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Big picture thinking

Big picture thinking

01/05/2012 | Channel: Technology, Manufacturing

Ben Strutt points towards a pressing need for more inclusive design in the supply chain

As Western markets struggle to recover from stagnant levels of growth, companies are forced to be ever more resourceful in how they drive efficiencies. This perhaps explains why businesses are increasingly turning to the design process to get deeper into the value chain.

Terms like ‘user centred design’ and ‘innovation’ are well established in mainstream business vocabulary. However a term which is less well celebrated, though no less of a route to realising commercial return, is ‘inclusive design’.

The term ‘inclusive design’ can refer to any design practice that aims to encompass as wide a user base as possible in an ‘inclusive’ way: An example might be designing products to be user-friendly for older people as well as younger. However, the sense in which we use the term here is that of designing to ‘include’ consideration of the needs of a number of stakeholders right the way through every valuable stage from designer to user/consumer.

In a recessive economy really successful design is increasingly measured by creative and holistic analysis of, and input to, the full value chain: From savings in material weight with no loss in for example, strength, to enhanced production-line efficiencies, to the development of new commercial models which bring businesses closer to the end user, opportunities are out there to be uncovered and seized.

An inclusive design process begins with identifying the stakeholders. This can often be more difficult than it sounds, particularly where third party dependencies are beyond your immediate visibility and control.

A research phase then focuses on total immersion in the workday, function or process of each stakeholder. It records every task at every stage, meticulously looking for illusive insights that may provide the foundation of an inclusive innovation opportunity. This systematic mapping process can even uncover previously ‘invisible’ stakeholders and functions.

Then it’s time to begin prioritising the needs of each level of the chain and building a graphical map encompassing the diversity of needs to help understand where the value may lie. This is classic gap analysis territory.

Naturally real breakthroughs tend to germinate from areas where there is significant need, but few satisfactory solutions available: This is where working with a creatively experienced and technically diverse team really pays dividends in seeding a variety of onward concept directions.

So what does a successful solution look like?
From concept to shipped product, good design needs to tick numerous boxes. Best practice should include some form of ‘integrity model’ to ensure that the bigger picture leads the detail design and considers how the emerging concept fits with, or will be impacted by a number of jostling factors: enabling technology, the design embodiment, user needs, commercial environment, supply & distribution and brand values are examples.

Whatever the challenge, there is always a viable balance to be struck and savings in cost and the potential to grow sales are more often than not, a natural by-product of a rigorous holistic approach.

Initially unrestricted lateral thinking and concept generation provide the vital foundations for a successful product or service opportunity. However as the idea filtering and subsequent development process begins, it is important to seek stakeholder input at each.

The worst mistake a design team could make is to think manufacturing is someone else’s problem. We recently worked with a global FMCG client for whom cost targets and established global manufacturing processes had little flexibility despite the demands of a breakthrough product which the executive team needed to bring to market. Had the design team not consulted regularly with the client production team from the concept refinement stage of the project the entire downstream programme would have proceeded at high risk.

The other benefit of the modern design process is the diversity of high precision prototyping technologies, which allow the team to test ideas early, and reduce risk quickly and cost effectively. It’s not just products that can be prototyped – assembly lines and new equipment can be similarly risked reduced before major capital commitment is required.

This collaborative client/design team approach really does add value, particularly where territorial variation in capability or local knowledge could impact the outcome: Are the parts available in all territories in which this product will be sold? Does the locale have the skill to assemble them? Is the market for those parts stable, or prone to wild supply fluctuations – what’s the backup plan? While some of these factors might be considered to border into procurement’s territory, a good design house has a responsibility to help integrate downstream value chain enhancements rather than passing this problem down the line to be solved later on, potentially at great expense. Application of ‘Poka-Yoke’ design for assembly and lean manufacture is one obvious example.

Transport and logistics are equally important, and an example of squeezing every last saving out of a logistics scenario might be to start a design project by working backwards from the dimensions of an ISO shipping pallet and doing a thumbnail
calculation of how many boxed products could theoretically fit on it if the team delivered a certain product envelope. Work in the medical and electronics sectors certainly focuses the mind as far as logistics are concerned: Significant changes in temperature, relative humidity or atmospheric pressure, or high risk of shock all present structural packaging issues that require more than the fleeting attention of a standard solution. If a breakthrough product or technology reaches the end user in less-than-optimum condition the entire preceding process has failed. These are all issues that can easily overlooked but remain crucial to optimising the success of a product in market.

As well as saving costs, these sorts of incremental improvements to the overall process can also help reduce carbon footprint. Many global FMCG businesses have set significant sustainability targets for the near future that pivot around huge reductions in carbon footprint and sustainable sourcing of raw materials: And they have to do all this while tailoring product and service solutions to a diversity of localised cultures, regulatory and legislative requirements, and while keeping shareholders happy and consumers motivated through premium product and service experiences. Balancing all that with environmental considerations is quite a design feat.

Move further down the value chain and eventually we arrive at the point of sale, another part of the process that has witnessed significant evolution in recent years.

Relatively recent commercial models such as direct retailing allow companies to avoid the ‘middle man’ costs of retail; you can famously even ‘buy’ a smart car in a vending machine.

However while direct retail is not a ‘one size fits all’ without doubt its most valuable benefit is bringing global businesses closer to their users.

We can say with near-certainly that user needs and the way consumers choose to engage with products and services will continue to evolve, and that manufacturer and retailer margins will continue to be squeezed as costs of production rise. However the option to sacrifice on quality is not a ‘real’ option. The discerning customer hunting a premium experience will sense defeat and vote elsewhere with their hard earned cash. Instead we must be innovative and integrated in our full process approach, looking for small incremental enhancements throughout the value chain to deliver product and service experiences that are truly inclusive of a diversity of stakeholder needs in the widest possible sense.


Ben Strutt

Ben Strutt is head of industrial & product design at Cambridge Design Partnership. A graduate of Northumbria University’s ‘Design for Industry’ course whose alumni include Apple’s Jonathan Ive, and IDEO’s Tim Brown, he has worked in new product development, global innovation and enterprise roles for companies including Dyson, Reebok and Black & Decker. A named inventor on numerous products, including Dyson’s first iconic ‘DC15 Ball’ vacuum cleaner launched in 2005, Ben more recently led a multi-million pound creative programme for North East England which included the development of the Northern Design Centre, opening on Newcastle-Gateshead Quays this Spring, and catalytic management organisation Design Network North.

Cambridge Design Partnership
Cambridge Design Partnership is a consulting company that develops ‘first of a kind’ products in the medical, consumer and cleantech sectors. It combines leading engineering talent with business acumen and a deep understanding of the technical and human needs that drive innovation. Cambridge Design Partnership’s multi-disciplined experts and proven process will benefit any multinational or ambitious company aiming to maximise their return on investment in innovation.

For further information visit www.cambridge-design.co.uk