When starting a major industrial design project, it's crucial to have a plan. Unfortunately, too often, people dive into these projects head-first without a game plan and quickly find themselves over their heads. This blog post will discuss tips for succeeding when starting from scratch with your major project. By following these guidelines, you'll be able to stay on track and complete your project on time and within budget!
Most product-design projects progress through similar evolutionary steps of development, as outlined below:
- Project Planning — Specifications, Schedule, Budget, and Risk
- Research and Exploration
- Concept Development/Exploration
- Concept Refinement and Detailing
- Engineering Development/Prototyping
- Preproduction Prototype
- Tooling Release and Fabrication
- Production Liaison
- Testing, Verification, and Validation
Since design projects vary in complexity, some projects may require only a few of the steps outlined above, while others may include many more phases of development. Therefore, each previously cited development step can be considered a project milestone. This article will discuss the considerations you must include within each of these milestones and the real-world factors that often alter the best-laid plans.
Designing and planning a realistic product development program requires experience developing products and creatively utilising available resources. Projects are often planned based on overly optimistic schedules combined with a naive assessment of technical challenges associated with the product. Deadlines are often set by marketing or financial managers whose decisions are based on their potential sales or cost. If these deadlines are not honestly evaluated and possibly challenged by strong engineering leadership, product introductions will be seriously delayed or launched with multiple flaws. Therefore, project planning is the first — and most crucial — milestone of any product development program.
Project Planning — Specifications, Schedule, Budget, and Risk
A well-planned project could be very simple or highly complicated depending on the product. For example, planning the design of a completely new CAT scanner would be quite different from the design of an injection-moulded plastic container. The former would require inputs from multiple contributors with expertise in various departments, which would comply with a single overall development program. On the other hand, planning the design of a plastic container literarily could be done on a napkin. Complicated projects would warrant GANT or PERT charts to track multiple interrelated activities, while simpler projects may only require a simple, linear timeline that you could prepare on a spreadsheet. Regardless of the complexity, the project planner must forecast the completion of tasks based on cost, resources, risks, and time.
Tasks should be defined based on risk assessment and include contingencies within the allotted schedule and budgetary restrictions. Assessing risks and planning alternative pathways to reach critical milestones requires the planner to apply quantitative methods to determine an event's status. These complex parameters must be organised, prioritised, and interrelated based on a schedule, budget, and pool of resources, typically including people and equipment. It should be noted that a well-designed project plan is dynamic and responsive to changes that occur throughout a project. Although project planning and management are never officially done until the project is completed, you can unofficially complete it after it has been released to the development team for implementation.
Research and Exploration
Every new product or update of an existing product requires some research. The word research is somewhat liberally applied to this milestone since it is typically not scientific in nature. For example, product design research might include studying user behaviour with a product or testing the unique application of a plastic material. New products are often regarded as innovative because the buying public perceives them as distinctly different from others within the same market. These differences could be based on various features ranging from overall shape and style to creative use of materials or new technology. These concepts and ideas are derived from this initial research phase, where brainstorming sessions are conducted, information is obtained from focus groups, experimentation with new technologies is applied, and preliminary prototyping is done. Most medical products, for example, require extensive investment in researching the end-user, who could be a clinician, patient, or both. These studies require well-prepared questionnaires and non-functional models to document the interaction of potential users with a mockup device during a simulated event. Sessions are often documented via videos that are later examined to define specific product features.
Proper completion of this milestone is critical to the product's success since the features derived from these studies will define the utility of the product and its value. Product size, shape, weight, colour, materials, ergonomics, etc., are only a few of the many parameters determined from these studies. This milestone can only be completed after the specifications have been evaluated with an entire team of project contributors. These parameters often influence cost, manufacturing, engineering, marketing, and schedule.
Project plans are never implemented precisely as written. Phases and associated tasks frequently overlap or are executed concurrently. Concepts are commonly developed from the very beginning of a project and continually created throughout a project. However, industrial designers typically conceive new product concepts and general aesthetics and frequently form numerous design alternatives during the early development cycle. These concepts are usually based on the research and specifications defined in the first phase.
Industrial designers are challenged with the interpretation of user requirements, technical considerations, marketing requirements, and safety within an aesthetically appealing enclosure that ultimately can be manufactured. Completing this milestone requires constant communication between the industrial design team and numerous organisational contributors. The best design direction selection usually involves key contributors from marketing, manufacturing, engineering, field service, sales, and upper management. The final decision will majorly affect product acceptance, sales, and marketing. Early concept designs typically evolve through a series of iterations evaluated based on renderings, animations, and non-functional models.
