Sunday, January 20, 2013

Industrial Design for Startups: The Factory Floor

Artwork on Arduino.
DesignTUTORIALS :: Here is a snippet from "The Factory Floor, Part 3 of 4: Industrial Design for Startups" by Andrew "Bunnie" Huang. It covers some practical approaches to bring some of our lofty ideas down to Earth, and still have the impact we as designers are looking for.

As a designer of interiors, exhibitions, furniture, and even graphics - it is definitely agreed that having a close relationship with your contractors, be they a factory, a workshop, a print shop, or a work crew, is important and understanding what they can and cannot do can help you produce more appropriate designs and achieve greater results.

Andrew says...

"If you don’t have pockets deep enough to invest in new equipment and capabilities on behalf of your factory (i.e., if you’re not a Fortune 500 company), the first step is to learn the vocabulary available. A design vocabulary is defined by the capabilities of the factory or factories producing the goods. What materials, what finish, what tolerances are achievable, what fastening technology is available – these are all heavily dependent upon the processes available.

Therefore, I find that visiting a factory in person early in the design process results in a better design result. In a factory visit, some design vocabulary will be discarded, but some new vocabulary will be discovered as well – the engineers who work the factory day in and day out develop process innovations that can open up novel design possibilities that are not knowable without the on-site visit." 

The examples Andrew uses are the Chumby One (pictured below) and the Arudino microprocessor. The Chumby One employs very simple solutions that modify the original design in respect to what the factories can actually do. The Arduino uses very simple processes to achieve the desired results, processes that might be slightly outside the standard approaches used by manufacturers if the decision was left up to them. Understanding the manufacturing process better, helps make better designs.

Chumby One modified slightly during the design process to match manufacturers' capabilities.

He goes on with...

"Thus, the process capability of the factory – painting vs. double-shot molding, double soldermasking vs. silkscreening – can have a real effect in the outcome of a product’s perceived quality, without a huge impact on cost. However, a factory may not appreciate the full potential of their processes, and so it requires a designer’s direct interaction to realize the potential. Unfortunately, many designers don’t visit a factory until something has gone wrong, at which point the tools are cut and even if they see a cool process that could solve all their problems, it’s often too late.

Design is an intensely personal activity, and as a result every designer will develop their own process. This is the general process I might use to develop a product on a tight, startup budget:

    1. Every design starts with a sketchbook. First, decide on the soul and identity of the design, and pick a material system and vocabulary that suits your concept. But don’t fall in love with it…
    2. Break the design down by material system, and identify a factory capable of producing each material system. 

    3. Visit the facility, and take note of what is actually running down the production lines. Don’t get too drawn in by the sample room or one-off bits. Practice makes perfect, and from the operators to the engineers they will do a better job of executing things they are doing on a daily basis than reaching deep and exercising an arcane capability.

    4. Re-evaluate the design based on a new understanding of what’s possible, and iterate. This may require going back to step 1, or it may just require small tweaks. But this is the stage at which it’s easiest to make compromises without sacrificing the purity of the design. 

    5. Rough out the details of the design – pick parting lines, sliding surfaces, finishes, fastening systems, etc. based upon what the factory can do best.

    6. Pass a revised drawing to the factory, and work with them to finalize details such as draft angles, fastening surfaces, internal ribbing, etc. 

    7. Validate the design using a 3D print and extensive 3D model checks.

    8. Identify features prone to tolerance errors, and trim the initial tool so that the tolerance favors “tool-safe” modifications. For example, in injection molding it is easier to remove steel than to add it to a tool, so target the initial test shot to have less plastic than too much on critical dimensions. A button is an example of a mechanism that benefits from tuning: it’s hard to predict from CAD or 3D prints exactly how a button will feel, and getting that tactile feel just perfect usually requires a little trimming of the tool." 
Thanks Andrew! If you want to read the entire story please visit his blog here. Then you can look through some of his other work including the other parts of this series.