Why you should involve engineering team during product design phase

engineering-design-services-china
engineering-design-services-china

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I receive a lot of start up or SME requests to develop new hardware products. Often, they have already hired a product designer to start the conceptual design of their product. This,  even before engineering and manufacturing aspects having being considered just a little. 

In this article I will discuss and explain which stake holders you should involve at the early beginning  phase of your product design processes and why you should involve them. I am quite sure some product and industrial designers will react on my saying to argue I am partially right or wrong and here I would easily answer: you are also right or wrong depending on which position you look at the topic.

Disclaimer: I love to work with product and industrial designers but I am before all a project manager with engineering and manufacturing background.

I am going specifically take the case of an electronic product in this article.

Who are the stakeholders involved in a new product development phase

Although we could define all the stakeholders involved in a product development based on official International Project Management frameowrk, here I am voluntarily going to take a simplify approach of the operation and executive stakeholders putting client, sponsors, and champion appart. Remaining one are :

Project Manager: the one who supervise new product development from A to Z

Product designer: the one who establish exterior appearance of product parts

Electronic Engineer : the one who is in charge of deciding components and designing PCB

Mechanical Engineer: the one who is in charge of establishing and validating mechanical design, choosing material for physical parts

Manufacturer: the one who is in charge of duplicating a golden sample over a mass production of products similar to the golden sample

Testing and Certification lab: the one who test and certify a product based on some predefined standard.

Below is the natural flow of all the bricks needed to develop a new product from idea to shipment. I have voluntarily omited some arrow in this diagram at the moment

Understanding the Product Designer

First, I will try  to clarify a point: product designer and industrial designer will be considered as two terms which are more less intercheangeable in this article. There is a big debate in the industry regarding what are the differences between a product designer and an industrial designer. I have asked many times this question to many product and industrial designers and all the time, the answer was never very clear.

Based on my understanding, european rather call themselves product designer, while American rather call themselves industrial designer. I may be wrong but what I heard the most is the industrial design activity is broader than product design which is included inside the industrial design activity.

Based on wording, we could believe that a product designer is less technical than an industrial designer. If you are a product designer or an industrial designer reading this article, please feel free to comment below this article to give your opinion and your definition about this point. I will be happy to read your comments and other readers too 🙂

For simpliciy, in the next part of this post, I will call those people doing design "Product Designer".

What a Product Designer do and don't do

Younger, I always thought product designers were like artists designing art pieces. For me they were like a painter, a drawer or a sculptor. Yet, when today I discuss with a product designer about them being artists, they always says "No ! We are not artist, this is what the engineers think we are, you have to stop thinking this way ! We are people integrating a mix of market understanding and user experience to design products which helps people in their life or to change life of people".

Actually, based on what I see, the product designer job is to :

  • Understand what problem is going to be solved
  • Study the market to understand what is already existing and why it doesn't already solve the problem
  • Brainstorm and imagine new solutions which can fit the market the product should reach
  • Sketch or/and establish a 3D rendering to explain and illustrate the solutions they propose to their clients while considering user experience, ergonomy, material, and styling

An important part of their job is actually related to research and creativity. I have seen different style of product designer: the one who reinvent completely the wheel, the one who copy an existing wheel and make a new wheel by derivating the original one. Both methodologies are discussable and this is not the topic of this article.

I have worked with junior and senior product designers, with americans and europeans, with people being based in China or having experience in Asian manufacturing and others who don't. Some works with Rhino, some other work with Solidworks. Some sketch first, and some don't (but most do it).

Most of product designers work on conceptual aspect, not on mechanical one. It means, they design exterior shape of product, and work on appearance and ergonomy. If they have a bit some experience, they will also advice a bit on material to use but if they don't have too much experience then problems can rise quickly.

Sometimes, I see some crazy designs imagined by product designers which I know in advance that the product can not be manufactured, certified or simply engineered. This is the main reason why I have decided to write this article !

