This article is a transcription of episode #7 of IDology - the industrial design podcast by Mindsailors. You can watch the entire episode on YouTube or listen to the audio version on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts.
In this episode Anita Rogoża, who is a designer and researcher at our company, sat down with senior designer and Mindsailors co-founder Rafał Piłat, to talk about different methods of conducting research and design in a product development process.
Anita Rogoża: It's good to see you, Rafał. I would like to first mention that Rafał is here with us to talk a little bit about the R and D process and all the methods that are used in doing that. Rafał is not only the founder of this organization but also a very good colleague of mine. And I hope we won’t drift away toward movie recommendations in the middle of the conversation. So, let's get talking about R and D. Let's start at the very basics: what does R and D stand for?
Rafal Pilat: Research and development. So let's say there are two main phases of product development. One is the research phase, and the other is the development phase. Of course, there are projects that require focusing more on one or the other, but in most cases, at least in the more exploratory projects, researchers are also necessary and cannot be ignored. Even during the pre-design phase, this is something that every designer should actually do to learn more about the product he or she designs.
Anita Rogoża: So it seems that R and D departments are usually a part of big companies, but sometimes those companies decide to outsource them. Do you know the main reasons why it happens?
Rafal Pilat: There are various reasons for that. They may be overbooked with their own projects. They might simply have too many day-to-day tasks to handle and want to outsource them because they cannot rely on their internal team. Or there might be some questions or maybe some fears that the research might be biased because it was handled internally, so someone could push the project in one direction or the other, or simply a lack of knowledge or competence in finding or reaching the specific information. Those might be pretty good reasons to reach out to an external design studio.
Anita Rogoża: For a kind of fresh eye?
Rafal Pilat: Also, some fresh blood in the system.
Anita Rogoża: Good. So, what can be researched or developed? Because projects may be very different from each other. We handle projects from small wearable electronics to industrial machinery. So is there any commonality among those outcomes, or are they always different?
Rafal Pilat: I believe it is always project-dependent because we've had customers come in for knowledge research.They wanted us to explore potential technologies or ideas. And a good example is one of our past clients who reached out to us with their prototype of a catheter and wanted to find out if there were any ways to actually execute a prototype that could be tested on real patients. And they also wanted to know whether this was something that could be manufactured on a larger scale. So our focus was purely on the technical aspects of the manufacturing process. And we wanted to find out and explore different options so that we could simply tell our client if this is something they can do or if changes to the projects would be required to adapt them to new technology.Because there are no other ways to simply manufacture this. So that's definitely one thing that comes to mind in terms of what might be researched. The other type of project challenge that might require detailed research might be related to some mechanical aspects or construction aspects. And to give you an example, we had another medical device, which was a mobile heart sensor. And the specific challenge that brought our client to us was the mounting system for this device, because it was attached to a patient's chest.
And they did have a prototype that was already functional. And during the test with live patients, the patients, especially the elder patients, suffered from chest pain when attaching the device because the force required to attach the device to the bracket that they used was significant. I believe it was a few kilograms in order to attach, especially if you are elderly.If someone pushes your chest inside, it may cause some discomfort. So our challenge in this particular case was to actually come up with an alternative solution to the one that had already been developed by our client and see if we could find something that could be adjusted or used for the specific scenario. And our client also requested that attaching the device be possible with only one hand.
So that was definitely a project that required various prototypes and, let's say, an iterative way of exploring certain mechanisms and finding out whether they would work as expected.
Anita Rogoża: And so, it had to be tested to see if the level of comfort was good enough.
Rafal Pilat: Certainly. And so, we had to make some assumptions. We had to think about potential solutions. We also analyzed solutions that already existed on the market. And in the end, we came up with two different ways that would be compatible with our client's requirements. And our client decided to focus on developing and refining one of the solutions that we proposed. And I'm happy to say that we managed to find a good solution, although I'm sure that there were other ways that this particular problem could be solved as well.
Anita Rogoża: So, it almost sounds like it was before the design process; it was the R and D process, right?
Rafal Pilat: Yes.
Anita Rogoża: So, we have to work around the mechanical solutions and only then proceed further with the design/styling project.
