Essential Concept Development Elements in Product Development & Design

Welcome to the second in a continuing series of articles about successful product development & design for designers, inventors and plastics experts.

The previous article focused on defining product specifications, the process to create a baseline and objectives defining the product. YOU CAN READ IT HERE

Without a well-defined set of specifications, it is virtually impossible to design any product. And after the product has been accurately described, creative thinking must be harnessed to begin the design process with refined concept development.

The transition from research, information gathering, analysis and organization to creative thinking is not easy. Some people are good at analysis and research but are terrible problem solvers, lacking the ability to creatively solve problems, while the reverse is also true. Since the skills for each are so different, these tasks are often assigned to specific individuals during a project.

During my 40-plus years designing hundreds of products, I’ve met thousands of people with widely varying skill sets. Some were extremely talented in analyzing information but couldn’t design a glass to hold water. Individuals with good people skills were often managing the project.

Then there were the oddballs who were socially awkward, somewhat disorganized but were extremely creative. These were the people who provided the energy and ideas that paved the pathway to the final product. On rare occasions, I also encountered people with skills in both realms. Outstanding designers possess equally balanced skills in analytical thinking, organization and creativity.

Innovation in Product Design is the Creative Magic

Developing innovative concepts is the magic every product designer has to offer. The level of creativity and innovation is unique to each individual’s personality and talents, and this special quality is mystical. Creativity is based on each person’s perspective and creative insight. It’s his or her identity stamp.

Human creativity is solely responsible for every man-made item ever created. Creativity is critical to developing concepts, and it is the most important talent anyone can possess as a designer. Creativity and concept development are interdependent and inseparable.
To begin, here’s an idea that some readers may disagree with. Personally, I don’t believe creativity or creative thinking can be taught. You are either born with it or you missed out. Some inspirational speakers travel around espousing methods that supposedly make anyone become a creative genius. I consider these to be simply gimmicks.

Conversely, I do believe you can improve your creative thinking, but it’s not easy. A high level of creativity requires many traits including high intelligence, a high level of curiosity, uninhibited thinking, broad knowledge, and the ability to connect diverse bits of information to a common focal point. The most significant of these traits affecting creativity is unbounded and uninhibited thinking.

It is inhibition that blocks your ability to fully comprehend information and connect diversely unrelated facts. And connectivity is part of the process that can lead to an innovative solution. It is also why most creative individuals are considered oddballs. An uninhibited person will be curious and observant. These traits typically lead one to question, probe and inquire, and thus expand his or her knowledge base. This broadened perspective, combined with an ability to synthesize new concepts, based on unrelated facts without filters, is the creative process.

Great concepts share one thing in common: simplicity. It’s easy to conceive a complex concept, but it’s challenging to devise a simple design. The paths to an innovative concept can range from a simple napkin sketch to a refined machined model.

Developing concepts is simply the first step in interpreting an abstract idea into a physical form, which is highly dependent on the individual and their perspective of the product definition. This statement may be easily overlooked but it cannot be overly emphasized. One’s perspective of the product originates with their personality as well as their professional background. For example, a manufacturing engineer will be more interested in how efficiently a part will be molded than how it will function or look.

A marketing specialist, on the other hand, will be more interested in overall appearance than how fast it can be molded. Industrial designers are typically focused on appearance, ergonomics and color vs. tool design. Plastic part designers, of course, are highly concerned about structural integrity, ease of molding and overall performance. Therefore, each person may approach the same product with a completely different perspective and concept. Skilled and talented designers can absorb these various perspectives and weave them into a balanced solution that optimizes the product from all perspectives.

Creative Concept Product Development: The Foundation for Successful Product Design

Concept development is a thinking process where ideas are explored in groups or individually. Paths to abstract thoughts will vary depending upon the problem to be solved. Mechanism concepts, for example, might begin with a sketch, a cardboard model or a simple CAD model.

In some cases, material may play a significant role in developing an idea, and the model may be machined from the actual material. In other cases, several moving parts may have to be developed to verify a particular motion. These ideas can be modeled using computer simulation or simplified physical models.

Concepts are also essential for defining how a product might be embodied. A concept could define a product as a module within a larger system, enabling it to perform different functions depending upon its configuration.