Design concepts based on rotational moulding will significantly differ from those based on pressure forming or blow moulding. Therefore, industrial designers must understand how different plastic moulding methods to influence design.
You should note that realistic, practical design concepts are developed based on specific plastic manufacturing processes. For example, concepts based on rotational moulding will significantly differ from those based on pressure forming or blow moulding. It's therefore advantageous for industrial designers to have some basic understanding of different plastic moulding methods and how they might influence design. Serious problems occur when an attractive concept is selected and modified during engineering development for a plastics manufacturing process. The compromises often degrade the design intent, resulting in an inferior product. The highest quality designs are conceived and executed based on specific manufacturing methods that enhance the overall concept; this requires an integrated design process combined with effective honest communication.
Concept Refinement and Detailing
Typical design evolutions progress to a stage in the project where initial concepts are edited down to one design direction based on numerous factors. The chosen design direction is sometimes based on one concept or, more frequently, a hybrid design based on a combination of features from different concepts. Initial ideas typically lack numerous details since the design intent is focused on developing creative gestures expressing an overall image for the product. Therefore, you must further develop the selected concept to include many subtle details that may have been omitted from the earlier renditions. Details are added to the design based on more specific technical requirements and subtle aesthetic features throughout the concept-refinement phase. This development step requires the industrial design team to maintain clear and effective communication with all development team members.
Industrial designers must effectively communicate with engineers in various departments, including the plastics and tooling department and marketing, manufacturing, and purchasing, to verify that the proposed design details are consistent with overall project objectives. Product details provide the design magic that makes a product look great. A simple rectangular or circular-shaped product can become an irresistible, highly prized possession with the right details. However, well-executed details are also the most expensive features to include in a design. They require high precision, exceptional craftsmanship, and the highest levels of quality control. Moulds must be constructed from the best steels, precision machined, and hand crafted. Plastic materials must comply with stringent specifications controlling colour, gloss, physical properties, molecular weight, etc. In addition, moulded parts must conform to tight tolerances, surface finish, and overall physical performance specifications. These requirements must be evaluated based on the market, forecasted sales volume, return on investment, and projected product life cycle.
Completion of this milestone can be defined as the cornerstone of the product-design cycle since it communicates corporate image, values, and overall business philosophy.
Most projects gradually transition from one phase of development to the next, abruptly closing one chapter and opening a new one. Realistically transitioning from the previous phase to engineering development is gradual, iterative, and highly interactive. Engineers are concurrently superimposing the proposed concept over technical parameters as industrial designers work out aesthetic design details. This lengthy process requires extremely good communication between the engineering department and the entire design team. Engineering development of plastic parts within a complex system requires multidisciplinary skills, experience, and knowledge. Engineers or engineering teams must thoroughly understand the product, its use and market, environmental considerations, safety, structural requirements, design for manufacturing (DFM), plastics material options, tool design, and many other areas of knowledge. Engineers with expertise in plastic parts should have a basic understanding of plastic materials. Since there are hundreds of thousands of plastic materials to choose from, it's advantageous for these individuals to rely on material suppliers, moulders, or plastics material consultants to assist them in selecting the optimal material for a given application. Choosing the right plastic material is critical to any plastic product's performance, safety, and reliability. It will also affect the design. Material selection could influence the number of parts required for a sub-assembly, wall thickness, or structural features such as ribs. In addition, engineers should also reach out to moulders and tool makers during the initial phases of part design to avoid the costly task of completely rebuilding a CAD model due to feature changes at the root of the feature tree. Since solid CAD models are created from a series of interdependent features that can often exceed hundreds, it's undesirable to change those at the root of the list. These changes can result in costly person-hours of rework. This milestone phase of design development requires designers and engineers to constantly interact with numerous project contributors to avoid constant and unnecessary rework. An essential requirement for this interactive process to progress efficiently is the regular exchange of honest and decisive information. There is no room in this process for bureaucrats and indecisive individuals solely concerned with job security. The information must be shared quickly, honestly, and decisively. Engineers must maintain an open mind and be willing to subject their designs to critical scrutiny continually.
All complicated innovative products require one or more intermediate prototypes during every development phase. The type of prototype will depend on the parameter being evaluated. It's surprising how many companies invest hundreds or thousands of person-hours developing a complete design before fabricating a prototype. This approach often results in products with hidden severe design flaws or extremely delayed product introductions with huge cost overruns. Product designs can be virtually guaranteed to be introduced on time, on budget, and with the highest performance if critical parameters are identified from the outset of the project. Identifying critical parameters that could affect the reliability or performance of plastic parts requires lots of knowledge. Therefore, it is ideally conducted by a team of project contributors with different areas of expertise. Materials experts, for example, may raise questions about environments of use and proposed product assembly. Exposure to ultraviolet light, chemicals, thermal considerations, regulatory requirements, fatigue, and so forth will affect the type of plastic material to be specified. Tool designers and moulders may identify potential moulding problems resulting in poor fills, knit lines, sink marks, or undercuts. Engineers often face situations where no reliable information is available; this is when a prototype is required to determine the best solution.
