In recent years, SGW has established relationships with companies whose products and equipment must hold up to incredibly harsh conditions in an industrial setting. Frequently, we are tasked with developing service equipment such as GSE (ground service equipment) for airports — which depend heavily on dozens of pieces of support equipment to function. Other examples include farming, locomotive applications, freight loading and unloading, and even warehouse automation.
Below are some of the challenges we face when developing ruggedized equipment, along with specific ways we address these obstacles during the development process.
Wear and Tear: Not Necessarily the End Game
Cargo equipment has to hold up to repetitive abuse. That sometimes means it must hold hundreds of pounds of weight, then be deployed, retracted and moved to a new location — dozens of times in a single day. Over time, even standard, daily operation can cause wear and tear on even the toughest metals. (As an example, one sign of a well-used forklift is worn-down forks.) It’s unavoidable — after hundreds of uses over only a few years, things just start to wear down.
However, wear and tear doesn’t necessarily mean a piece of service equipment’s performance suffers. Industrial equipment should be designed in a way that it will continue to perform well even after it has been in use for a while. The bottom line: specialty equipment can be expensive. But, by thoughtfully predicting wear during development, we can ensure effective operation over time. This saves a client money in the long run.
Developing Long-Lasting Ground Service Equipment
When developing service equipment for airline operators, there are unique considerations we must keep in mind. (Again, airport ground service equipment is referred to in the aviation industry as GSE.) Think of your most recent experience at an airport. The simple white tugs you see driving around cost anywhere from $40,000 to $200,000 each. So, when an operator has a fleet of tugs at just one airport, these costs add up. For instance, Delta Airlines has thousands of pieces of GSE supporting its aircraft. These GSE costs represent a significant expense for major airlines.
Although the purchase of GSE represents an initial expense, equipment must also undergo ongoing maintenance to ensure quality and performance. For airlines, GSE doesn’t only aid in the day-to-day business operations; the equipment is critical for operation.
To put all this into perspective, a small Cessna 175 aircraft is small and light enough to be pushed around an airport by hand. One person can push the plane around if need be. But a DC-11 aircraft cannot be pushed by hand. It weighs nearly 250,000 pounds (or more) when empty and must be moved with a special piece of equipment.
Another critical aspect of GSE which is often overlooked is the ladders and gangways which enable people to board and disembark the plane. Most aircraft are high enough off the ground to make boarding very difficult without special equipment.
Developing Service Equipment with Simplicity in Mind
Another key factor in creating longevity when developing service equipment is simplicity — or at least as much simplicity as can be afforded for that particular piece of equipment. Going back to the tug, there’s really not much to it. A typical tug’s frame is basic, the drivetrain is simple, and it contains only the systems it needs to operate. The controls, in some cases, only show fuel levels.
These features all make the tug easier to maintain and harder to break. The easier the tug is to maintain, the faster it is to fix. And, when many tugs are in operation, the time savings is exponential. This also helps a business save money on maintenance costs.
Whether it’s support hardware or the equipment itself is doing the work, we focus on finding ways to save our clients money. There are many ways we do this, whether it means optimizing a design or selecting components and materials that will be better suited for the job. Contact us if you’d like to learn more about how SGW Designworks can add value to your service equipment.
“Manufacturing is more than just putting parts together. It’s coming up with ideas, testing principles, and perfecting the engineering, as well as final assembly.”
During the product development process, design iterations allow us to work out the kinks in a product before it’s complete. And no matter how clear our development path, no new product gets completed without hiccups or bumps along the way.
Product Testing: Working out the Kinks
Some testing is as straightforward as trying out a product or device to see if it actually works. Other times, product testing can be a nuanced and complex process. Sometimes we need to identify tiny issues that end users may never — and usually should never — notice.
The prototypes we develop at SGW Designworks during a project are the way these kinks are identified and worked out. This may mean trying to get a plastic part to come out of the mold just right or identifying a mechanical problem that prevents a device from working properly.
Prototypes represent an ongoing process and a significant part of what our team does. But this is just one way testing is used to help clients find solutions to a variety of problems. We also use product testing to help get the ideal solution for a product.
Validating One Piece
In some cases, a single mechanism can be set up on a test bracket. A frequent practice at SGW Designworks is to build functioning components that are critical to the final product’s success and then test them extensively to see how they work. This is part of the prototyping process, but it’s also a way to recreate known problems on already developed products.
During the Voltaire Smart Grinder project, the team’s first test involved only the grinding mechanism. The team built a custom stand which was then outfitted with a grinding mechanism and a motor. After hooking the system to a power source, the team was able to test the motors, the belts, and the grinding mechanism — without having to worry about any other part of the product.
By isolating a single part of the product, special focus is given to important components. Even if there are no problems, there may be opportunities to identify ways to optimize or improve performance. Sometimes a mechanism can be simplified. Alternatively, it may be discovered that additional work needs to be done to make this singular component work.
This individual component validation can play a key role in product success, whether it is a new product or an improvement made to an established product.
Preparing the Final Product
Another type of testing that is important but often overlooked is testing materials, finishes, and texture patterns for final products.
