4. Seat Design Case Study:
The Project Intro:
I sat there in the meeting trying to figure out how in the world we were going to add all this additional content to our customers seats, test it, and launch it in less than half the time frame we were given to execute a typical program.
I thought “let someone else figure it out…and I’ll follow the lead.” To my shock, that someone else was me. I was given the task to lead the program leveraging Industrial Design, Foam/Trim, Structures, to Validation and Manufacturing. Where I work, we make car seats for the automotive industry and there are several complexities involved in manufacturing seats. I had a smaller project before which took me 18 months to complete and we needed every bit of that time. This was quite a larger scope and I couldn’t hide my initial nervousness. We had to redesign the back foam pad, new trim covers, add an airbag, adjustable HR from a fixed design, pass some new federal regulations, and make sure this seat looked better than its predecessor.
Our initial review for the scope of the program and delivery date seemed pretty discouraging. Not because we could not do it but because it was a high pressure, intensely compressed program that required us to nail so many design guidelines in a short amount of time. Typical program timeframe for this content level was around 2 years. We had 10 months!
Coming to Grips with Reality:
So the first thing that happened was ….panic! I had no idea what I was going to do and most of the feedback for completing the project in time from others was more in tune with “good luck with that one!”
It was an old truck and it had not been updated in a decade or so but federal requirements for 2010 dictated certain requirements be met by law. After I calmed down a bit, I collected my thoughts and started with the problem statement and looked at what needed to be done in the short amount of time. We did not have time to re-invent the wheel for several components. We had enough to worry about as it was.
Assembling a solid Team for Flawless Execution:
We had to have a feasible idea and nail it from the start. The only way for this to work was to assemble the team together and get I.D., Manufacturing, Structural Engineering, Quality, and Foam/Trim involved working together from the beginning. I reminded the team about our time constraints and lack of development time. Essentially we would have to go from mockup testing to full production as we had no time for prototypes. I had a design studio background so I wanted to make sure the seat fulfilled our aesthetic and craftsmanship obligations as well. That was paramount as the previous design needed a lot of updates in terms of looks and poor craftsmanship. We needed to ensure the customer was in a solid position in regards to safety and comfort. After all, the end user is going to assume that the seat is indeed safe and is only going to be concerned with comfort and looks.
Leveraging my Creative Expertise:
In order to come up with different proposals and evaluate the feasibility of our design, I started to create sections through the seat on the computer that emulated the aesthetics from our sketches. I would re-construct the curves to get close to our aesthetics and still meet our packaging requirements for optimal manufacturing. In parallel I looked at the changes that our structure would need in order to package the new content.
I conducted some research to understand which items could be used as “carryover” design to reduce our development time and costs. After we found a solution, our structures group completed the design making adjustments to suit certain craftsmanship concerns.
Communicating with the design studio at the OEM was no problem as I was “multi-lingual” from a design perspective as well as engineering. Along with our industrial designer and studio engineer, we were able to communicate the aesthetic intent and make sure we had a balance between the aesthetics and engineering requirements. Bottom line, our customer knew we respected the design integrity of their product. After some preliminary packaging work on my end, our studio completed the necessary feasibility work for our engineering department to complete the final CAD models.
Respecting the merits of other Disciplines:
To re-iterate, understanding how a particular group process works and giving it due respect is key to executing efficiently. I knew exactly what our I.D. team needed in order to execute. Instead of going back and forth with interpretation, communication was steady and effortless.
The advantage of compressed timing, however, enabled us to make decisions quickly. We had much at stake without having to burden the project with unnecessary tasks.
Finalizing the Design and preparing for Manufacturing:
After working on the final theme sketches and renderings (courtesy of our design dept), we created a rough mockup of the seat to calculate mass and conduct a safety test to give us a direction and predict the seat’s performance. We made some tweaks for the next few months before finalizing the structure, trim patterns, and seat foam designs.
Around the 4th month we had prototype seats that were ready for builds. It took a few more months to iron out all the assembly issues, get approval from the customer Studio, and kick off production tooling. This was pretty scary as we only had a couple of mockup samples to indicate the overall performance. However, I did a lot of homework prior to this, assessing the performance of the previous model year seat and predict future performance based on the design changes we made.
By the 8th month, we had our first customer reviews at the manufacturing plant and we got terrific feedback from our customer who felt all programs should be executed in this manner. At the 10th month we were ready to launch for production. Not only did we meet their timing but we also exceeded their expectations for craftsmanship and safety as well! It’s one of the few times our customers had nothing to complain about and we received a lot of recognition for executing efficiently on several different levels.
Initially, I was not convinced that my studio background would be of any importance in my new role as an engineer. When I first made the switch from Design Studio to Engineering years prior to this experience, I literally had to divorce myself from my studio experiences and concentrate on understanding the engineering deliverables before figuring out how to integrate the process. I had to go through a couple of launch programs before being handed my own program to run on my own.
Those programs were extremely tough and “broke” me into the reality of what it took to get a product launched. It was hard work and a real eye opener! I had a tremendous amount of respect for our engineering department. When I worked in the Studio, I was constantly frustrated with what I felt to be an engineering team’s lack of understanding and respect for Industrial Design. However, this conflict started to make sense to me because design did not understand engineering’s rationale and scope of our deliverables. You don’t realize it until you live the experience by working in the trenches.