An example might be something as simple as evaluating the long-term performance of a plastic part exposed to a chemical or lubricant under stress for a specified period of time. Another example might be assessing the feel of a snap lock for a cover or cap based on a specific material. A third example might include the impact strength of a knit line for a glass-filled nylon material. Each of these examples will require a prototype ranging from a sample chip of plastic to a small injection-moulded test part or a 3D-printed prototype. Establishing the test parameters and procedures is as critical as identifying the potential failure point of a product.
Product documentation is a closing chapter of the engineering development and design process. Before 3D CAD, parts were fully detailed and dimensioned with tolerances in 2D orthographic drawings, which were released to tool makers for production tooling. Today, 3D CAD files are released to tool makers for machining moulds and the 2D documentation is used as reference information. 2D drawings are rarely fully dimensioned since CNC machines are programmed directly from data within 3D CAD files that contain all the dimensional and geometric information. Although this process does not depend upon 2D drawings for fabricating moulds, it is highly dependent on the technical information stated in the documentation. 2D orthographic production control drawings typically contain the following information:
- Overall top, front, and side views, plus sections and details when needed;
- overall dimensions plus critical dimensions and tolerances;
- material specifications;
- surface finish/texture;
- quality specs; and
- special notes.
Although this list does not include every significant specification, it represents the most common parameters. For example, dimensions can be specified using conventional formats or geometric tolerances that provide more explicit information.
This significant milestone in the design process can be considered equivalent to a contract between the moulder and you, the customer. A significant portion of the documentation includes assembly drawings, which are critical to the product's overall performance, safety, and reliability. Plastic subassemblies frequently include any of the following hardware or information:
- ultrasonic bonds
- labels and decals
- pad printing/silk screening
- press fits
Although this list is not all-inclusive, it represents many commonly assembled parts and operations for plastic parts. Engineers should comprehensively understand these operations, including materials, techniques, precautions, and consequences. Improper specifications or omissions could result in serious product failures or chronic product malfunctions. For example, specifications for adhesives are incredibly technical and complex. Therefore, engineers should discuss the application, environmental conditions, and materials to be bonded with a reputable adhesives supplier as part of this project milestone. A technical adhesives engineer will describe critical requirements for surface preparation, application, and curing conditions. They will also provide chemical resistance, thermal limits, and manufacturing considerations, all of which must be considered and specified within the documentation. Ultrasonic assembly experts, printers, and insert suppliers can provide similar technical advice.
It's customary for engineers to create, test, and evaluate a fully functional preproduction plastic prototype before releasing CAD files to a tool maker for production tooling. Therefore, you should complete this last step before the production release of CAD files according to the objectives of evaluating the prototype.
Rapid prototyping offers engineers the most efficient and cost-effective means of fabricating a preproduction prototype, but it has limitations that you must consider. For example, rapid prototypes will not reveal potential tolerance problems experienced during moulding. This information can only be obtained or confirmed by a moulder. In addition, rapid prototypes will not represent the final injection-moulded part's actual physical properties, depending on the specific resin grade, processing conditions, and mould design. Finally, rapid prototypes will not reveal potential moulding problems such as sink marks, knit lines, fragile walls, or warpage. These can only be predicted by simulation software or experienced moulders who can pinpoint these potential problems based on their experience. It's therefore recommended to seek the advice of appropriate experts during this final milestone of product development.
A preproduction prototype will provide invaluable information on overall fit, primary function, appearance, and product use. Fully functional prototypes can be finished to look like the final production unit. Engineers can also measure heat dissipation, vibration, the effectiveness of snap fits, and many other design features with a fully functional rapid prototype. Interaction and close communication with prototyping resources are as important as any other milestone during the development process. It's common for preproduction designs to be creatively modified for prototyping purposes since some moulded features may be impossible to prototype effectively. Collaboration with a prototyping partner often presents options for achieving complex features with good representation.
