The clock was ticking for design firm Aptec Corp.
Its customer, vacuum-cleaner producer AB Electrolux, wanted to debut a new, sleeker model on cable network QVC Inc. before selling it to retail stores. The show was set to air Sept. 28. It was February when Aptec, a 5-year-old firm in Daytona Beach, Fla., took on the project.
``We had a lofty goal,'' Aptec's chief intelligence officer, Thomas Morris, said Sept. 18 at Plastics Encounter Indianapolis. ``We needed to have 32 injection molds completed and in production in under seven months. This wasn't going to happen unless we worked together as a team with our outside suppliers.''
The collaborative approach is frequently a necessity due to the tight deadlines facing product development groups. Today, according to Aptec Chief Executive Officer Jeff Badovick, many projects that used to take close to three years to complete now must be on store shelves in six to eight months.
``That's absolutely become the standard,'' he said. ``Time to market is the difference between our customers being successful in the marketplace or not.''
Coming up with a novel product in a short time span has led to some novel approaches in design. Start-up company Segway LLC, for instance, worked at a feverish pace to come up with a motorized transportation product that could change how people move from place to place.
Before launching its new Segway Human Transporter, a two-wheel device with gyroscopic controls that allow riders to retain their balance, the Segway team in Manchester, N.H., created some guiding organizational principles, said Ronald Reich, Segway director of mechanical design and release.
The Segway team took as its centerpiece the idea of going fast but expecting to fail, Reich said at Plastics Encounter. In fact, the company decided that the more failures it had, the better its eventual success would be, he said.
The company called it the frog philosophy, Reich said. ``You don't know which ideas are princes until after you kiss a few frogs,'' Reich said. ``There are more frogs than princes. You want some spectacular failures to understand how a product should be made.''
The Segway team also received early involvement from outside suppliers, including Meadville, Pa., injection molder C&J Industries Inc. and materials supplier GE Plastics. Yet, to prevent its idea from being pirated, only a single person at each of its supplier companies knew of the actual product.
The collaborative process succeeded in part because the firms maintained continuous communication, said Eric Sharman, C&J engineering manager and the project liaison with Segway. Mold and material simulations were used simultaneously as the project designs were coming together.
``We would have liked to know more about the project but we knew what we needed to know to get our part of the project accomplished,'' said Sharman, whose company molded the tire/wheel assemblies on the Segway HT.
Now that the product is on the market, the Segway team is looking for new applications. Already, the vehicle has been used by emergency medical technicians at this year's Boston Marathon and by several police departments. Postal services in several cities, including San Francisco and Chandler, Ariz., have used the transporter on a trial basis, Reich said.
That need for speed also became a daunting task at design firm Radius Product Development of Clinton, Mass. The company was asked by Microsoft to develop a new software package for the MacIntosh edition of its Office2001 product. Regular MacIntosh customers had yawned at Microsoft's traditional paper package, said Radius design director Christopher Reinke.
Radius, working with molder and sister company Nypro Inc., set out to prepare an oval plastics housing for the software, making the product smaller and lighter and, most importantly, more attractive, Reinke said.
But the company was faced with creating a novel product quickly that could be made in high volume, Reinke said. Radius, as with Segway, had to unburden itself of traditional design constraints, he said.
Doing that meant moving away from the artier conceits of a traditional design firm, Reinke said. Radius instead focused on larger business matters: lowering development costs, reducing both management and development time, and moving the product onto a fast development track, he said.
The company had only 122 days to come up with a workable design for the software package, made from polycarbonate with some recycled content.
``We had to find ways to do things an independent design firm might ordinarily not do,'' Reinke said. ``A big part of this was communication to the client. We tried to become the segue between all these different silos at a large company.''
The 30-person company set up multidisciplinary teams to cover all aspects of the project. That included industrial design, engineering and manufacturing, Reinke said.
While design continued, the firm conducted an ``eco-analysis'' of materials to come up with the right product that also would have limited environmental impact, a main priority for Microsoft.
The eventual product, coming out late last year, weighs less than half a pound, compared to 21/2 pounds for its paper-backed Office98 software, and can use recycled soft drink bottles or compact-disc cases for the housing. Microsoft has shipped more than 250,000 units of the newly packaged software.
At Aptec, where time constraints were even more pressing, the company used collaborative techniques with its partners to meet deadlines for the new Electrolux vacuum cleaner.
Aptec worked with three mold builders to prepare the 30-plus molds - MSI Mold Builders of Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Stolle Technology Inc. of Winston-Salem, N.C., and a South Korean toolmaker, Badovick said. Electrolux did the majority of the injection molding for the vacuum-cleaner shell at its Bristol, Va., plant, with some help from Beach Mold & Tool Inc.
Aptec set up a hosted Internet site for the project and allowed its partners to review the three-dimensional design work on a real-time, daily basis, Badovick said.
As with Radius, Aptec took on turnkey management of the project, he said. ``That allowed us to eliminate throwing anything over the wall to a partner,'' said Badovick, who had worked for several molding and tooling companies before forming Aptec. ``We didn't want anything that could stall or thwart the production cycle.''
That culture of collaboration truncated time for a project that needed to be completed in months, Morris said.
Sometimes, doing that requires design firms to leave their artistic egos aside and focus on how the product can be manufactured, Morris said. The Electrolux vacuum offers some new curves and shapes to appeal to a hipper, cable-TV-buying audience, Badovick added.
``We had to come up with a completely new design,'' Morris said. ``But we knew that our design was only as good as what would actually end up in the product.''