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May 7, 2002

11 Min Read
Design: Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

Editor's note: Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. (Libertyville, IL) writes a bimonthly column entitled By Design for IMM.

The U.S. is a great manufacturing country, and the plastics industry is a major part of that activity. It is manufacturing and not the service industries that make this a great country. Manufacturing generates the money to pay the employees who purchase products and services. Employees also pay taxes that finance medical research, running the country, maintaining an army, supporting education, exploring outer space, and all of the other things we enjoy in this country.

Think back for a moment to what this means. In the 1860s, the industrialized northern states out-manufactured the southern states to win the Civil War, end slavery, and keep this country united.

In the 1940s, this country out-manufactured both Germany and Japan to end World War II, rescue Europe, and maintain the freedoms that Americans enjoy today. We simply manufactured more Liberty ships, tanks, and airplanes than Germany and Japan combined. Today we can manufacture more weapons than all of the Mid-Eastern countries combined.

Manufacturing is extremely important to the American way of life, not only in the past but also in the future. Unfortunately, that great manufacturing capability is now being eroded by greed and foreign competition. Most emerging countries have now learned how to mold acceptable plastic parts. Those countries' lower labor rates and standard of living, coupled with the absence of OSHA, Workman's Compensation Insurance, minimum wage laws, ISO certification, and environmental regulations, allow them to assemble these parts into low-cost products.


The U.S.'s open borders and low import duties allow those products to be shipped back into this country and sold at a profit. OEMs have now learned how to use foreign suppliers to increase profits. They don't relish having their products produced so far from their markets, but the lure of increased earnings is overcoming their apprehensions. The decline in America's manufacturing capability is a problem that can no longer be ignored. If we do, our standard of living will decline and there will be no one to build the ships, tanks, and airplanes for the next war.

Design is important to the survival of America's great manufacturing industry. It is a simple fact of life that manufacturing can only produce what engineers design. If the designer does a proper job, manufacturing is efficient and customer acceptance is good. If the design is lacking, costs, quality, and delivery are affected, and sales decline. The way engineers design new plastic parts is also critical to the ongoing success of the injection molding industry. Over the years the way engineers design products has changed. An understanding of where designers came from, how they got to where they are today, and how they will be working tomorrow is important to anyone who depends on designers for their next batch of new projects.

The First Designers
In the beginning a craftsman designed, manufactured, and sold his own products. In order to prosper he had to have intimate knowledge of design, materials, manufacturing, and selling. These craftsmen did not design products that were difficult to produce. The best of these craftsmen eventually spent all of their time producing products. The hunters and gatherers purchased his products and the craftsman bought or bartered what he needed from them. A cottage manufacturing industry developed, and commerce increased. This system worked well and continued to be used until the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1750s.

The Industrial Revolution decreed that all workers would specialize in only one activity. The theory was that among the craftsmen some were better at manufacturing than selling. Others excelled at designing products but were only mediocre at producing them. Those that were good at producing products became the manufacturing specialists. The best of the designers concentrated on designing products and eventually became engineers. Those that were better at talking than doing became salesmen and after a while, market researchers. This system persevered until modern times.

The downside for the product design process was that designers no longer personally manufactured what they designed. They had difficulty keeping abreast of the new materials and manufacturing processes that came with the advent of the machine age. They also lost first-hand contact with the customer. They no longer received immediate feedback on what the customer wanted and what he was willing to pay. These two problems still haunt the product design profession today.

Product vs. Part Design
During these first ventures into specialization it was noted that certain individuals had the knowledge, inclination, creativity, and experience to be good product designers. Unfortunately, this combination of attributes rarely resulted in an engineer who was also good at the tedious detailed work required to finalize the design of an individual part. Management's answer to this problem was a division of labor. Design engineers would design products, and draftsmen would finalize the design of the individual parts. The system worked well and it built the industry that we all enjoy today.

It is important to recognize the differences between product design and part design. Product design has to do with creating the product concept that satisfies the needs or desires of the end user. It also entails selecting a suitable plastic material and manufacturing process, assembly, decoration, and a lot of other things.

Part design, on the other hand, has to do with finalizing the design of each individual part in the assembly. This work results in a detailed engineering drawing. Part design is extremely important as it is this drawing that the toolmaker will use to build the cavity to actually form the plastic material into a sellable shape. The molded part cannot be better than the cavity, and the cavity will only be as good as the part drawing.

