A Safer Way to Get to Market Fast
OEMs get a higher level of design security with stateside product development, prototyping, and short-run injection molding.
Many of America's large OEMs are now coordinating and managing manufacturers and designers around the globe, a trend that's heightening the need for intellectual property security and enabling the development of new business models. Before the explosion of overseas outsourcing, product development firms handled design, contract manufacturers produced parts, and there was little--if any--crossover in the services provided by the two types of companies. But this once ironclad division of responsibility is becoming less rigid, and it's not unusual today for parts manufacturers to provide design and engineering of parts, or for hybrid product development firms to "bridge" production by handling early-stage, short run manufacturing.
Although offshore manufacturing may fill a need for high-volume production, thousands of companies across the United States still require product development expertise and low-volume production. Many of these companies would rather design and develop a product in the United States, where they can exercise more control over their intellectual property. And once their design is completed, they can get their product to market faster by immediately beginning low-volume production in the states. High-volume manufacturers can also get to market faster by domestically "bridging production" before full production begins overseas. By identifying these needs, Catalyst PDG, Inc.,has been able to offer companies a cost-effective alternative to overseas product development and injection molding, while significantly reducing product development timelines. The Indianapolis, Indiana, company has already made an indelible mark with its new hybrid product development business model.
"One unique thing about our company is that someone can walk in our door with a napkin sketch, which in time we will design and develop in our facility from start to finish, from rough idea to a finished product," says Jack Lawson, president and CEO of Catalyst PDG. "And our vertical integration of services allows us to do the work very quickly while keeping products confidential and intellectual property safe. Many manufacturing companies have to outsource much of their work in areas like design, CAD work, tooling, or prototyping. We specialize in speed-to-market so our clients can get products on store shelves as quickly as possible.
Lawson says that many contract manufacturers end up with a multitude of players in the production cycle, which makes communication and logistics more complicated. "We have designers sitting next to engineers and manufacturing specialists," says Lawson, "which allows us to communicate and solve problems very quickly. It might take other contract manufacturers a couple of weeks to do what we can do in a couple of hours."
A Bridge to High-volume Production Tooling and Molding
Lawson and his business partner and vice president, Dennis Turner, started the company in March of 1999 with four people handling mostly industrial and mechanical product design in a small cottage just south of the city. Today, Catalyst PDG employs about 34 people who work in a variety of capacities. The company recently moved into a 28,000-square-foot office and manufacturing space near the Indianapolis Airport. Half of its business is industrial and mechanical design and prototyping, and the rest consists of in-house rapid tooling, CNC models, and short-run plastic injection molding. Market research, assembly, and packaging are also available as additional value-added services.
Many of the company's clients have requested higher-volume molding. "In the past year, we've doubled the size of our injection molding area to meet the demand for higher-volume manufacturing," Lawson says. "We're now running 10,000 or 20,000 pieces per year for some clients, something we never did in the past. We don't necessarily want to get into the high-production tooling or molding world. We focus more on bridging production between low- and high-volume production runs."
Another trend that Lawson sees is that clients are coming to Catalyst PDG not just for design, but also for aluminum-based rapid tooling--a two- to- three-week turnaround for small parts of average complexity. Catalyst will then begin short runs of injection-molded parts while the client waits 12 to 16 weeks for high-production steel tooling to be built. The process serves as a bridge to production and can produce parts up to 18 inches x 20 inches that allow for side features, undercuts, textures, and high polish options, with tolerances of +/-0.005 inside the tool.
Catalyst PDG has designed and manufactured parts and products for numerous industries, ranging from medical devices to consumer products, military equipment, and sporting goods. The company's projects have also included automotive components, aerospace parts, telecommunications devices, and furniture, to name a few. According to Lawson, serving a diverse portfolio of clients has enabled Catalyst to acquire the type of experience that encourages creativity and innovation, unlike companies that "develop tunnel vision by repeatedly designing and building the same type of products." Better yet, he says, the company is able to apply the knowledge gained in one industry to projects for an entirely different industry, thus helping its clients to "out-think and out-design" their competition.
When Catalyst began its operations, the company was "first and foremost a product design company," according to Lawson, and had no intention of offering rapid tooling or molding. "We found that no matter how fast our design processes went, the client would still have to wait to get high-volume production tooling for plastic parts," Lawson remembered. "We decided it was time to offer rapid tooling and manufacturing solutions to help our clients get products to market even more quickly."
In addition to creating a number of proprietary tooling processes, the product development company has standardized certain production areas for added efficiency. At one time, Catalyst would purchase, from outside vendors, aluminum master-unit die (MUD) bases that had to be cut into a final mold. Because the company had a difficult time getting its bases in less than four to six weeks, it decided to develop its own proprietary system of making standard-sized bases and fitting aluminum inserts into them for the final tooling. Another benefit of this type of rapid tooling was that it could be easily reworked if the client changed the geometry of the part.
