Design Chain: Keeping the lines of communication well and truly open
By Lou Reade
Posted 8 June 2012
We've heard it a thousand times before: everybody involved in the design of a product, from designer to mouldmaker, should sit around a table before even a pencil has been picked up.
For David Mills, who runs the design agency Haughton Design, getting involved at the early stages is critical for everybody concerned.
"Very early in the process, we talk to the toolmaker, the moulder and even the automation people," he says.
This close collaboration can lead to more creative solutions to product problems. He cites a recent example, for a part that demanded a consistent moulding with no warpage or internal stress.
"We got an additives supplier involved and added a blowing agent to the material," he says.
When the material was injected, the mould fill was slightly short - but the blowing agent helped to expand the material, which completed the filling.
"We lost some aesthetics, but this wasn't important," he says. "The customer wanted function over final finish. The idea for the blowing agent came through the collaboration."
Getting everybody around the table at an early stage builds mutual trust, fosters the sharing of ideas and ensures that clashes between design and manufacture are avoided.
"Industrial designers can get very possessive if a project stays in the design phase for too long," he says. "If they're constantly talking to the moulder, they are more willing to change the design at this early stage - which makes it easier to mould at the end."
This is not to say that designs should deliberately be simplified for the sake of manufacturing. Mills is different to most design agency bosses, in that his background is in manufacturing rather than design. But he says that the designer's flair and creativity must be balanced with practicality.
"Manufacturers sometimes ask for designs that are dead simple to mould, so they can knock out parts like they're shelling peas," he says. "But you need a balance, otherwise you get boring products with no style or aesthetic appeal."
An example might be to avoid using a mould with side cores, which would add cost and complexity to a project. But, says Mills, the effects of a side core mould can be reproduced by taking a pragmatic approach to cost.
Instead of designing a mould with side cores, he suggests using a simple mould with manual inserts. This is more time consuming, but can slash costs.
"In many ways, it can also be more flexible," he says.
Other post-processing operations - traditionally shunned because they are "too expensive" – can also make sense. Drilling holes in a part may sound like a return to the dark ages, but it can be cheaper and more effective than a sophisticated mould that puts the holes in from the start.
In a high volume project, the cost of the mould is minimal next to that of the automation needed for assembly; but for a low volume project, the mould cost is brought into sharp focus - so a simplified mould is often the answer.
"People are becoming more open to using plastics for lower volumes," he says.
He cites a recent example: Terrafix, which was using steel casings for its medical touch screens, did not believe that plastic mouldings were feasible for runs of below 500. Haughton helped it to switch to plastics, which saved around 90% in costs and added plenty of aesthetic appeal.
"The soft aluminium mould was paid off in the first run," says Mills.
This project followed Haughton's usual principles of getting everybody involved. But a failure to communicate has actually benefited the company, because it recently launched a 'design rescue' service.
"We'd been getting quite a lot of work, asking us to help out with designs that were not working," says Mills. "It was usually at the point where a toolmaker let out a scream of horror when they saw what they were being asked to produce."
Pain-free injections sound like a fantastic idea, and it's one that designer Oliver Blackwell has gone some way to solving. In collaboration with David Berger, a former GP, he has designed a device that delivers a tiny shot of anaesthetic before the main injection.
As with many good designs, it has a eureka moment, which dates back to Berger's days as a GP.
"He was treating a patient with HIV, and had just inserted a canula into her arm," says Blackwell. "The patient flinched in pain, and the needle shot out of her arm and pierced the membrane of his glove. It was the worst minute of his life."
Although Berger was fine – the needle had not pierced his skin – the incident illustrated the need to increase patient comfort. The idea of an all-in-one 'pain free' injection was born here and, two years later, is at the design for manufacture stage.
"Patients want less pain, and doctors want to deal with less traumatised patients," says Blackwell.
The device effectively combines two syringes into one: a 'small' syringe injects a tiny amount of anaesthetic, in order to numb the skin; and the 'main' device makes an injection, to administer medicine, or remove blood for analysis, for example.
"The main hurdle was to make sure the device was not twice the length of a standard needle," says Blackman. "It had to handle like a standard syringe."
The device is only marginally longer than a standard device. This is done by having the small needle 'piggyback' on the other.
"The needle of the main device doubles up as the plunger for the small device," he says.
Once the initial injection has been made, it is retracted and locked away – in order to prevent injury from a potentially dirty needle. This is done by twisting clockwise, then pushing forwards by around 20mm.
"By the time that's done, the anaesthetic has taken effect," he says.
The device may sound very high tech, but Blackwell says that it needs to be very simple and very cheap.
"Syringes are made in their billions, so the profit on each is counted in tenths of a penny," he says. "We're trying to make a high tech device with low technology."
Partly for cost reasons, the device is made from the cheapest possible materials: polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) - but they are, of course, medical grades, and the syringes are produced in a cleanroom.
"They're the same materials that are used for canula manufacture," he says.
The device can be pre-filled with a drug, or it might incorporate a sampling syringe, for example for removing blood. In certain cases, there would be no extra syringe at all (if the objective was to fit a canula, for example).
In order to make the device feel 'standard' for the doctor or nurse, the design of each type of device may vary.
"The internal mechanism may differ in each case," he says.
The device has undergone a number of tests, and Blackwell says that anaesthetists have praised its ergonomics. He has been working with Sir Peter Simpson, a past president of the Royal College of Anaesthetists - who suggested some minor changes to the original design.
Blackwell estimates that the device is "90% complete": he is ready to make prototype injection moulded parts, but says that the device needs "refinements".
"We want to try and reduce wall thickness where we can," he says. "Some areas will also need some very clever injection moulding - to produce undercuts and potential living hinges."
He is already speaking with potential development partners in an attempt to bring it to the market.
"Injecting local anaesthetic is already happening, but it's usually done with a separate syringe," he says.
"The novelty here is that our device will do it more safely, with no danger of a needlestick injury."
This article originally appeared in PRW's latest Design Chain supplement. Check out PRW.com for more features from the supplement.
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