We have all the design tools, now we need the good ideas
– Aaldert Verplanke, Mechanical Design Engineer. firstname.lastname@example.org
Technology has evolved to the point where we have all the tools to take an idea for a product to the prototype stage in a very short time. This is thanks to 3D design and 3D printing methods. We can now make a prototype that closely resembles the final product in form and function. Depending on our budget, we can even make it in metal.
The 3D design and 3D printing can make a component in one piece that is not possible by machining or casting. The sky is the limit in the complexity of what you can design with the 3D tools, but is this helping us now?
Because we have all these tools and clever people who know how to operate them, the tool operator is often also given the task to come up with the design. A builder knows how to use a hammer, but not necessarily how to design a house, but if you work long enough building houses you get to know how to design a house that is easy to build. It is called experience in the real world.
Operating a 3D CAD and 3D printing tool may not be very useful without such real world experience. The end result may look good, but is it practical, reliable, easy to use, and economical to make? A coloured 3D picture may look good, but will it work?
Complexity of design often increases the production cost and reduces the reliability of the product. Thus we need to go back to the drawing board and make it simple or Ôthe best design possible’.
My trade teacher had the mantra that “Making a complicated product is simple; making a simple product is complicated!” Thinking about design, function, looks and ability and making the product for a reasonable cost is time consuming. Add simplicity to the mix and you lengthen the design time again. Why? Because good ideas take time to formulate in the brain.
The other question of course is, what do we mean by a simple design? The definition can be https://www.fastcodesign.com/1665375/the-6-pillars-of-steve-jobss-design-philosophy
The definition that I use is: Made so it is easy to use, reliable, durable and economic over its lifetime and with the minimum carbon footprint.
The interpretation of a simple design can also be ‘the best design possible’ for the user.
Why is it that simple designs are often ignored or put aside as stupid?
Because if something works really well, we do not notice it. When something hinders us in our actions we take notice, and often accept that this is just the way it is. Have you ever tried to open a door with a round door knob? You probably think nothing of it, but it is a lot harder than using a lever door handle.
If we do not notice it is also not rewarded. Some things are so good in design that we do not see them.
Products that are simple in design usually last a lot longer, so our consumer driven economy is not interested in them. Ignoring a simple design is also done because the product can be harder to make in small quantities, requiring special jigs, tools, specialised skill or machines. For instance welding parts together is easier done then pressing them out of plate.
Time pressure is also a hindrance to finding the best possible solution. Creative thinking is best done when there is no time pressure, and when you are relaxed.
Creating a simple (best possible) design is hard work, and takes time and discipline. It also requires a designer who likes solving problems. Solving a problem is often a small portion of the equation; recognising there is a problem is the hard part. Some people see problems where others don’t even want to believe there is a problem. The door opens, so what is wrong with the round knob! Probably nothing until you have arthritis in your hands.
Defining the problem is the second step
If it is not clearly defined what the problem is, we may end up finding a solution that is not the best design possible. For example, I was asked to design a system to connect square fully enclosed steel containers to each other, but not use bolts and nuts. The actual requirement was: A lay person should be able to connect and disconnect these containers without the need for special tools or having to find the bolts and nuts.
Finding out what the client / user needs
If you are lucky you have a client who has his requirements clearly formulated and defined. Often they have an idea and start designing the concept themselves. Going along with the clientÕs idea can be a good way to find out what the core issues are. Critically rethinking the idea and starting from scratch can lead to a totally different approach.
In the sample of the container connection, the idea of not allowing bolts and nuts proved to be a hindrance to a workable solution. A solution was found after reformulating the client’s requirement. Easy to assemble and no loose parts needed, and using common available tools to assemble and dis-assemble the structure. The solution was found. No loose parts were involved, as the connecting system is secured inside the container as intended by the client.