Very very few pure product designers work on the internal aspect of product related to mechanical engineering: parts integration, materials engineering constraints, parts internal structure design. Usually, a mechanical engineer will take back the product designer design files and will rework them to adapt them (add ribs, manage with part thickness, simulate mechanical constraints such as vibration, aging, etc...). Quite often the product designer will work with 3D surfacic files (most of time generated with Rhino) while mechanical engineers will transmit to manufacturer a 3D volumic solid based file (most of time generated with Solidworks or Pro E) so a conversion is done and quite often the mechanical engineer will rework the product parts structures too.

Quite often I noticed product designers are good at understanding market, customer requirement, establishing concept, sketching, drawing and rendering. However, most of time they lack engineering and manufacturing knowledges. Normal, you can not be good in everything. Yet, this lack of knowledge bring trouble later in the product development or manufacturing phase because their design may be in confrontation with engineering, manufacturing, or certifications constraints.

Keep this in mind: a product designer is neither an engineer, nor a manufacturer, nor a product testing lab. However, if he/she is a good and experienced product designer he should have a minimum of knowledge about them.

I have worked with several product designer and the conclusion I got is that most of product designers charge per concepts and per modifications to be made which directly influence their work load. It means that if you start designing a product in one design direction and then need to change something later on, you will need to pay again for those changes.

This is a very fair and a very logical way to work and I don’t blame for it. Nevertheless, there is nothing worse than reworking 10 times a design because a lack of direction or anticipation on some important points have occured.

It bring some negativity because: 

  • it increase project cost
  • it increase project lead time
  • the designer get tired or sick of the project
  • the client finally get lost and dont’t really know what to do with his project

Understanding the engineer

What an engineer do and don't do

Contrary to the product designer, the engineer (mechanical or electronic one) work under technical, physical and certification contraints. If I would say that product designer is an artist, then the engineer would be a cartesian working with system, framework and process.

As he design parts (mechanical or PCB), he select components, material and geometry based on several criteria which allow to answer all the constraints related to feasibility in terms of technical and economical aspects. Most of those constraints are:

  • Customer requirement and specifications
  • Certifications constraints for product compliance
  • Manufacturing constraints for mass production capability

How an engineer work

When an engineer is designing parts, he has already to take in consideration 3 sets of restrictives parameters which constrains him to design his own parts: customer, certification and manufacturing. If the product designer made a conceptual design which can not accomodate easily, then the engineer has to design not only based on 3 sets of constraints but based on 4.

Below I explain a few example of some of those constraints which are quite often neglected by product designer when they design products:

1./ Space and dimension constraints

A very frequent mistake I see is the product designer to start designing and rendering in 3D without considering internal parts size and dimensionnal constraints. They start designing but they don't look at which electronic parts should be used by the electronic engineer for him to achieve the functionality of the product. 

For example, they would start making some nice shape for the product casing, but when they pass the design to the engineers, the engineers would say : « No, this is not possible to make this case shape and size. You are imposing a PCB shape which the size is 5 mm x 70 mm, but due to the face that the chipset packaging we use is 7mm wide, we can not make this PCB size. You understand well that we are not going to redesign a chip just for the electronic to accomodate your nice shape » or the engineer will say : « No, we can not make this PCB shape because this antenna  has to be placed with a 10 mm  spacing away from this metal parts has radio wave can not go trough the casing». 

Apple chip play with limit of spacing on pcb, pcb is constrainted by chip width

Sometime same problem happens with mechanical parts.

Then, the product designer need to rework the design again...

On electronic product, those constraints can relate to PCB or some components such as sensors. Quite often they may not consider some electronics parts shape and size. Yet, you can not compress or reduce the size of an electronic components, which directly influence PCB size spacing. Those parts are driving spaces and shape so for this reason the engineer and the product designer should work together from the beginning.

