Made to measure

The future for product design looks bright. Technological advances promise cheaper, quicker and more flexible ways of working.

At the beginning of a new century and millennium it seems appropriate to look at the future of product design, which has only been around as a formal discipline for 60 or 70 years.

Prior to this, practitioners were a diverse mix of people ranging from designer/ makers, designers associated with manufacturing businesses, to engineers and architects. If you wanted to be accurate you could argue that product design has been around for as long as people have made things. But a significant change occurred when designers started operating independently from the means of production.

The era after World War II saw the emergence of product design as a “real” profession, partly a response to a booming economy and the birth of consumer society. Millions of people around the world wanted a piece of the new prosperity and wanted new and exciting things.

The product designers who began to emerge from this wave of economic expansion came from art, engineering, design, ergonomic and architectural backgrounds. Design education blossomed across North America and Western Europe, providing a skilled workforce.

In the initial stages designers were stylists or more engineering-based people. As marketing, manufacturing and consumers have become more sophisticated, the services and skills provided by product designers have also evolved.

The provision of products to markets around the world has increased the need to respond to local and national tastes. At the same time, it created the need for recognisable brands.

What will the new millennium bring? Rapidly developing communications technology will change the manufacturing industry and hence the product design industry.

The Web

This will be seen as the great enabling technology of the modern world. Even in its current infant form it has had a tremendous influence on product design. Innovations in day-to-day communication and CAD data file transfer have dramatically increased the pace that information can be exchanged. Access to new clients and suppliers has been extended and the potential of Web-based video conferencing and voice coms will clearly emerge in the next two or three years. But there is much more to come.

Design software and the Web

For most product design consultancies, software for visualisation and engineering design has moved forward rapidly in the past few years. With broadband Web access, the theoretical possibility of accessing design software on a “per second” basis will soon become reality. Do you need five seats of CAD software tomorrow? No problem, just log on and they’re yours. Don’t need the software this week? Doesn’t cost you a thing.

This would free up financial resources for most design consultancies and also allow access to infrequently used or very expensive software products.

This release of resources will allow design consultancies to invest in their people in a manner that has not been possible in the past.

Concurrent engineering and the Web

Much has been promised by “concurrent engineering”. A better name would be “concurrent creativity”. The promise is accelerated development by simultaneous work on many parts of the same project. Broadband Web access will soon honour this promise.

Teams working around the world will be able to get together to discuss, interact, and design in real time using common software platforms. Design will be much more responsive to customer and client needs, resources will be applied to projects more effectively.

Manufacturing and the Web

The Web is having a big impact on manufacturing already. Companies such as General Electric in the US use Web-based procurement systems to reduce the costs of components and speed delivery. Rapid prototyping, which has caught the imagination of designers and manufacturers alike, is already a Web-based activity, with design data sent to bureaux around the world. Rapid prototyping is part of the overall push to reduce time to market.

The mass customisation concept will really take off. Instead of large production runs of identical products, short runs based directly on customer request and specification will become the norm.

Specialised manufacturing systems that are digitally-based with flexible tooling systems or, even more exciting, no tooling whatsoever, will create components from received data and ship output to local assembly facilities close to the customer.

Interestingly, one of the oldest mass manufacturing industries, cars, is moving rapidly in this direction, to the point that these companies will become sales, marketing, and financial services organisations. Their role will be to respond to customers: hardware will be manufactured by an interlocking group of specialist component manufacturers and assembly companies.

Product design and the Web

The tantalising prospect of communications bringing together product designers, clients, and customers in a new and more immediate environment will clearly change the way designers work and the value of our thinking.

There is a fundamental proposition that designers add value by acting as a filter and force of innovation in product development. They endow products with visual appeal and a hard-to-define “rightness” for a particular market, at a particular time. This role will remain and, if anything, it will become more important.

Initially, the technological and communications tools, plus the sheer volume of information available, will make decision-making more complex. Product designers will need to be smarter; they will need to manage their new tools so they do not become a barrier in their own right. Creative thinking will have substantially higher value as the need for new ideas and new products escalate rapidly.

Rapid technological change, coupled with manufacturing methods, will allow an idea to be rapidly turned around and expressed in hardware. This will create a unique environment that is thirsty for the combination of visual, emotional, cultural and technological savvy that is at the heart of product design.

Dale Bevington is a partner of product design group Indes

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