No Designer Is an Island: Why Collaboration With Manufacturers Is Essential
I learned a lot about the relationship between designers and manufacturers before I even entered the field. My father worked as an architect, and I was often by his side as he went to visit job sites and collaborate with contractors. Even though my father designed the houses, he respected and invited questions, criticisms, and feedback from the builders he relied on. As a result, each finished project was more successful for everyone involved.
At the top level, product design works much the same way. The relationship between the designer and the manufacturer is paramount when you are producing a consumer product. And when we talk about designing and manufacturing truly innovative products where there’s no previous knowledge to fall back upon, that relationship becomes even more important.
Designers dream up an idea, but manufacturers are the ones who actually execute on it. That means both parties must have a shared sense of ownership, open lines of communication, and a commitment to joint problem-solving in the service of mutually beneficial solutions. Otherwise, they’re just compromising each other’s efforts.
The Undervalued Creativity of Manufacturers
Too often, designers think of themselves as the brains and manufacturers as the brawn. But this overlooks the creative contribution of manufacturers and leads directly to inferior products that fall short of their potential.
In practice, manufacturing expertise is invaluable when trying to turn a design drawing into a viable product. Manufacturers have a wealth of experience about the performance of specific materials, the challenges of scale, and the limitations of a production process. Said differently, they know how to turn good ideas into realistic ideas while making the fewest compromises possible.
This expertise, experience, and insight is available to any designer who asks. Unfortunately, too many designers are convinced of the infallibility of their design and overlook this essential asset. When designers command and control manufacturers, rather than communicating and collaborating with them, it’s evident in the final product.
Why Quality Products Require a Fruitful Partnership
Designers and manufacturers cannot work in a vacuum. In fact, they must develop a true partnership if the full cycle of the development process is going to be a success. Partnership leads to shared stakes. And when both designers and manufacturers are equally invested in outcomes, each brings more to the table.
As a longtime product designer, I’ll be the first to admit that manufacturers have been instrumental to my most successful projects. I’ve had manufacturers make suggestions on how to design and execute parts that resulted in a finished product that was superior to the one I was proposing. And because I considered them partners, I was eager to incorporate their insights and observations.
The key to cultivating a fruitful partnership is to acknowledge the unique strengths and weaknesses that both parties possess. Designers often fail to understand how complicated the manufacturing process is and how hard it is to make changes. Manufacturers, for their part, often fail to understand how intentional designers are when creating specs. When both parties have respect for one another’s challenges and pain points, they’re able to collaborate effectively on solutions.
Working Together to Advance Innovation
Innovative programs require more input from both designers and manufacturers. It’s unavoidable that something brand new will have to go through multiple iterations to achieve the right design and the right methods of manufacturing.
In order to make that collaboration productive, it must be lucrative for both parties. Manufacturers make money selling parts and labor. Designers make money selling products. If either party is losing money on a project, it represents a win-lose situation and an unsustainable relationship.
The first and most important element to a productive partnership is giving both parties the time they need to vet each other. Designers must take the time to find a manufacturer who is truthful, transparent, open, and adaptable. Conversely, manufacturers must take the time to evaluate a design and design program before committing to building it.
Time is so essential that a partnership between the designer and the manufacturer should be formalized before the design process even starts. That way, manufacturing insights are factored into the earliest designs, and the manufacturer understands the product and the project goals in-depth.
Designers and manufacturers have the same agenda — to produce products that fly off the shelves. That means effective collaboration has a direct impact on sales figures. Partnership should always be seen as an asset and never as a compromise.
Victor Lazzaro is the resident product development specialist of PopFoam, the leader in the injection molded EVA closed-cell foam process that specializes in complex geometrics. As an independent designer, Victor has been consulting with PopFoam for 16 years and has worked with the company in a number of different applications.