For instance, if a cosmetic component is designed to be made out of copper, it could be beneficial to get that component in a couple of different finishes to see how each finish looks and works. A matte copper part will look different from a brushed copper part. But this difference could also make a huge impact on the final appearance of the product, the customer’s satisfaction, and, ultimately, end users’ feelings toward the product.
In some cases, a product or part may go through several iterations with the materials already chosen. However, when it comes to making the final product, the materials it was originally designed with may not achieve the desired results.
Another area where this type of product testing is crucial is in the fabrication of parts. Injection molded parts do not always come out of the mold looking exactly the way they were designed. Sometimes, a cosmetic blemish in the part can be so severe it becomes a structural issue. If the part is too thin or too thick, or if the material is not filling the mold right, the mold or part will need to be reworked in order to get the desired results.
In past projects, SGW Designworks has worked with fabricators to work out kinks on components before they are actually produced in significant quantities. It would be a big mistake to allow a part that has not been optimized to reach a final — or even near final — iteration with errors. This is because errors can be more costly to fix later in the design process. Worse, if the part does need to be reworked during optimization, it can adversely affect how it fits in the final product.
Mature businesses are keenly aware of the resources and investment required when commercializing an idea. However, startups and emerging businesses may not be as familiar with the process. In our years helping businesses both large and small to develop meaningful new products and equipment, we have refined an approach that reduces development risk and increases the chances of commercial success — even for smaller companies.
Are you are a startup or emerging business and are not sure where to begin? Here is a high-level description of the steps required to design and engineer a product, from pre-concept to manufacturing.
1. Find the gap.
In an ideal development scenario, a business would identify a gap in the marketplace or a market need. Furthermore, they would have reason to believe that their business is positioned to fill that gap with a product the market is willing to pay for. Finding this gap is the first step in commercializing an idea.
2. Product specification.
In parallel, development or a product specification begins. The specification is a living document that captures design constraints and a potential product’s feature set. Sometimes a use case is included in the specification as well (particularly if software/firmware is part of the development effort).
The specification serves to focus later development and helps the team realize when scopes drift, or when unneeded features creep their way into the product. The output of this phase is typically hand sketches, 3D CAD models, specification documents, and use cases.
Once the market need has been identified and a specification has been defined, the development team can focus on defining concepts that provide feature sets that address that need. At this stage, the unconstrained, creative approach is best. Having fresh eyes on the problem can identify design ideologies that a business’s internal teams may have missed.
4. Preliminary design.
Using the concept and spec work as a starting point, preliminary design and engineering can now begin. In early development, the focus should be on the highest risk items. For example, if the success of the product hinges upon achieving a certain feature, initial development engineering should focus on solutions that determine whether this is feasible.
The output of this phase may be a very rough lab prototype (what we refer to as Level 1), 3D CAD models, and preliminary software. These are then used for validation testing.
5. Design iteration.
The design can now be iterated based on our findings from the prior phase. Testing of the Level 1 prototype will identify problems and opportunities that should lead to new designs, feature set trade-offs, etc.
In this phase, rapid cycles of development should be applied to quickly prototype different variations of the design. Focus areas should include nearly all aspects of the product: mechanisms, PCBAs, enclosures, firmware, software, etc. It’s not unheard of for businesses to run through anywhere from ten to one hundred design/prototype iterations in this stage.
6. Design optimization.
After rapid cycles have been used to refine the feature set and overall product configuration, the design must be optimized for production. This includes refining the fit and finish, designing for durability, and identifying novel design approaches that reduce production cost.
This development stage should also include prototype development, but the focus here is a little different than the prior phase. For instance, the manufacturer should be engaged and provide input for the design to ensure it is compatible with their constraints and equipment.
Outputs of this phase include refined 3D models, Level 4 prototypes, final firmware, and BOMs for production quoting. A final round of market testing to validate the sales price is common at this point, as well as preliminary durability testing.
7. Finalize, product start.
Now, for the next step in commercializing an idea: it’s time to invest in production tooling. At this point, the design of the product is paused, but final firmware/software iteration may still be happening.
The manufacturer will now be making (or purchasing) the production tooling required to make the first production units. A stream of initial production units will be reviewed by the development team.
8. Regulatory Work.
Since most regulatory testing must be done with actual production units, this step can now begin. Standards and test requirements would have been identified in the product specification stage and inputs would have been designed through the development process.
Ideally the products would pass all testing the first time, but often, changes are necessary.
9. Post-launch support.
Once the product is selling, the business will need to support users, address any warranty issues, and plan for product improvements, product line additions, and supply chain changes. This can include ongoing software updates and support — particularly if the product is linked to an iOS or Android app.
A common problem businesses deal with post-launch is that critical internal components become obsolete. In these cases, the development team re-engages with the business to redesign subsystems as required to accommodate substitute components. (This is often possible without the market even noticing.)
So, what does all this cost? The answer is driven by many variables, including what the intended feature set is, how many design iterations are needed in development, and how much firmware and/or software (if any) needs to be developed for the product. But it’s important to know that commercializing an idea isn’t cheap.
It is safe to say that most businesses developing an IoT device or other electronics product will invest well into six figures for development engineering and prototyping. Mature businesses will often fund this with cash flow from existing products. However, when commercializing an idea, startups and emerging businesses will often want to focus on getting to a good Level 2 prototype. This can be used as a demonstration tool for outside investors.
