Why manufacturing is key for successful product design
As a product designer it is vital that I have a good understanding of materials and engineering, but also how products are made and the manufacturing process. It may seem like a step that comes towards the end of the design process, when in fact it needs to be one of the first considerations you make. And here’s why.
A lot of the time my team at Bang and I are sent ideas from entrepreneurs and businesses that they have had drawn up. More often than not, we can tell from just looking at the visuals that the designs are just not feasible. Simply put – they won’t work and they won’t make our potential clients any money!
It is very easy to draw up a design you think will look good and do the job. However, it is a lot harder to draw up a design that will not only look good and do the job, but will also be made for a marketable cost price. Only this will deliver clients the margins they need to be in business.
For example, we recently reviewed a product concept which required a metal frame structure. It consisted of tubular steel work that was curved and welded together in different planes. To create this structure would take a lot of skill and need complex tooling, both of which would send manufacturing cost spiralling upwards.
If the end design warranted this curvilinear shape then its execution would be understandable, but in this case the feature actually hindered the product’s use by the end customer! So our prospective client had ended up paying for designs that cannot be manufactured within the cost framework. i.e. It would be too expensive to make them for the price they could then be sold for.
When our designers explain a concept, they have to show how the product fits the end customer and how it solves a problem. As well as this, I make sure they run through how the product will be manufactured, the materials used and how it will be assembled and packaged.
There is nothing like actually visiting a manufacturing facility to understand how a product evolves from an idea to a material object. We recently visited Italian manufacturer Co-Fe-Mo, who manufacture parts for chairs.
I took one of our designers around the factory where Paolo (the MD) showed us the pressure die casting process, as well as his injection moulding facility. We witnessed the whole process – seeing the raw aluminium right the way through to the polishing, finishing and then the final produced part. We also saw how the tool had to be so much larger for impurities to be able to escape, so as not to have pit marks left in the metal. We also learnt the limitations of the polishing buffers.
This firsthand experience and knowledge of the different stages of manufacturing was not only very interesting but critical for our design work. For example, when we come to design parts we can make sure our forms can be polished and will look great on the end product, without the need for extra costs and tooling for our client.
We also saw glass filled nylon being injection moulded, which is a technique that allows you to have thicker wall sections and means sink marks from bosses and webs are not visible on the outer surface. For the back of a chair we are currently designing, we could really use this process and the material as the starting block of our design, as we could see how it flexed.
The whole trip really helped us as designers to understand the form and structure of components that can be made using these processes. On our return to the studio, our designer Jacques debriefed the rest of the team on these processes and what he learnt. Now, when we design our chairs and furniture using these production processes, we can use the same material and methods to help create the final design. We will know how much it will cost to produce and how much would need to be invested in tooling. More importantly, we know what we draw can actually be made.