When you think about designing a new product, your first thought might be about creating a great device or a great process that will delight future users. But it’s equally important to think about how that product will be manufactured. Product designers refer to this as design for manufacturing, or DFM.
Why is design for manufacturing so important? When done well, DFM prevents quality issues and eliminates manufacturing waste. It de-risks new product development by preventing the costly scenario of learning about manufacturability issues when you’re about to launch.
The goal of DFM is to design a product’s components to be manufactured as efficiently as possible, and ultimately, to design the strongest product. Look at the process story of any long-term, successful product, and you’ll find that early in the design process, a lot of thought went into how it would ultimately be produced.
DFM is the engineering practice of designing products in such a way that optimizes their manufacturing ease and cost.
Designers and engineers share responsibility for DFM, and I’ve found that the approach can take some getting used to for designers. With that in mind, I’ve compiled the basic essentials to help product designers optimize for DFM.
1. Sketch Early and Often
You might intuitively think of sketching as a first step in the product design process. I encourage you to expand your idea of what a sketch is and what mediums are available for sketching.
In addition to pen and paper, consider whiteboards, tablets, rough CAD mockups, even clay, foam, and Lego bricks. The key is to visually communicate your design in order to present ideas, concepts, and challenges to stakeholders and team members.
You’ll want to do this as early as possible. It’s easy for two people to have two completely different pictures in mind. By conveying your ideas in sketch form, you can get quality feedback without confusion and make sure you’re all moving in the same direction.
These early sketches and rough models can also give you an understanding of how many parts you’ll need. That can inform what your CAD master model, or skeleton model, will look like and save you time later on in the process.
2. Start with the Hardest Challenges
It’s natural to start with the things you know or the items that are easy to cross off your list, but there are a few reasons why to first focus on the most complex DFM challenges.
Early on in the product design process, your team will likely have the most energy and creativity. Your communication will likely be at an all-time high. That makes it a great time to solve the hardest challenges.
Early in the process, you probably have fewer artificial, or self-imposed, constraints, which tend to build up over time. After you’ve spent weeks or months working on a model and presenting it to stakeholders, it’s less appealing to go back and make major revisions. So, it’s best to get those complex challenges out of the way early and bake the solutions into your prototypes from the get-go.
Addressing larger design for manufacturing challenges early can also raise red flags that much sooner, giving you more time to develop solutions. For instance, you might realize that you’ll need twelve weeks of lead time for tooling instead of six. It’s better to discover this while you’re still planning your development timeline so you can plan for those extra weeks.
Lastly, by addressing those larger challenges early, you help give your team confidence. It’s nice to know that you have the hardest pieces of the puzzle in place and that it should be smooth sailing from there.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help uncover the hardest design challenges:
- What’s the primary function of the device?
- What are your “must have” requirements?
- Where in your design will you have the most constraints?
- What’s your longest tolerance stack up loop?
3. Don’t Be Afraid of New Processes
Curiosity is baked into our culture at Bresslergroup, so we’re always exploring new technologies, methods, and processes that will save time and money or reduce risk.
It’s important to always choose the most appropriate technology for your product and goals, as opposed to always going with the one that’s most familiar. 3D-printing, for instance, can be a production-level process, but it’s still new enough in the context of manufacturing that many people don’t think to use it for that purpose.
You do need to weigh the intended benefits against the risks of a new process. In general, something you’re less familiar with will carry more risk. Look at the whole picture, and think about entire product life cycle.
The quantity you need will likely influence your final decision, too. If you’re making tens or hundreds of a product, it might make sense to use one familiar process. As your output increases, you might switch to a new or novel process.
4. Find Great Partners
While DFM shifts some of the responsibility for efficient manufacturing to the design team, the manufacturing team still plays a critical role. It’s important to develop strong, long-term relationships with your manufacturing partners. Doing so ultimately helps streamline the design process.
Confidence in vendors makes you more open to new and innovative processes. A high-level of trust allows you to make the most of their expertise. You’ll have more confidence in a trusted vendor’s recommendation and their ability to execute.
This relationship goes both ways. On the design side, it’s important to be honest. Don’t say you’re going to make 10 million units if you only expect to make 10,000. And remain open to feedback from your manufacturing partners.
5. Eliminate Risk
While all product development projects incorporate continual risk reduction, DFM offers an opportunity to reduce risk early in the process. This is important because it’s so much harder and more expensive to make changes closer to launch.
We recommend breaking up your risk into bite-sized pieces — weigh the risk of each design, component, and process. As you do this, don’t rely on tight tolerances. Assuming that parts will not be within tolerance results in a more robust design.
Ask yourself “what if” questions, like what if this component is a half-inch shorter or longer? If the answer to any of these questions is catastrophic failure, then you need to revise your design.
You’ll end up with a stronger design that holds up to the unknowns of the manufacturing process, as well as to general wear and tear once it’s manufactured and out in the world.
6. If It Hasn’t Been Tested, It Doesn’t Work
It’s great if your model makes sense on the computer, but you have to make and test a prototype to know if it will work.
We always plan on completing a series of prototypes and on increasing the fidelity as we move from one level of prototype to the next. While this can require more time upfront, it helps us build confidence in the design and ensures that things will work as intended later in the process.
Give yourself time for prototyping loops. Have a plan for how you’ll prototype and test each part, and consider how that will impact your final design.
7. Always Remember First Principles
It’s important to constantly challenge your assumptions and to avoid creating artificial constraints, those self-imposed limitations we mentioned above.
To do this, break down the original challenge and product specifications into core assumptions using first principles thinking. Then use logical and analogical reasoning to come up with new ideas and solutions.
For instance, when the company Phlex asked us to design swimming goggles with fitness tracking capabilities, we took a step back. What Phlex really wanted was a wearable that could offer fitness tracking to swimmers.
Through user research, we learned that swimmers are fanatically loyal to their preferred brand and model of goggles. We knew that swaying them to try new goggles would be difficult, so we suggested EDGE, a separate fitness tracking device that can be attached to any standard pair of goggles. That was the result of challenging our assumptions and focusing on what Phlex’s founders wanted to achieve.
Fold These Essentials into Your Every Day
The good news is that much of this advice is pretty intuitive. The challenge is introducing them into your everyday product development process.
How will you begin to incorporate these design for manufacturing essentials into your process?