The Product Design Cycle is just that, it is a cycle. It begins with a thought that is formed into a concept. It is developed from that concept through a series of prototypes into a good model. The model is designed into manufactuable and producible good, then pushed out into the market for the ultimate acid test, customer acceptance.
Design cycles vary in duration depending on the complexity and nature of the product, anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. All design cycles have one thing in common, they share a defined series of steps that just take time. From a CPI standpoint, where would you start looking in the design cycle to crash the timeline and get products to market faster?
Mapping the cycle out from a macro level, there appears to be a good opportunity in the prototype creation stage. Frankly, you don’t want to rush design and shortcutting testing is a recipe for product quality issues. Prototype manufacturing on the other hand is an area that traditionally takes a good deal of time, and is required before testing can start. The prototype industry has picked up on this opportunity and has been working on technologies to provide better and faster tools to design firms. This looks like a classic example of a low-effort, high-impact activity that can shave significant time in the design cycle.
Old-School is all relative, but “back in my day” – 20 years ago designing electro-mechanical component packaging and sheet metal enclosures, the standard lead-time for a metal bracket was 6 weeks. This would place a 6-8 week ‘dead zone’ between the finish of the design step and the ability to test it out. This also meant that your design better be perfect, because it was too time-consuming to redo. Another funny thing was happening, we were sticking with sheet metal designs because prototypes ‘only’ took 6 weeks. Injection molded plastics or diecasts would require prototypes machined from blocks of metal, this was 10 weeks easy, and expensive to boot. Holy cow, who has time for that? The end result were products that had a lengthy design cycle, and in a lot of cases were limited metal-bending square shapes.
Business demanded change, and the prototype industry responded.
Again, relative term, but over the years design-shop pressure on prototype vendors has decreased standard lead times on traditional prototype techniques. Sheet metal is roughly 1-2 weeks, made possible by the alignment of design CAD tools to metal-bending processes and systems used by metal shops. The big innovation, in my opinion was the widespread use of Rapid-Prototype tools such as 3D printing and SLA’
s over the past 5 years or so. 3D printing, just as the name implies, can create a physical model of a part from CAD geometry automatically, within a couple minutes to a couple hours, for a relatively low cost. Compare this to the 10 weeks of machine time and expense that was needed in the past to create a prototype of a plastic injection molded part. This is a game changer.
3D printing, and other Rapid-Prototype services not only cut down the time engineers spent waiting for their prototypes to be fabricated, but it also allowed engineers to explore
alternative construction methods. In the past, plastic design was desired by engineers for a variety of reasons, but took too long to develop. Not anymore.
Ever notice that more products are made from plastics and diecast metal today versus 10 years ago? Notice that it’s hard to find a flat surface on products today? They all seem to be organically shaped, smooth yet curvy, ergonomically shaped to fit the user.
This is CPI at a macro level, changing how products are designed and developed. The end result is a better product for the consumer, available faster than ever before. I have a feeling we will be touching on Rapid Prototypes again, but on more of a micro level.
If Rapid-Prototypes were inexpensive and quick, what would you mock up outside of Product Design? Thoughts?