Many people have ideas, but actually producing something – sketch, prototype, then final product – from those ideas, and having it mass-manufactured, is a hugely complex, time-consuming and expensive process.
If that product is an electronic and semiconductor technology-based hardware-and-software product, which is increasingly in demand these days, then that’s an even higher level of complexity and stress.
This article tries to provide a starting point, or introduction, for those interested in industrial design or product development, and maybe have ideas for products and want to know how to start the process of getting them manufactured.
Most of us working on this website, and perhaps many who are reading this article, have designed, developed or worked on newspapers and magazines, which were “manufactured” or, more accurately, printed.
This probably doesn’t make us the best people to provide insights into how to design and develop engineered or electronics products. Luckily, the good thing about being journalists is that, essentially, what we do is find people or sources which might be helpful, in this instance, to those thinking of designing and developing such products.
Having said that, each product is different and might each require a particular set of design tools and many other considerations all along the development cycle.
So, while there may be some general areas of commonality, this article is not intended to provide specific instructions or recommendations.
For printed newspapers and magazines, and books for that matter, the main design applications you might have used in the past – and might still use now – are QuarkXpress and InDesign.
These are the two most widely used applications for bringing together – or “assembling” – the different pieces of content, or what you might call “components”.
In this context, those components would be:
- text articles, which are generally prepared and submitted using a word processing application such as Microsoft Word or any other similar software, even ones online, such as Google Docs, or Apple Pages;
- photographs, which are generally prepared in an application such as Photoshop, used to be taken on conventional cameras, and still are now, but can also be taken on any number of devices, such as smartphones and so on;
- graphics, which can include bar charts and pie charts, which tend to be produced in Illustrator; and
- illustrations, such as cartoons and other drawings, which tend to be done either freehand by an artist using a pencil and paper or on a computer using an application like Illustrator.
Those are the basic components, which have to be submitted to the production or “assembly” stage – where the InDesign or QuarkXpress app requires them to be in particular formats and be of a certain quality.
For example, an image might be fine at 72 pixels per inch if it were intended for use on a website or a digital publication, but for print publications, it usually needs to be at least 300 pixels per inch, or “dots” per inch as it used to be called.
But going into details about the print media production process is not the purpose of this article, it’s just to try and offer an insight into an activity that is similar – in a very basic way – to the development process of any product.
To summarise, there are three distinct stages of preparing a newspaper or magazine for printing:
- acquisition of raw materials, such as photographs and text;
- processing of those materials in Photoshop and Illustrator and their submission in the correct formats to the production or assembly stage; and
- assembly of the correctly formatted or prepared materials or “components” using an InDesign or QuarkXpress to create the final printable document.
Nowadays, the portable document format file produced by the InDesign application can be sent to the printer who can, for many jobs, print the entire publication straight from that document.
A long time ago, about 20 years ago, before PDFs became widely used, the printer would routinely have had to go through a couple of additional stages in-between – such as making a bromide, a film, and then a metal plate – before the printing and collation of the publication is done.
But all this is probably already too much information about the printing production process for readers who may want to design and develop different products for other markets.
Interestingly, though, one of the old printing processes – something called photolithography – is now, arguably, the most critical part of the semiconductor, or printed circuit board, manufacturing process.
What do you want to make?
Although InDesign and QuarkXpress are what might be called “2D” design tools or maybe “drawing” tools, they are used to produce three-dimensional objects.
They do have 3D capabilities but most publications can be designed within them without ever using the 3D functions.
In this sense, they share some features of AutoCAD, one of the most widely used applications for 3D design. It too has strong 3D modelling capabilities, but you don’t have to use them to design 3D objects and have them manufactured.
AutoCAD is fundamentally a drawing or “drafting” tool. You can design the look of something and give it the exact real-world dimensions, but you can’t, for example, get it to show you how the pages of a magazine would behave when they are turned.
Like InDesign and QuarkXpress, AutoCAD was developed at a time when most designers used pencil, paper and table-top drawing boards.
How many people use such primitive tools now?
Probably quite a lot actually.
The thing about planning is that you could use any basic tool for sketching out your product: pencil and paper of course, or clay, or whatever else, just to give your ideas some physical form in order to see an impression of it for yourself and to show others.
Increasingly, however, designers are skipping the pencil-and-paper stage and going straight to their computers.
