Time to collaborate so we can capitalise on product innovations
Image credit: Dreamstime
The materials and product innovations we need in the future will only happen if the design and engineering industry can transform the way it does business.
There’s always a lot of excitement about new, ‘super’ materials and the latest innovations in plastics. These stories get a lot of press, because in so many ways our futures depend on finding alternative and sustainable materials that don’t deplete resources or pollute the planet. The recent London ‘SuperMaterial’ exhibition explored self-repairing buildings, the true potential of graphene as a game-changing material, electricity-generating materials, and a violin made out of silk for acoustic excellence. Meanwhile, Nasa is exploring the idea of mining raw materials on asteroids in order to 3D-print new materials in space.
These possibilities are all so tantalising and exciting, but many of them remain confined to the laboratory and are not yet in the hands of designers and engineers. So what can design companies, engineers and their clients do right now to help move this forward and be a part of bringing this innovation to market?
There needs to be closer, more long-term collaboration between design engineering companies and their clients to make innovations in materials and technology a reality. But this means fundamentally changing the way that a lot of businesses approach design and engineering.
Clients often approach design companies in reaction to a competitor bringing a new product innovation to market. They want the same product, but at a cheaper price. So, instead of solving problems by making better products and using better materials, design and engineering companies are answering briefs that result in essentially the same product being manufactured, often with poorer quality materials. With this model, the potential for innovation is kept very low and we end up with extremely high volumes of the same product.
Of course, this isn’t the case with all clients and brands. Some do have brilliant approaches to sustainability and innovation, and those who don’t factor these things into their work with design and engineering companies often wish that they could, if budgets allowed. Occasionally my own company gets a brief from a ‘game-changer’ who wants to invest in innovating with new materials or techniques to stand out in their category, but these are few and far between. Design and engineering companies can do more to encourage their clients to invest in innovation and R&D by readjusting their business models and how they work together.
For example, a client with a very limited budget came to us recently and asked for a product that was cheaper than their competitors’ but didn’t perform as well, because they knew they couldn’t have it both ways with the available budget. In this situation, we decided to invest in the product by matching the client’s budget, in return for the manufacturing rights. This allows R&D to happen, because the client isn’t risking any extra budget, which in turn permits a better product, and for both parties and consumers to benefit. It also means that we’re engaged in the project and with the client in a new way, which helps to build trust and a collaborative way of working.
This new model is a turnkey solution, where design and engineering companies can invest in a return on the product that they develop for the client in order to push the product further than it might have been otherwise. We’re doing it with manufacturing. In the past, it may have been by licensing an idea. But licensing an idea doesn’t always work because there is no ongoing relationship between the designer/engineer and their client. The licence fee becomes a static, potentially irritating figure on the bottom line and the ideas that are licensed often haven’t come from serious R&D, but rather a flash of inspiration. Instead, this new way of thinking about it creates a relationship whereby, if sales begin to drop, the designer/engineer could invest their own resources in further R&D to improve the product and increase sales again, earning profit from manufacturing, or the client could invest more money in marketing, or further product development.
One barrier to entry that clients discuss with us is the belief that they are too small to have an R&D department, or don’t have enough budget to invest in product and material innovation. By exploring new ways of working with design and engineering agencies and approaches to doing business, they can potentially have the best of both worlds: ‘free’ R&D and a better product.
In short, companies should start engaging with designers and engineers as soon as they have the thought of “What are we going to do next?” Then they can negotiate a way of working that suits all parties and allows for R&D to take place and a better product to be manufactured. Space-age materials and super-powered plastics are all well and good, but it’s only by creating progressive relationships that we can play our part in shifting the industry towards embracing innovation, research and development.
Austen Miller is senior partner at design and engineering firm 3formDesign (3formdesign.com)