From Idea to Reality: Secrets of Successful Product Design

Designing a well-planned product design and development process that meets market requirements

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The product design and development pathway—from concept to completion—is seldom smooth or easy. There are numerous considerations, a diverse body of knowledge and a range of creative skills required to successfully develop a winning new product.

This checklist for success is based on more than 35 years of personal experience…and working with many companies, individuals and a range of product markets. The secrets of successful—potentially award-winning—design range from the deceptively simple to highly complex.

Interestingly, product design courses are available in many colleges or universities. MIT offers courses and many colleges offer majors in industrial design or engineering. But I am not aware of any higher educational institution offering product design as a major.

The reasons for this are due to the diversity and complexity of products on the market today. Knowledge and skills required to design a commercial jet, for example, are vastly different from those required to design a rotationally molded tank. It’s virtually impossible for any one individual to amass all the knowledge to properly design this diverse range of products.

However, product design can be segmented into groups based on market commonality and expertise. Examples might include markets such as medical products, floor care products, industrial machinery or toys. Expertise might include electrical engineering, optics, mechanical engineering, or plastics design engineering. Since most mass-produced products include one or more plastics components, some knowledge of plastics materials and processing is an essential part of product design skills. This article will focus primarily on skills associated with rotational molding.

Since the early 1960’s when rotational molding became a viable commercial plastics manufacturing process, thousands of new applications have emerged in diverse markets. The original application for water tanks still represents a significant portion of the overall market in the US and most of the world. But many new products are introduced each year in completely unrelated applications. These new markets have benefited from the process because designers have applied imagination, engineering know-how, and creativity to develop cost-effective new products.

A successful rotationally molded product does not occur by accident or by chance. It requires a well-planned program—from concept to physical product–that will comply with market requirements of price, performance, reliability, safety, appearance and consistent quality.

Desirable products that outsell others in the same market provide more value to their customers. Value is defined as product features at the selling price. Features may include brand name, performance, appearance, reliability or safety. The remainder of this article will discuss these and other factors that should be considered as part of the product design at every stage of development.

It All Begins with an Idea

Product DevelopmentProducts originate with ideas conceived by virtually anyone. Good product ideas are typically based on a market need or a clever marketing plan to create a need. Market demand can be influenced, for example, by lower cost. Perhaps unique benefits are offered by a fresh design alternative. Some product success stories in the rotational molding industry have caused a paradigm shift in their respective markets. These might include water tanks, kayaks, garbage containers, playground equipment and children’s toys.

These markets have grown so large in the past 30 years that many in the industry have forgotten about original materials. Water tanks were once fabricated from steel or wood, kayaks were made of wood/canvas, garbage cans were heavy steel cylinders that always dented, and playgrounds were once limited to austere galvanized steel pipe swing sets and slides.

Imaginative application of rotationally molded plastics literally transformed these markets by exchanging tradition forms with new shapes, colors and uses. These transformations spurred market growth, expanded product line offerings and improved performance and safety. Products such as these realized growths because the applications, designs, cost, performance and features were far more attractive to customers than previous offerings.

The Design Process: Transforming Ideas into Reality

Phase 1: Define the Product Specifications

The critical and most important phase of product design and development is defining and documenting specifications of the essential requirements. Specifications can vary from an abbreviated list of overall requirements to an exacting multi-page document detailing everything from physical and performance characteristics to manufacturing, cost, safety and user parameters.

Additional long-term performance factors must also account for environmental considerations such as operational temperature limitations, creep resistance, chemical exposure, ESCR (Environmental Stress Cracking Resistance), UV, oxidation and fatigue. Long-term considerations are difficult to predict and often require testing guidelines for reliable performance data.

Designers must have an awareness of material behavior, as well as the specific application, to define appropriate tests and test procedures. Although polyethylene accounts for 90 to 95 percent of all rotationally molded products, the material specification is critical to performance, requiring designers to identify specific grades.

In certain applications such as underground septic tanks or above ground water tanks, government standards require products to comply with specific performance standards. In such cases, designers must verify products perform in accordance with these standards utilizing structural simulation software such as finite element analysis. In addition to detailed functional requirements, product specifications might also include appearance standards, ergonomic requirements, color standards and graphics that will have a direct influence on market acceptance.

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