The process described above focuses on the design and engineering portion of a product development effort. In parallel to this, it’s crucial that marketing, sales, and finance efforts constantly provide input to the development process, and ensure that the investment in development is justified.
In fact, when commercializing an idea, the importance of the sales and marketing element cannot be understated. Successful businesses are expert in developing distribution channels and sales efforts as well as product awareness.
Did you find this guide useful? If you need guidance in developing your new product, equipment or industrial system, let our team of experienced designers and engineers help.
The feeling of holding a product and immediately understanding what it is and how I can use it is satisfying. Even more satisfying: having played a part in the process of designing something well and understanding the amount of work it takes to make a napkin sketch a real product.
So what exactly makes a well-designed product — and what does building it entail? Here are some key criteria.
Well-designed products are clearly defined at the beginning.
The tendency of designers is to build something. We are supposed to build prototypes, right?
While prototypes are excellent for flushing out a product, the first step in the process must be to clearly define what it is being developed. It’s helpful to ask such questions as, What are the constraints? Size? Environment? Budget? Cost of goods sold? What is its purpose? How do you know when you have developed the correct ‘thing’?
At SGW, we refer to this as a Phase 0. This is where we take an idea, clarify what will be developed and consider practical pathways forward. What is feasible given the constraints, requirements, development budget and available resources (personnel or equipment)?
Well-designed products require adequate resources and budget.
Product development is an expensive endeavor. It involves costs related to engineering, prototyping, regulations and testing, tooling, pre-manufacturing, initial manufacturing runs, and supply chain and storage. And this is all before getting the first products ready for the shelf.
Because these realities could present limitations, they need to be accounted for when setting out to develop a product.
Well-designed products require adequate testing, iteration, and validation.
Prototyping is not a one-and-done approach to building a product. To illustrate, the Black Box VR Gym went through six complete and separate system builds, each including a number of smaller sub-system prototyping and testing. In order to ensure a favorable user experience, it was important to iterate with different motors, servos, pads, and shapes.
Additionally, GIR’s Voltaire Smart Grinder was subjected to six complete system builds with additional prototype iterations. The purpose? Testing various sub-systems and components.
Well-designed products require a clear stopping point.
We must finalize a product at some point in order for it to be considered ‘well designed.’ Beware the pitfall of perpetual improvement. The product requirements document generated in Phase 0 should be an indicator of when a product has reached a place where the product needs to be launched.
Does your company need help assessing a product before investing a lot of capital? Give us a call and see how we can aid your company in the development process.
“Everything is designed. Few things are designed well.”
Whether we’re working on an industrial design project, firmware development, or PCBA design and layout, early-stage product development sets a precedent for eventual project outcomes.
From the beginning, our engineers insightfully consider the realities of production, and their decisions ensure that a product transitions easily throughout the entire process. And this level of insight gives our clients an edge as they begin manufacturing their products.
Here are some tips for early-stage product development.
Tip #1: Solve Real-World Problems
The design process begins with a real problem in mind. If a client’s product isn’t solving a problem, they must convince consumers their product is solving a problem they didn’t realize they had.
Tip #2: Prioritize Functionality Over Features
As a general rule, the more features a product has, the less intuitive the product tends to be. Sometimes people want something that just works (and works well) — not necessarily something with too many bells and whistles. As designers, we must focus primarily on function (rather than just a product’s feature set).
Tip #3: Maintain Focus
Take it from us: it’s unusual for any one product to solve all the world’s problems. If you want your product to be popular, it’s wise not to try to design something that can do everything. Instead, design a product that can do one thing well — and can do it better than the competition.
Tip #4: Aesthetics Are Important
Industrial designers bring value to a project because we recognize that look and feel are as important as functionality when it comes to consumer products. Sometimes a product needs to look good and be attention-grabbing. But other times, simplicity is a greater asset. It’s a good idea to understand your market and learn what is important to them.
Tip #5: Attention to Detail
It’s important to get even the smallest details right because these will give your product a competitive advantage — and that can make all the difference in the market. Remember: buyers notice the cumulative effect of a product’s imperfections. Every component deserves your respect.
Tip #6: Good Design is Simple
End users should be able to quickly understand how your product functions. Otherwise, you will have consumers annoyed with a product that doesn’t work for them. That said, it’s best not to assume that a product feature is obvious just because it is obvious to you. Challenge yourself to see your product through the eyes of someone who has never interacted with it before. If end users are confused or frustrated, they will not hesitate to go to your competitors.
Tip #7: Be Innovative
There aren’t many wholly new and revolutionary products. In fact, most new inventions aren’t new at all — they are improvements to existing technology or an existing method. Therefore, the concept development phase is crucial. Make sure the firm you’re working with is capable of exploring configuration possibilities early on; this will help ensure you connect with end users.
Tip #8: Design to Last
A long-lasting product is a testament to the designer. Great design never goes out of style! It also reinforces the positive reputation of a brand — because a product is more valuable when it stands the test of time. This is why we design with both our reputation and that of our clients in mind.
