Machine Design

Industrial Design: Fail Early to Succeed

In past experiences, we’ve seen companies pick a design direction too quickly before they even had a chance to see what happens when the concept is translated into physical form.

Tim Nugent

Edited by Leslie Gordon

A better approach is to not choose a particular direction until after building physical mock-ups. This lets you “fail early to succeed.”

For example, we recently worked on a project for a specialized monitor. One direction was to go for a clean, simple form factor. But marketing wanted a concept that communicated a softer and more organic shape.

A boxy shape is simple, yet often perceived as cheap. However, positive attributes might include efficiency and economy of space. Making simple forms say “sexy” can be difficult. But combining good materials and finish with correct proportions and details often produces surprisingly richlooking designs.

Soft form factors, on the other hand, often communicate an initial appeal because they are perceived as friendly or even sexy. But these shapes can have negatives. For example, say a LCD TV were to come in a large oval frame. The oval-shaped bezel on a letterbox-shaped LCD screen would make the overall device humongous.

The best way to get around such dilemmas is for team designers to first create a lot of concepts that would work. The concepts should all speak different design languages. Next, make visual mock-ups to present to the team.

There are several ways to make mock-ups. First, decide what it is you want to learn. For example, when all that is needed is to get a feel for the size of a design, make 2D drawings that represent 1:1 elevation views. From these views, it’s a simple matter to make basic foam-core models to see overall volume.

On the other hand, say form factor is important but all that is needed is to see the outside skin. Here, build 3D CAD models and export them to a CNC to cut foam models. A variety of foam materials are available from open-cell to high-density closed cell that can be surfaced and painted to look real.

When evaluating shelled parts, volume, and size, a widely used method is to build 3D CAD models and use rapid-prototyping technologies such as stereolithography (SLA). SLA parts are typically crude in nature and fragile.

Back to our monitor design. We CNCd foam models to look at each of the suggested directions. After showing our customers the models, we picked the best attributes from both approaches.

The beauty of physical mock-ups is that team members don’t have to be gurus at CAD modeling or hold a Ph.D. in engineering to understand what 2D or 3D drawings really mean. Everyone can gather around the table, look at physical models, and give feedback. If the team is off target, the firm has not bought expensive tooling and spent hundreds of hours in engineering for a design that ends up getting tossed.

Tim Nugent is the Design Director at Pulse Global LLC ( Got a question about industrial design? You can reach Tim at [email protected].

Foam models of the square monitor (top) and the organically shaped monitor (bottom) provided mock-ups for designteam and customer feedback.

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