Between the worlds of design and manufacturing, there can be a disconnect.
Sometimes, as in the case of furniture maker Herman Miller Inc., the gulf can be between a well-designed product and one that also meets its high environmental standards for materials.
And at other times, as with industrial design and strategic innovation firm IDEO, the chasm is more a matter of communication. When a customer talks about a brand of resin, the designer cannot always decipher the material behind the name, said Kara Johnson director of materials for IDEO, based in Palo Alto, Calif.
``If a [processor] refers to Lexan, we don't always know it's polycarbonate,'' Johnson said during the Plastics News Executive Forum, held Feb. 2-3 in Summerlin. ``We're not certain if it is technologically compatible. There has to be explicit clarity or we don't know what the brand is.''
The Herman Miller and IDEO speakers delivered a brutally honest discussion on the integration of design, materials and manufacturing and how that relates to the finished product. Their words sometimes provoked processors and resin suppliers in the audience, but they also built awareness of how product development bumps against the manufacturing world.
Zeeland, Mich.-based Herman Miller wants to be a steward of the environment, and the company is evaluating many of its future products through an environmental lens. Miller, one of the largest makers of office furniture in North America, started an in-house Design for the Environment program in the late 1990s.
The program is based on the ``cradle to cradle design'' approach fostered by architect William McDonough, which tries to look at all aspects of a product so that it can continue to have benefits for society even after it enters the waste stream.
In the furniture business, the first step was to develop a way to measure sustainability, said Scott Charon, advanced materials and concepts commodity manager.
The assessment process for any product is quite involved. The company evaluates the material chemistry of each part, with an eye toward recycled and renewable content. Miller also identifies all of the chemicals that it considers potentially hazardous.
``We want to know what chemicals are in our products,'' Charon said.
Chemical engineer Gabe Wing said the company creates markers to identify and assess materials for sustainable impact, he said.
``We do this early in design, in the middle of the process and before the launch of the product,'' he said. ``We have about 800 materials identified in our database, based on product disassembly and end-of-life sustainability.''
Materials in the database are identified by color. Green means a material has little environmental hazard and is acceptable for use under the design protocol, Wing said. Yellow means the material is a more moderate hazard but can be used until a ``green'' alternative material is found.
Red means high hazard, and the company will work to phase out that material from future projects, Charon said.
Currently, PVC materials fall in the last category, he said, meaning Herman Miller avoids using that resin where possible. The company also is phasing out formaldehyde for particle-board binders and is looking for better biodegradable materials and packaging options, Charon said.
Herman Miller's new Mirra chair was one of the first to undergo the grueling process, under the guidelines of what is called the McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry systems, co-created by McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart. The chair, launched in 2003, uses no PVC and has a 42 percent recycled content. About 200 materials were screened before the chair was manufactured, Charon said.
The chair has a single-material construction that can be disassembled easily, he said.
``It turned out to be less expensive than the original design, once we got through the process,'' Charon said. ``Using [design-for-the-environment practices] doesn't have to be more expensive for a finished product.''
The company's new design protocols will affect its suppliers. To be eligible for new business, suppliers must participate fully in the process, he said. That will include audits and biannual supplier reviews of how well parts correspond to sustainable design, Charon said. The audit process considers performance, quality and cost factors, as well as commitment to environmental practices, he said.
The work at IDEO is not as environmentally strict as at Herman Miller. But Johnson said the company prefers to use sustainable materials when possible and if directed by customers. But a main goal at the firm is to build continuity and trust with customers, she said.
``We're just seeing a turning point where clients are starting to ask for designs that include sustainability,'' Johnson said.
A more-pressing issue between customers and designers has been the move from commodity-based products to those that are more specialized, Johnson said. A goal in development is to keep the product inexpensive without sacrificing design integrity, she said.
And design must be considered an important ingredient early in a product's development life, she said. ``Design cannot be considered a commodity,'' Johnson said.
Material research and development efforts are focusing on such areas as touch, light and customer reaction, she said. The use of clear plastic, in such products as the iMac computer from Apple Computer Inc., has helped spread that trend, she said.
And the use of warm and cold surfaces on consumer products - potentially mixing plastics with aluminum or another metal - has gained acceptance, she said. So has the use of mirrored plastic surfaces and molded elastomers for a unique feel, Johnson said.
At the same time, IDEO is grappling with a shift in manufacturing. Much of its work has moved offshore, where IDEO also has offices, and that has led to the creation of stronger global networks to serve those markets. Fortunately, for IDEO anyway, design work has not moved to foreign firms along with the manufacturing, Johnson said.
The key for both Herman Miller and IDEO is establishing supplier partnerships, especially as the customer world grows bigger and environmental needs become more paramount, both sets of speakers said.
``We're working much more with [original equipment manufacturers] and contract manufacturers globally,'' she said. ``Designers and engineers have to be part of the project from the start, especially when the location is more remote.''