Design as a driver for excellence

Posted on 10 Jul 2009 by The Manufacturer

The impact that design can have to drive excellence in manufacturing means that it should be integrated into the manufacturing process from concept to production, argues Gus Desbarats, chairman of design consultancy TheAlloy.

Depending on which research you choose to believe, somewhere between 50% and 90% of products fail to deliver on expectation. Whether this is market expectation or customer expectation is debatable, but few would argue that the impact of a less than successful product roll out can have devastating consequences for a business.

If you search the Internet for the term “why products fail” you will find more than half a billion answers. Poor execution of marketing, incomplete research, a flawed sales strategy and over ambition by product planners are just a few of the reasons cited. But each of these fails to address the most fundamental truth: commercial results are often driven by human decisions, and human decisions are not always rational. Understanding human reaction and anticipating it is a difficult thing to get right.

A simple example of this was demonstrated in a market research focus group. Those present were asked to choose which of two colours variants of a product they liked most. The majority chose the first. At the end of the session, the same group was offered a free sample to take home. Most chose the second colour option. The difference between how people think and how they act can be stark.

Understanding user requirements
Products do not fail because they do not meet their objectives. They fail because they do not recognise enough necessary objectives. The finished product may be engineered to outstanding levels of excellence. It may do an excellent job at its required task. It may be marketed well. Yet it may still fail because not enough consideration has been given to critical non essential items that drive human psyche.

A good example of a critical non essential can be demonstrated by the electric tooth brush. Two brushes may be engineered to fulfil the same task. One might have an alarm that signals when two minutes’ of brushing has taken place, whilst the other might not. The ability of the product to do its job is not impacted by this item, yet customer satisfaction may well be. For the sake of a non essential component, which costs next to nothing, the product might fail. Despite its ability to deliver its function well, a lack of consideration of user needs has let the product down.

Well executed design is the application of the cognitive science of how people and things interact. By ensuring that design creativity is directly inspired by detailed empathy for other people’s behaviours; knowing what to ask them and how to apply this learning, better and smarter solutions can be created.

TheAlloy was recently tasked with designing a thermal imaging camera for fire fighters. Before putting pen to paper, the design team attended a fire fighting course to understand the environment in which the product would be used. The insight that this provided, both in terms of the environment in which the product would be used, the challenges that the fire fighters faced and the extremes to which the product would be challenged helped to shape the final design significantly.

Adding value throughout the supply chain
The drive to lower costs has challenged manufacturing industry in much of the western world. The cultural and logistical issues around outsourcing manufacturing are significant, so too the disconnect that many companies experience between engineering and marketing. In an engineering led company, marketers can end up selling products that, whilst technologically leading edge, are unsuited to actual customer needs. In a marketing led organisation, engineers may find themselves trying to create solutions that cannot possibly match the marketing promise at the designated price point.

Designers with a balanced approach to innovation are in a unique position to fulfil the role of ‘customer champion’ within the supply chain process. They can ensure that that the original commercial goals from marketing are enhanced with detailed customer experience goals and then proactively manage risk to ensure these are met not only in the look, feel and behaviour of the original design concepts, but also in the reality of what is brought to market, with minimum duplication of effort.

Never was this more important than in a recent project to create a new identity for BT’s Home Hub 2. Having worked with BT for more than 10 years, TheAlloy is a trusted design partner, but the level of complexity within limited time scales for Hub 2 provided a significant design challenge.

Central to this challenge was to deliver a product that had a mass market appeal (BT supplies broadband services to more than four million people) and yet looked nothing like a typical router. With two different manufacturing partners in two different countries, it was essential that there was no compromise to design or functionality, which has to look great and work exceptionally well. The overwhelmingly positive reaction to the product, coupled with a high level of demand is testimony to the ability of the designer be the voice of the user through a challenging process.

The case for complementing engineers with industrial designers is widely recognised within many industries, but not all. To penetrate more widely, and convince a more sceptical audience, the ‘human benefits’ need to be completed by efficiency gains.

New technology driving new efficiencies
The latest digital engineering processes, used optimally, can achieve productivity and time to market breakthroughs in the realisation of product development and design can play its part in bringing these efficiencies to the manufacturing process.

Early visualisation and rapid prototyping techniques enable manufacturers to explore more concurrent options quickly and cost effectively at low risk. This enables decisions to be made based on real models rather than 3D screen images at a fraction of the traditional cost of creating multiple prototypes.

Organisations that TheAlloy has worked with have even gone beyond using computer aided design visuals to gauge customer feedback on alternative product options – they are using computer visuals to promote the actual product, before the prototypes are complete.

The collaboration techniques available to the designer through 3D enables the same ID data to be reused directly in the production of CAD assembly, reducing mechanical engineering effort by up to 60%. Because the same data is being used across the supply chain, enabling totally precise implementation, risks are lowered as well as costs.

By embracing these techniques designers play their part in delivering real efficiencies to the manufacturing process. The additional benefits are also significant.

In the case of BT Hub 2, one of the challenges was to ensure that the preferred iconic curved design could incorporate the presence of a flat circuit board. By creating the early designs in 3D it was possible to find a solution to this issue and overcome engineering concerns about the product shape by sharing the internal layout at an early stage, reducing the risk of re-engineering at a later date. The unique design, which the engineers initially declared to be impossible (before reviewing our data) also made the product harder to copy, a critical requirement of the project.

The same 3D process was applied to all the concept options, so right from the first decision point; management had a clear vision of risks and rewards of different designs. Photo realistic renderings enabled the marketing team to test a number of newspaper advertisement options long before the product was ready to be photographed, enabling marketing campaigns to be planned in advance of product availability.

Design as a driver of brand
Design is a powerful tool in delivering more user centric products, quickly, efficiently and effectively to market. This is reason enough for a manufacturer to embed design into its processes. But in the age of global competition and instant internet comparisons there is an even more powerful argument. In an environment where choice is abundant and the internet has enabled the user to become a product advocate, there is no space to get things wrong. Instant judgements are made on solutions and reputations are impacted by this. A company’s brand value is only as strong as the experience of the product that carries its name, and in the digital age, the importance of getting things right first time cannot be overestimated. The role of user centric design in this process has never been more important, regardless of industry sector.