Why You Shouldn’t Rely on a Manufacturer for Your Product Design

Separate the tasks of designing and manufacturing your product, and everyone wins!
A product designer at work.
Bringing a new product to market is always a high-risk endeavour that requires significant investment in both time and capital. At first, it may seem reasonable to rely on a manufacturer to lead the design of your product. We’ll try to uncover why this is usually a bad move.

Role of the designer

A product design often starts with a product specifications document. This normally lists the expected performance metrics, budget, and other top-level requirements.

A good product designer will then use this information to develop the product and focus on meeting the requested metrics in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible. This includes choosing optimal manufacturing techniques for each component in the product.

Regardless of the industry, products are often made using a wide range of manufacturing techniques that can include injection moulding, machining, casting, laser cutting, and many more. It is therefore important to make an unbiased decision regarding which technique is best for a specific part of the mechanical design.

In addition, a good product design firm will start with a comprehensive planning and conceptualization phase, optimize the design with calculations and software, provide testing and prototyping, and other services which save time and money in the long run.

Role of the manufacturer

A manufacturer is employed to fabricate the part or assembly in accordance with a set of supplied drawings.

They can also provide insight into DFM (design for manufacturing) practices with regard to their specific machinery or area of expertise. This information is invaluable early on in the design process, as it can save a lot of time and ensure a smooth transition from design to production. The design engineer should collaborate with manufacturers at early stages and discuss these specific manufacturing issues, but the manufacturers do not typically involve themselves in the product design as a whole.

So why shouldn't you rely on a manufacturer to design your product? At its core, the issue is one of separation of responsibilities - have a professional design team develop the product, and have a professional manufacturing team manufacture the product. Both teams excel in their respective areas to provide the best result without conflicts of interest.

The downsides of manufacturers as designers

Like any other business, a manufacturer is interested in maximizing its own profitability and efficiency.

As such, they do not necessarily have a design firm’s drive to optimize the product for the lowest possible cost.

From the designer’s perspective, this is normally managed by designing parts to be manufactured using methods that make the most sense for the parts function and quantity, and engaging multiple suppliers to see who would provide the right capability, best price, and shortest manufacturing timeline. Relying on a manufacturer for product design affords them far too much leverage and puts the success of the product at risk.

Some of the reasons for this are:

Inefficient use of manufacturing technology

A manufacturer will design a product with the goal of leveraging their specific capabilities; i.e., they will be biased in terms of which manufacturing technology best suits the part. 

Take, for example, a flat connection plate with a few holes in it. This part is very cheap to manufacture using laser or plasma cutting. However, if the manufacturer only has CNC milling machines, they may design the part to be machined instead of outsourcing it to another workshop. As such, the part will be significantly more expensive and take longer to manufacture. This can be true for any number of manufacturing scenarios.

Sub-optimal design

Every manufacturer is an expert at using their specific range of machinery to effectively meet clients’ specifications. However, there is a good chance that their in-house design capabilities are limited.

Even if they have design capability, it does not mean that they have expertise with every technology, and may not fully understand the application, design, and market landscape into which the product is to be deployed.

Ultimately, a manufacturer's design may not meet all the product design performance metrics. Or, the design process might take too long to complete since the manufacturers themselves must first become experts on the product.

Most manufacturers do not regularly design client products, meaning they do not make money from this line of business - as a result, even if they decide to start the design, eventually it will become a nuisance and they will neglect proper design and development tasks. We’ve seen this scenario happen with a number of our clients who then needed to look for a dedicated design team to pick up the pieces.

Intellectual property (IP)

Protecting the intellectual property of a new product design is extremely important to the business of bringing a product to market.

The question of who actually owns the IP is often overlooked in discussions between product designers and manufacturers. Drawings issued with a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) still may not cover the issue of ownership of IP, so relying on a manufacturer to design the product can introduce multiple legal grey areas.

In the worst case, the manufacturer can claim ownership of the design (seeing as they designed it from scratch), and deny you the drawings you need to produce your product.

Even if the manufacturer is not malicious about this issue, using their drawings (which typically feature their title block and logo) to go to another manufacturer can be highly problematic and end in strained relationships.

We aren’t saying that you should give your manufacturer the cold shoulder - on the contrary, your relationship with your manufacturer can make or break your business, and you should work together closely and amicably. But don’t ask them to do something they aren’t set up to do. Bringing in a design team to provide the manufacturer with professional drawings is a win for everyone involved.

Embarking on new product development is an expensive and time-consuming process, and using a manufacturer as a designer may at first seem like an efficient way to minimize both factors. However, this path has significant risks; it can end up costing money and potentially even result in product failure. It is best to separate design from manufacturing. Use an experienced design firm to develop the design and manage the interaction with manufacturers.

To learn how to leverage professional design services to lower the risks involved with product development, reach out and see how Riganelli Design can help!

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