Tooling Release and Fabrication
The most exciting moment during the design of plastic products is releasing CAD files and documentation to a tool maker for the fabrication of injection moulds. After this milestone is achieved, there is no turning back or opportunity to make changes after the metal is cut. You can only make last-minute design changes without severe cost impact if they are made before moulds are designed or, more importantly, before they are machined. This major milestone requires the engineer to ensure that the plastic material specified in the documentation affects shrinkage and mould features. It is also critical to know gate location, which will affect knit lines, part fill, appearance, and function. Part design must include enough draft for all features, including textured surfaces that require additional draft depending on the depth of texture. It would help if you verified wall-thickness cross-sections to allow adequate fill during moulding and prevent sink marks in parts. Discussions with a mould maker will impart information on tool design, knockout pin locations, and overall mould quality, which will affect the final part form, fit, and function.
This milestone typically spans from one to six months, depending on mould complexity, the number of moulds, the backlog of the mould shop, and potential changes. In addition, communication between product design engineers and tool makers typically drops off after the machining operations begin. Therefore, toward the end of the tooling fabrication phase of the project, it's essential to coordinate with the tool maker to discuss the final steps of the process. This last operation pertains to surface texturing, which involves acid etching specified areas of the moulds. Since this final step in the tool-making process prohibits adding any design modifications to the mould without high costs, it's advisable to schedule mould texturing after the first shots are evaluated. Although this precautionary step adds time to the schedule, it does provide you with an added level of assurance that your design and the moulded production parts are within specifications.
After plastic injection moulds are finished and approved, a pilot production run is customarily completed. This milestone typically requires several previous milestones to have been achieved. Sample lots of material for each part must be available. Some materials may require extended lead times and must be ordered well before the pilot run. Custom colours or unique formulations often require high minimum orders, prohibiting sample runs. Engineers must be ready to suggest alternative substitutes that satisfy performance criteria.
First articles may frequently exhibit slight sink marks, splay, warpage, or minor tolerance problems that require processing adjustments and minor tooling revisions. Next, you must prepare the engineering and design team to methodically examine every part based on overall product specifications. This critical phase of a project requires professionals with exceptional problem-solving and analytical skills. Identifying the root cause of components not fitting to each other as expected is often challenging to pinpoint. The worst decision choice during this process is yielding to suggestions from others for changing the design without definitively identifying the problem. This decision path is costly, time-consuming, and, worst of all, it complicates solving the problem.
Well-designed parts optimised for injection moulding are easily moulded in spec if they are correctly analysed. This milestone is completed after the final assembled preproduction product has been carefully reviewed by all team members and accepted as suitable for production.
Testing, Verification, and Validation
The last milestone in the design and development process is verification and validation. Preproduction samples should be tested and proven to perform the following specifications before authorisation for full production is granted by corporate management. Preproduction parts are typically evaluated based on several parameters, some of which are listed below:
- overall performance
- reliability and longevity
- abuse and durability
- colour and overall quality
- regulatory compliance
All these parameters must be evaluated based on very well-defined protocols and procedures. The results are only as good as the scope of the evaluation. Therefore, engineers must fully define the test procedure to understand the product and its potential failure points fully. Some of these tests may be destructive, while others may require many hours, weeks, or months to complete. A product can be confidently authorised for full production only after the testing is completed, officially ending the last milestone in a product-development cycle.
How might product design proposals be affected by changes in the marketplace?
As technology and the marketplace change, so must product design proposals. To stay ahead of the curve, engineers and designers must be willing to adapt their recommendations to the ever-changing landscape; this may mean incorporating new technologies or redesigning products to meet the needs of a new customer base.
For example, as cars become more fuel-efficient, there is less need for aftermarket products that improve gas mileage. As a result, product designers must be willing to shift their focus to other areas, such as electric vehicles or autonomous driving.
Similarly, as consumer tastes change, designers must be prepared to adapt their proposals accordingly. What was once considered cutting-edge design may now be outdated and unappealing. To succeed in today's marketplace, product designers must be willing to embrace change.
What are some common mistakes made during the development of major industrial projects?
Common Mistakes made during industrial design can result in delays, cost overruns, and other problems. One mistake is not allocating enough resources to the project; this can lead to industrial designers being overworked and unable to meet deadlines. Another mistake is failing to communicate with all stakeholders properly; this can result in a lack of buy-in and support for the project. Finally, another mistake is not adequately testing the product before it goes to market; this can result in major problems down the line. Proper industrial design is essential for any major project. By avoiding these common mistakes, industrial designers can help ensure the project's success.
What might major industrial design projects entail?