Rafal Pilat: Yes, because this mechanism was basically defining this product or how the product would look, the particular mount that it had would have to be present in the actual product. So it would be very risky to start the design in this particular case with the product itself without actually knowing how it's going to be attached to the mounting bracket. So, in this particular case, before we started working on the actual static side of this product, we had to first find a way to develop the mounting bracket and the method or solution for attaching the device.
Anita Rogoża: Cool.
Rafal Pilat: And I believe another reason for engaging an external design studio for the R&D process is to find or develop a mechanism, method, or something that would allow to bypass an existing patent or solution that cannot be copied without licensing it. So this is something that we can also help with. And we also had similar tasks and challenges in our past projects. For example I remember a project from one of our clients that focused on developing floor drainage systems.
Anita Rogoża: For a trench?
Rafal Pilat: Yes. For a shower cabin. And the difficulty there was a precise regulation, a precise adjustment of the styling cover.
Anita Rogoża: That would suit the bathroom?
Rafal Pilat: Yes. When you equip your bathroom with a floor, the heights vary depending on the type of floor tiles you use, and the drainage system must be adjusted frequently and precisely to allow the water to drain. And that's why we wanted to see whether this was possible. And the challenge there was that almost every other manufacturer in the market had some kind of specific way of addressing this issue. And in almost every case, those solutions or mechanisms were protected by registered patents. And we had to see and develop something that would not infringe on those patents and also solve the very specific problem that the client came to us with. And well, this is a success story because we managed to do that, and our client managed to secure a patent for them. So that was a pretty good reason to come to a studio which could do something like this.
Anita Rogoża: We can see that there are three main groups of types of outcomes that we can expect after the R and D process. We've mentioned knowledge, like looking for a way to manufacture something.
Rafal Pilat: Let's say a technical study or feasibility study.
Anita Rogoża: We can develop a new solution. So, it's more like exploring the mechanisms and stuff like that. And we can also check the patent clearance, or how we can move around on the market, of many already existing products.
Rafal Pilat: That's right.
Anita Rogoża: And as you mentioned, these are the success stories. thanks to the constant evaluation of the goal and having a really good R and D brief as a base. But I know that's not always the story. I think a couple of projects we had in the past were successful in the field of R and D. I remember one of them, and I remember that the stiffing, the R&D brief at the very beginning, was a big issue because it closed almost every door during the proceeding with researching stuff. The project I mentioned was the development of a new type of packaging for carbonated drinks, and on a…
Rafal Pilat: A bottle.
Anita Rogoża: A bottle, yeah. I think sometimes I can be too vague. And we were looking for a new way to manufacture that bottle and make it look like our client wanted it to, but our client chooses the material from the start, so we end up with just one very sophisticated method of producing it with that chosen material and probably miss out on some cool ways we could explore and move that project forward. So maybe you also remember this type of unsuccessful proejct.
Rafal Pilat: Yes. I have one other project in mind. I would say it's somewhat similar in terms of why the outcome might not be successful in regard to our clients' expectations. It was a project aimed at developing an alternative to the wooden planks commonly used for scaffolding on construction sites. And our client's request focused on whether we could use plastic for that or any other type of material that was not wood or metal. So it turned out that it is possible technically, that there are ways of manufacturing such things, and it should not pose any issues. But after careful analysis, it turned out very initially in the project that such a solution would not be, first of all, economically valid because it turned out that current market solutions are really well thought out...
Anita Rogoża: They can also be found in forests.
Rafal Pilat: That's right. That's also eco-friendly. And the other challenge was that they're actually standard norms that specify materials that can be used for such planks. And it turned out that only steel and wood could be used for safety reasons. And for that reason, I would say this project was unsuccessful, because although a prototype was executed and every aspect in terms of forces necessary to say that this particular plank will withstand a force that is actually necessary to make it secure was achieved, it didn’t matter due to the requirements in the market and the standard norms that specify the materials that can be used for that. I would say this project won't be possible to execute and to actually sell such a type of product. Because it would pose a high risk to anyone who would like to use such a product. If anything bad happens, if there's any kind of accident, it might have very strong legal consequences for using such material, which is not according to some kind of norm that was functioning. So in that regard, I would say this is an unsuccessful case of R and D.
Anita Rogoża: Okay. So that might sound quite scary. That R and D process does not always go according to plan. But I believe that some level of elasticity at the beginning can help to make it quite successful. So maybe let's switch to that subject and how to plan successful R&D, because we are moving into very unknown territory with every R&D project. We don't know what we don't know yet. We are exploring, so how to prepare such a process to expect good results.
