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issue: May 2006 APPLIANCE Magazine

The Open Door
The Need for Prototyping Insight

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by Jomichael Porter, engineering manager, Ignition, Inc.

No one in product development needs to be told that design cycles are getting shorter, particularly the cycles for consumer products. The rapid obsolescence of technologies, the urge to get the newest, coolest gadget around and the advent of tech gear as fashion have conspired to leave less and less time for the designer, engineer and manufacturer to do their jobs. As a result, clients are less inclined to expend schedule or budget on prototypes. Add to that the increasing reliance on 3-D CAD modeling and the promises of CAD software salespeople, and the need for physical prototypes is eroding in the minds of many. This is an alluring mindset, but it also carries substantial risk.
CAD software builds confidence that interferences will be unlikely, and finite element analysis (FEA) can provide convincing data that structural performance will meet specs. They cannot, however, provide everything a physical model affords. Early in the design process, quick prototyping offers valuable decision-making information, and near the completion of design it can give subtle feedback for fine-tuning the details.
Case in point: A manufacturer came to our firm looking to revitalize an aging product line. They had dramatically improved the software and technology in their home and office control products, but they wanted to develop an iconic package that would showcase their system with understated elegance. There were discussions of touch screens, high-performance LCDs and cosmetic industrial design details, but the trickiest element was the tilt mechanism.
The company’s existing products had a clunky feel, offered limited adjustment positions and required a difficult two-handed operation. To ensure that the final product projected the sophistication the manufacturer wanted, this detail needed to improve the user experience dramatically. Of course, all this improvement had to happen in a compressed development schedule.
The idea for the whole system began with numerous concepts for the appearance, function and system architecture. The team was able to create directions but could not resolve the final vision without understanding that tilt mechanism. A variety of options evolved, and each would have influenced the industrial design differently. No clear winner was emerging.
The importance of getting this right demanded working prototypes, but there was simply no time to build them. With a substantial portion of the schedule consumed, the decision was made to commit an additional two weeks to the design of the tilt. If user interface was that critical, we had to have working models to test.
A flurry of activity produced several crude but effective mockups demonstrating everything from friction hinges to hydraulics to lead screws to cams. Once physical models could be experienced, the design team had an “Aha!” moment, and the definitive choice materialized. By using a friction hinge with asymmetric torque, the tilt mechanism provided the resistance necessary to hold the touch screen stable and free of “bounce” when in use. It also provided effortless adjustment when pulled up to a steeper angle without lifting the base off the table. With this solution in hand, the designers took off running to incorporate the hinge into their concepts.
Up until that point, the design had stalled under the weight of so many tilt options that were not interchangeable within a given concept. This provides a vivid example of the great strength of prototypes that is often overlooked. Not only does it help to prove a design will work, but it also helps identify designs that are less successful. The use of quick prototypes to eliminate undesirable options streamlines the creative process by sharpening the focus of the designer. It further improves development by clearly explaining to the client the reasoning behind design decisions.
Having selected the hinge, the design team could then move forward with the next stage of prototyping—refinement. With the basic architecture set, the team was able to mock up a chassis that allowed quick exchange of hinges. Several base torques and torsion assists were tested to get exactly the right feel. We nailed the mechanism, and the final design solution exceeded the customer’s expectations.
The final test models reflected the exact appearance and function of production units. These verify all aspects of a design before committing to high tooling costs. In addition, they provide the manufacturer the opportunity to run through the assembly process and plan accordingly for the real thing. These prototypes are easier to sell to a client, although the motivation is often to get a model for a trade show rather than any manufacturing safeguard. Whatever the rationale, before production started, the client and the user had a complete sensory experience with the final product.
Product development cycles continue to accelerate to keep up with consumer demand, the efficiency of Asian productivity and the expectations of marketing departments and shareholders. Throughout the process, many seek shortcuts to arrive at launch faster and cheaper, and prototype phases provide an appealing target. As skilled as product developers are, and as helpful as 3-D CAD software has become, nothing can replace the benefits prototyping provides.

About the Author

Jomichael Porter is engineering manager at Ignition, Inc., a human-centered design firm with offices in Dallas, Texas, U.S., Hong Kong and Taiwan. If you would like to contact Porter, e-mail editor@appliance.com.


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