Countries such as China that have built a reputation for low-cost manufacturing now are boosting their design capabilities through major educational efforts.
Historically, design has not been China's strong suit - manufacturers there have a reputation for duplicating existing products, not designing new ones. But some Chinese molders and contract manufacturers have developed their design capabilities to the point where they even offer to design products without charge, to develop a client relationship.
``They realize they need to train people to become new-product designers, rather than [to] copy designs,'' said Bryce Rutter, founder and chief executive officer of Metaphase Design Group Inc. in St. Louis.
Easy global communication is helping the trend: ``Everybody knows everything instantaneously,'' Rutter said.
The Asian role in design, tooling and manufacturing was among topics discussed at the Industrial Designers Society of America 2002 National Conference, held July 20-23 in Monterey.
Original equipment manufacturers want innovative designs and low-cost product offerings, noted Heather Andrus, engineering manager with design firm Altitude Inc. in Somerville, Mass.
``These have been the driver for the trend to send tooling and manufacturing to Asia,'' she said via e-mail. But she emphasized that advances in three-dimensional, computer-aided-design technology have not reached all of Asia.
``We continue to hear horror stories about products ordered in ABS and shipped in styrene, or tooling shops without 3D capabilities who can't read a database and ask for drawings to describe a complex, 3D surface,'' Andrus said.
Praxis Product Design Inc. in Emeryville, Calif., has sent CAD files to China and received ``awful stuff'' in return, said President Neil Goldberg.
In some situations, ``it is clear the people doing the tooling don't even have CAD,'' he said. One shop will make a crude model in the ``worst way possible,'' while ``next door is someone doing it in the most sophisticated and correct way.''
U.S. designers, as a result, are being nudged toward more consulting tasks.
``Someone has to hold it together,'' Goldberg said. ``Industrial design as a field, practice and discipline is going to play that role. We are the ones who can make sure when mistakes happen that you can recover, and make sure they won't happen in the first place.''
Metaphase insists on discussing manufacturing, marketing and other functions in the kickoff meeting of all new products, Rutter said. ``While it sounds intuitively obvious ... so few people do that,'' he said in an interview at the Monterey conference.
Dell Computer Corp. is one OEM that recognizes the importance of close relations with its vendors.
``We are very open with plastic processors,'' said Pedro Alfonso, senior industrial designer with Dell in Round Rock, Texas. ``As soon as we have a concept which we are confident will go into production, we fully engage them.''
Rick Noller, a business development manager with Eastman Chemical Co. in Kingsport, Tenn., agreed.
``Industrial designers are being asked to do more material specification because the big OEMs have cut back their staffs so much,'' Noller said. At the same time, ``design firms are going through the same economic troubles as everyone else.''
Educational programs may help bridge a knowledge gap. Eastman is working with IDSA, domestic design schools and individual design firms to raise awareness of its cellulosic and copolyester plastics.
The idea of designers quarterbacking a project through manufacturing was a popular theme at the IDSA meeting.
``The line between industrial design and product engineering has become very blurry,'' Praxis' Goldberg said.
Praxis' OEM clients contract with molders, assemblers and integrators. That requires Praxis, like many designers, to serve as a communications core.
``The typical industrial design firm 15 years ago was doing front-end and concept work,'' Goldberg said. ``The typical industrial design firm today is an organization that incorporates industrial designers, product designers and mechanical to electronics engineers. It's been a long battle.''
In recognition of the trend, Ideo Product Development added a materials-specification person in Palo Alto, Calif., to educate designers on important material changes and developments.
Other topics raised at the conference included product size, color stabilization and materials for overmolding.
The march toward ever-smaller devices may be ending, Rutter said. Metaphase integrates research, ergonomics and design, often in hand-held products. ``I see a lot of mistakes being made in shrinkage,'' Rutter said. Smaller is not always better ``because the hand is not shrinking. There is a threshold.''
Dell's Alfonso noted that color stabilization has made great strides.
``After being in the computer business for over 19 years, I've seen a drastic improvement in the stabilization of colors throughout the life of a computer - typically four years. Opportunities exist for further improvements as long as they don't interfere with a taboo subject - end-of-life degradation - regrinding or reuse of polymers.''
Noller noted that while additives limit ultraviolet-light degradation, they definitely affect clarity and can affect other polymer physical properties. ``Additives are expensive in molding processes, and they are mixed into the bulk. In sheet applications, UV cap layers can be used to limit the effect on cost.''
Altitude's Andrus expressed frustration with the availability of overmolding materials.
``We have had difficulty sourcing [thermoplastic elastomers that] can be overmolded to common engineering resins,'' Andrus said. ``In particular, translucent resins with flammability characteristics are nearly impossible to find without adding custom additives. Hopefully, the demand for overmold materials will cause more development of these materials.''