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February 2014

Why product design, development and production is more difficult to plan than you may think….

By | Chris Elsworthy Design Blog, Prototype Build | 5 Comments

As you know we have suffered delays with the launch of Robox and on the whole the followers and backers of the project have been extremely supportive and understanding of this unforeseen delay.  It has however given me the idea to write a quick blog about why it’s so hard to nail down dates when designing and developing a new product.

Firstly, let me get down a few of the issues I’ve experienced whilst developing innovative features and functions on products.

You might imagine that copying someone else’s product or design is a quick business, challenges can be confidently predicted and completed after a few examples have been sketched, modelled and made.

Designing a new type of product or feature is the opposite of this; although I often start with a clear and structured idea, the path to get there is not clear and has often never been trodden before.

When I start a new project I normally have what I think is the perfect way to achieve my target, and my first task is to get the ideas out of my head and into a drawing or model. Putting the contents of my brain on paper, into CAD or physical models usually shows up many unconsidered problems, and this is where the real work normally starts.

I start to modify my initial concept to actually work in the real world and this in turn often leads to new and unexpected problems, but by diligence and repetition of both drawings and real models I often get to my end goal, sometimes in the most unexpected way. Of course there are really clever people in this world who imagine the full system before putting pen to paper or glue to plastic, and can create the perfect product first time round – but this is a rarity.

Working through the process bit by bit greatly expands on my understanding of the original problem. This means I am constantly increasing my knowledge of relevant subjects and the processes involved in creating the elements required to make them perform as intended. Test rigs and assemblies, paper models, hand made plastic parts, glue, piles of drawings and discarded revisions.

The Eureka moment – finally, after working through the above I finally have a concept which works in theory…time to put it into practice.

So I’ve modelled my idea in CAD and I have a heap of hand-made parts which prove my theories – at this point I get an overwhelming sense of satisfaction and I feel my next logical step could only be to take over the world .. (Evil Laugh).

Just as quickly as I reach euphoria, I’m brought back down to earth by colleagues who try to push me into making something which is less pie in the sky and more commercially viable – and this brings us to stage two of product development.  The point at which all the concepts and solutions you’ve worked through in the design stage get amalgamated into something which can be manufactured at a cost which is commensurate with its intended use.

This is the hard slog in my experience and often takes me back into the design stage a number of times as I tweak things to make them actually possible to manufacture.

I find myself sitting at the CAD station for months on end drawing and redrawing every individual part of my product, considering tooling design, materials, assembly sequence, durability, safety, aesthetics, quality and a million other things. Every time I think I’m getting to the end of this process I would normally order and build a prototype. This once again reveals a massive list of things that don’t work as well as I had wanted.

This process can happen again, and again, and again, as I try to perfect the design once and for all.

During this time, I need a huge bucket of faith as things can seem impossible… At some point, when things seem almost perfect, I make that final decision to start the tooling and put the project into production.

The next stage is costly, risky and takes you to the point of no return in terms of investment.  You are relying on a production team to take what they see as a half-baked design into full production by using all your drawings and prototypes to make and produce the product on mass scale.

Before the production line gets going, it starts to feel like Christmas as I receive boxes and boxes of off-tool parts from the factories, which again highlight more problems and weaknesses that need adapting, changing and re-designing to get things perfect.

Finally I get to the stage where I’m happy with the product I have, my designs have finally come to light, I’m feeling pretty good.

That’s it then? Finished?

Well, not quite.  It’s time for testing, getting safety certs, tuning tooling, writing user manuals, designing packaging, and all the ‘User experience stuff’. Then comes the time-consuming task of setting up a production line and getting a team of skilled workers on board who understand every miniscule element of the product.  Discovering my telepathic abilities are lacking means hours spent explaining the thought process behind every single nut, bolt, wire and plastic feature.  And things still come to light which need to be changed and tweaked.

Finally the product goes to market, everyone loves it and wants to talk about it but I’m already back in the design chair looking for that Eureka moment once again…

I hope by describing how I muddle through taking a concept to the finished product demonstrates just how hard it is to put an exact timeframe on bringing a new product to market.  I’m still guilty of getting over-excited about what I do, and assuming I can get things working quicker than I actually can.  That’s because I’m passionate about what I do, and I firmly believe in the products I’m producing. Unfortunately, the fact is, when trying to create something brand new and unique, we are always entering the unknown.

With Robox, I’m confident we’ve just about mastered the production and we’re excited to see the product reaching homes soon.

There are still some monstrous challenges ahead, but with the support and backing from our customers we’ll get there.