Today’s designers and manufacturers must compete in an increasingly global market. Design cycles are shorter and global competition makes it harder than ever to stand out.
Additionally, customers are becoming more selective and eager to get their hands on emerging products in innovation. They’re also becoming increasingly aware of material-based nuances, especially as they relate to environmental impact.
To survive in the marketplace of today, businesses must strive to keep existing customers happy, expand into new markets, and quickly gain traction among new audiences at the same time.
Sounds easy enough, right?
Status Quo: Design + Manufacturing
Historically, the element of design has always been treated as a separate process from manufacturing.
Each department is siloed, using their own sets of tools that fail to communicate with each other in a seamless manner. Design and manufacturing also speak different languages and are driven by different objectives and measurables.
By the time they are on the same page, it is often too late in the process to make a real difference.
All of these inefficiencies add time, cost, and a multitude of iterations of the design through the manufacturing process—often resulting in unwanted design changes late in the game.
For many industrial designers, handing off a digital 3D surface file and hoping for the best is how most projects come to a close.
Innovations in the Design + Manufacturing Workflow
At the beginning of this year, I joined M4, a design and manufacturing house, as its Chief Design Officer (CDO). I bring a long history of industrial design, as a founding partner of Astro Studios where I tenured for 20+ years post Tandem, collaborating with a diverse group of such as Nike, Electric, Herman Miller, SOL Republic, KIA, Callaway Golf, Microsoft, HP, Nixon, Halyard Health, and others.
It's been exciting to get an inside look at manufacturing and identify areas where we can infuse design innovation and improve efficiencies with both design and manufacturing under one roof.
And since innovation is often the secret to success for designers and manufacturers alike, I want to showcase the benefits I’ve seen in my collaboration so far.
I learned early in my career that even when you think a design is finished, there's still a lot of work to be done in maintaining its integrity through production.
At M4, we’re conscious of smart manufacturing throughout the entire design process — from initial sketch to final manufacturing, inspection, and assembly.
Benefits of this process include:
With design, engineering, tool engineering, quality, and marketing all at the table, we’re able to make better decisions, which leads to better products and shorter timelines. As designers, we also have the agility to respond quickly and effectively without having to wake up early or stay late in conjunction with overseas partners.
Awareness of and real-time participation in the DFM (design for manufacturing) process is the best kind of education a designer can hope for.
The team is able to think fast to address any number of issues: adding draft angles; fixing major issues with undercuts (i.e. parts of a design that get stuck in a mold when trying to be removed), parting lines, wall thicknesses, screw bosses, and reinforcements; making alterations for production techniques and taking into consideration how plastic will flow into a mold.
All of these factors impact the end-design and aesthetics of a product.
It’s these hands-on experiences and moments of problem-solving in the moment that have benefited me most in knowing where I can truly challenge and push boundaries.
And at the end of the day, isn’t that a designer’s job?
Most designers know just enough to get by on your run-of-the-mill manufacturing materials: ABS, Polycarb, Nylon, and maybe even TPE rubber and the various Mold Tech specs that make a product finish look good.
I didn’t realize how much a factory has to know about various materials and the properties of each. But of course this makes sense, and they often bring in materials experts to consult on projects as well, depending on specific product performance needs.
Again, this is where I get excited about working at a factory. I’m able to explore, investigate, and experiment with sustainable and alternate materials.
The chatter around plastics is building among consumers, with many companies being called upon to make changes in product production fast.
At M4, we have a mold and a press used specifically for the purpose of testing. We processed a new cork resin material identified at NPE — the largest plastics show in the world — from a European resin house. The material is a TPU, with a small percentage of cork, that offers the look and feel of cork. it was sampled in an existing mold to determine moldability and process. After successful testing, products were designed utilizing this material and presented to customers.
At the time, M4 was the only US molder to sample this resin according to the material manufacturer.
But we will soon be testing other materials — including coffee grounds, bamboo, and other alternative finds — in a similar fashion. With our in-house resources and testing capabilities, we’re working on compiling a robust in-house material library.
Final Thoughts: A Bright Future for Design in Manufacturing
In today’s global manufacturing ecosystem, the market is changing significantly in re-defining contract manufacturing. I get so excited when I see manufacturers starting to produce products for themselves, in addition to partnerships with brands looking to outsource their product production needs.
It’s no longer just about making a million widgets.
There’s endless opportunity to be found when a manufacturer remains open to creative ways to keep the factory floor busy.
All of which is truly a designer’s dream.