The advantage of using a computer, of course, is that iterations can be produced quicker – just copy-paste the first version and modify it, and then repeat the process.
Moreover, with some design applications, you could use the generative design function to have the software itself produce some iterations autonomously.
This feature is currently not available in AutoCAD, but Autodesk, the company behind AutoCAD, has another application called NetFabb which does promise generative design capabilities.
Robotics and Automation News published an article about Netfabb recently, but there are probably many other 3D design applications which either already incorporate generative design functions or will do so at some stage in the future.
AutoCAD, which is probably the industry standard in the architectural profession, is already a massive application in and of itself, with many thousands of menu choices and functions, so it may continue with the “drafting”, which mostly uses the long-established principle of producing technical drawings of something from several points of view: usually front, side and from above, with cross-sections offering more detail, obviously.
Autodesk now has a massive suite of applications which not only include applications such as Netfabb with its generative design functions, it also has software which can simulate real-world physics.
Netfabb, which seems aimed primarily at designers who want to 3D print something, does contain some physics simulations, but they’re mostly aimed at providing an insight into the 3D printing process.
Another Autodesk application, called Inventor, has been growing in popularity for some years – even before the company behind it was acquired by Autodesk.
Inventor can show you how your design will behave in the real world to a great extent, particularly how its structure will hold up.
Autodesk also has something called Nastran, which was originally the structural analysis tool used by Nasa.
This article was not meant to have been a promotional piece for Autodesk – and it’s not – but the company does have a wide range of applications that are suitable for product designers and developers in many fields, although not printed publications.
Not for the likes of us
The problem with covering any subject these days from a journalistic point of view is that everything’s so complicated and so information-rich.
How do you simplify such complex concepts and summarise so much information?
Nonetheless, let’s keep going.
So, as mentioned, Autodesk is by no means the only company offering tools for industrial designers, which is essentially what you would be if you are designing and developing a product for manufacture.
You may have an engineering background, which would certainly help, but it’s not always necessary for your own project – you’re the boss.
But the choices you probably can’t avoid relate to what software to use. You may be able to afford all of them – lucky you – but all of us are constrained by time.
The other company whose design applications are used widely in the manufacturing industry is Dassault Systèmes.
Like Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes has a suite of applications for design, simulation and there are some generative design functions within them as well.
In fact, Dassault Systèmes’ applications such Catia, SolidWorks and others look to be the industry standard and are to be found in most if not all industrial design studios and departments.
But even those two – Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes – are not the only companies offering industrial design applications.
Another company, Ansys, emphasises its simulation capabilities, and there is a whole world of other industrial design applications. A list of 50 tools, compiled by Pannam.com, might be useful if you want to look into them further.
What was it you wanted to make?
Despite a world full of data and market studies, the creation and selection of ideas still retain much of their mystery and idiosyncratic nature.
Who would have thought smartphones would literally take over the world, or the many other technologies before that one, or the many of the future?
You may say that Apple already knew there was a market for smartphones because the Blackberry was quite popular and the telecommunications infrastructure and communications protocols were mostly available.
But bringing all those elements or components together is often the product of a creative and highly intelligent mind or process.
So, while we’re reluctant to give advice to anyone about anything (time is money), it seems obvious that one of the things people do when deciding on an idea is to look at what’s out there already and see how they can improve it.
Some people think of it as providing solutions to current problems. So, the iPhone solved the problems of going online by providing an ecosystem for packaging specific functions of the internet into small apps, and for finding and downloading those apps.
The company did the same thing for the music industry, with iTunes.
It wasn’t the first in either of those markets, but it did provide solutions to many of the problems each one was facing.
Such an approach does require considerable resources, negotiating power and technical skills, not to mention the sheer audacity to provide something that goes way beyond what’s currently on offer in the market.
Not many companies can do that. Nor do they need to, most of the time. Nobody has to reinvent the wheel, but if you want to make money selling wheels, maybe you do need to offer something which offers solutions to the problems that the other wheels might have.
Try this for starters
The startup culture of today is global. So many investors – private individuals, organisations and institutions – are actively looking for ideas that can be commercialised that there probably hasn’t been a time like this before.
Not only that, consumers – or at least the buyers – seem very enthusiastic about any well-designed product that functions well and provides solutions to problems that they might have.