In other cases, concepts may be developed for features within a part as it is being detailed. These features could require a part to be molded as a single, complicated part with a complex multi-part tool or multiple parts that are molded in individual molds.
Concept development and selection provides the foundation for a product and will have a dramatic effect on its success or potential failure. Products may be ill conceived because they are too complicated, unreliable, ugly or dangerous. Or, perhaps they simply lost sight of the most important objective, satisfying the end-user.

Good designers do not implement the first idea that comes into their head. Really good designers strive for elegance and simplicity in their concepts. And a simple solution is often the best solution. Simple solutions require fewer parts, are more economical and are more reliable. Simplicity is not easily attained and is always obvious after the fact. But it is never obvious when you are staring into space trying to come up with a simple concept.

It is vitally important for designers and engineers to physically engage with materials during concept development. And yes, 3D CAD and simulation software are vital tools for designing. That said, there is a magical quality of simply rolling up your sleeves and making something.

There have been many occasions in my career where I have hit a brick wall working at a computer or sketching something. Suddenly I would go into the shop, pick up a piece of plastic or wood or cloth and make something, after which, a spark of light would instantly pop into my mind solving the most complex problems.

Sketching is another highly valuable skill that is rapidly losing out to CAD. A dozen sketches can be created in less time than one simple CAD model. What’s more, sketching provides an immediate visualization of abstract ideas on paper. A designer who can sketch out his or her ideas will outperform a CAD jockey.

Shamelessly Embrace the Ideas and Input of Others

One last comment about creativity and concept development; it pertains to accepting ideas from others. If you are stubborn, egotistical and insecure…guess what? You will never think anyone else’s ideas are any good and you are most likely a one-dimensional, less-than-average designer.

Unfortunately, many designers have this personality trait. Conversely—and fortunately—great designers are smart enough to absorb and integrate good ideas from their peers and integrate them into their design interpretation. The great part of the design process is sharing ideas and exchanging perspectives.

Creatively weaving these colorful thoughts and concepts into a tangible product is what makes product design so exciting. When you develop your next product, think about the importance your concepts will have on the outcome.

Explore as many options as time permits to derive the simplest and most elegant solution. For greatest success, perfect the art of listening and synthesizing the bombardment of fresh ideas into a symphony of innovative concepts.

How to Refine the Concept for an Industrial Design Product

It is important to develop many initial concepts before settling in on a design direction. Developing and selecting a concept is a critical step in the industrial design process because it defines the premise for all subsequent process decisions. Design concepts loosely define a design direction. The specificity of a concept may range from something as vague as a scribbled sketch or cardboard model to a photorealistic industrial design rendering.

Preliminary ideas nearly always require further development. Usually that means any number of paths depending on the concept and designer. Let’s take a look at some concept examples and the paths they can follow during the design refinement process.
Industrial designers are responsible for creating product concepts based on design considerations that are alien to most design engineers and plastics part designers. Industrial designers focus their attention on the user versus the product or part performance. This perspective drives many of the decisions made by industrial designers that are in conflict with the priorities of engineers. What are user-centric design parameters?

Factors affecting the user include ease of use, aesthetics over form, product branding, proportion, symmetry, weight, safety and product character. Industrial designers can invest hundreds of man-hours optimizing these factors throughout the design refinement phase of product development.

Optimizing ease of use can be essential for products like electric hand tools, garden equipment, medical products and virtually every product used by a human. Let’s look at a chainsaw for example. What are some of the human factors considerations that are essential for the design of a chainsaw?

  • Overall balance and location of the center of gravity relative to the handle
  • Chainsaw weight, motor location and overall layout
  • Handle size, shape and clearance for gloved or ungloved hands
  • Button size, shape, location and activation force
  • Safety brake size shape, activation force, travel distance and location
  • Pull cord location and handle grip design
  • Bar chain attachment, dismantling method, chain tightening method, etc.

These are only a few of the hundreds of requirements to be integrated into the chainsaw design. And optimizing these parameters affects overall product design, safety, comfort and efficiency of use.

Industrial designers must integrate the mechanical components within the boundaries of the overall product form. Further, they must strategically locate each subcomponent to optimize these parameters. Often a minor change in a dimension or activation force could change the product from a safe to a highly dangerous condition.