3./ Heating constraints

If you have any electronic or electrical components inside your product whatever it is a chip running at high frequency or even just a power adapter, you might consider heat dissipation. Indeed, some components have some temperature constraints for working properly and you can not bring those electronics components above a certain temperature, otherwise they may break, burn or would not work properly. Yet, some of them generate heat. Hence, you may need to consider air flow to evacuate heat from casing otherwise the heat generated but the elecronic or electrical component would add up to the ambiant temperature.

If your product designer have no clue about it, they may design a product where there is no air extraction or air flow capability allowing heat dissipation, in which case your product is at risk of breaking. I have past experienced a client who purchased from us some PCBA hosting a microprocessor. The client was doing the design of the casing himself and didn’t share it with us at all.

He came back to us letting us know that the chip was malfunctioning after a certain period of time. After investigation, we found out they had completely stuck the plastic part of their casing to the package of the chip like a sandewich in a way that air cooling could not operate properly into the casing: this brought the chip to over heat and get damaged due to lack of cooling via air circulation.

Those air flow and heat dissipation can be simulated during mechanical engineering phase of course but this should be discussed at the beginning of the product design phase otherwise, the product designer will have to rework his design again... and sometimes in great magnitude.

A simulation of heat air dissipatinh and flow simulation

Again, here the product designer should not design alone but with consulting engineers to understand the constraints before starting product design.

4./ Cost constraints

Another comon mistake I see when I perform a new product development in China is the product designer to design his product involving too many customized parts in the design. Usually, for each new part being designed it will probably result in a new tooling or mold being created so mass manufacturing can be operated. Hence, the more customized part your design host, the more tooling will be needed to mass manufacture your product. 

Forgetting to perform parts number reduction via Design For Manufacturing (DFM) process will involve more Non Recurrig Cost (NRC) in the tooling and mold bill row. 

Reducing parts to save cost on tooling and bill of material

The right way to perform product design and product development is to leverage as much as possible existing part so associated tooling and mold associated are highly reduced. Example, if you choose some screws or some ring for your product, don’t create some customized size unless absolutely necessary. Rather, use some standardized existing one so that tooling can be avoided.

Other important points, try to reduce the number of parts as much as you can by combining different parts into single parts; so that it reduces number of tooling being necessary. It will reduce your cost in several aspects: number of supplier to manage, number of cartons needed, storage spacing, logistic cost etc… It will also simplify assembly operations.

The designer should work hand in hand with engineer in charge of mechanical engineering to confront design to mechanical engineering capability and optimization.

3./ Compliance with certification constraints

Another issue is compliance. I have seen in the past many product designers being not well aware about certification and regulation constraints related to the product they design. It is nice to design a product, but if it can not be sold because of lack of compliance with government or standard requirement then tit is just a waste of time, money and energy. All the design will need to be reworked again to satsify the requirement for product compliance versus certification.

Certification and standard compliance requirement will directly have an influence on the design, so if those consideration are not considered early in the beginning then your product designer may move forward in one direction for his design while not understanding that his design will have to be changed later on… so why not just start to go in the right direction from the beginning.

Let's take an exemple:  if you design an electronic device, and if you plan to sell them on the european market, you will need to match CE compliance which include Electro Magnetic Compatibility (EMC). To reach EMC compliance, your circuit will have to respect a certain threshold of radiation emission.

In practice, at electronic hardware engineering level, some guidelines are given in the way that radio electronic emission. For example one well known of them is to separate as much as possible analog and digital circuit on a PCB. This translate for example by having analog connectors (a power supply cord for example) tobe directly in an opposite direction from digital connector (an antenna connector for example) on the PCB, or at least very far away located from each other. So if your product designer doesn't consider this early at the beginning, he may design a casing not complying with this requirement (for example by placing an antenna nearby a power cord). There are some time some trick which can help to patch those problem but they are not elegant solution. Most of time the design will need to be reworked again by the product designer to take in consideration those constraints….

