Design engineering firms can help manufacturers turn ideas into reality.

Recently, a medical device manufacturer was working on a new model of infusion pump, a machine that carefully controls the rate at which intravenous medications are given. The potential market for these devices is huge. The leading brand of pump administers some 30 million infusions annually in the United States, and nearly 250,000 units have been sold worldwide.

A team of engineers spent months developing an innovative design, but were unable to demonstrate a working prototype. Convinced that the design would function if made with production materials, the team commissioned tooling to make a prototype, and still, the device did not work.

Clearly, this was one medical case where a second opinion was badly needed, so the manufacturer called Creative Engineering (Bronxville, NY) for help. After evaluating the prototype, the engineering firm determined the design was fundamentally flawed. A thick, heavy spring drove a system of pulleys and gears to push the plunger in a syringe at a constant rate. The main problem was that the housing couldn't contain the powerful spring, and the winding mechanism wouldn't work.

There were other issues, too. A governor mechanism for preventing the pump from running too quickly was loud and unreliable. The design required tight manufacturing tolerances and parts molded from glass-filled resins. And, the syringe could accidentally be knocked off the unit.

In redesigning the pump, Creative's engineers were able to improve its performance, use less exotic resins for the parts, and introduce many aesthetic, ergonomic and functional improvements. The pump is now on the market.

The need to quickly solve intractable design problems is one of many reasons why OEMs hire design engineering firms, says Paul Dowd, president of Creative Engineering. "If your deadline hasn't moved, but the clock has. If you're 6 months into a project, and you're still nowhere-we've acquired many customers under those circumstances," he says.

Whether it's to turn a fledgling concept into reality or simply to tweak an existing product, design firms are finding lots of work these days. And, if you think design firms cater strictly to inventors who need help with an idea hastily sketched on the proverbial cocktail napkin, think again. In fact, the use of design firms is not limited to individual entrepreneurs or small companies with little or no engineering staff. The list of major manufacturers that seek help from design firms includes Becton Dickinson, Gillette, Hasbro, Hewlett-Packard, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Motorola, Rayovac, Sanford, Sun Microsystems and Whirlpool.

Fresh Perspectives

Why would such large companies, which already have sizeable engineering departments, hire a design firm? "They could just be too busy," says Dowd. "Companies want to maintain an engineering staff that's just big enough to handle an average workload or even a below-average workload. When things get crazy, they may not have the staff to handle it."

More importantly, in-house engineers should focus on tasks or problems that only they can solve. Every company has ace engineers who take charge of development work. However, because they're "go-to guys," they also get tapped to put out all the fires on designs that are currently in production. When these staffers are constantly distracted, new projects lose out. "We try to off-load everything those people do, so they are free to do the things that only they can do," says Dowd.

In other cases, OEMs may require engineering expertise outside their primary specialty. They may want a fresh look at an old problem, or they may need to circumvent the "not invented here" syndrome. "Many of our customers value the fact that we don't know much about their industry, because they're looking for fresh ideas," says Dowd. "They recognize that they've been staring at the problem for so long...they can't see the forest for the trees."

Arthur G. Carr, president of TransForm Design (Washington, DC), says OEMs often contact a design firm because they have developed an innovative technology, but need to find some way to relate it to the customer. Carr remembers working with a company that designed a new telephone headset and microphone. "They didn't know how to attach it to a person," he recalls. "They thought it should be worn around the neck, but they weren't sure. It had to fit a wide variety of neck sizes. I did studies for them and developed a 3D model they could actually wear and try out."

Some OEMs hire design firms to find ways to improve an existing product, says Carr. They want to reduce the cost of the product, expand the product line, or catch up with a competitor's latest model. For example, if it's an electronic product, a design firm might be asked to add new features, make the user-interface more intuitive, or design a plastic housing to replace one made from sheet metal.

In the end, perhaps the best reason to hire a design firm is for the innovative thinking of the engineers, asserts Dowd, without a hint of self-aggrandizement. "The engineers who work for a company like Creative Engineering...thrive on being constantly challenged by new things," he says. "These are people you couldn't pay enough to work for certain companies, because they'd get bored working on the same product over and over. ...Whereas in our environment, we're quite happy and excited to design a dog dish, because we've never designed a dog dish before."

