling ‘off the plan’, the manufacturer has now gained a reputation for a pro-active attitude in a changing market. As for design – they sold on it!
Industrial Design Solves a Small Problem
For my first article about the correlation between industrial design and manufacturing in New Zealand I was searching my memory and the large number of projects my designers and I have undertaken for the most appropriate small piece of design to portray. Twenty years of independent design experience have given me the knowledge and examples of how design can complement the manufacturing industry in staying competitive. My consultancy has worked with a wide range of manufacturing industries such as plastic moulding, sheet metal, extrusion, casting, vacuum forming and more, but we are equally at home developing new ideas for high tech manufacturers as we are familiar with the methodology of fresh conceptual thinking and development for start-up ventures.
As product designers our involvement with industry is often a case of facilitating both the necessary thinking behind an innovative approach and resolving purely technical issues. Our work is as varied as helping entrepreneurs in their high risk start-up ventures whilst also working with established small industries and medium sized manufacturing businesses.
Pacific Helmets Ltd of Whanganui are a typical SME manufacturing into a global niche market with adaptability and innovation. Designbrand was enlisted for help in realising their new concept of a ‘push-to-open/push-to-close’ visor for their existing line of rescue and safety helmets. Their novel idea was a world market ‘first’ but their development department needed additional expertise to resolve the problems and integrate the new functional feature. It was not just a case of how to get the new functionality into a helmet as a functional mock-up to prove the concept had already been built. However, our brief was far more complex than simply integrating another small component into their line of rescue helmets.
PH knew exactly what they wanted to achieve. A change to any one of the components making up these helmets might have an affect on one or all of the other possible component configurations. The company had designed a new sprung recycling hinge for a visor which had become too complex, as it contained and would have meant modifications to several of their existing tools. The designers’ fresh approach and holistic view, based on wide cross-industry experience, allowed a design solution which complemented the manufacturer’s capabilities as a key advantage.
The solution was to simplify their design and split the PH invention into several components which were easier to produce, easier to install and could be positioned across a range of their helmets for flexibility and cost saving in production. We were able to ‘piggy back’ some of the newly designed parts onto existing moulding tools.
The manufacturer had become stuck in their development efforts and Designbrand resolved these issues within their existing capabilities and constraints. We continued investigating and resolving several other small design problems for this manufacturer. Pacific Helmets were so impressed by the designer’s skills that they have now added a young product designer to their staff permanently. We were quite chuffed actually.
Industrial Design Provides New Perspective
It is sometimes difficult to make a case for good design or, rather, a good case for design without an image to explain. Humans gain well over 90% of their perception through their eyes and yet one needs to be trained in a particular way to step outside ones constraints and see what others might never discover. This phenomenon has many names, such as ‘thinking outside the square’ or when objectively observed from a different angle our inability to ‘see the forest because of the trees’.
That is the very reason why designers sometimes struggle to get the recognition they deserve. I have come across many a manufacturer who cannot see the benefit of using a designer. The purchase of a powerful computer and any particular design software ‘is all one needs to do design’ is quite a common misconception. Designbrand has been called upon by quite a few manufacturers to come to their aid because it was too difficult for them to achieve the desired result.
We have recently developed a simple product for the calf rearing industry. The plastic product was existing and a stable seller in the manufacturer’s product line-up. The manufacturing mould was at the end of its service life and had not been designed with all product attributes in mind, therefore not providing the inherent benefits a moulded product can bring. Being a ‘trough type’ hollow product it is an expensive product to be stored or shipped and its manufactured finish was not as good as it should have been. At the same time we knew that the product was gaining success overseas and needed to be well resolved from a logistics point of view.
In order to maximise the benefits from our service the client asked for assistance from the beginning of the project and not just to give development superficial aesthetics as a knee-jerk design token. It was decided very early in the project to use the best pattern makers to produce the new mould and it was their constraints for manufacturing the mould from cast aluminium which made a decisive difference to the final aesthetics. The manual craft of finishing a mould form and surface is restricted by the tools used and the access the tool maker has been given by the design. If a designer ignores the toolmaker’s requirements, how can the designer hope to achieve a well resolved tool? As a master of his craft the pattern maker was able to pinpoint our work with his input by being fully included in the design process.
The seemingly simple aspect of considering all stakeholders in the development of a product is often overlooked and it is the designer’s role to make sure that all aspects are covered. The original product worked well enough in the field and the user of the new product will only notice subtle changes in the next model. It is easier to handle and more accurate in its dosage but that the product has become much ‘greener’ will go un-noticed. The space previously occupied by four units now allows 14 pieces to be shipped. It will also fit neatly onto a Euro pallet and therefore is much more efficient in international shipping and storing. The new product is better performing, cheaper to handle and cleaner to make and will have a better turn-around time in the factory because of superior moulding performance.
Why wouldn’t you use a designer?
"Even A Blind Chook Finds Corn" German Proverb
Industrial Design creates Intellectual Property
I vividly remember a long term client of Designbrand standing in our office with a product in his hands and asking: Can you get me around this patent? Without wanting to be specific about particular products I would like to demonstrate with this article how good industrial design thinking coupled with process-inherent problem analysis can create a path to unique intellectual property for manufacturers who might initially be tempted to largely ‘copy’ an existing product to break into a particular market/product niche.
