The Value of Early Engineering in Product Design


Ken Haven

April 16, 2018

Many products start out as an idea, a sketch, and then move to a phase where industrial designers focus on areas such as shape, form, packaging, look, color, user interface, and so on. The focus is how to make the product appealing, differentiated from the competition, and easily usable by the target customers. A set of requirements are developed (if they don’t already exist), and the product starts to take shape in the form of sketches, early CAD, 3D renderings, 3D models. Because of the advancements in software, you can create virtually anything on screen and have it appear very lifelike (just look at any of the more recent Star Wars movies!). For product development, the question at this stage is can it be built and manufactured, in volume, at the target cost and performance required?

Very often, those questions cannot be answered until engineering takes the design and works to translate it into a real-world product, using real world materials/parts, and determining things such as performance, safety (if applicable), manufacturability, reliability, etc. Very often we’ve seen companies iterate at this stage, with engineering pushing the design back to the industrial design team requesting changes for performance, cost, ease of assembly/repair, etc. This type of iterative process not only is more expensive, it inherently delays the project due to the cycle time involved.

There is a better solution which is often overlooked: involve engineering during the industrial design phase. Engineers, particularly those with strong DFM and manufacturing processes experience, have a different view of the world vs. industrial designers – engineers are focused on the real-world implementation of the industrial designer’s creation from an operational and manufacturing perspective. How will the parts be manufactured/sourced using available materials and manufacturing methods, will the design have enough space to fit all the necessary components, and (in the case where heat may be generated) is there enough space/paths for airflow for cooling? Will the design be manufacturable at the costs required to meet the COGS objectives? And so on.

Having an experienced engineering team working with the industrial design team early on in the design process will allow them to provide feedback and risk assessment of these and other items as the design is progressing. This ongoing feedback can raise concerns before the design progresses too far down a path that could ultimately lead to a design that doesn’t meet the requirements.

We were recently brought into a product design by a client who had built a physical mockup of product that had been rapid prototyped using 3D printing technology. The product was ultimately going to be shipped in volumes that would require the use of injection molding in order to meet the volume and cost requirements. Unfortunately, when we opened the files, it was immediately apparent that the parts could not be injection molded as designed. This required the client to redesign the outer skins of the product, which then impacted other aspects of the design – the entire process took several weeks to complete. Had we been involved during the earlier design stages, we would have identified these issues earlier, and the first iteration of the design would not have had those issues, saving both time and money. Beyond just saving time and money, we’ve had projects where the ID and ME team working together synergistically arrive at solutions that are more innovative than either team could accomplish by working alone.

There is a balance between the creative process and the practical implementation of designs – having engineering participating early in the design process     still allows for creativity while keeping an eye on the ultimate goal – an innovative but manufacturable product that meets both financial and operational objectives.

About the author

Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.