Today's Designer
For 500 years, designers and drafters have been performing their magic work with a T-square, a drawing board, and later with a slide rule. In the 1980s, the computer industry introduced design software programs that were just barely usable. The computer has now replaced the design engineer's old, reliable slide rule and drawing board. This is as it should be. But the full-court, high-pressure sales hype surrounding computer-aided design (CAD) created another problem. This new technology was pushed onto the design community faster than it was capable or willing to accept it. Most found that CAD took longer and was more difficult to use. CAD also requires a totally different way of thinking.

In the U.S., product design has always been an entry-level job. This was all right, as there were always gray bearded design engineers available to teach these new college graduates what they needed to know. The novices brought with them all of the very latest technology from the university. The old pros learned the applicable new technology from the young engineers and taught the novices the basics they needed to get the job done. Unfortunately, this tried and proven way of finishing off a novice designer's education has recently come to an abrupt end.

A lot of the older plastic product designers, with many years of valuable experience, resisted CAD being forced on them by MBA-type managers who had never designed a plastic part. They were also disturbed by the disasters created by the inexperienced young engineers who did not know how to design except with CAD. To resolve the problem, management labeled the old pros as "nonteam players" and downsized them.

Another serious concern is that design engineers have had 134 years to learn how to design plastic products using their old familiar tools. In the case of CAD, they have had less than 20 years to perfect the software programs and learn how to use these new design tools. This is a very real problem that will not go away just because corporate management doesn't like it.

Reorganizing and downsizing in U.S. corporations have now eliminated many of the old pros. The less costly young engineers are left on their own to continue their education by the laborious process of trial and error. These abandoned, young, inexperienced engineers are designing most of the new plastic products being produced. The cost, quality, and delivery of these products suffer accordingly.

Many U.S. corporations are now managed by MBAs who have no appreciation for the importance of design. Their answer to these new problems is to subcontract their new product design projects to their suppliers. Today, there is more product design being done by suppliers than at any time in the past. As was to be expected, the MBAs demanded that their suppliers use the latest technology and design these parts as electronically transmittable, 3-D, solid model CAD.

The danger in this current trend is that suppliers will never know as much as an OEM about a new product's requirements in its end-use environment. The ultimate outcome of this method of subcontracting product design to suppliers remains to be seen.

The advantage of this new approach is that an experienced injection molder typically knows more about part design than a novice designer. Molders are well qualified to design plastic parts that can be quickly and efficiently molded to high quality standards. Molders and moldmakers also know all of the tricks of the trade for minimizing mold costs and delivery schedules.

Future Design Trends
Understanding the evolution of the product design process is helpful, but injection molders have to be more concerned with what designers will be doing tomorrow. There is a high probability that future injection molded parts will be larger in size and more complex, with even closer tolerances and appearance requirements. Who is going to design these technically challenging parts?

All indications are that in the future OEMs will intensify their efforts to download more work and responsibility onto their suppliers. This cost-cutting process was started by the automotive industry and is now widely practiced. Most injection molders are desperately trying to streamline their operations in order to remain competitive. No one wants to provide their customers with additional free services. This is understandable; however, the design process requires special consideration.

Every company in the global injection molding industry can purchase the same plastic material, mold, molding machine, and ancillary equipment. Aside from variations in the cost of doing business in different countries, there are few things that distinguish one injection molder from the others. The most important difference between molders is how well they manage their equipment, employees, and customers.

Another important difference between molders is the design of the parts they mold. The design of parts is different for every project. All molders know that they are molding some parts that are not designed as well as they could be for low-cost, high-quality molding. Just think about how much better off they would be if all of their parts were properly designed. This situation represents a not-to-be-missed opportunity for injection molders.

A survey conducted by Plante & Moran LLP found that "molders with either design input or design responsibility earned higher gross and net margins than molders manufacturing parts-to-print components." In other words, providing a design service can increase an injection molder's profit margins. Today it is not uncommon to encounter a medium to large molder, and in some cases moldmaker, that has product design engineers on staff.

It will be an unusual injection molder who will know enough about the product requirements and marketplace trends to take responsibility for designing his OEM customer's products. However, in most cases molders are better qualified than their customers at finalizing the design of the individual plastic parts that fit together to produce a product. Over the next few years the MBA managers will figure out that the best results are achieved if the OEM designs the product and leaves the design of the individual parts up to the supplier. They will, in effect, be returning to the tried and proven earlier procedure where the product and part design were performed by different individuals who were experts in their own specialties.

Injection molders who want to capitalize on this opportunity will have the best results if they have input early in the product design phase of the project. Once the design has been finalized and a drawing or database has been prepared, it becomes more difficult for a molder to influence a design. Design engineers are much more willing to consider suggestions while the product is still in the preliminary sketch phase. The modern name that has been applied to this collaboration between an OEM's design engineer and his supplier is "early supplier involvement." This collaboration can result in a win-win situation. 

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