Rafal Pilat: It's always good to have some kind of assumptions. And we need a starting point to even begin such a process, which I would define as a good design brief with clear milestones or perhaps with clear goals, or at the very least pointing in the direction that we would like to go. Because a brief can be so vague that we don't know what kind of end result we want to achieve, it can be a never-ending story of trying to find a better or different technology that is still in development to address a specific issue. But I would say a well-written brief or project specification would definitely help. So clear goals—whether those are manufacturing-related goals or whether those are functional goals—mean that this specific product has to address this issue, solve this particular issue, or function in this particular way. This would definitely help us. And also, I would say an R&D project is governed by a different set of rules, and a client has to be aware that such projects might not end successfully. So that's one part: educating the clients along the way. And also, I would say such an approach should require such a process; the R&D process requires more flexibility in terms of how the project is developed. So you have to be more agile, let's say, in developing the next iteration. You have to react depending on what was explored along the way, and even sometimes change or modify the goals because they have to be adjusted according to the explored knowledge. Because it's not always clear whether the goal will be reachable in a specific way. So, in such a project, one must keep an open mind, as initial assumptions may need to be changed or modified in order to reach a final compromise.
Anita Rogoża: So, I believe that the most significant difference between the R&D process and the design process is that when we are designing, we have a project brief, almost set-in-stone decisions that are unchangeable throughout the project. And in R and D, it's more about choosing the direction and trying to achieve some qualities that have been planned from the very beginning. So we've mentioned what can be achieved. We mentioned some failures, successes, preparations, and other stuff. But what can be done with the outcome of the R and D process? What can be used for our clients?
Rafal Pilat: Sometimes the R&D process needs to occur before the actual design, so that the knowledge from the research phase might simply be a part of the actual product brief.
So, whether or not this is a solution that can be used in the final product, it may be included in the documentation or project specifications. So definitely, an outcome in the form of knowledge can be applied to a part of the project brief, I would say. A part of the research can also reveal a new idea or a new direction, or maybe one of the elements of the research, or partially the results, can be patented because the solution we come up with might be original or might be something that our client can use to secure a patent for them. And that was also the case in a few of our projects that we completed, because new original ways were developed in the process, and no one before had come up with such solutions. So that is definitely a strong point for our clients in terms of competing with other similar types of products. So I would say that's a very tangible result of the research phase.
Anita Rogoża: And I can also recall that during the first case we've talked about, we helped our client push the business further because we helped them find a way to manufacture their product, look for new investors, for example, and develop their business.
Rafal Pilat: Because the idea was that they were prepared for the possibility that there might not be an existing technology that would allow them to do rapid prototyping and test various iterations of their products. They had this in mind. As a result of this particular research, we gave them a solution for this case and also for actually manufacturing a larger scale of those devices. So depending on the research result, I would say that this project would either go further or might have been canceled altogether.
Anita Rogoża: That's a lot of stuff. Any advice while starting on how not to get overwhelmed when you've never done that before?
Rafal Pilat: I think it's always good to keep in mind that especially research and development projects are time-consuming projects, and planning or keeping any specific timeframe might be hard if this is something to be explored, if, for instance, there is no other way or similar solution existing in the market, because it actually pushes us into a direction or a mode that has to be international, exploratory, and often identifies solutions that are not the correct ones for addressing certain issues. So, if you're a client, always keep in mind and take the risk factor into account that a research phase might not always be successful or that a research phase can influence the actual scope of the larger projects that you have in mind. So that's definitely something to remember. Especially if there are budget constraints or time constraints, which are often present in every project.
Anita Rogoża: Basically, with clients who are open-minded and flexible,
Rafal Pilat: Yes, flexibility.
Anita Rogoża: Flexibility can help you gain much from the research and development phase. And as our conversation shows, it can have a place in a different part of the life cycle of the developing product; it can be used as a pre-design phase. It can be used to improve something that already exists, or it can be used to implement production.
Rafal Pilat: That's right. Treat it as an investment rather than an expenditure.
Rafal Pilat is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Mindsailors, an awarded industrial design company, with over 15 years of experience as a designer himself.
Anita Rogoża is a researcher & designer at Mindsailors. Her priority is on making functional designs that are both user and environment friendly.
IDology #7 - Research and development methods in product development
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