Seven Phases

Designing a new product typically consists of seven phases. Design firms can be brought in or dismissed at any point in the process. However, OEMs will get the most value by involving design firms sooner than later.

"We do better when we're involved earlier," says Dowd. "When product parameters have been locked down, there's less room for creativity."

Mark Slaven, partner and director of engineering at Insight Product Development (Chicago), agrees. Indeed, his firm has a research group that visits hospitals, homes and businesses to study how people use current products. "We use that information to generate ideas and really make something that's different-something that's not just a new color or 10 percent cheaper, but something that could revolutionize the market and get people excited," he says.

On the other hand, it's also possible to get involved too early. "You can get into trouble by rushing to complete a prototype without having properly defined the project," warns Dowd.

The first phase of a design project is product definition and research. The manufacturer has identified a market need and a product to satisfy that need. Now, the OEM needs to determine basic requirements for the product. What will it do, and how well will it do that? How big will the product be? How much will it cost? What is the expected production volume? What is the target price? Where will the product be assembled?

"You want to be as detailed as possible, so there are no surprises," says Daniel D'Agostino, president of Envision Engineering (Austin, TX).

A design firm can help formulate those specifications. Often, the firm can point out contradictory requirements or raise issues that the OEM may have overlooked. If the OEM doesn't have enough information to define a particular specification, the firm can research the issue to learn how other companies have handled it.

"We also identify the major challenges of the project," says Dowd. "Sometimes, it's a performance issue, such as how to get enough power to the device. In other cases, the biggest challenge isn't the technology, but the form factor. How small can we make it?"

Next comes the conceptual development phase. This stage combines industrial design and mechanical engineering. The focus is on functionality, manufacturability, cost and aesthetics.

"My initial presentations are typically scale sketches that show different ideas and directions for the product," says Carr. "Sometimes, I'll include a list of positives and negatives about each design."

"This is the wild and crazy part of the project," adds Dowd. "We have the freedom to think of anything. ...We're also brainstorming solutions to nagging problems identified in the first phase."

At this stage, the firm can also generate an initial cost estimate and bill of materials for the product. For example, if the product will require a fractional horsepower electric motor, the firm can provide a cost range for that part even if the exact size, shape and style of motor is unknown. Knowing costs early can help the OEM point the design firm in one direction or another. The OEM may even decide to cancel the project altogether, before any more resources are committed to unaffordable design.

In the third phase-preliminary design and engineering-the firm tries to implement the mechanical concepts developed in phase two. The firm also works on industrial design issues. For example, engineers may try to make the product easier to use by reducing the number of operating steps. The goal of this phase is to develop enough information to justify proceeding to the fourth phase, making a rough prototype.

When building a rough prototype, the design firm concentrates on the product's primary attributes, mechanisms and electronics. During this phase, engineers are not concerned with routine parts, such as a battery compartment, but rather those mechanisms and circuits that are critical to the product's function.

Creative Engineering's rough prototype of the IV infusion pump was a case in point. "We developed a new way of driving the syringe," recalls Dowd. "The question was, would it work? So we built a prototype that we could bench-test. It had no other attributes, and it looked like heck, but it was good enough for us to determine that our idea was feasible."

With the information gathered from building and testing the initial prototype, the fifth phase, detailed engineering, can begin. Numbers get crunched. Forms take shape. The goal of this phase is to create a complete CAD model of the product.

With detailed CAD drawings, a final prototype can be made. This prototype has all the functions of the final product. The parts may lack drafts and rounds, and the prototype may not be altogether production-ready, but it's very close.

"Stereolithography is so inexpensive nowadays that I do all my designs with 3D solid modeling software, so I can go quickly to a prototype," says Carr. "That way, my clients can put their electronic components right into the prototype parts and try them out."

Once the final prototype is approved, the firm completes any last-minute tweaks of the design and provides production-ready CAD drawings and a final bill of materials for the product.

