This article analyses the need and benefit of the working of industrial designers and product engineers together. According to engineers and others at the forefront of product development, to do the job right requires a collaboration involving design engineers, industrial designers, manufacturing engineers, and several other players, like marketing people, all of whom have important knowledge that needs to influence a design. Companies such as Trek Bicycle Corp. and Empire Level Manufacturing Corp. have developed practices that foster innovative, human-centered product development. Experts agree that computer-aided design (CAD) and rapid prototyping applications are the two most helpful systems, even though the two types of designers may use the tools in somewhat several ways. According to Rainer Gawlick, vice president of marketing at SolidWorks in Concord, Massachusetts, current CAD systems can help bridge the design-to-engineering-to-manufacturing gap.
Search the Web enough and you can find anything, including a site devoted to poorly designed products. Called Bad Designs (www. baddesigns.com), the site is dedicated to outing products that, according to its author, Michael Darnell, haven't been created with their human users in mind.
In a recent entry, Darnell, a usability engineer at Microsoft, writes that though his cellphone displays the time, checking it involves a small annoyance because a pop-up message occludes the numbers for a couple of seconds each time he lights the display. He offers a simple design solution: Make the pop-up a little smaller.
Darnell, of course, isn't alone in his everyday frustrations. We can all come up with examples of our own.
In the past several years, however, more and more companies have begun making concerted efforts to design their products for the humans who actually use them. That means studying how people interact with products and technology, and designing products that at best facilitate, and at least don't hinder, that interaction.
Products have to meet several criteria. To have wide market appeal, they need to be sleek, stylish, almost sexy. Companies want to tout them as innovative. What sometimes can be overlooked, as Darnell points out, is that they also can be made easier to use-the better to serve the people that they are made for.
According to engineers and others at the forefront of product development, to do the job right requires a collaboration involving design engineers, industrial designers, manufacturing engineers, and a number of other players, like marketing people, all of whom have important knowledge that needs to influence a design.
How can engineers and industrial designers best work toward innovative design that brings the human into' the equation? If you ask Bill Dresselhaus, who thinks about this kind of thing for a living, he will answer: Focus on the product development process itself.
It may sound simple, but it's a rare practice in companies today, he said. Dresselhaus, chief executive of the consulting firm Dresselhausgroup of Clackamas, Ore., helps companies implement product development processes for themselves.
Ensuring close cooperation between the industrial designers, who shape the external package, and engineers, who design the 'workings inside, isn't always easy. We spoke to experts, who told us that, to find their way to innovative products, companies must step up their focus on product design and strengthen the link between industrial design and engineering. They said there is even software that can help strengthen the bond.
Companies like Trek Bicycle Corp. and Empire Level Manufacturing Corp. have developed practices that foster innovative, human-centered product development.
According to a couple of experts, the product-development process itself needs to be taught and emphasized in both undergraduate and graduate programs.
Schooled on the Subject
Dresselhaus should know about innovative product developi11ent. He worked at then-fledgling Apple Inc. of Cupertino, Calif., and followed that up with a stint at InFocus Corp. of Wilsonville, Ore., which makes projectors for computers, VCRs, and DVD players. As a consultant, he's seen hair-raising examples of products flawed by poor collaboration among the key players-industrial designers, design engineers, and the manufacturing crew.
"For me and for a lot of my colleagues in the product development business, we're constantly shocked at how badly American companies do in product development when it's not that hard a process," he said.
From his files, he pulled one story of his work for a never-to-be-named successful company that puts out a well-known line of products. Executives at this business had such problems coming up with new products and seeing them to market that they called him in. DresselhallS said he quickly isolated one problem. Upper managers didn't exactly get how the product development process itself worked. They weren't sure how to usher an idea through design, engineering, and manufacturing.
"I was shocked. They were still struggling with a process that had been worked out for 20 or 30 years now," he said.
It was this company's practice that marketing and business people kicked off the design cycle by deciding upon a product that, Dresselhaus said, was often less than stellar.
"If you haven't done homework at the beginning, then when the engineers and designers get the design, they're going to find all those problems not found in the front and it will slow everything down," he said.
He sees this kind of flailing all the time, he said. He puts it down to upper managers who quite often have a background in business rather than product design. Many such managers hold master's degrees in business administration. And M.B.A. programs are known to stress the financial rather than the product development aspect of management, Dresselhaus said.
At the same time, few schools teach the product development process itself. They focus instead on engineering or styling or design, which are treated as separate disciplines, and the students in one area rarely work with students in another, he said.
"Few engineering schools teach you how to design products. They train you on engineering design," DresselhallS said. "You're studying mechanisms or dynamics. Not a lot of them have you design a product that you have to produce and manufacture, and that people have to use."
One notable exception may be the Stanford University design program, from which Dresselhaus received a master's degree in product design, he said. The 50-year-old program proceeds from the premise that design and engineering should center on the humans who use their products. An arm of the program, The Joint Program in Design, is a collaborative effort of the mechanical engineering department's design group and the department of art and art history.
Under a similar pairing of art and science, two professors in Boston-one from Northeastern University and the other at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design are building a curriculum to offer industrial design, engineering, and business courses for the entrepreneur.