Tip #9: A Product Must Be Useful
Great designers do not design for ourselves; instead, we design for others. We keep the consumer in mind and recognize that every component of a design needs to serve a purpose. Usefulness is applied to both the product itself and to every aspect of the design. Every component that is not obviously useful for the end users can detract from the product’s user experience.
Businesses of all kinds look to SGW Designworks to enhance their product development outcomes. Could your product benefit from our process? Contact us to start the conversation.
So you have an idea. Maybe you know you’re going to need to show more than just an idea to potential investors, but you’re not entirely sure what prototype development entails. If this describes you, you’re not alone — prototyping questions are among the most common product development inquiries we see on Quora.
Since this is such a popular topic among entrepreneurs and business owners wanting to develop a product, we decided to condense this topic into this easy-to-read guide.
The Prototype Explained
In general, a prototype is used to learn something. This might range from finding out if a mechanism is feasible to discovering if a feature set is meaningful to the market. Different levels of prototyping are appropriate at different stages of development. We classify prototypes into four different levels, with higher level prototypes typically being appropriate for the later phases of the product development process.
Level 1: Feasibility Prototype
This level is when we validate individual features for feasibility. Additionally, it’s when developers decide if a product feature is worth keeping based on technical feasibility.
A feasibility prototype:
Is extremely important
Helps validate individual features
Can be iterated until it is completely debugged — even as a subsystem
Level 2: Preliminary Product Prototype
This level is where your prototype can provide a lot of insight into how components will work together as well as identify any possible limitations or shortcomings in the design.
A preliminary product prototype:
Has components that begin to come together and the product starts to take shape
Is still in an experimental phase
Might only have some features built into it
May only be a shell to use as reference for the final product
Level 3: Demonstration Prototype
At this level, prototypes may not look exactly like the final product and can be used to show off to potential investors. This is the stage where we test different materials and different aesthetics.
A demonstration prototype:
Includes many features and functions of the final prototype
Starts demonstrating aesthetic components and appearance of the product
Can begin undergoing user testing in many cases
Level 4: Pre-Production Prototype (and Final Prototype)
Level four is where learning is more focused on industry requirements and the focus shifts from user feedback to manufacturer feedback. (However, manufacturing should be top of mind for designers at every level of the product’s development.)
There are slight differences between the pre-production and final prototypes that are worth noting.
A pre-production prototype:
Isn’t fully optimized
May need final adjustments
May stay in this level for many iterations before it becomes a final prototype
A final prototype:
Has a complete feature set and internal components
Is fully optimized
Is ready for mass production
We hope this guide has been helpful. If you’d like to read more in-depth about our prototyping process, you can do so here. And, when you’re ready to accelerate your prototype development, get in touch. We’d love to hear about your project.
We’ll be the first to tell you: there is a lot to be learned in the world of product design and development. From understanding and applying lean principles to grasping the specific uses of certain types of tools and equipment, we are presented with challenges and opportunities that are unique to our industry — and often on a daily basis.
For clients new to how we do things at SGW Designworks, here’s a breakdown of how we apply lean principles and how these impact our office environment.
At SGW Designworks, we operate under “lean” principles. As defined, “lean” is a production practice that considers the creation of value by eliminating wasteful inputs. This is a manufacturing management philosophy that is derived mostly from the Toyota Production System (TPS).
For us as product designers, developers, and engineers, a lean practice can translate to rapid outputs and using what is available to accomplish the desired outcome, rather than having a complete complement of top-end equipment.
5 Lean Principles
These are the five lean principles everyone in our industry should know:
Identify Value. Value will be defined by our customers’ needs or project needs. Some things we consider when identifying value are the expectations that a product or client must meet, the product/project price point requirements, project timeline, etc. These are a few examples that are crucial when defining value.
Map the value stream. When the value or end goal has been defined, mapping every input that is necessary to deliver the output is the second step in the lean engineering process. The objective at this stage is to chart every step from raw material to the delivering of the final product — and then to identify and eliminate wasteful steps.
Create a flow. Once we have eliminated the non-value inputs, we check the remaining steps and make sure the remaining steps flow efficiently without any disruptions in the process.
Establish pull. Once we have improved project flow, we can accurately know how long it would take to deliver a project. This means our clients can trust that we will complete a job on time.
Seek perfection. Implementing the first four principles is half the battle. The lean principles are not a static thinking process. Rather, they are a revolving learning cycle. There is always room for improvement and we seek to create outputs that we can be proud of.
The SGW Environment: Our Core Values
In the SGW Designworks office environment, our core values are partly influenced by the lean principles mentioned above. As we engage in projects with clients, we implement the following into our processes:
At SGW Designworks, we like what we do — a lot. We are excited to be able to do this kind of work, and we love to help our clients. This comes through in our interactions, both inside and outside the office.
When a client says “I need a way to build thermal tiles for a flying space machine,” we strive to understand what they as a company are trying to do — beyond the words. We then aim to understand the challenges of the work, and what it might mean for the client. (Learn more about this scenario in our recent blog post: Product Engineering with Insight: The SGW Philosophy.)
We also work hard to understand the needs and emotions of the people that will interact with the products we develop. This helps ensure that the right features end up in the product.
Our team takes things we know about design, sales, and manufacturing and we apply these learnings in meaningful and innovative ways to get our clients what they need. We believe this makes us a top-tier engineering and design company. We constantly try to think about things in new ways and to think as part of a team.