"We may not be maximizing our material, but the time we are saving offsets the few hundred extra dollars we spend," Lawson explains. "With our insert molds, we can turn around average parts with moderate complexity and size in only three to four weeks."
From Concept Development to Design Validation
Whether it's given an idea or creating one of its own, Catalyst begins the design process in what it calls the ideation phase. The company usually starts the process by going out in the real world to look at products, materials, and technologies from related and non-related industries for inspiration. What follows is an in-house brainstorming session, where they'll roll out a large piece of paper on the table for designers and engineers to begin sketching. "As we brainstorm, we just start generating concepts on paper, everything from conservative to very 'blue sky' ideas," says Lawson. "We'll usually boil it down to about 20 concepts that we then present to the client, who then narrows it down to their six or seven favorite concepts. At that point, we refine the final six ideas and then go deeper into the development process."
As the concepts become more refined, designers will produce photorealistic renderings (virtual prototypes) for each idea. Ultimately, the client chooses one concept that they like in terms of ergonomics, features, function, color, style, material, and aesthetics. The team then begins to detail each of the parts and assembly for proper fit and function. Catalyst has an added advantage with in-house mechanical engineers--specialists who understand manufacturing processes, tooling, and assembly, as well as the importance of maintaining the design intent. Mechanical designers now create detailed 3D CAD drawings, often using Pro-E and SolidWorks, which are parametric CAD/CAM programs.
In addition to 3D virtual prototyping, Catalyst uses a number of other prototyping and design verification tools, including foam and cast models, resin cast molds, urethane casting, CNC models, stereolithography (SLA), and selective laser sintering (SLS). The company also recently added a Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) machine that builds upon its "speed to market" commitment by enabling fast analysis of prototypes.
"Our team of industrial designers and mechanical engineers has consistently utilized several design validation methods and techniques to ensure fit, function, and finish of proposed designs," said Dennis Turner, co-owner and vice president of Catalyst, in a statement. "Even faster than our standard CNC prototyping, the FDM prototypes will allow the team to design and literally 'print' a prototype from their desk while our customers wait or watch."
A Variety of Design Solutions
One particularly demanding project had the Catalyst team designing diesel engine oil and gas filters. "At first we were overwhelmed; we thought 'Wow, what can we do to make an oil filter look better or work better?'" Lawson recalled. "But after our brainstorming session, we had about 200 different concepts that addressed things like how the filter goes on the car; how it is manufactured, removed, and installed; and adding textures for a better grip, to name a few."
Catalyst collaborated with the client on "voice of the customer" focus groups and research studies. As a result, the company gained an insightful customer perspective that carried over into an award-winning user-friendly product.
Another challenge for Catalyst was to completely redesign a medical device, the ATEC Breast Biopsy and Excision System. According to Lawson, the old design resembled an old-fashioned, roll-around dishwasher, was loud, and did not display the client's commitment to a compassionate and patient-friendly breast biopsy solution.
"Not only did it look antiquated, but it sounded like a leaf blower, which is not good during a delicate medical procedure," Lawson said. "We redesigned the product so that it had a modern, compact look." The redesign included the development of noise-damping components to decrease the noise level. Also, Catalyst's electronics engineer "designed some of the basic electronic components and worked with vendors on the more complex components," Lawson said.
The console that Catalyst designed was more cost-effective to assemble without the large array of sheet metal components. "We made a nice membrane switch panel with the switches hidden behind the panel," says Lawson. "We developed backlit displays, used a quick-connect system for all of the hoses and wires inside, and offered a more simple design for quick assembly. We were able to achieve a more patient-friendly, compassionate design while increasing the speed and efficiency of the overall assembly, which led to overall savings of tens of thousands of dollars with the new design."
Stateside Product Development Has its Advantages
Widespread concerns that intellectual property is not sufficiently protected on an international basis have further challenged the development of new products. Nations in which the costs of production are low seldom have the legal infrastructure that the United States has for protection of trademarks, copyrights, and patents.
"One thing about doing design work in the states is you have a higher level of design protection," says Lawson. "In our company, we operate under a high level of security. Our servers are secured, there is a gatekeeper to enter the building, and certain parts of the building are secured with keypads. All of our employees sign non-disclosure and non-piracy agreements. Since our vertical integration eliminates the need to outsource product development, our customers can feel safe about their intellectual property."
Another benefit of stateside product development is that companies are held to product and environmental safety standards. By contrast, many of the low-cost producing countries have little or no effective environmental, safety, or workplace laws. Recently, toys that were manufactured in China were found to have been tainted with lead paint. "You may have to pay a little more for a product that was designed and developed in the U.S., but it will probably be safer," says Lawson.
Lawson firmly believes that his company represents the future of product development.
"Before a product hits the shelves, future profits are being invested in the development costs," he says. "By reducing the product development timeline, we can help clients gain the competitive advantage by getting their products on the shelf faster than ever before, which ultimately leads to more profit on their bottom line."
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