Refining these parameters is often accomplished through an iterative process of sketching, CAD design, model making, testing and redesign during the concept refinement stage of development.

More Concept Refinement – Mechanical Design Considerations

Concept refinement is not limited to industrial design. Mechanical engineers, designers and plastics engineers must also develop concepts to get to a production-ready design.

These are typically functional considerations that need to conform to performance-related parameters. Examples include mechanisms, attachment details such as snap locks, or structural design features that must perform within strict fatigue or deflection limitations. Concepts can be refined using CAD, simple models or machined, highly detailed models.

Concept refinement and prototyping are crucial to refining ideas. Rapid prototypes have become a popular means of refining concepts, however, they have many limitations. I’ve used all the rapid prototyping methods including FDM, SLA, laser sintering, wax FDM and ZCorp’s powder process. These have been used to form both plastic and metal parts.

The major limitations for these processes are material choice and size limitations. If you are trying to evaluate a design based on chemical resistance and impact strength you may discover that a machined prototype in the particular material will be much more representative of the final product than an SLA or FDM prototype. You may be involved in designing a rotationally molded part in polyethylene and are curious about the strength of a particular molded-in feature.

The part might be the size of a small car and too impractical to prototype. So how do you verify the design before you commit to thousands of dollars in tooling for a design that may not work? You can simulate the conditions with a computer or you can make a small mold of the area of interest and test it under conditions similar to actual use.

I’ve used this technique many times with great success. It’s critical to constrain and load the section being analyzed in a manner similar to its use. I’ve also simulated large structures and applied finite element analysis to the product based on specific materials and load conditions.

Concept development is relatively easy. But the greater challenge is to translate the ideas to a working level that can eventually be manufactured. The concept refinement stage should evolve on multiple levels. That is, you need to develop concepts with considerations of all factors affecting the final design.

These may include tool design, molding, aesthetics, human factors, assembly, and safety, to name a few. This phase of design is the most crucial in the development process since it will influence all subsequent development steps. Poor decisions during this phase can introduce complexities that might not have existed in a better, more refined concept.

Considering Details: Process Selection, Tooling Cost and Production Costs

Concept refinement will also be influenced by decisions concerning process selection, materials, tooling and production costs. For example, an initial rendering from an industrial designer may only illustrate its basic form with some indication of colors and graphics. If the design is well thought out, the basic shape should represent its function and be ergonomically optimized for ease of use.

Most industrial designers typically propose these types of preliminary concepts. Plastics designers and product engineers are required to translate these concepts into a production design. I don’t agree with this design approach since the manufacturing process should be considered from the earliest phase of development.

An industrial designer should understand various manufacturing processes. These will have an effect on part cost, investment, and overall product design. Accordingly, he or she can propose refined concepts that are more easily translated to a production design.

After the initial concept is accepted, design engineers can work with the industrial design team to translate the embryonic concept into a more defined embodiment based on one or more plastics processes. Process selection will play a major role in tooling investment, lead times and reoccurring costs. It also influences appearance, the number of parts and other product details.

During the refinement phase, a concept should be detailed to a level sufficient to define the number of parts based on a particular molding process, as well as the estimated tooling costs and unit cost. Early estimates for these basic building blocks of product design will minimize the chances of a costly, late-stage product redesign. It also provides a platform for input regarding risk, appearance and potential tooling complexities.

Because all parties agree on basic objectives from an early phase, multiple parallel paths lead to a smoother product design program. Experienced designers can also anticipate draft angles and split lines in this early stage of development. Although these considerations may seem to be a bit premature in the design program, they are not. Draft angles and split lines will have a major impact on aesthetics, part count, tooling cost and overall product quality.

For example, let’s look at a sculpted injection molded handle. If a concept for this handle is being refined without early stage considerations for split lines and draft, an impossible molding condition can be created. This will force the designer to either totally redesign the handle or seriously compromise ergonomics and aesthetics. The problem becomes even more difficult if a surface requires a heavy texture and an additional draft is required to mold the part.

I hope these examples and comments have made you think more about refining your design work, and provide a positive influence on future projects. If you would like more information, contact me at You comments are welcome.