We collaborate on projects, not just to get them completed on time but to get each task associated with the project done right. Additionally, we work together to teach each other new skills and share what we learn as we work through projects. We also collaborate with clients to ensure the work we’re doing is valuable to them and aligns with their business goals.
For starters, we try not to let deadlines sneak up on us. But we avoid surprises in many ways — from assembling something before it gets shipped (to make sure we have all the parts we need) to being mindful about how we communicate with clients to ensure we’re all on the same page.
You now have an idea of how we work with insight to apply the tools and techniques at our disposal. If you’re interested in revisiting topics we’ve explored that are related to insightful product development, you can find them here:
As time goes on, more products are designed with integrated electronics to provide specific functionality or connectivity. Businesses that have dominated their market space are feeling pressure from competitors who are adding technology to products that were previously considered low-tech.
These businesses can struggle to quickly develop an understanding of what it takes to develop a new product that incorporates embedded electronics. This article serves as a primer for product developers who are experts in specific areas, but new to electronics design and development.
Understanding the Technology
When we’re designing and developing electronic systems, firmware, and software for a client, there are several components required to make a product work. Electronic product design and development requires that we understand these components and their capabilities.
This understanding is necessary whether we’re involved in early concepting of a product or prototyping. Here are a few examples of the technology behind electrical engineering — the pieces that make embedded systems work.
Printed Circuit Boards: The Brains Inside Our Devices
In the world of electrical engineering, printed circuit boards (PCBs) are the brains of many devices. PCB design has answered the need for providing power efficiently to smaller electronics. These days, PCBs are in pretty much everything that has electronic components.
It isn’t necessary to be a computer expert to understand or even build a basic PCB. Just as additive and subtractive manufacturing require an understanding of adding and removing material, PCBs require a knowledge of how electronics work. As product designers gain insight and understanding of more complex systems, PCBs enable us to make those complex designs real.
If you’ve never seen a PCB, it’s a bit like a cake (though inedible, unfortunately). It has layers of material, plexiglass, epoxy, copper, gold, and silver. These layers connect electrical components like resistors and capacitors into single components that can be used to do stuff.
Circuitry will sometimes start off as a rat’s nest of wires and other development boards, but the final product will usually need to be a custom PCB that performs certain required functions. Today’s PCBs can be made with sensors, servos, and a wide range of components which make them very useful.
Making the Technology Work
First, a PCB is designed into a cad file similar to the kind used to make a metal part. Then it is sent to a fabricator. Layers of material are put through several different machines to cut, clean, glue, cut little holes and channels, and populate the boards with components. Depending on the complexity of the board and how many layers it has, this can be a long process or a fairly quick one.
PCBs almost always have to be made by a third-party manufacturer with access to specialized equipment. However, electronic components can still be soldered together by hand. This takes longer, but will work just fine. It is also possible to make a PCB without commercial-grade equipment.
Firmware: The Power Within a PCB
The software that lives on a PCB is referred to as its firmware. This allows devices to function without being plugged into a network or other device that gives it commands. Firmware can be an extremely powerful tool and is present in a huge range of devices. Cell phones, laptops, tablets, and many other electronics have firmware that enables the device to locate peripheral devices, check the system, and load software to enable the user to do more via their device.
Lots of devices can be run entirely on firmware. For instance, locomotives use only firmware.
Many simple electronics like toys or lamps don’t need firmware because their tasks can be accomplished with switches and a battery, but as soon as the device needs to do something more complicated, it needs firmware.
Software: Key Differences from Firmware
A good way to distinguish software from firmware is this: firmware is a program built into a piece of hardware — while software is a program designed to be used on a piece of hardware. Firmware is more of a subsystem of a product, where software is a standalone product. For instance, when you turn on a Playstation 4, you have to get the software to do anything with the system.
There are many ways to make software. In simple terms, we write software in computer languages. There are many to choose from, all with pros and cons. Some of these include:
These are just a few examples, and can be used to do anything from building a website to making a real-time cyclic avionics program for airplanes.
Signals: What We Consider When Designing a Device
When we talk signals, we’re talking about communications protocols. (Bluetooth, wifi, cellular coverage, and morse code are all examples of signals.) Today, we have a wide variety of signals to choose when designing a device. These all have advantages and drawbacks depending on what is needed.
Bluetooth is a great choice for small electronics which will be used at short distances from one another. Radio signals are a good choice for devices communicating over greater distances. A satellite uplink is ideal when developing a device that will be used in the middle of the ocean.
When developing products, we must consider the means of communication that will work best. We typically ask ourselves:
How much power is available?
How much does it cost?
What range is needed?
Can someone access it and spam the user with elk calls?
Joking aside, that last bullet point is quite important. If the method isn’t safe for the device, we must consider what additional features may be needed to secure it. Alternatively, maybe we need the device to be easily accessed and detected — as is the case with survival beacons.
Electronics development can be complex and risky. As more and more products incorporate electronics and connectivity, businesses without experience in electronics product design and development are struggling to keep up with the competition. For these companies, a fast and efficient way to add this capability is to engage a product development firm with electronics development expertise.
