Industrial Design: Designers, Engineers, and Manufacturers Talk Shape, Surface, and Structure

Nov. 7, 2008
Industrial designers focus on free thinking.

Engineers tend to focus on analytics. The two viewpoints make for diverse approaches to product design. Yet both are crucial to the development of sustainable, high-quality products.

In fact, companies and academia alike are aiming for a stronger interaction between industrial design, engineering, and also manufacturing. One way to improve collaboration might be to implement an ISO-like framework for communication. For example, the framework would include information on product attributes, as well as the industrial designer’s sensory expressions, the engineer’s numerics, and the manufacturer’s quality objectives. The framework’s focal points are product shape, surface, and structure. These relate sensory, engineering, and manufacturing properties. For example, the framework would give industrial designers a way to easily reference manufacturing to see if an intended process would adversely change the way a material looks.

On the industrial design side, shape captures a product’s form and its pleasing lines. The designer gives shapes character and even sex appeal. Engineers characterize shape as the geometric features, dimensions, and tolerances needed for a functional product. Manufacturers see shape in terms of efficient production. How well can a certain process produce a certain shape?

Surface to the industrial designer means textures and colors that bring visual appeal. To engineers, surfaces can wear, erode, and corrode. So it’s important to select the right material, surface hardness, and coating. To the manufacturer, surfaces are a final manifestation of processing.

Here, structure means material structure — the crystalline and molecular arrangement of atoms mysteriously responsible for a material’s properties such as strength, color, and warmth. (Note that this selection represents a spectrum from engineers’ quantitative requirements, such as strength values, to industrial designers’ qualitative expressions of sensory attributes, such as warmth.)

To show how structure relates, consider that subtle changes to it often lead to large changes in properties. For instance, pure aluminum has a strength of just 15 MPa, but adding one copper atom for every 100 aluminum atoms boosts its strength five times. Heat treating the alloy rearranges the atoms to further strengthen it five times yet again. Another example: adding oxygen electrolytically to titanium forms an oxide surface just a few hundred nanometers thick that can change color to almost any in the visible spectrum, depending on the oxide thickness.

Industrial designers don’t usually think of material structure except perhaps as it provides the sensory properties needed. However, microscopic views of material structure, particularly of natural materials, often open new avenues of creativity, as in biomimetics. Engineers, of course, regard material properties as critical. Without exception, a product’s functional performance and quality are direct results of the material selected and attributes such as shape, dimensions, and tolerances. The manufacturer usually thinks about structure inadvertently with regards to crystalline or molecular rearrangements during processing that might affect the product’s engineering or sensory properties.

Howard A Kuhn

Howard A. Kuhn is R&D director of The Ex One Co. and is responsible for developing and implementing direct digital manufacturing and tooling technologies. Kuhn is also an adjunct professor at the Univ. of Pittsburgh, School of Engineering, where he teaches engineering entrepreneurship and is involved in the digital manufacturing of scaffolds for regenerative medicine.

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