The final design drawing is the Platonic ideal of a product. After determining every detail, it exists on the page in its most perfect form. The tricky part is preserving that perfection once it heads into manufacturing.
As the owner of your business, you’d probably like to use premium materials in your products, but that is antithetical to the goals of product design. You also have to factor in costs, manufacturing timelines, material performance and dozens of other factors. It may be obvious which materials are ideal, but the point is to balance the ideal choice with the practical one.
It’s tempting to look for shortcuts, but it’s a delicate process. Products have to be affordable and easy to produce, but they also need to be durable and desirable. And, unfortunately, those priorities are often mutually exclusive. As a result, deciding which materials to use is a careful balancing act.
Material selection is further complicated when certain options begin to gain widespread popularity. I’ve witnessed firsthand the explosion of injection-molded EVA foam. It’s not new; in fact, it’s been utilized in the footwear industry for many years. What is new is how these compounds are being developed for other markets – from automotive and medical to fitness and consumer products.
Often, business owners are aware of these materials’ potential but not their real-world performance, which means utilizing them is a gamble. You can’t discount innovations, but you must be certain about the materials you choose.
A design is not a product until it leaves the drawing board. But with so many variables to consider, it’s difficult to feel confident about the materials you choose. A little uncertainty is unavoidable, but by following these steps, it’s simpler to identify the best material available.
1. Examine the material’s property specifications.
These specs are easily available, and they are especially helpful for exploring and understanding new or unfamiliar material options. By examining the baseline capabilities of one material versus another, it’s easy to whittle down the list of options.
At this stage, it’s also helpful to evaluate materials in their raw state. Quality raw materials are not only easier to process, but they create less scrap. Being open-minded about material options at the outset helps you overcome preconceived notions and develop a short list of viable options.
2. Define the priorities of your product.
What will it take for a product to grab consumers’ attention and fly off the shelves? It could be the price point, the performance, the exterior appearance or something else entirely.
In the case of injection-molded EVA foam, durability is one of the characteristics that sets it apart from other foams, which often need a secondary “wrap” to bolster the end product’s durability. Additionally, alternate foams tend to crush under impact and offer no return energy, whereas injection-molded EVA foam provides improved resistance to impact and a spring-back effect.
You want to make your product perfect in every way, but, realistically, most products have just one or two real selling points. Identifying what those are informs what type of materials you should use. After all, if a product looks great on the shelves but falls apart after a few uses, it’s only going to inspire disappointment. And with 88 percent of consumers reading online reviews before buying, it’s important that you chose materials in the context of the end user’s priorities.
3. Run production samples.
Create an initial production sample as quickly as possible after making the initial choices about what materials to use. Once that product exists in three dimensions, it’s clear where and why problems with the materials exist. Conversely, the problem could be with the manufacturing process itself.
Either way, production samples are an important testing ground for a product in its infancy. Specific issues to look for include weak tolerance, surface imperfections, mold lines, shrinkage and warping, or material failure. Finding and resolving these problems early prevents them from becoming insurmountable or irreversible later in the process.
4. Test early and often.
There are many variables to evaluate for each material: tensile strength, tear strength, elongation, split tear strength, compression set, rebound, temperature resistance, accelerated aging, etc. It’s possible to reference this data based on an industrial standard size, but materials are fundamentally transformed when they are turned into parts and products.
Real-world testing is the only way to get accurate and actionable data, and testing should begin as early as possible. Similarly, it should be repeated as products evolve through each iteration. One of the common traps business owners fall into is assuming that some variables stay the same even as other variables change. You must rigorously and repeatedly test your products in order to root out any imperfections.
5. Embody the end user.
You understand your product better than anyone else, but that doesn’t mean your understanding is perfect or unbiased. The nature of the design process makes it easy to lose sight of your larger goal. As a result, entirely avoidable issues with materials carry through into the final product.
As part of your ongoing testing effort, you must enlist independent and objective evaluations. Ideally, actual target users (usually five to 10 people) are the ones doing the testing. Set benchmarks for performance, but other than that, allow them to explore and engage with prototypes according to their own whims.
This type of unguided, hands-on testing is invaluable for identifying product flaws that you’re otherwise unaware of, and it’s something your end users enjoy. According to Label Insight’s 2016 Transparency ROI Study, consumers want to know as much as they can about a product, and more than half (56 percent) said they’d be more loyal to brands that openly provide product information.
6. Weigh risks and rewards.
Unfortunately, extensive testing is not always possible. Some materials require production tooling to be created before test parts can match their final form. And until that happens, effective prototyping is impossible. That forces you to balance the risk of moving forward with an unproven prototype against the risk of investing in tooling that may need to be altered later on – and that process won’t come cheaply.
Both options offer benefits and hazards that are weighted differently, depending on the particulars of the product. You should only consider forgoing testing at any point if you’re supremely confident in the product or design.
7. Consult with the manufacturer.
You can enlist the help of a materials expert, but even the best in the industry lack the expertise of material manufacturers themselves. Throughout the material selection process, the manufacturer is an excellent source for data, ideas, and troubleshooting. This is especially true when working with innovative products or unfamiliar materials. Seek out manufacturers that are eager to serve as consultants and partners, then enlist their help until the final product is where you want it to be.
You can either find the flaws during the product development phase, or you can rush your product to market and let consumers find the flaws themselves. Either way, the problems become apparent, but that doesn’t mean they have to inspire buyer’s remorse. Carefully considering what materials to use ensures that designs become better, not worse, once they debut.