Major industrial design projects usually entail various tasks, from research and development to engineering and design, prototyping and testing, and production. Major industrial design projects often require significant financial and human resources to succeed. Consequently, planning and executing such projects to avoid costly mistakes is important. In addition, industrial designers often work with other professionals, such as engineers and marketing experts, to ensure that the products they develop are not only aesthetically pleasing but also functional and marketable. In some cases, industrial designers may also be involved in the manufacturing process, working with factories to ensure that their designed products can be mass-produced effectively. Ultimately, industrial designers play an essential role in bringing new products to market.
Where might the design brief originate?
The industrial design process is a complex and rewarding one. Achieving the perfect balance of form and function is a challenging but attainable goal. The first step in any industrial design project is developing a design brief. This document serves as a roadmap for the entire project, outlining the goals and objectives. The design brief may originate from various sources, such as the client, the company's management, or even the engineers and designers themselves. It is vital to ensure that all stakeholders are involved in developing the brief to ensure that everyone is on the same page from the start.
Once the brief has been finalised, it should be used as a guide for making all decisions during the project. Following the objectives outlined in the brief makes it possible to create a successful industrial design.
What might an industrial designer need to consider when designing for mass production?
When designing for mass production, industrial designers must consider various factors to ensure that the product can be manufactured efficiently and at a low cost:
- The industrial designer must be aware of the limitations of existing technologies and processes.
- Industrial designers must consider the costs of materials and labour and any regulatory requirements that may apply to the product.
- Industrial designers must also consider the product's aesthetic appeal, as this can be a significant selling point for many consumers.
By considering all of these factors, industrial designers can successfully create products suitable for mass production.
If a product is specifically designed for a specific market, how might this affect its commercial viability in other markets?
A product may not be commercially viable in other markets if it is specifically designed for a certain marke; this is because the product may not meet the needs or preferences of consumers in other markets. Additionally, the cost of producing the product for other markets may be prohibitive. As such, it is important to carefully consider the potential market for a product before investing in its development. Otherwise, the product may not be successful in any market.
Carrying out user research is an important part of the design process; this involves understanding the needs and wants of the target market and conducting usability testing to ensure that the product is easy to use. Additionally, user research may involve surveys and focus groups on gathering product feedback. All of this information is essential to developing a product that meets the needs of consumers.
What are some major considerations when designing products for use in harsh environments?
When designing products for use in harsh environments, it is important to consider various factors. First and foremost, the product must withstand the rigours of the environment; this means that it must be made from durable materials and have a robust design. Additionally, the product must be easy to use and maintain, as users will likely not have access to the same level of support as they would in a more forgiving environment. Finally, the product must function reliably in extreme conditions, as any downtime could prove costly or even dangerous. By considering all of these factors, industrial designers can successfully create products for use in harsh environments.
Consumer products are subject to many different regulations. How might this affect the industrial designer's approach to the design process?
The industrial designer's approach to the design process may be affected by the fact that consumer products are subject to many different regulations. In some cases, the industrial designer may need to work closely with regulatory bodies to ensure that the product meets all applicable standards. Additionally, the industrial designer may need to consider any potential recalls or liability issues that could arise from using the product. By considering all of these factors, the industrial designer can successfully navigate the regulatory landscape and create a safe and compliant product.
Does product styling always need to be considered when designing for mass production?
Product styling does not always need to be considered when mass production design. However, in many cases, the aesthetic appeal of a product can be a major selling point. Therefore, it is important to consider the potential market for the product and what style would be most appealing to consumers.
What are some major considerations when designing products for the international market?
When designing products for the international market, it is important to consider a variety of factors:
- Regulations: In some cases, the industrial designer may need to work closely with regulatory bodies in order to ensure that the product meets all applicable standards.
- Languages and Cultures: The industrial designer must be aware of the fact that the product will be used in a variety of different languages and cultures. The product must be easy to use and understand for users in all markets.
- Cost: The cost of producing the product for other markets may be prohibitive. As such, it is important to consider the potential market for the product carefully and whether it is feasible to produce it for other markets.
How might a professional design practice differ from an in-house design studio?
There are a few key ways in which a professional design practice may differ from an in-house design studio:
- Professional design practice is likely to have a more diverse team of designers, with each designer specialising in a specific area; this allows the team to take in a broader range of projects and create more innovative designs.
- Professional design practice is likely to have access to a greater variety of resources, including state-of-the-art equipment and software; this allows the team to create high-quality designs that meet the specific needs of their clients.
- Professional design practice is likely to be more focused on business, such as marketing and sales; this allows them to understand the needs of their clients better and create products that will sell.
To succeed in the world of industrial design, it is crucial to consider various factors. These include the product's function, the regulatory landscape, the potential market for the product, and the cost of production. By considering all of these factors, the industrial designer can create a safe, compliant, and appealing product that will be successful in the marketplace.