The relationship with the design firm doesn't necessarily end with delivery of the final drawings, however. Many firms can help the OEM outsource assembly of the product domestically or internationally.

How long the process takes depends on the project, says D'Agostino. A gardening tool might take 3 weeks to go from concept to prototype, while a complex medical device might require 3 to 6 months.

An Interesting Dance

Whether a design project begins with a clean sheet of paper or an established product, working productively with engineering firms depends on keeping an open mind and maintaining good communication.

"A few minutes of going back and forth can save hours or days reworking something," says D'Agostino.

To ensure a successful project, OEMs should provide the firm's engineers with as much information about the product and its requirements as possible. That may seem obvious, yet in many cases, design firms don't get all the information they need. In some cases, the OEM may not know the information. The in-house engineers may not have thought about a particular aspect of the product's design. Or, the product idea may be so new that even the most basic parameters, such as shape and materials, haven't been established.

In other cases, OEMs deliberately withhold information from the design firm. Engineers who feel threatened or territorial may be reluctant to cooperate with an outside firm. Or, the OEM may not want to bias the design firm one way or another.

Dowd says he often encounters "an interesting dance" during early meetings with a client that is looking for fresh ideas. "During the concept development phase, our customers don't want us wasting time brainstorming ideas that have already been discarded," he explains. "Yet, they don't want to tell us everything that's been tried, because they don't want to poison our thinking."

However, establishing good communication early is critical for ensuring that both the design firm and the OEM begin on the same page. Dowd likens the process to transmitting military orders over the radio. "The person on the receiving end always repeats back what the transmitter said," he explains. "It's the same with us. Our clients tell us what they want, and we repeat back what we think they said. If they agree, we proceed, because everything we do later is predicated on the goals set in the first phase."

Another key to success is establishing the roles of each organization. "It's important to clearly define what will be done in-house and what will be done outside," Dowd advises. "Low-level staff can get carried away asking us to do things. Later, when management adds up the invoices, it can be a shock."

Besides communication, another key to success is to involve senior management early in the product development process. "What can happen, especially in large companies with big bureaucracies, is that the real decision-makers don't get serious about evaluating the project until it's in a very mature phase," laments Dowd. "Then, we show this prototype, and they say, ‘That's not what we agreed on!' They didn't really think about the design back when it was virtually cost-free to change."

Design Engineering Firms

Need help getting a product or idea ready for manufacturing? The following firms can help:

Apogee Designs

Creative Engineering
Bronxville, NY

Envision Engineering
Austin, TX

Insight Product Development

TransForm Design
Washington, DC

VPI Engineering
Draper, UT

20 Questions

The process of working with a design firm begins with a document detailing all the product requirements. Many large OEMs have a standard format for such a document, while small entrepreneurial companies may only have a vague idea of what they need to get down on paper.

For the latter, Arthur G. Carr of TransForm Design has a standard set of questions that he asks his clients to get the ball rolling. Listed below are some of those questions. Not included on this list, but just as important, are questions related to distribution, training and marketing for the product.

1. Describe the product.
2. What is the product launch date? Why then?
3. Why is the product needed?
4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of competitive products?
5. Do you currently make a similar product?
6. How will the new product be better than what is already available?
7. What features should the product have?
8. How many times will it be used per year and for how long?
9. List the requirements for:

  • weight.
  • size and shape.
  • load bearing.
  • material characteristics.
  • strength and durability.
  • safety.
  • maintenance.

10. List any features that would be nice to have, but aren't necessary to the function of the product.
10. What should the product look like? How should it feel? What should it sound like?
12. How will the product be packaged and shipped?
13. How will distributors and retailers move and store the product? How will consumers move and store it?
14. What standards or approvals does the product have to meet?
15. What is the suggested retail price of the product? What are the objectives for unit cost and unit margin? How much do competitive products cost?
16. How many units do you expect to sell annually?
17. Will you manufacture all or part of the product internally? If not, how will it be made?
18. If you will produce it, what manufacturing processes might be necessary?
19. Will the product require new skills, materials or tooling to make?
20. What attributes should be incorporated into the product so it's easy to manufacture?