As a product development company, we focus on applying lean principles and working with insight. This requires prioritizing frequent and focused prototyping throughout a project’s lifecycle. And it means we as designers and developers must have an in-depth understanding of the tools at our disposal — and their application — whether we’re working with machines (which we discussed on our blog last week) or injection molding and 3D.
Plastic Part Design
When it comes to plastic part design, we’re usually referring to plastic injection molding. Like many plastic part processes, injection molding is a type of additive manufacturing.
This process is often used for making plastic parts from materials such as ABS (a common thermoplastic polymer) or polycarbonate. These materials typically start out in pellet form and are fed into the molding machine where they are compressed, heated, liquefied, and forced into a mold cavity or “tool”. Here they will cool and solidify before the tool is opened and the part ejected out of the machine.
We take many things into account when designing parts for injection molding. The most important is to incorporate draft into the tooling or mold. Simply put, this requires designing the vertical walls of a part so they are tapered, which allows for easy release of the part from the mold once it has solidified. Generally, draft angle is in the range of 1 to 1.5 percent, but this may vary depending on a part’s geometry and finish, such as its texture.
Features such as texture are common on plastic parts. Texture provides more material to the part, slightly improving its strength and adding a nice aesthetic. However, texture requires considerations be made during the design phase in order to be produced correctly. It also adds to the cost of the tooling.
If a part needs texture, overhangs, or other more complicated features, the mold becomes more complicated as well, increasing the overall tooling cost.
Here’s a great overview of injection molding:
Plastic Injection Molding - YouTube
3D Printing and Other Additive Manufacturing
The rise of readily available and inexpensive 3D printers led to an explosion of home-built trinkets and parts. But in terms of manufacturing, 3D printers are useful for product designers. They enable us to produce parts quickly and on-demand, which we can then use to help a client visualize a design (or even to create a mockup).
This is a great tool for development and one-off parts and prototypes, as it can save time and money. 3D printers can be designed to operate on either Cartesian or polar coordinates, although Cartesian is the most common by far. Large polar printers are used to rapidly produce grain silos or houses. In these large machines, cement or a similar material is used.
This is an example of a commercial-grade 3D printer we use at SGW Designworks.
A common misconception about 3D printers is that they can make anything. However, in reality, there are several limitations to these tools. Take, for instance, print bed size. Most do not exceed 20 inches in height, width, and depth — which limits what is printed to smaller parts. Sometimes a large object can be assembled by printing the object in blocks and using an adhesive to bind the individual parts together.
3D printing technology is still being developed, and there are many applications people are trying. We tend to think of 3D printers more as a tool than a go-to manufacturing solution. (We will explain why shortly.)
Sintering is similar to 3D printing in that the process produces a part in an additive manner, layer by layer. Instead of extruding filament from a nozzle, the sintering starts with a bed of powdered material (which can include metals). Then a laser is used to fuse the powdered material together.
Sintering is a technique which offers more dimensional flexibility than printing. Because sintering does not produce parts that are strong at a molecular level, parts can (in some cases) be baked in order to fuse them together. This makes parts more suitable for applications where they are subjected to force and heat.
Thermoforming and Blow Molding
Thermoforming is a technique that involves heating up a sheet of plastic and then sucking it down onto a mold with a vacuum. This method is good for making things like bicycle helmet covers and can even be used to make larger parts like fenders for light rail trains.
Blow molding is a similar process, but instead of lowering hot plastic onto the mold, air is injected into the plastic to fill a form. This is a common method for making bottles and other bulbous shapes where an injection mold can’t be used.
For big objects, such as trash cans, water barrels, or kayaks, rotomolding (also called rotational molding) is the way to go. In rotomolding, plastic nuggets are first loaded into a form. Then, the form is heated and rotated on an enormous machine. As the plastic heats up and melts, it fills the form of the mold. The rotation enables the plastic to fill every part of the mold and get an even fill throughout the shape. Once cooled, the plastic part is removed and excess material is cut away.
Production Economics: Injection Molding vs. 3D Printing
Some might wonder why we can’t just 3D print a bunch of plastic parts for a client instead of investing in an injection mold. This is because 3D printing becomes exponentially more expensive as volume increases.
This is also why we use five- or six-axis mills when producing complex metal parts for clients. It takes far less time (and therefore costs less) to produce multiple parts on these machines than it does to use a manual three-axis or something else.
Let’s do some production economics.
Say we’re printing bottle openers. A single 3D print will use about $0.05 worth of ABS filament in a single print, and it will take about eight minutes per opener with the settings we have selected. It’s a good print, but we need to make 1,000 of them for a client’s upcoming conference.
To print 1,000 bottle openers at eight minutes per print would take 8,000 minutes. That’s roughly 5.5 days — assuming we print non-stop, have no issues, and can swap filament reels without losing time. We can certainly do this. At $0.05 a print, it will only cost us $50 in filament but it will also take 5.5 days. Not only is this an inefficient way to make 1,000 plastic bottle openers, but our labor costs will end up costing the client much, much more than they’d expect to spend.
To do this same job right, we’d ideally want to set up an injection mold. The tooling will cost about $4,000. However, it can make ten bottle openers in a single run — and can do all 1,000 in just a single day.
