“Keep it real since day one, cause you ain’t promised day two.”
– Lil’ Wayne, Racks on Racks (paraphrased for emphasis)
Last week I finally finished my prototype and reached out to a local injection molding company that I happen to have a connection to. I didn’t do any research, and I had no idea how to go about talking to a manufacturer, but I figured they’d be pretty forgiving since I’ve got an in with them. Turns out I was right and they were very accommodating, even putting me in contact with a guy named Don. Don’s a retired plastics engineer who occasionally dusts his calipers off to help out folks like me. (Aside: Thank the gods for retired professionals. While Don isn’t quite as generous with his skill set as Zatoichi the IP lawyer, I’m definitely realizing that retirees are a boot-strapper’s best friend)
I sent Don some drawings with minimal dimensions (since I don’t know exactly how to craft a tolerance sheet) and exploded views of the Coconest and we had a brief conversation about the design, then he went away to think for a few days.
I got a call back from him last night and we talked for an incredibly informative 30 minutes. His grasp on my design was pretty good in spite of how little information I had given him and he asked me immediately about the silicone part. Did it have to be silicone? Because a tool for injection molding could easily cost $80,000-$90,000…
And here’s where I remembered something very important about precision. I don’t know what I’m talking about, especially when it comes to material science and engineering, but Don was doing me the immense and undeserved courtesy of assuming that I did. This can be very tricky when it comes to imprecision in communication.
Now, I know from working at Cool Gear that when people talk about silicone over-molds, what they’re really talking about usually is food grade TPE, thermoplastic elastomer. This stuff can be injection molded, which makes it much cheaper (silicone is a 2-part thermoset rubber). They have lower temperature ranges and very different material properties, but silicone is a more familiar material, so we tend to default to this language in conversation. Imprecise, but that hardly matters when you’re talking to a layperson.
When you’re talking to a plastics engineer, precision matters a lot.
Which I should be used to. I’ve worked with engineers before on team projects and I just attended the Northeast District IDSA conference, roughly 1/3 of which was devoted to multidisciplinary teams and the tensions that can arise between designers, engineers and business people. One thing that I found very illuminating from the engineer talks was that engineers are taught to be process oriented while designers are taught to be objective oriented. We tend to decide on a solution and then work backwards to figure out how it has to be made. They focus more on how something has to be made, step by step, variable by variable, arriving at a final product which is inherently the sum of its process. Very different approaches, both very important and interconnected, but the source of a lot of tension between the two parties, and the gist of the talk was that you have to realize who you’re talking to and where they’re coming from to have effective communication. Probably a good rule of thumb for life in general.
So we keep going, he asks me questions about the material properties I want, I answer imprecisely, he tells me that’s insane, I re-adjust to be more precise and we move on.
Then he asks me about cost and volume. I told him 20,000 units at first but all of my numbers are kind of based on 100,000, or 2% of my market (what I hope to hit). The volume alters mold cavitation, which makes tool cost go up, but the more units you make (and sell, obviously), the cheaper they are because you amortize the tooling cost over more units. 20,000 is maybe a better low-end market entry, and it’s closer to my break-even point, so it’s important that I at least be able to hit cost at 20,000. So which is it?
Bottom line: Everything. Matters.
Finally, he asks me what manufacturing cost I want to try and hit. I tell him $2.50. He says “It’ll never happen.”
He says it so fast I almost think he’s talking to someone else in the room with him, like he didn’t even have to think about it.
But that’s good, actually! Because this whole process is a spiral, honing in closer and closer to the mark, getting more and more precise as I go. If $2.50 is insane, then I readjust until it isn’t anymore.
It’s also bad, because it means I might have to seriously rethink some things. Difficult things that I thought I had figured out and could leave alone. But after his initial rejection Don softened up a little. It may seem crazy to him, but at least he knows what I’m looking for. Having an idea of my expectations fills in a lot of blanks I’m guessing and gives at least a place to start. My impressions is that when dealing with starry eyed designers like me, it’s a good idea to say “no” and work backwards.
Now who’s being imprecise?
Where I’m at right now, I have a design that I’m mostly happy with (or at least I’m learning what I have to change from living with my prototype), a basic business model and some rough manufacturing numbers, and thus far I’ve been able to maintain my design intention pretty well, but that’s all been in a vacuum When Don gets back to me with a ballpark quote, that may all change. Probably it will change. Products are a balancing act performed by many stake holders – the user, the customer, the manufacturer, etc.. The best products satisfy the needs of each, but there is always compromise. In bigger companies you have physical manifestations of these stakeholders: engineering, design and marketing departments. In my case, it’s just three competing voices in my head.
Obviously my allegiances are to design, and I’m going to do my best to put a product out there that is functionally and formally there. But I know that thinking this way also makes me blind, even closed-minded, about the equally important factors from the other camp.How long will I be able to maintain a perfect vision of design intent? Well actually that’s already gone out the window, as well it should have. I started making changes for the sake of manufacturing months ago and even before that I was considering how this thing would be marketed. There’s really no such thing as “perfect design intent” that ignores factors like manufacturing and marketing and anyone who tells you that you can design in a perfect vacuum is probably not a very successful designer.
Which is part of why I’m doing this all in the first place. The more edge you can cultivate across interrelated fields, the more effective you’ll be in your primary fields
As they say, specialization is for insects