Some original equipment manufacturers, particularly of computers and electronic devices, are beginning to share more aspects of the design function with plastic processors and, in a few cases, outsourcing the work.
However, many large corporations find it hard to delegate control of design, according to telephone interviews with members of the Industrial Designers Society of America and other designers, in advance of the July 14-17 IDSA national conference in Chicago.
The pendulum was moving toward more OEM outsourcing five years ago, but appears to have stabilized, said Anthony Ho, principal with InterDesigns, a Novi, Mich., firm that evaluates conceptual development for venture capitalists.
Corporations embraced outsourcing ``in the heat of downsizing,'' he said.
Until 1997, Ho was director of corporate industrial design at the former Plymouth, Mich., design center of Unisys Corp.
But Pedro M. Alfonso believes OEMs are outsourcing more design work. Alfonso is industrial design manager for the consumer-commercial workstation and peripherals businesses of Dell Computer Corp. in Round Rock, Texas.
Before joining Dell in April 1997, Alfonso was with IBM Corp. for more than 13 years. There, most design work occurred in-house, with IBM outsourcing 10-15 percent under management supervision.
``IBM was starting to outsource more,'' Alfonso said. ``Dell is the opposite.''
A growing minority of industrial design at Dell is in-house, with most work handled at design houses under the direction of Dell managers.
Outsourcing helps Dell handle peak loads efficiently and avoid employee layoffs in slower times, he said.
Founded in 1984, Dell got its first in-house industrial designer 1992. Before that, all design work was outsourced.
``Now there are seven industrial designers, and we are hiring more,'' he said.
Dell's maturing culture is leading the corporation to invest more in design talent, both internally and externally.
Mark Dziersk, vice president of design with Herbst Lazar Bell Inc. in Chicago and IDSA's 1999-2000 president, said he sees OEMs exploring new strategies, but doesn't see a trend toward more outsourcing.
In some cases, parts manufacturers may generate designs for an OEM rather than the OEM inventing from scratch, he said. Still, the major OEMs are ``stringent on keeping control of the design under their auspices,'' Dziersk said.
``Design decisions that are part of a manufacturing responsibility usually are the lowest-priority decisions,'' he said. ``Even at that, it's still a mistake. Design language and the control of it and the impression it gives are vital to your business. [It is] irresponsible to allow that to be executed without any strategy or control.''
He identified the PalmPilot hand-held organizer as one of ``few examples of runaway successes'' of design outsourcing.
Product developer Palo Alto Products International (Pte.) Ltd. created the industrial design, look and feel of PalmPilot and Palm III for Palm Computing, now a division of 3Com Corp.
Extensive OEM design outsourcing is still ``the responsibility of expert design consultants,'' Dziersk said.
``Outsourcing without a strategy is a downside for most businesses,'' he added.
Lunar Design Inc. has found that major electronics OEMs are inviting consultants into the process earlier for conceptual product planning and strategies.
``We are getting involved at an early stage with organizations that have a stronger long-term plan than some of the startups,'' said Kristen Bailey, vice president overseeing the product- branding group at Palo Alto, Calif.-based Lunar.
Clients such as Hewlett-Packard Co., Dell Computer Corp. and Motorola Inc. are ``mature enough in the product-development process to understand design work — they bring us in very early,'' Bailey said.
Younger companies do not always have the luxury of time and tend to scramble more than the established businesses, she said. In general, every project moves more quickly, and Lunar's early interactions help reduce the time-to-market cycle.
Samsung Electronics Co. increased its North American and European design outsourcing in the past 18 months, said Damion Kim, senior designer at Samsung Design America in San Jose, Calif.
The downturn in the Asian economy and internal restructuring spurred outsourcing and reduced internal resources, at least on a temporary basis, he said.
SDA plans to add at least five workers to its internal design team in California.
NCR Corp. has not increased its volume of design work to outside consultants. NCR outsources some entry-level and midlevel servers and retail equipment to contract manufacturer Solectron Corp., but retains design functions.