One thing was clear. I had to excel and accept the fact that I was no longer part of the Studio. If I wanted to figure out a way to integrate disciplines, then I had to embrace the engineering process and earn my stripes as an engineer.
5. The Quest to Integrate Disciplines:
When I graduated from college, my father used to tell me that I needed to write an article about the benefits of integrating design and engineering. After graduating from college, I felt that I did not know enough about the real world in order to write about it. Heck, I still did not know when or how I would use my Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer classes.
Though college affords you the basics and fundamental knowledge to think and solve problems, the practical solutions necessary to manufacture your ideas and bring them to reality are never truly understood until you land a job and work. Whether you attend school for industrial design or engineering, solutions for theoretical problems become the norm and only give you a small picture into the problem solving process.
After graduating, with my dual degree, I ended up landing a dream job of working in an automotive interiors studio. The studio environment was special. We had our own ways of designing and developing interesting ideas and value add products for our customers. I worked on production programs and Autoshow properties. The unique part of our workflow was having not only design and engineering, but studio engineers that facilitated the need to rationalize the concepts from our designers.
I started off as a studio engineer, sketching out ideas and helping our designers adhere to the engineering constraints and packaging dictated by the customer and engineering department. We enjoyed working with each other though our engineering department still felt that we were living in a fantasy land.
After 14 years in the auto industry, conflicts still persist between design and engineering. We still have conflict and lack of understanding between the disciplines and to some extent, a lack of respect to each other’s profession. Perhaps it is the by-product of the automobile culture of doing business to deliver under compressed timing.
However, I must say that without my experiences in the studio and the engineering department, it would have been very difficult for me to execute the 10 month program in that time frame without catastrophic results. Bottom line is that you must care about the value that each discipline brings to execute a product and know enough about each process in order to deliver.
Often times, we talk about innovation, which I fear, has become another overused term….similar to “green.”
What exactly is “innovation?” Is innovating strictly bringing about cool ideas that are envisioned by designers? Can a new process that optimizes efficiency be considered innovation?
I think it is fair to point out that certain things are beyond your control. This includes how companies work at the macro level. There will never be enough time to complete a project and you must always find a way to prioritize your tasks and execute within the time constraint. That said, there are certain principles and ideas that can be incorporated during the refinement phase of the product lifecycle.
Let’s check them out in the next section to understand where the potential gaps are and whether there are opportunities to help close them.
6. The Product Life Cycle:
There are typically 4 phases to the product cycle:
1. Phase 1 – Ideation and Development Phase – This phase constitutes product definition and market segment. You must ask yourself the following questions:
a. What is the product and function?
b. Whom is the product for?
c. Does it satisfy a particular need or solve a particular problem for the market segment?
d. Have you benchmarked similar products out there?
e. How will your product be different and set itself apart from the others?
f. Is your design safe and robust?(if safety is a consideration)
2. Phase 2 – Product Feasibility and Design – Once you finish the ideation stage and solidify an underlying theme for a compelling design that
satisfies and answers the questions above, you will need engineering and manufacturing input. In the automotive world of creating interiors, this comes in the form of packaging components, working with suppliers, and working out the design details to ensure a solid, quality product. The end of this stage will require finished Class A surfaces, engineering CAD models and drawings from which the manufacturer will need in order to make the product. Material choices and components should all be selected and approved at this point.
3. Phase 3 – Prototype Release – Once feasibility has been assessed via CAD and mockups, CAD data and drawings will need to be completed for prototype release after which testing will occur. Testing is usually dictated by the customer requirements or if your company happens to be the OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer), you will conduct tests to your own specifications. If this is a new product, then more time needs to be taken to understand the product usage and develop a test plan to ensure quality optimization. Though prototype tooling and part costs can be expensive, they are intended to minimize any risks and potential disasters during production launch.
4. Phase 4 – Production Release – Assuming that prototype testing passes with flying colors, you can release for final production. Any refinements to the design as a result of testing would have to be performed and executed during Phase 3.
This is the typical product cycle that is probably similar to product design though product design runs at a fraction of our automotive lifecycle timeframe.
For the 10 month program, we sort of combined Phase 1 and 2, skipped 3, and went on to Phase 4!
Now back to our original conundrum regarding conflict resolution between the visionary designers vs. the pragmatic engineers. Phase 2 is usually where the conflict arises and the balance between theme retention and manufacturing must be ultimately resolved.
The word “conflict” will be in question here. Conflict usually arises due to several factors in the development cycle. Each profession has a job to do and must be focused on producing results that affect the bottom line which is creating a top notch seat that exceeds customers’ expectations. The engineer and manufacturer must ensure they have enough time to address all the concerns from a technical and safety perspective, ensuring the product functions to optimal levels and manufacturing must make sure they can produce the parts consistently.
The typical industrial designer works with the engineering team to ensure guidelines are being met but is more concerned with pushing the boundaries of design. They rarely get involved with plant visits and other engineering deliverables.
Continued in part 3.. soon to be published
About the author: Arvind Ramkrishna is the creator of the inspirational Automotive Art and Design blog Driven Mavens
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