Panel highlights designer, vendor relations

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A plastics molder, an engineer and some materials suppliers chipped away recently at the wall that frequently hinders effective communication between designers and manufacturers.

A lively panel session on designer/vendor relations highlighted a June 26 design conference in Chicago, underscoring issues that tend to strain such relationships and offering advice on how to improve two-way communication up and down the supply chain.

Randy L. Stone, regional marketing manager in the Americas for DuPont Dow Elastomers LLC's Engage polyofefin elastomer resins, noted the ``relationship gap'' between designers and materials suppliers. Designers' projects often are small-run, low-volume jobs that run counter to the larger-volume contracts that resin suppliers desire.

Additionally, Stone said, ``We don't talk the same language. A design firm once told us that if we were selling Kentucky Fried Chicken, we'd market it as `hot, dead chicken' '' - technically correct but not particularly appealing.

Mark Schuchardt, Troy, Mich.-based design leader for DuPont Engineering Polymers, suggested that common plastics terms such as ``durometer'' and ``modulus'' don't strike a chord with many designers. ``Tell them they can bend it, twist it,'' he said. ``We try to give designers materials in various shapes and forms - not ISO bars and sample plates.''

Stefan Rasch, director of application development for Arlington, Vt.-based injection molder and contract manufacturer Mack Molding Co., admitted, ``We molders traditionally don't do a good job of calling on designers.'' But Rasch, who plays that key liaison role at Mack, noted the growing importance of improving those relationships. ``I do see a trend that industrial designers are writing contracts with [original equipment manufacturers] to get more of a role in supply chain management.''

Warren Ginn, formerly of Indiana's Fort Wayne Plastics Inc. and now an industrial designer at Integrated Design Systems Inc. in Great Neck, N.Y., moderated the vendor-relationship discussion. He asked how processors and vendors should deal with the challenge of cooperating with designers and prospective customers who want ``ballpark'' estimates on projects, while not falling into the trap of providing an excess of ``free consulting.''

Rasch said Mack Molding applies a limited amount of time and effort to determine ``how real'' the product or concept in question is. ``I also want to know who you're working for,'' he told the audience of mostly designers. ``It's free for the first two or three times, perhaps,'' but after that, he said, Mack draws the line. ``It starts with a dialogue, a relationship, a contract review ... and then it becomes simply a business decision.''

Glenn Beall, president of Glenn Beall Plastics Ltd. and a veteran designer and engineer, said he has worked on both sides of the fence. He said that as a young designer, ``I used the think, `By God, just find me a molder who can do it like I drew it.' '' Now Beall, a member of the Plastics Hall of Fame, has a broader appreciation for all aspects of the business relationship of product creation.

When Ginn stated that consultant designers working for a client are not authorized to sign a purchase order, Beall declared: ``Designers have to grow up and realize that they're a guest at the table. You've got to give something back [in the relationship].'' He also noted that some larger companies have a policy of charging, after a certain point, for non-performing jobs.

Panelist Rick Noller, medical market development manager for resin supplier Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn., suggested industrial designers ``establish relationships with suppliers'' - not just with the sales person, but deeper in the company with someone in research and development.

Ginn said relationship building in both directions is vital. The trend by North American firms to outsource manufacturing to Asia is leading some in Asia to give away design services for free in order to grab new business.

``What's left for us here,'' Ginn said, ``is interaction and customer relationships.'' Designers need to get into the field to listen, observe and see how the customer uses the product. That sort of vital feedback is not something that can be gathered easily via a long-distance relationship, he said.

Beall shared one of his beefs: that part design gets short shrift. He said too much time is spent on the razzle-dazzle of product design, and not enough on part design, which he said is entirely different and is ``meticulous, painstaking work, but very necessary.''

``You must know the material before you finalize the design of the part,'' he stressed. He said U.S. firms tend to overspecify materials in new products, largely to guard against failure or liability concerns, and then they downgrade the resin for cost reasons. They seldom redesign the affected part to take into account the respecified material.

``And people wonder why American products can't compete in the global market,'' he said. ``You missed it right at the beginning!''

Rasch added: ``You can't just look at design. You have to look at process, material, tooling. They're all important. Be open; see how fast you can make it.''

``Global Design Trends,'' held in Chicago during NPE 2003, was organized by the Industrial Designers Society of America and co-presented by Plastics News.