Product design concepts - what use are they?

15th March 2017

Product design concepts - what use are they?

Exploring alternative product design concepts is possibly the most important stage of any manufacturing project. This is the point at which you can explore the different ways your product could look, as well as how it will be built, used, made and marketed. This is also the point at which relatively little may be known about the product’s practical or manufacturing requirements – and this can be both a creative opportunity as well as a technical challenge

The question is, how can these issues be managed and used to create new, exciting products that are both technically and commercially viable?

Fantasy or reality?

The most common form of product design concept is a sketch or rendering, and they offer a quick way of exploring ideas and alternative layouts. Early sketch concepts often express how the designer would like the product to look and can emphasise emotional and dramatic qualities. Whilst these initial sketches and renderings are an essential part of the design process, and can result in features and qualities that are central to the success of the product, they do need to be tempered by practical considerations.

But don’t practical considerations limit creativity and restrict the designer’s options? No, quite the opposite. By considering the practical requirements at the initial concept phase, the designer turns what might be a potential problem into an opportunity. This was exactly the approach that we took with the Eclipse hand drier. Working closely with Airdri Ltd, we helped develop the internal parts of a radical new hand drier that was based around a wide cylindrical air chamber (below, left). This created an opportunity for a new type of drier housing, and we developed over fifteen full scale models of alternative concepts. The resulting product (below, right) was a huge commercial success.

Bobrick Eclipse hand drier chassis and concept

Never leave a stone unturned

At the concept stage, the designer’s main responsibility is to explore all the options. This is sometimes referred to as looking at everything from the ‘mild to the wild’. It’s usually a two-stage process, where stage one is about looking at every possibility, and stage two is about refining the options down to an overall plan for the design of the final product. There may be (and should be) options in stage one that shock the client and challenge them to think differently. This is where the possibilities for radical innovation lie, and it would be a huge mistake to miss them. For example, we were delighted when Oxford Instruments turned down our safe ‘beehive’ concept for their research magnet (below, left) and opted instead for the more radical (and expensive) option that eventually reached production.

How much?!

Decisions about which direction to take at the concept stage will depend on many factors – from company identity to opportunities for innovation. However, the cost implications of the different options will always need to be considered. This can be difficult, as costs are often hard to estimate at the concept stage, but the impact of a bad investment decision would be disastrous. Where all the options will use the same production methods and be similar in production complexity and size, the cost differences will be limited. In this case, an estimate of costs based on experience may be sufficient. However, more radical options that involve different types of tooling, complexity or scale might offer great opportunities – or tremendous risks. In this case, our advice would be to carry out a quick feasibility study using preliminary CAD data to establish ball-park figures for the different options.

Hang on, we’ve changed our mind…

In an ideal world, the chosen design concept will then move on through detailed design development to tooling and manufacture without any dramatic alterations. But what happens if the requirements or specification changes? Ideally, the concept stage will be reviewed or even re-run, depending on the scope of the modifications involved. The implications of not doing this can be clearly seen in the design of the Austin Allegro in 1973. The original concept (below left) would have been an elegant successor to the Austin 1100, had the technical layout been similar. Sadly, the concept had to be distorted to accommodate a large heating system and a completely different engine and suspension set-up. The result was a car that has been described as ‘the vital stumble’ in the history of British Leyland.    

Not just a pretty picture

Product design concepts are about much more than exciting sketches. They are the chance to innovate, disrupt and create radical, highly profitable new products.  By considering all the options and exploring every technical and creative possibility, designers can create not just new products, but whole brands and industries. If you are tempted to cut back on one area of product development expenditure, make sure that it is not this one!

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