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Forays into the physical with thoughts on industrial design from frog's product design team.

So Happy Together: Designers & Engineers

Designers and engineers don't always get along:  they often have different goals (beautiful design vs. efficient manufacturability), use different tools (Rhino vs. ProEngineer), and just think in different terms (emotional connection vs. practicality). But if years of consulting have taught me anything, they're better off together than they would be apart.

As industries become more globalized, the division of labor gets more extreme - to the point where it's not uncommon to have a product engineered thousands of miles and a dozen time zones away from where it was designed. This is done to lower costs - and sure, engineering and manufacturing are less expensive outside of the US. But I'm convinced that it usually leads to a product that's less than what it could be.

As an engineer, I've been fortunate to be involved throughout the entire design process of each project I've worked on. Working closely with designers from the start to understand their goals and find practical ways to achieve them. We sometimes butt heads, but we compromise, each trying to appreciate the others’ thinking even as we challenge it. I can rein in impractical design features early in the concept phase, just as the designer can help me avoid compromising the design during detailed engineering. In the best cases I can even point out a technology that not only solves a problem, but opens up new possibilities the designer hadn't considered – and a whole new win-win improvement for the product.

An example from my recent work:  on a project designing electric vehicle charging stations for Ecotality, the frog team of designers and engineers was presented with challenging constraints.  The final products had very little time to reach the market, because they had to synchronize with the availability of the electric cars they would charge. This meant fewer parts with less complex tooling required to manufacture them. But instead of compromising the design integrity, we embraced these guidelines. Engineers worked with designers to evolve forms that naturally required less complex tooling, but kept the high-tech and high-quality feel we wanted for the products.  We realized that sharing identical parts between different versions of the final product not only quickened the time to market, but helped establish the different designs as part of a cohesive product family.  We developed simple, intuitive, and reliable solutions to the usability of EV chargers, rather than pursue overly complicated features that could risk schedule challenges in production.  The result was a complete family of well-designed, well-engineered, and on-time products – all due to tight collaboration between design and engineering.

What’s the alternative to this kind of collaboration?  Keeping design and engineering separate, where the pass-off from one to the other is aptly called “throwing it over the wall.”  Designers may enjoy an unhindered blue-sky design process, but they’ll likely be disappointed with what actually gets made.  Without engineers in the design process, there are bound to be some unrealistic features in the concept – and without an understanding of the designers’ intentions and priorities, engineers are likely to compromise the design with changes to meet cost goals.  Some money may have been saved on the engineering and manufacturing – but not enough to offset a product that misses the mark.

Although designers and engineers may each consider the other a pain, they both do their best work when they’re being challenged by each other.  So let’s keep them – happily or not-so-happily – together.