Product design and innovation in Oxfordshire

3rd May 2019

Product design and innovation in Oxfordshire

Oxfordshire is normally more associated with rural estates and its famous university than manufacturing, but the county has a large network of high technology companies involved in everything from motor racing to nanotechnology.

Crucible has been involved in product design and innovation in Oxfordshire since 1990. From our offices near Wantage, we have worked for a wide range of manufacturing companies and innovators, helping them to bring products to market and develop radical new technologies. The technology companies in the county reflect the breadth of manufacturing capability that has been generated by Oxford University, spin offs from the car industry and innovation from the nuclear industries based in Harwell.

In many ways, these industries represent the new face of UK manufacturing, and are a million miles away from the traditional model of scruffy industrial estates and factory buildings. Often based in glass and steel research units on modern science parks, many of Oxfordshire’s manufacturers are involved in specialised products for high value markets in the scientific and laboratory sector.  

Big design solutions for high tech products

Perhaps our best example of this type of product is the 900Mhz cryogenic magnet we helped develop for Oxford Instruments. Also known as the Phoenix, this unusual project resulted from the development of a five-metre-high cryogenic magnet for use in material research, particularly in the petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. Up to this point, OI magnets had been sold as ‘bare’ systems with no body panels or access hardware for technicians to load samples into the top of the cryogenic vessels (left, below). The sheer size of the Phoenix meant that this wasn’t an option – some method of reaching the top of the magnet had to be provided as an integral part of the six-million-dollar system.

Oxford Instruments approached Crucible and asked us to look at options for technician access and body panels that would help turn this example of radical new technology into an exciting product. We were lucky that both technical and marketing departments wanted the same thing – the industrial equivalent of a formula one racing car.

We looked at many options, ranging from simple access ladders to a comprehensive solution that involved a separate structure that sat around the magnet and a spiral staircase to allow the technician easy access to the sample loading platform. Oxford Instruments chose this route, resulting in a dramatic and exciting product that helped them win a Queen’s award for industry. We developed the structure, made from stainless steel and aluminium due to the high magnetic fields, and we also designed, developed and arranged tooling for the glass reinforced plastic panels that fitted over the structure. These allowed the internal layout to be simplified and meant that the large stainless-steel cryostat at the centre of the system did not need to be polished, resulting in significant cost savings.

The final result was a huge success with customers, as the gantry and cladding cost a small fraction of the overall system value, but made the whole offering safer, easier to use and dramatic to look at (right, below). As the project manager, Martin Townsend, commented:

“Crucible’s ability to meet all our objectives and to think outside the box with tremendous creativity produced an extremely successful product and we wouldn’t hesitate to use them again.”

Oxford Instruments Phoenix NMR magnet


Building brands with product design

The small village of Eynsham, just outside Oxford, is home to a remarkable number of industries and high technology innovators. One of these was our first client, back in 1989, and we’re still working for them. Airdri make hand driers and sensor hardware for lifts. When we first started working for the company, the founders, Peter Allen and Peter Philipps, were still very much in charge and experts in the technology and sale of hand driers. During the next twenty years, we worked on a number of their products, including the Eclipse, which was sold exclusively through Bobrick, based in Los Angeles.

When Bruce Philipps took the helm, we were asked to carry out a review of the companies’ product history and branding and arranged a one-day workshop with staff from marketing and technical departments to map out a new strategy. This was something that we’d been very keen to do for some time, as we were convinced that it would help define a clear direction for the company as well as build brand values and improve efficiency.

The workshop was a great success, enabling a roadmap for new products to be established and the identification of opportunities and threats. One of the most significant results was the realisation that the range was visually fragmented and that it would be good to build brand recognition by developing a coherent product range, much as car makers do.

This resulted in a project to develop the first products in a new range based on a common design language that used a prominent concave outlet grille and a tapered body to deliver a bold appearance and clear user ergonomics. These products became the Quest and Quazar. Despite different form factors, the two driers share a clear language, and both use the durable, simple mechanical parts that have built Airdri’s reputation for reliability and engineering excellence. As David Lewis, Group Engineering Manager commented:

“In addition to the great design work, we have been particularly pleased with their help in managing the progress of the project, enabling two new products to be developed, built and launched in just over four months.

Each stage of the project was delivered on or ahead of schedule and on budget. We are delighted with the results and looking forward to developing more exciting new products with Crucible”.

Airdri Quest and Quazar hand driers


Saving money with modular product design

Product design is often associated with appearance and style, but not so often with saving money and reducing production costs. That is a shame, as it is one of the most important and commercially successful things that product design can do for a company.

When Suez Water UK, based in Thame, contacted us, they asked if we could help them resolve a problem with a growing parts inventory and complex sales matrix based on a wide range of different products that were all built from combinations of different systems. Appearance, ease of use and simplified user ergonomics weren’t even on the agenda at this point, though happily they became part of the final project brief. The product range had got somewhat out of control, with lots of products that were similar, but different enough to require their own production methods and inventories.

One of the great strengths of working with an outside consultant is that they can often take a wider view, not limited by company norms and history, and that is what we were able to do. We suggested taking a modular approach, dividing the various product functions – all based around converting tap water into ultra-pure water for use in laboratories – into separate sub systems that could be combined together in different ways to create the various products in the Suez range.

Once we had created the modular product system, we then developed the physical parts that enabled the modules to be combined together. This involved sheet metal parts that built up into a chassis that was then clad with thermo formed plastic panels.

The results of the project were dramatic. Apart from reducing production line reject rates due to the relative simplicity of assembling pre-built modules, the project also lowered costs and improved build times.

Robert Keep, the Technical Director at the time of the original project work commented:

“Their manufacturing concepts and designs now allow us to assemble product from pre-assembled modules, thus reducing our build times for finished units.

This has dramatically reduced the time taken to convert customer orders into finished goods. Suez’s profitability has more than doubled in the past five years, and I would attribute a significant part of that achievement to the new product range developed in partnership with Crucible”.

Suez water treatment units

In addition to these projects, Crucible has worked for several other Oxfordshire manufacturing innovators, including Oxford Cryosystems, Systech Illinois, Oxford University, AEA Batteries, Oxis Energy, Crowcon, Wila Lighting, P2i and Isansys. All these companies are at the top of their game in terms of innovation and the creation of new technology, and we always relish the opportunity to help bring their new products to market. If you are looking for help with your next innovation or simply want to update or improve an existing product, please let us know. We would be delighted to visit you, find out exactly what you want to achieve and prepare a free and no-obligation quotation for our services.

Product design consultancy

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Crucible Design Ltd, 16 East Lockinge, Wantage, Oxfordshire. OX12 8QG