EMC guidelines of separating analog signal from digital signal

It can also apply to some particular device like toys: If you attempt to sell and distribute toys in Europe, you might need to comply with EN71 standard which require the mechanical part to be not sharp, not too small to be swallowed by kids etc… again here, if your designer doesn’t know it, then your design may go wrong and you will need to modify again and again your design.

Understanding the manufacturer

What a manufacturer do and don't do

I have to clarify something that many people fail to understand: a manufacturer is not necessarely skilled for engineering. Quite often factories in China will not perform engineering themselves. Their job is to perform mass production. It means taking an existing product and to duplicate it in high quantity. It is just wrong to think that a manufacturer will be able to start from scratch a new product and to go along the way from idea to production. Sometimes, big factories with integrated engineering do it from A to Z, but most of them don't.

What a manufacturer do well is to duplicate a product in high quantity by supplying workforce (hands), infrastructures (space), equipments (machines) and organization (method and process).

Quite often, if you go to a manufacturer to develop a new product, they will not tell you they can not do it. Why ? Simply because they want to lock manufacturing order, so they have no choice than saying "yes we can do the developpement". In reality, many of them don't do it themselves but sub contract the engineering so another company.

To make money they need to make big quantities because they sell their unit price with low margin. For them, the ideal client is one who has already a product being existing and stabilized which they can easily duplicate, this the reason why 9 times over 10 when you will go to a manufacturer to make your mass production he will tell you "do you have a sample you can give to me?".

How a manufacturer work

Normally, most of time an asian manufacturer will do what he already know how to do, because this optimize their time.  They have machine, they take a part A, they put it into a machine and they generate a part B, this is the result of the transformation of A into B. Those manufacturers use machines (plastic injection presses, metal stamping press etc...), and those machine are not supposed to be modified in their functionning. A manufacturer will not develop a machine for your usage or specifically for your parts.

They use their machine and potentially adapt tooling being hosted by those machines. Yet, they can not modify machine mechanism.

Manufacturing constraints

As those machines are standardized, they are supposed to be used in a certain way. Hence, they are giving constraints.

A very common mistake I see from product designers (and particularly junior one who don't have manufacturing experiene) is them to design parts which can not be manufactured using standard machine. Yes it is true. You have no idea, how many times I saw product designer designing plastic parts which can not be molded or simply can not be extracted from plastic injection tooling because they have generated some weird shape on the part. The most common mistake is to generate deisgn of plastic part with undercut.

Undercut make parts difficult to extract from plastic injection tooling

Sometimes, designer choose some materials for their products and generate some shapes that the material can not accomodate during manufacturing.

Sometimes they design parts which are difficult to assembly due to their shape configuration. Production line workers may spend a lot of time to position parts so they can be assembled properly. 

For all those reasons, the product designer should also consider a bit the manufacturing constraints.

Conclusion

Before starting any product design using a product designer, you should list all the constraints related to engineering, manufacturing and certification so that your product designer can generate his design keeping in mind what is allowed to do and what is forbiden. I know some product designer will tell " but this will kill our creativity ! " and I would simply answer " Sure it will restrict you a bit, but at profit of your client to save time money and energy by getting their product to be made real quickly without constant reworking".

Feel free to comment below, I am happy to hear your stories

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About Christopher Oliva 59 Articles
Christopher Oliva is an Engineer based in Shenzhen since 2008 involved in Product Development, Supply Chain, Sourcing, Quality Management and Manufacturing activities. With a Msc Electrical Engineering and a Business Administration background, an ISO 9001 Lead Auditor Certification, a Six Sigma Certification and a Quality Engineering Certification, he works as a consultant on mission and contract oriented to Product Development, Manufacturing Management, Quality Assurance & Quality Management System setup. He works in the product development and engineering field, and as well as an advisor and quality consultant for several quality control and quality assurance companies.