Prototyping Drives Design Success

The Case For In-House Physical Development

Written by Joshua Munchow

When was the last time you made something?

To an industrial designer, this is a crucial question that cuts straight to the core purpose of product development and innovation: creating something new. Really, what could possibly be more important? While many may consider the creation of tangible models or prototypes as a step near the end of a project after all the critical decisions have been made, the truth is that the real value of physical prototyping is how it propels thinking and creativity at all stages of a project.

Our Development Lab is a mixture of a shop and workspace that allows for physical development by providing a variety of tools, materials, and techniques for designers and engineers to call upon. This includes our in-house wood and metal shop, CNC machine, and electronics lab as well as our storage and project workspaces. Roughly 25% of our office space is dedicated towards physical development and prototype production and while a minority of space it is a big investment for our design process. However, we rarely create fully finished trade-show quality models internally. Instead, our focus is on supplementing the design process to improve the quality of solutions and minimize friction along the way. Our Development Lab is big, complex, and expensive, but we see it as a multi-faceted tool that supports creative exploration every step of the way.

Part of our in-house Development Lab includes a wood and metal shop.

Part of our in-house Development Lab includes a wood and metal shop.

How We Work

As a product development firm, we specialize in new product innovation with a focus on commercial applications. These require extensive research, complex engineering, and novel approaches to address challenging problems. Over the course of twenty years, we have generated well over 100 design and utility patents for various mechanisms, features, and design solutions. A robust in-house Development Lab has been a prominent feature of our team since our founding and has dramatically increased our ability to generate innovative design solutions and streamline the typical development process.

The focus is not to make a highly polished model but to support a more fluid way of thinking. The Development Lab is a supporting cast member to more traditional design tools like pen and paper, 3D CAD, and traditional brainstorming. In some ways, it is akin to having the ability to discuss a problem in another language where additional words and meanings significantly contribute to our creativity and the quality of our solutions. When designers or clients visit our space, they are often surprised that we have a shop space, let alone one with so many capabilities. This response strengthens our convictions to the efficacy of having in-house prototyping.

Our process is inherently hands-on and typically begins with research using a product in its target environment. This research is always an important foundation for creativity and innovation. Next, we conceptualize potential solutions and regularly test our ideas by creating a variety of mockups, models, prototypes, breadboards, study bucks and scale references. This provides invaluable knowledge that cannot be gleaned from sketches and brainstorming in a sterile office environment. We take what we learned and use that to refine our design concepts. Additionally, our physical prototypes are a key component of user testing, where functional mockups and looks-like-works-like demonstrators are implemented in actual test environments.

Throughout the entire process, our designers and engineers use the Development Lab to explore a concept direction, test an idea, or better understand scale. When we need to evaluate a design concept’s function, we will go to the Development Lab to rough out a mechanism or even create a simple form to see if the human/object relationship is appropriate. The Development Lab gives us the ability to generate physical prototypes at any stage of the design process and at a moment’s notice. For our team, this means that we can find dead-ends and develop working solutions much more quickly.

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Why It Works

The advantages of this work method affect everything from optimizing time and resource use to increasing our ability to provide real innovation, but there are also some benefits that might be less obvious until you have done it. Sometimes just ensuring that two materials can adhere securely can keep a project on track. Other times, having the ability to browse through a library of components can spark a solution that was just beyond your reach a moment ago. This way, innovation can often be right at your fingertips.

Our 3D printers are another helpful way to quickly test design concepts and forms.

Our 3D printers are another helpful way to quickly test design concepts and forms.

There are many good tools (e.g. CNC machines, lathes, and welders) but the ability to use them is crucial. Our Technical Development Lead serves a central role in ensuring the Development Lab is running smoothly and is there to confer with project teams. Typical discussions can involve determining the optimal design for machinability, or working with designers and engineers to ensure materials they have selected are appropriate for their intended application. The immediacy of discussion and the ability to physically brainstorm solutions can make every part of the process advance more quickly, leading to better results and enhanced creativity.

While it is helpful to have a variety of tools at your disposal, the ability to use them safely and easily is crucial.

While it is helpful to have a variety of tools at your disposal, the ability to use them safely and easily is crucial.

Waiting over a month for a part from an offshore supplier is just too slow when all you need to do is evaluate the function of a mechanism. We tend to work on projects that have long development cycles, so shaving off a month or two can move up a timeline by a significant amount. For short projects, we can arrive at a workable solution in our own lab in the time it might take to have finalized drawings to send out for prototyping. The ease and fluidity achieved by having in-house prototyping ability greatly increases design success and reduces stress caused by suppliers and outsourced component delays.

Expanding Capabilities

Perhaps one counter-intuitive benefit to having an in-house Development Lab is the ability to recognize when outsourcing might actually be the best course of action. At Formation, we have a broad range of skills, experience, and expertise, but most importantly, we know our limitations. This allows for discerning the best path when it comes to making things.

We have the capability to do so much in-house that sometimes it seems like we can make almost anything. However, it’s important to focus on what enhances the efficiency, quality, and creativity of our design solutions and leave more repetitive or rarely needed tasks, such as finishing, to our outsourcing partners.

With our electronics lab, 3D printers, soldering stations, sewing machines, and vinyl cutters, it is very tempting to make everything in-house.

With our electronics lab, 3D printers, soldering stations, sewing machines, and vinyl cutters, it is very tempting to make everything in-house.

Mocking up a lighting feature for a design concept gives us a more realistic understanding of the effect.

Mocking up a lighting feature for a design concept gives us a more realistic understanding of the effect.

That is truly the luxury of having an in-house Development Lab: not being entirely dependent on outside sources and being acutely aware of what will be the most efficient and beneficial to the project. Here’s the rub, however, the most beneficial and efficient route in design is much more intangible than cost or speed as we are attempting to create the best solutions possible. It requires a complete understanding of how things work, how they are made, how we design, and how it flows with our project needs.

The value of a Development Lab is more than saving money with in-house production, or saving time by avoiding waiting on suppliers. Its true value comes when it is truly integrated into the design process, and everyone knows what is needed to make the best design possible. Supplementing the development of complex projects with in-house prototyping capabilities adds speed and flexibility that results in better solutions faster, while select outsourced production expands our abilities even more.

Welding together structural frames for prototypes is really helpful when we also need to test weight and support, as well as transport mockups.

Welding together structural frames for prototypes is really helpful when we also need to test weight and support, as well as transport mockups.

The final result is a culture of action; one that sees what is possible and knows how to maximize the benefits of our unique situation. All design firms could profit from this practice, no matter how big their shop might be, or what capabilities they maintain in-house. Simply augmenting the process and providing options along the way increases efficiency and productivity which can allow for better design solutions to satisfy the end client. Happy clients mean repeat customers, which leads to long-term stability and a chance to help build the future one project at a time.

I don’t know about you, but that just sounds like good business.

Joshua MunchowPerspective