Insightful Product Development
As illustrated above, insight and experience are required when deciding which processes to employ during product development. Our clients expect us as professional designers and developers to make decisions that are sensitive to their deadlines and budgets — while also not compromising the integrity of the product we’re developing.
If you think this approach is a good fit for your project, don’t hesitate to contact us. In the meantime, take a look at our portfolio for examples of past and current work.
“You do not need to be Alan Greenspan to understand that the more things a machine can do, the bigger the market.”
Fred Hapgood, Discover Magazine, June 2008
As we develop product prototypes in today’s modern world, it is crucial that we understand our capabilities — especially when producing parts for a project. It means that, as product designers and developers, we must understand our tools well enough to make a part. And if we can’t build it, we should understand the process well enough to defer to another resource who can.
For those who may not understand the ins and the outs of machining, we’ve compiled a list of several machine shop tools and processes that we as product developers employ. We think the technology behind these is pretty cool, and we think you will, too.
Machine Shop Manufacturing
For the sake of brevity, we will provide a high-level view of the most commonly used machines in the industry, particularly when creating product prototypes. Although there are several types of machines that have widely different applications, most machines today have been replaced by advanced computerized machines that can perform multiple tasks.
In each instance when we refer to machine shop equipment, we are focusing on subtractive manufacturing. This means that, just as it sounds, we are removing material from something to make a shape. A perfect example is Michelangelo’s David. Michelangelo carefully chipped away at a gigantic block of stone with a chisel and hammer to create the lifelike statue. Machine shop processes work the same way. They take off little bits of material until a shape is made.
So let’s talk machines.
There are several types of mills in use today, all of which use a spinning tool to remove material. The most common type is the vertical mill. This machine’s tool is positioned vertically and moves material around the tool (or visa versa). Many simple mills allow material to be worked on three axes: X, Y, and Z. (Think of these as left and right, forward and back, up and down.) This allows the operator to make simple two-dimensional parts such as engine covers, airplane ribs, gaskets, and metal cases.
Mills have a huge range of tools and uses that are helpful for creating product prototypes. They can do anything from cutting off large chunks of material and drilling holes to making threading and much more.
Most modern industrial mills are fully computerized. A piece of material is placed in the machine, then the design is loaded. The mill will then make the part by itself. These are called CNC mills, which stands for Computer Numeric Control mills. Although very powerful, they still need a skilled operator to ensure the job gets done right.
Some mills (most used at the industrial level) are capable of five or six axes of movement. Think X,Y, and Z but with the ability to turn on any of those axes. Their method of cutting does not change, but movement on more axes enables the machine to cut a significantly more complicated part. This allows a greater level of freedom for the designer.
Because these complex machines are fully automated, they are capable of producing more parts, more quickly and with greater accuracy. Without these machines, it would take an operator much longer to make complex parts.
Five or six-axis machines are also capable of performing turning tasks. This makes them extremely versatile and helps save time and money while increasing their capabilities. They can produce three-dimensional parts like crankshafts, propellers, or even engine heads.
Let’s say you wanted to make a reproduction of the David statue on a three-axis mill. You could probably accomplish this by repositioning your part many times to accommodate the movement of the machine and using specialized tools. But it would take a very long time. Conversely, a six-axis machine could reproduce the statue in just one run since it has the ability to access the complicated features of the statue.
Manually operated mills are still useful for making parts, namely when a part doesn’t need to be reproduced several times. Simple manual mills are also perfect for beginners to learn on.
Check out this YouTube video for a look at the mill in action.
CNC Machining Titan's Eagle - YouTube
The lathe is a long-established and useful machine used for creating product prototypes. Lathes are used to make cylindrical parts and parts with curvature. Think about drive shafts, chess pieces, cannons, bowls, and similar objects — these are typically made using a lathe. This type of machine comes in many sizes, from tiny watchmaker’s lathes to heavy industrial lathes that spin gigantic parts for supply ships and power plants.
How the lathe works is relatively simple: it turns either clockwise or counterclockwise, and unnecessary material is removed from the object as the machine spins.
Lathes can be manual or CNC-controlled. On smaller machines (typically only machines meant for turning wood) the tool is actually held in the operator’s hand. At the machine shop level, a lathe is useful for making pins, dowels, and other components. At a more industrial level, they can be used to crank out staircase banisters.
One key distinction between the lathe and the mill is that the lathe turns the part around the tooling, where a mill moves the tooling around the part.
Plasma Cutters, Waterjet Cutters, and Routers
When working with sheet metal, wooden boards, or long pieces of material, it is easy to make holes, cuts, or apply designs by using a type of two-dimensional cutter. The type of cutter needed usually depends on the material being cut. A board can be cut on a router which spins a cutting tool (very similar to a mill), but a thick aluminum part might be more easily handled by a waterjet cutter. A plasma cutter is well-suited for heavier materials such as steel.
Cutters can be used to cut a large piece of material into a more maneuverable piece that can be put on a mill or other tool. But more often, they are used to apply text or design (again using CNC guidance).
One application of a plasma cutter would be to make a detailed sign for a business storefront. Another common use of routers is to put holes in sheet metal, a task which could take a lot longer if performed on a drill press or other machine. Routers are also popular with woodworkers to easily apply a design to a panel of wood.