The manufacturer was happy to attempt a ‘near-enough’ copy which they wanted to introduce to the American market. However, they soon discovered that the product had patent protection in the USA which was their potentially biggest market. There were some ideas as to how they wanted to differentiate their product, but no matter which angle of approach they took toward the product development, they could not get past the patent.
Now, enter design into the equation! Part of any good design process is a problem analysis with sets of questions tailored to both the product genre and manufacturer. We look at perceived limitations, capabilities, aspirations and ideas - challenging where they were prepared for us to facilitate change. In this case however, it was far more important to find out what the manufacturer wanted to achieve with their new product, their aspirations for its use and the customer experience. This set of questions and subsequent discussions about how the product might perform lead to a preliminary set of criteria for the first idea development and concept design.
Designbrand then delivered answers to fulfil the criteria which were so clearly defined in our first round of consultation. The designs were uniquely different from what the client ever imagined possible at the start of the project. While this was still early in the design process, it enabled fresh patent searches with IP professionals and showed that we were on the right track: the detailed definition of the design ‘problem’ lead the designers directly to ideas to create a foundation for their own unique intellectual property. Three individual patents made it possible for the manufacturer to enter the market with a new competitive product and consolidate their position internationally.
New product design and development are important investments for any manufacturer and the IP protection, especially at international level, is a serious financial commitment which is often questioned as to its true worth. In the above case Asian copies of the product were advertised on Alibaba.com by more than one ‘copy-happy’ mass manufacturer. However, we were able to produce evidence of our patented designs and had the competitor’s products ‘pulled’ within 24hours.
The benefit of applied industrial design was multi-fold in this case. Designbrand was approached with what the manufacturer perceived as a huge obstacle and turned it into an opportunity for something with a true point of difference. The result was a unique product protected by its own set of patents enabling market entry and consolidation at international level. Sales are still performing well and are a direct result of product uniqueness through design.
Can Design Add Value to Something Precious?
New Zealand has a history of inventiveness born out of the necessity of having to make do with what is at hand. It is the basis of our No.8 wire kudos and it has produced famous products like the Hamilton jet and more recently the Dishdrawer made by Fisher & Paykel. Both of these products are remarkable for their refined level of thinking by isolating and resolving problems by design to develop products with unique character and functional advantages which sets them apart and allows them to be successful.
Sometimes it is the idea for a new product which drives the development of particular technology to make the realisation of the idea a reality, other times it is new technology which allows a particular product genre to benefit or even revolutionise. Our Crown Research Institutes develop such technologies and high temperature superconductor technology is one of them. Although still in its infancy, many different industries are taking up the technology and will give themselves a first mover advantage in their respective markets.
HTS-110 is one such company at the leading edge in their field. HTS-110 design and make sophisticated analytical magnets based on superconductor technology which, in turn, enables their scientists and engineers to miniaturise the ‘hardware’ to previously impossibly small volumes while maintaining exceptional performance.
Designbrand worked with HTS-110 to develop several concept designs for application of their magnets in a laboratory environment. The reader might ask: Can’t they just make it smaller? Yes, exactly, but how small and how will you use it and who are you competing with? What might have previously been a very large cumbersome industrial scale analytical contraption can now be reduced in size and become either a bench top or a small free standing appliance.
If a new technology revolutionises an industry it will lead to a redefining of this industry’s product image or identity, creating an opportunity for a fresh approach by design. The high temperature superconductor is a disruptive technology to an established market which can now re-invent itself by using design for the provision of new identity for both the product and the manufacturer.
Consequently such products have new demands on usability, frequency of use and the nature of the environment changes.
HTS-110 entrusted Designbrand with the conceptual design of a ‘housing’ for their recently developed analytical magnet. Our design team knew they had to satisfy a variety of technical constraints while being conscious of the fact that this ‘machine’, made from pieces of cold steel, was a culmination of years of hard work and therefore very close to people. There was definitely an emotional stake in the project. At the same time, the technology was leading edge. HTS-110 proved to be a highly engaged client, really as good as it gets in our industry. We worked closely to accommodate solutions which were still in a state of development, many concepts were rejected or eliminated, sophisticated technology such as cryogenic cooling had to be integrated and the magnet itself had to have a ferrous shield to allow reliable operation. This could have been achieved with a sheet metal box, having to be housed with yet another cover to give it product identity or at least make it attractive and retain an element of uniqueness.
We were quite keen to keep all the necessary fabrication and manufacture local and convinced the client to have a partial housing ‘spun’ from 3mm steel, giving it the required form and shielding it at the same time. The final form developed out of a need for ‘future proofing’ by being able to add additional functional features for automation of the analytical task in the future.
Designbrand designed and coordinated the local manufacture of the steel support stand, housing components and shield barrel for the technician gurus at HTS-110 to complete the instrument assembly for export to their first international customer.
Design creates an identity for new technology.