Why Product Design Is a Collaborative Puzzle Process

Some 5,000 years ago, the first designers to make ice skates used bones to fashion the blades. The design worked — to a point. But in 1914, blade maker John E. Strauss of St. Paul, Minnesota, manufactured a closed-toe blade from a  single piece of steel. The skates were stronger and lighter. That’s when skaters could really shine on the ice.

Design is where the idea is born and the product concept is realized, but a great design alone does not a great product make. A successful product design process needs the collaborative input of other disciplines, such as engineering and manufacturing. Together, they contribute to the hallmark of true innovation.

A Razor-Thin Line

As a designer myself, I can understand the belief that the design is the most innovative part of the product development process. But in order for a product to be considered successful, customers must ultimately want to purchase and use it. What’s more, it needs to be produced at a price point that’s profitable for its projected life span. Manufacturing and design need to work together to continually innovate throughout the development process in order to increase the odds of success.

Believing that any one discipline is more important than another is a good way to create an unsuccessful product — and there are a lot of those.

Any detail, executed poorly, can kill a product design. Poor quality could lead to limited functionality or to a product being priced too high for the intended market.

Whenever designers learn new information or make a product decision, they should gather insight from manufacturing. Otherwise, the design process can be one fraught with mistakes that can’t be fixed due to prohibitive costs, unavailable resources, or insufficient time.

The line between success and failure is razor thin. But with collaborative product design efforts, placing equal weight on each component of the product development process can increase the likelihood of landing on the cutting edge.

BackShield: Our Case in Point

Recently, I teamed up with PopFoam to develop BackShield. The entire collaborative product design process took two years from the first meeting to receiving production inventory. During that time, there were countless interactions between design and manufacturing.

Initially, the manufacturer educated the design team on the overall production cost targets and the best ways to use the material. We knew our desired sale price, and that information, along with manufacturing input, determined the approximate cost targets.

Then, as designers, we created the product vision.

Performance goals meant the design became substantially more complicated, which is never a shocker in new product development. We held meetings with product designers and manufacturers in which we solved issues as they emerged during the process. This collaboration at the proper time and with the proper personnel meant the design got better as it progressed — as opposed to the issues diminishing the design intent.

A Recipe for Future Innovation

We’ve developed a two-step process for future collaboration between designer and manufacturer. The initial phase of design development focuses on evaluating materials and identifying the manufacturing process that might be best suited for the projected volumes we want to produce.

We then engage with the manufacturer and see whether it’s a fit for our program and our future production goals. If so, we begin to establish a long-term relationship. Repeat programs of collaborative product design are a great way to increase joint knowledge, improve working relationships, and boost product quality.

Our relationship with the PopFoam production team goes back 16 years. From this vantage point, I can see how much the relationship has grown and how much is possible through mutual collaboration and cooperation.

Not everyone has such a long relationship with their manufacturers, but it’s never too early to start building the trust and foundation required to take on innovative programs. Both the designer and manufacturer need to care about the mutually understood objectives.

Success doesn’t happen by chance. Providing regular design updates to your manufacturer, even when you’re not expecting any feedback, can result in suggestions that make your design better, easier to manufacture, and more cost-effective. We don’t plan to improve the ice skate — rock climbing is more my thing — but we do plan to buddy up with our manufacturers and make our slap shot of innovation one for the books.