Often, when producing parts for product prototypes, we start with much bigger pieces of material than we need. For long parts such as bars, tubes, or extrusions, the best way to get them to the right size is to cut them on a power saw.
There are several different types of saws, but one of the more common in a machine shop is a powered bandsaw. This saw can be fitted with specialized blades to cut metals.
The process is pretty simple. The material is first moved under the saw, sometimes supported by a long table or line of rollers to avoid deflection, and then the cutting head is lowered down into the material.
The power saw is mostly a tool used to prepare materials for more accurate manufacturing processes since the cuts are usually too rough for final products.
Brakes and Shears
Sheet metal is very useful when building product prototypes. Although there are many tools specifically for sheet metal parts, brakes and shears are some of the more common ones.
A brake can bend sheets or bars of material to a desired angle either by lifting a bar manually, or using a control console. Shears cut metal by dropping a heavy cutting head down on the material. Shears are usually electric, hydraulic, or powered by compressed air.
Sheet Metal Processes
Usually a machine shop doesn’t have much specialized sheet metal equipment. Instead, because there is so much that can be done with sheet metal, there are entire factories dedicated exclusively to sheet metal production.
But understanding how sheet metal parts are made is critical for a successful design. Parts can be punched out using dies, and stamps can bend flat sheets into sinks or car parts.
Sheet metal fabricators can turn a two-dimensional design into a three-dimensional part. To this end, there is a huge range of toolings available and a wide range of machine sizes that can accomplish different bends and tolerances to make sheet metal parts.
Grinders and Sanders
One way to think about grinders and sanders is as smaller, gentler, subtractive manufacturing machines. They can usually fit on a bench, and are used to grind down parts, sand down sharp edges, sharpen blades, and can reach very fine tolerances on certain parts.
Larger sanders and grinders are often used to remove more material. For example, a large, circular sander is strong enough to round off the edge of a steel pipe for welding. This is faster than cutting the pipe some other way, however it is less accurate (which is fine for certain projects).
Some grinders such as angle grinders can be used to grind down bolts or bulges produced from welding. This can be a good way to finish parts and help prepare them for other steps in manufacturing.
Polishing wheels are also considered an abrasive tool in the same family as grinders and sanders. These allow us to buff out scratches or polish something into a mirrored finish.
There are numerous types of welding machines meant for different types of jobs — and most are useful when making product prototypes. Welding is used to fuse together metal parts. Generally, the way this process works is metal is heated up, then material is added to the location you want to weld, and presto! Two parts become one.
In its simplest form, welding uses two gases to accomplish the process of fusing metals. Modern welding machines use high-voltage arcs and shielding gas to make faster, cleaner welds. Heavy industries such as railroads use other methods like friction welding and thermite welding. These are techniques suitable for very large, thick parts.
Unlike most machine shop processes, welding is additive. This means, rather than substracting material, it adds fill material to a location in order to keep components together. Welding often calls for preparation work such as cutting and cleaning in order to achieve a good, strong finish.
A drill press, like the name suggests, is a drill that has been mounted on a lever and it can be lowered into the part. Drill presses are used primarily for making holes, but they can also put threading into parts. Drill presses provide accuracy and leverage that you cannot get with a handheld drill.
Although larger machines do most of the work, there are a myriad of other tools that machines shops use — or could use — to build product prototypes. These include wrenches, die presses, screwdrivers, handheld plasma cutters, angle grinders, files, shovels, sandpaper, hand drills, and anything else the shop might need.
Typically, these tools are dependent on what kind of work is being done. For instance, if a machine shop specializes in making hot rods, they probably have rivet tools and polishing tools available. A gun shop might have baths of chemicals to treat metals in order to get just the right look or function from them. These are also common in engine shops to clean off grimy parts.
Forging and Extrusions
When building product prototypes, forging is a technique used for making larger metal shapes which can then be cut by other machines. This process allows us to make parts that would normally be cost-prohibitive or impractical to make out of a single piece of metal. Sometimes material isn’t even available in the sizes an extrusion can produce.
Forging sometimes involves making a mold of some kind that can withstand very high temperatures (in the range of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit) and pouring molten metal into the mold to make a shape. After the metal cools and hardens, the mold is broken away and the part is removed. From there, the part can be put on other machines to make engine blocks or any wide range of parts.
Heavy industry, as well as blacksmiths, use a technique called hammer forging. This process entails using a hammer to pound a gigantic lump of malleable (not molten) metal into a shape very close to the final product.
Extrusion machines force materials through a tooling which forms the material into a shape. By combining toolings and changing the direction the material is pushed, elaborate shapes can be made. A very common extruded product is 80/20 tubing.
Extrusions usually only need to be cut, drilled and given coatings to be ready for use.
Aluminum is one of the most common materials used in extrusions because of its relative flexibility as a material. Plastics and other metals can also be used in extrusions. Pasta and sausage are also made using an extrusion process, and they are by far the best-tasting extrusion products available.
We hope you enjoyed this inside look at the machines and processes we employ building product prototypes. Are you developing a product, and trying to decide which processes are appropriate for prototyping your product? Or long term manufacturing? Give us a call to talk to a development engineer.