Design for life

Posted on 10 Aug 2010 by The Manufacturer

Innovative design can drive success as manufacturers exit the recession, says Richard Blatcher, head of marketing – Manufacturing Industry Group, EMEA at Autodesk

Manufacturing in the Euro Zone is growing faster than predicted with Markit’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) for the region jumping to 56.6 in March this year from 54.2 the month before. In Germany, the Euro Zone’s largest economy, manufacturing activity grew at a rate not seen in almost ten years while UK manufacturing activity in March grew at its fastest rate since October 1994.

Manufacturers across the UK recently reported that export orders reached record levels as sterling’s weakness and reviving economies overseas helped to boost orders from China, Europe, the United States and the Middle East.

This growth is now translating into new job opportunities across the sector. But with 70 per cent of products manufactured today likely be obsolete within the next three years sustained growth relies on creativity and innovation. And successful and relevant business innovation depends on high-quality design solutions.

Unfortunately, many manufacturers, particularly in these times of continuing economic uncertainty, are holding onto outdated perceptions about design technology that are hampering their business development and stifling their innovation. A recent survey from Autodesk, polling the views and opinions of more than 100 senior decision-makers, primarily working for mainstream manufacturing companies in the UK, found that these companies see increasing margins (48%), improving quality (30%) and accelerating speed to market (29%) as the three most important drivers of business growth.

The most important barrier identified is the cost involved in achieving this growth (highlighted by 62% of respondents), followed by market conditions (cited by 58%). This emphasis on cost is significant, particularly when you consider that manufacturers believe that the same commercial drivers seen as critical to their growth will also require the largest increases in design technology investment to achieve.

83% of those surveyed felt that it would take a rise of more than 10% in annual investment in design technology solutions to achieve ‘improved margins’ while 37% felt that an increase of more than 50% in annual investments would be required to deliver ‘accelerated speed to market’. 33% thought that a similar increase would be the minimum needed to attain ‘reduced product development costs’ (ranked as the fourth most important growth driver).

These perceptions are understandable but they do not reflect the reality: that streamlined and efficient design technology solutions do not have to be expensive to implement and operate. The new 2011 product portfolio from Autodesk is a case in point. This solutions set, which includes Autodesk Inventor 2011, offers manufacturers the opportunity to develop innovative products and make a significant contribution to the future success of the design industry. In fact, adopting best practices in digital design through a digital prototyping based approach and the use of solutions like Autodesk Inventor can be key in firing up a new innovative and cost-effective way of working.

Extending the digital pipeline

So how can manufacturers most effectively achieve these results by migrating from a physical to a digital-based approach? The first stage is to capture the design concept digitally. The sooner and easier ideas can be captured on screen the better, even if dozens of iterations have to be made after that. Imagine the time taken to make the same number of drawings.

Further downstream, if designs can be kept in a digital format throughout the development process they are more likely to keep their original integrity and result in accurate, reliable products.

Maximising the use of digital rather than physical prototypes is one of the keys to innovation. At the concept stage, early but well-informed decisions can be made about colour and form with multiple alternatives considered by the design team, colleagues and clients where appropriate.

During engineering, stress and strengths can be tested, mechanical movement and the performance of multiple materials analysed, using tools like Autodesk Inventor. In this way, aesthetic ideas can be made practical ensuring well before the physical prototype stage that an idea will work and prove reliable. Importantly, the latest technology enables this to be done in hours or days rather than weeks and the overall cost of the process is significantly reduced as a result.

Interestingly, product innovation doesn’t mean continually re-inventing the wheel. When legacy design data is held in a secure but easily accessible, central store, components and even whole assemblies can be re-used to help create new products. In this way, firms can build on their strengths rather than continuously starting from square one, and save further time and money as a result.

Earlier to market

Product innovation is only valuable, of course, if the end result is commercially viable. Digital prototypes can be used to market a product before it is actually made. Images can be used for brochures, websites and other marketing collateral, as well as for focus groups and even one-to-one customer meetings. And using simulation capabilities integrated in solutions like Autodesk Inventor, multiple design iterations can be much more easily validated.

Once a customer has shown interest in a product in a digital format, it can easily be refined and tailored according to feedback. Yet, because customers have been shown an accurate representation, rather than just an impression, there will be no misunderstandings and fewer hold-ups later on in the process.

Not only do digital prototypes enable design engineers to work freely and creatively without huge overheads, they also accelerate the entire process, ensuring products reach the market while demand is still keen. So, if an organization is already using 3D design software, innovation does not necessarily mean huge new investment. The use of digital prototyping in product development through the deployment of solutions like Autodesk Inventor helps organisations build fewer physical prototypes – and ultimately get to market ahead of the competition with more innovative products and at lower development costs.

Moving to 3D is only the first step in creating a digital prototype. In today’s increasingly competitive global market, being best-in-class means using technology to stay ahead of the competition. Incorporating Digital Prototyping into the product development process gives businesses that critical edge as they exit the recession. And the cost-effective innovation it supports will also help to fuel the long-term health of the manufacturing sector and of the broader economy.