Northeastern is home to the School of Technological Entrepreneurship, a specialized program for students interested in following an entrepreneurial path after graduation. Francis DiBella, director of engineering technology at Northeastern, had noticed that students come to the program from their own disciplines-like engineering or business-and that their classes didn't overlap. But students need to learn from each other's disciplines if they are to truly succeed in the outside world, he reasoned.
"You never see an industrial design student taking engineering courses and vice versa," DiBella said. "That's probabry a big mistake.
"They work shoulder to shoulder in product development. I mean, literally, shoulder to shoulder," he said. "But oftentimes, with curriculums as they are, they don't collaborate until they've left school and are joining an engineering design firm. And that's where they have contact with each other. On the first day of the job."
To get business, engineering, and industrial design students together earlier than that, DiBella and James Read, an associate professor of industrial design at MassArt, are working on a program that will allow industrial designers from MassArt to share classes with business and engineering students at Northeastern University. Exact details haven't been worked out, but the pair have applied for a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance to fund the project.
Software Two Ways
Industrial designers and mechanical engineers contribute to the same process, but according to Dresselhaus, it is rare that they actually work together in American companies.
"What's usually happening is designers throw the styling and concept over the wall to the engineers and when they see it the first time, they have to work out all kinds of problems," he said. "Then, the engineers throw the design to manufacturing people."
According to Dresselhaus, having industrial designers and engineers working in the same computer environment can help avoid that separation. CAD and rapid prototyping applications are the two most helpful systems, even though the two types of designers may use the tools in somewhat different ways, Dresselhaus said.
According to Rainer Gawlick, vice president of marketing at Solid Works in Concord , Mass., current CAD systems can help bridge the design-to-engineering-to manufacturing gap.
Of course, Gawlick is expected to be a CAD proponent. Solid Works produces CAD software. But he points out that CAD systems like those from his company can integrate the surface, or exterior, design elements that concern industrial designers with the component design and layout done by mechanical engineers.
"The industrial designer generally gives you the outside shape of what you're trying to create," Gawlick said . "SolidWorks imports those surfaces, then creates new sets of mechanical surfaces that mimic those. Engineers can put their infrastructure inside."
A designer may shape ideas in wood, foam, or clay rather than bits and bytes. Those real-life surfaces can be scanned and imported into a CAD program where they become a digital 3-D model. Designs comprising mathematically complex surfaces are more readily replicated in CAD than in the drafting programs of yore, Gawlick added.
Another plus for today's CAD systems: They help tell industrial designers and engineers that their work can actually be manufactured as designed, an added bonus in the face of a changing manufacturing business model.
"The mechanical and manufacturing engineer used to be in the same building," Gawlick said. "Even if they didn't like each other, they did talk to each other. The engineers would ask, 'Can you make this?' and if the answer was 'no,' they'd go back and redesign it.
"Now, manufacturing is often outsourced or located somewhere else," Gawlick said. "Engineering might be in a different place from manufacturing, in a lower-cost state, or in China- where they don't speak the language, they're time zones away, they don't know the culture, and aren't part of the same company.
Product Point Person
Collaboration between the industrial design and engineering departments is common practice at Trek Bicycle Corp. The company, headquartered in Waterloo, Wis., re leases about 20 new bicycle models a year. An advanced concept group continually talks to bikers and gets feedback from store owners and employees who sell the bikes to get a feel for what consumers want, according to Mike Hammond, a senior industrial designer.
"They're getting requests from dealers or customers that we need to update a bike because technology has changed, or what's cool now wasn't cool two years ago, or people's riding style changed," he said.
Next, industrial designers make their first sketches by hand. Then, they commit their favorite designs to computer via a CAD system- in this case, SolidWorks.
"While we're developing the concepts, engineering is developing the geometry," Hammond said. "Maybe they're doing a rough prototype that works like it's supposed to but might not look like it's supposed to."
Next comes continued back and forth between engineering and industrial design. A process of compromise, Hammond calls it, which generally lasts about six months for each new model.
"The compromise benefits the whole product in the end," he said . "Marketing starts to get involved because before you can have production pieces ready, they need to sell the bike and have pictures and talk about the technical story behind the bike."
Trek has a long-established design process that no longer needs much fine-tuning. Of late, Empire Level Manufacturing Corp. of Mukwonago, Wis., has realized the value of bringing in a product-development point person, a role Dresselhaus said should exist at every company. He was that person for a past employer, he said.
Last summer, Michael Sagan became director of product development at Empire Level. As the name says, the company makes levels and other precision construction tools.
"The company realized the need to brand the product," Sagan said. To do that, it needed to bring together design, engineering, and marketing to create its products to meet users' needs.
Sagan oversees the product development process. He brief, marketing early in the cycle so the department knows how the new products will serve customers. And he streamlines the product development process with software.
Empire's product development process uses tools like SolidWorks and Stage-Gate Navigator, a Web interface that guides companies through the StageGate product development process. The program, from Stage-Gate Inc. of Ancaster, Ontario, is designed to ensure that Empire meets each step of the product-development process before proceeding to the next stage, Sagan said.
"It brings some order to the chaos," he observed. That order is what most companies seek. Assuring design- engineering collaboration and following a firm product- development process can get them there, Dresselhaus said.