Are you made of the right stuff?

19th March 2018

Are you made of the right stuff?

Back in the (not so) good old days, the choice of material for your new consumer product was simple. If you made a few things, you used wood; if you made quite a few things, you used metal; and if you made lots of things, you used plastic – job done.

Then things started to get complicated. Metals became more capable, plastics became easier to mould and cheaper to tool, and all kinds of new materials became available, from composites to 3D prints. The choice can be somewhat overwhelming, and if you add in the current interest in the environmental impact of some materials choosing the right one can seem almost impossible. So, what are the major issues, and how do you choose what is best for your company and your product?

The numbers game

The number of products that you are going to make is still a very good starting point. However, improved production processes have made a huge difference to the correct choice of material. The bottom line is always going to be production efficiency, so a slow plastic process may lose to a fast metal one if you’re making a high-volume product. For example, sheet metal laser cutting equipment used to operate at around six metres per minute on thin material, whilst new ones run at over 40 metres per minute. That can make a huge difference to the production cost of the part.

Lesson #1: Don’t make assumptions about production times – find out what current technology can do.

Now let’s look at the other end of the numbers spectrum. Low volume products are no longer limited to basic production techniques. 3D printed plastic and metal parts are now commonly used in manufactured products, and rapid machining techniques are also becoming an economically viable way of making some production parts. Some processes that were traditionally for high volume, such as injection moulding, are also getting cheaper, making conventional plastic mouldings a possible choice for some low volume parts.

Lesson #2: Explore all possible options for low volume production.

One other issue related to numbers is the quantity of parts that make up your product. Assembly time can make the difference between success and failure, so make sure your material and process choices maximise the speed of production.

WEEE have the power

The Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) regulations make some EU directives look positively glamorous, but they are becoming more important, especially as consumers become increasingly aware of the waste and pollution caused by plastic and electronics. Moves to create a more ‘circular’ economy, where materials are endlessly reused are gaining momentum, and championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, amongst others.

A particularly good examination of how these issues affect a conventional product, i.e. a toaster, have been demonstrated by the Agency of Design. They looked at three different designs for this ubiquitous product and explored different ways to make it more ‘circular’. The results were very interesting and have potential parallels for many consumer products.

Lesson #3: We need to start thinking more about product lifecycles.

Are you local?

The latest ripple in the never-ending hype wave surrounding 3D printing is localised manufacture. This suggests that manufacture will become a far more decentralised activity, with small production units in communities, shops and homes. Whilst this is already true for some spare part and personal component production, it is unlikely to become a major threat to Dyson or Apple in the short term.

What is more likely is that improvements in production technology and the economic changes that result from Brexit will make local production more attractive. As more UK suppliers invest in new production facilities, costs have come down.  At the same time, due to changes in the exchange rate, the cost of imported goods have gone up, and the way things are looking, this is only likely to increase.

Lesson #4: Don’t assume that making something made in Asia will always be cheaper.

Other benefits of a more localised perspective is access to some of the latest production technologies and manufacturing methods, as well as the relative ease of resolving the inevitable production glitches that affect every product.

Is it up to standard?

The final consideration when selecting your material, is standards and safety. Products must meet ever-higher standards to make sure that they are safe and durable. This can have a massive impact on the choice of material used. Issues like drop testing, sealing and specialist standards like ATEX all make serious demands, and these need to be considered right at the beginning of the project.

Some issues can be dealt with using additional parts, like adding external rubber boots to provide impact protection. However others, such as sealing, are often an intrinsic part of the product’s structure. The durability of materials and their ability to withstand normal use in their marketplace is another important consideration. The effect of UV light on plastics, for example, or the impact of salt water on metallic parts are typical issues that need to be addressed when looking at the long-term use of many products.

Lesson #5: Make sure your chosen material is fit for purpose – now and in the future.

Finally, always make sure that you’re up to speed with the latest developments in materials – such as the recent work to develop super high strength wood, for example. Innovation is likely to be one of the strongest cards that the UK has to play as we drift off into the Atlantic – and new material developments will be a major part of delivering new products to the market.

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