And it doesn’t have to be a solution to a problem, it can be a product that in some way that enhances their life. There are many reasons why people buy products.
Many product designers probably look at what is being sold on the market first and then design a product for that market. Many others might approach things from the other direction, creating a product and then looking for the right market for it afterwards.
Whichever direction you come from, it probably would be worth your while looking at the “crowdfunding” websites, where entirely new products are showcased and often raise large amounts of money, which enables them to go into manufacturing.
The first crowdfunding platform is said to be Kickstarter, which has helped budding entrepreneurs raise around $2 billion since its launch in 2009, according to Investopedia.com.
But here’s a list we made, combining Investopedia’s and another one produced by Hongkiat.com, of 10 you may want to check out.
We’ve left out some, but you can go to those websites and look at the full lists if you want to know more.
The thing to bear in mind is that many of these crowdfunding websites have their own selection processes, so your design and probably your business plan needs to be well-thought out and put into presentable form before approaching them.
More crowdfunding platforms are appearing all the time, and so are companies which help startup companies. Some of them act like banks, evaluating and selecting new business ideas, and loaning them money and providing support to help them grow.
But unlike banks, they are more open to new ideas that they themselves may not be familiar with. Sometimes, some people have ideas no one else has thought of – and banks are probably not the best place to go with such ideas, since they are generally known to be quite conservative.
It’s all about the money
Designing, developing and manufacturing a product – especially if it includes electronics, which many do – can be a very expensive process from beginning to end. And it can be fraught with risk.
Once a product is made, it can’t be unmade. It can’t be updated. It’s out there as a physical object and will stay exactly the way it was made forever.
A typo in a magazine might be embarrassing, but if you get something wrong that lands you in court, it can be expensive.
So it’s imperative to get it right at the design stage and prototype stage. Which is why so much testing and evaluation takes place in manufacturing.
For those who do not have large teams of people to whom they can provide access to an integrated product lifecycle management platform, there are probably two main options.
One is to ask a freelance engineer to evaluate or review the product, and the other is to hire a company which does everything for you.
Product development companies can charge vast amounts of money, but here’s a list of some, randomly chosen, from a more extensive directory, produced by Dexigner.com, just in case you’re loaded.
- Beyond Design
- Design Concepts
- Design & Product
- Fahrenheit Design
And if you’re loaded enough to buy access to product lifecycle management suites for your team, check out the list of the top 10 PLMs by install base, published on this website recently.
Although we haven’t evaluated any of them ourselves, if you’re developing a hardware-and-software product, Arena seems to emphasise its suitability for this sort of project, since it includes what the company calls “application lifecycle management” software.
However, there are many project management applications for software development, which is a whole area in and of itself.
And if you want to go abstract, there are plenty of project management applications available, with some highlighting their customisations for specific sectors.
For example, a company called Aha! categorises its project management software into product, technology, consulting, manufacturing, and marketing.
But here, too, it should be mentioned that there are many project management applications out there.
If you’re at the stage where you want to control your costs, and would prefer to have professional engineers evaluate your work, you may want to check out a company like Predictable Designs.
Predictable produces what looks like a helpful guide for those developing electronics products, called 15 Steps to Develop Your New Electronic Product, which may be a good starting point for some.
It’s all about the data
Arguably the most fundamental requirement of the product design and development process is the efficient management of data.
All those files generated, and all the information they contain, need to be available to the right people when they need them.
This applies to companies large and small, as well as those working by themselves.
Larger companies – such as Harman – develop their own data management systems, often using artificial intelligence to create a search engine that can not only find and get what the user is looking for, but even produce a short report on its findings.
This enables the designer to read a short summary on the strength of which they can decide whether to spend more time on specific tasks.
Outside of companies’ proprietary data management systems, there is a number of standalone engineering data management software available, but then there are also applications within the suites mentioned earlier, namely Autodesk, Dassault Systèmes, and others.
Designing an electronics product and getting it approved also involves adhering to national and international regulations, legal requirements, on safety and other issues.
To research this area, or to find relevant standards documents, a website like GlobalSpec.com might be a good place to go.
And before you go spending thousands on engineering reviews or PLMs, it might be worth having a look inside books such as Product Design and Development, which might seem expensive at more than $125, but it’s a lot cheaper than an international recall of your massively popular product.