Having worked for a structural foam molder in the Midwest for several years, I know how frustrating it can be to find new opportunities and convert quotes into jobs. The key is to limit the time you spend quoting each job so that you don't get burned.
This process can be even more challenging when industrial designers fax sketches of a new product that hasn't really been designed yet. They can ask a lot of questions, take up a lot of valuable time and demand a quick ballpark quote for a meeting with the client the next day. Very challenging indeed.
As a consultant industrial designer, it's clear to me that processors and designers are united in a common mission - to make excellent products using the most appropriate material and/or process for each specific application. But these two groups often speak different languages or fail to clearly understand each other's needs. Perhaps some dialogue can help.
Knowledgeable designers can conceptualize how a new product could be manufactured, but the client often requires real dollars-and-cents estimates on what each design direction could cost. While the molder may want additional information to generate a more complete quote, that may not be possible at an early stage - with the method of manufacture yet to be chosen, it would simply be a waste of time to design it for the wrong process.
This is why early involvement by the manufacturer is so valuable to the designer.
Designers can help the processor by providing as much information up front as possible - functional requirements, aesthetic requirements, quantities and special features. The better the designer can anticipate those questions and have the answers ready, the more efficiently the processor can receive a quote.
Clearly there is much to be gained from improving communication and understanding between these two communities. When clients hire a design firm to develop a product, they often look to the designer for guidance on choosing a competent processor for their project. Design firms depend on knowing molders that they can work well with and trust to deliver the goods. All parties have a vested interest in the success of the final product.
Of course, there's a catch: The design firm is rarely the one to place the order with the molder. Often the client's purchasing department will want several quotes before choosing the vendor, regardless of the designer's recommendations or how much time a given molder has dedicated to the job. Responsiveness and early design assistance provided by the molder does help to sway the decision for purchasing, but only if the quote is competitive.
There are no guarantees. I remember one molder who, after having gone through several of these ballpark quotes without getting a job, told us he no longer would quote on projects without a signed purchase order from the client. The result? We no longer send him sketches to quote, and we now can offer him one guarantee - that he won't get any new jobs from us in the future.
This is not to say that a molding company should allow itself to be exploited. There is a fine balance between being responsive and helpful, and designing the product free before the job is awarded.
The value-added services that help processors differentiate themselves from the competition often take the form of part-design assistance. These services are invaluable to the designer since each job has its unique challenges and many innovations can come from a collaborative effort. Having an internal process of responding quickly and efficiently to early concepts is a smart choice for processors that wish to remain competitive.
The bottom line is this: You never know where your next job will come from, and the competition is fierce. Industrial designers are creating opportunities through the products they develop. While they depend on molders to manufacture what they design, molders should recognize the value of working with designers in a way that is mutually beneficial.
The Sept. 18 Design Day conference that is part of the Plastics News-organized Plastics Encounter Indianapolis will feature discussions on this valuable relationship between manufacturers and designers, as well as case studies of successful collaborations. Come join the discussion. Who knows, maybe you'll meet an industrial designer who will turn out to be your best partner in this competitive global market.