One of the most encouraging trends we’ve witnessed in the past few years has been the preponderance of younger people designing and creating products outside the traditional manufacturing ecosystem and without the formal education usually associated with a career in product design. With the easy access to CAD design software and an untold number of online tutorials, it’s never been easier for a young enthusiast to roll up their sleeves, open a how-to YouTube video, and create something new.
But with designers entering the field in less traditional ways, we’re also witnessing a growing divide between designers and the manufacturers responsible for executing on their designs. It used to be that the engineers who typically designed products did so at large companies that were well-versed in the manufacturing process. In this scenario, the engineer is able to quickly learn the limitations and restrictions that govern modern manufacturing and determine the economic feasibility of producing a part or product at scale.
If, on the other hand, you learned CAD design while watching YouTube tutorials and have so far only produced one-off prototypes, you’re likely in for a rude awakening when you move from additive manufacturing to subtractive. 3D printing gives you a freeform means of creation, which means you don’t necessarily have to follow a lot of rules. It’s a much more forgiving fabrication method for features that traditionally cannot be manufactured, such as inaccessible corners and complex pocketing. I’ve noticed that many of these new, less-experienced designers don’t have a strong grasp of methods — like machining or injection molding — where an added feature could dramatically change the price of a part.
This often breeds a good bit of frustration and tension when these engineers approach manufacturers to produce their parts. With all the manufacturing options available, there’s a growing divide between design and manufacturing that needs to be addressed before the industry can reach its full potential.
There are a number of ways manufacturers can address this divide. Here are four that I’ve found work when dealing with engineers new to the process:
People who are looking to make products are looking for options. There’s this famous saying that "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," and it speaks to our tendency to apply the solutions we have available even if they’re not right for the job or don’t take into account the technology trade-offs. With all the manufacturing technologies on the market, we need to get better at pairing the engineer or designer with the technology that’s best at producing their specific part at the lowest cost and the most optimal lead time.
So the question then becomes: what’s the best way to pair the engineer with the technology that’s right for them? I think it’s clear that the manufacturing industry has advanced to a point where it can offer algorithmic software that allows you to upload a CAD design, interpret it, and, based on the features of the product, makes suggestions for the best manufacturing solution. Simple suggestions like highlighting walls thinner than the minimum suggested for a process will go a long way for pricing and reproducibility of a product. Automating this feedback allows designers to iterate digitally without having to waste significant resources in design reviews. Additionally, automated pricing can help give a sense of the impact of a design decision or feature to the bottom line of the product.
While the automated feedback can give an engineer a quick overview of their options, I’ve found that providing them with the ability to engage in a back-and-forth email or phone conversation will allow them to navigate the nuances of manufacturing and remove much of the trial and error involved in many manufacturing orders. I think manufacturers should invest more resources in hiring in-house engineers who can speak to customer needs and get on the phone to assuage their anxieties and fears. I’ve found that, when speaking to these customers, the relief at being able to get their questions answered is palpable.
Online Thought Leadership and Guidance
Once you work in manufacturing customer service long enough you begin to encounter the same questions over and over again. Rather than wasting valuable time repeating yourself, you should leverage the prevalence of blogging and social media to publish “how-to” articles online. Not only will this answer questions that these engineers are regularly typing into Google, but it also serves as an effective form of marketing for the manufacturer that can provide the best and easiest-to-find information on a particular topic.
The bar for entry into engineering and design has never been lower, and the rise of 3D printing and online tutorials has resulted in a new generation of makers entering the fray. But if we are to realize the full potential of these makers, the manufacturing sector needs to rise to the occasion and provide easily digestible information for getting new products to market. Without these efforts, a new generation of innovative ideas and inventions will have been all for naught.