Do you really know what material is best for your product?

As a product development team. We don’t pretend to know all the intricacies about each individual strain of polymers and how everything is manufactured. I know, I know, you’ve been lied to.. however, we do understand what the different materials and processes are good for, how they react in certain environments, how they are manufactured and common practices. This gives us the foresight to analyse the product and determine the best material and manufacture process – allowing us to design each part in a particular way that best suits how the parts will be manufactured.

In the beginning of your project, it’s a great idea to discuss the products use, features, functions, the volume needed, location, distribution, shipping, environmental impact (branding) and anything else that will influence the material and production choice. It’s not always possible to make all the decisions in the beginning, as sometimes we need to play with materials and finishes to achieve that perfect fit/function for the product. But understanding the direction and marketing approach from the beginning will help us design a better product suited for a particular manufacture method and material in each stage of the products life.

Our prototyping choices sometimes differ to our mass production choices.

Our goal with prototyping is to test assumptions, and when we test our assumptions there’s a chance, we could be wrong. That’s why we work through a process that allows us to scale our prototypes as the project develops.

Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to design or manufacture the product using the ultimate method of the mass production. Choosing a different process to prototype your idea in those initial prototypes can help save time, money and better our understanding of how the product is solving the problem. Sometimes we even urge our clients to get to a basic prototype fast and cheap, than a perfect prototype. This can drastically speed up feedback and help us pivot the product direction if necessary, without losing unnecessary time and money.

For example: Clive wants to design a new type of hair trimmer. It’s handheld, will be mass produced and made of plastic using moulds. This product will ultimately be injection moulded when mass produced.. But way before we get to mass production, we need to design how the product fits into a hand, where the buttons are, how it works, maybe even weight distribution.

To prototype this hair trimmer. We can use a few options to produce prototypes, but in the beginning we can use ‘dummy’ models that look the part, but don’t work. This allows us to test the size, how it fits in our hand, and the location of features. These prototypes can be printed using a basic3D printer. It’s not the best finish but it will get the job done for a reasonable cost. And get us feedback fast.

When building a product, we want to achieve very specific goals when it gets to the stage of building the product. If test shape is the goal, then we only need something as refined to achieve that. If the goal were to test function, there are industrial 3D printers that print really great looking and high precision parts which we can use for that. If the goal is to build a functional, and identical looking unit to the injection moulding. There is a different process for that.

In Clive’s hair trimmer example, we could work through three or four ‘different’ plastics and manufacture process until you get to your final mass-produced choices. It’s all about knowing when and where to use what.

Another example is using sheet metal to prototype for plastic. Dave wants to build an enclosure/casing for his newly developed electronics product. It’s a fairly large product 800mm x 800mm or so. He believes there is amazing potential and wants to build the enclosure from plastic because if he sells 10 000 of them he can get the cost’s very low for each enclosure.

We start working together and crafting a specific plan to help Dave build his enclosure. We decide that we’ll start in sheet metal design to work through the prototypes and first small batch runs. We are able to build an enclosure that performs the task he needs while not having any huge moulding costs a plastic injection product will have. It’s fast and within a few weeks we have something to test.  

We end up building three different versions of the prototype because after each test in the field we need to update certain features. All of this saves him money and time because there are no moulds that need to be changed. And sheet metal’s lead time can be as little as two weeks, where by making a mould can take 6 months.

We eventually build 100 units which fly off the shelves and now it’s time to start working on evolving the design into a plastic version sohe can sell 10’s of 1000’s.

But let’s look at the opposite... those 100 units sit on the shelves for a year, sales aren’t that great, but things are starting to pick up and it’s showing progress. There’s been some feedback from the customers and Dave is already thinking about version 2 once these sell out.  And when the time is right, he doesn’t have$250 000 worth of moulds sitting in a factory doing nothing.

It always comes down to market, demand and what you want to achieve with your product.

This is where we as mass production designers or as everyone knows us, industrial designers, help add value to our clients. We want to see you succeed, and unless you’re a billionaire that baths in cash, chances are you want to move efficiently to get your product out there, but also smartly when it comes to cash and resources.

It’s the dance of money, resources, product, and demand. If you can build a product that does what you need it to do in an efficient way which you can test, adjust, and then grow your design. Isn’t that the way to goto make sure you don’t bury all your stock and money in a dark hole?

Just like the rest of the world, it mostly comes down to how much money you have in your pocket. If you have the cash, confidence, and experience in your product you’re developing, (chances are you’re not reading this article) You can take those risks.

But for the rest of us that don’t enjoy burning our hard-earned money on the barbeque. I would suggest knowing all your options when it comes down to building your prototypes, low volume runs, mass produced runs. It’s good to know these things up front so you can plan your journey and hopefully not extend your self too much.

So, when it comes down to material and manufacture choices. Sometimes it’s best to speak to someone that understands many materials and manufacture processes. It could help you build your solution in an efficient way.