Good architecture blends with its surroundings. Think about how Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater seems to bring a rushing Pennsylvania mountain stream into the home.
So also with good plastic design.
The new Mercury Marine Verado outboard engine cover swept top awards at two recent plastic design contests, with a sleek, rounded look that judges said seems at home on the water. One even said the tall curves of the black nylon engine drew comparisons to a sea horse on steroids.
The engine - introduced at the Miami Boat Show in February - took the Conference Award, the top prize at the Structural Plastics Conference's product design competition, as well as the Industrial Designers Society of America/ Plastics News Design Award. Both were announced March 23 in Charlotte.
``It does from a distance kind of resemble a marine animal,'' said Greg Saul, design director of Tolleson Design in Charlotte. ``You can't find one detail on that engine that's not well-designed.''
Saul was one of three judges for the IDSA/Plastics News award, given to recognize both good, integrated design and the industrial designer in the product development process. As such, the honors go to a trio of Mercury Marine designers - design director John Zebley, who oversaw the project, senior industrial designer John Park and staff industrial designer Ben Burkhart. Different sets of judges pick the winners for the two contests from the same crop of parts entered in the competition of the Society of the Plastics Industry Inc.'s Structural Plastics Conference. Engineers Mitesh Sheth and Tom Walczak played key roles in the project, and CDM Tool & Mfg. Co. of Hartford, Wis., made the tooling.
Besides its visual appeal, the engine also included some technical innovations. DuPont, which supplied the nylon resin, said the top piece on the engine, called the top cowl, is the largest injection molded, glass-reinforced nylon part ever made. It weighs 11 pounds, but that's still about 20 percent less than it would have weighed made from the traditional process Mercury uses, compression molding of sheet molding compound.
The engine cover has to be structurally sound, able to withstand hitting a floating log while traveling at 40 miles an hour, said Zebley in a telephone interview.
Mercury, based in Fond du Lac, Wis., had a lot riding on the Verado, which will retail for about $18,000. As the firm describes it, the massive, four-stroke, 275-horsepower engine is its first supercharged outboard engine for the consumer market. But the vertically integrated, in-line, six-cylinder engine chosen made for an unusually tall design, posing extra challenges, Zebley said.
He said he and his team spent almost 18 months on the design, and wanted to get away from the boxy designs on other Mercury outboards.
``I wanted to take this power and this curving around the back and up out the front, for a real aggressive, powerful look,'' Zebley said. ``I just wanted something that looked like it was in motion.''
Injection molding allowed additional design freedom, giving crisper edges and a high-gloss look on some of the parts out of the mold so they wouldn't have to be painted, he said.
An additional design challenge: The engine had to remain narrow to fit on standard engine docks. At one point, Zebley said, engineers were telling him that the surface couldn't be a single millimeter larger or it wouldn't fit.
The design resulted in a patent for an engine with multiple outer components, or cowls, and having a diagonal split between the upper and lower cowls.
The design of the top cowl also proved popular with attendees of the Structural Plastics Conference, picking up the People's Choice award, as well as the category award in recreation and leisure - giving it four trophies in all.
The total engine weighs about 635 pounds, and the nylon cowls weigh 30 percent less than they would have with SMC. The injection molded cowls also wound up costing 46 percent less than SMC models, Mercury said.
The components are molded by Bemis Manufacturing Co., in Sheboygan Falls, Wis. Jeff Lallensack, a Bemis plastics engineer, said the firms have worked on other projects, and Bemis was involved in the early stages. As a result, Bemis was able to make suggestions with the rear and top cowl components, he said.
``Their designers did a very good job of designing to take manufacturing into account,'' he said.
Saul, one of the IDSA judges, said the Mercury engine looked like designers and manufacturers worked well together. That didn't always come through in other parts they saw, he said.
Glenn Johnson, head of industrial design at B/E Aerospace Inc. in Winston-Salem, N.C., and another of the IDSA judges, said some entries, including one in the business equipment category, bore the imprint of a marketing department: It had parts that seemed to have no real use.
``If any marketing person is going to read this, they should be very careful what they tell designers to do,'' he said. ``They might get it.''
The IDSA judges, none of whom had been to the Structural Plastics Conference before, said they had a hard time picking the winner because they were impressed with the quality of the entries.
Among the other parts that attracted their attention were a tractor engine enclosure for a John Deere machine, a golf cart from the company Club Car Inc. and a set of stylish bottles and serving dishes from Tupperware Corp. (The Tupperware proved so popular, in fact, that a company official reported several of the 11 twisted, blow molded, olive-oil bottles on display were missing and apparently stolen.)
The John Deere tractor attracted attention from the designers for its technical merit, such as using coinjection molding to produce very large parts, and incorporating reground ABS surrounded by high-gloss panels of a virgin polycarbonate/polybutylene terephthalate blend from GE Plastics. Each hood assembly contains 15-20 pounds of recovered or recycled material.
``It's amazing what they're doing and how they're reusing recycled material,'' said Erwin Hani, president of design shop EH Product Development Inc. in Asheville, N.C.
Judges said they liked the golf cart because it was updating more traditional and boxy designs, and because it seemed to be put together well, with clean lines, clever detailing on functional areas such as rain-water channels and good use of ergonomics.
They noted that they tried out products, riding the golf cart and a bicycle and taking a pair of roller blades for a spin to see how they actually worked.
And they noted it was tough to compare parts across the widely disparate entries: They said the Tupperware products would have won if it was purely an aesthetic contest, and they struggled to choose between the Mercury engine and the redesigned Club Car golf cart with its molded, structural-composite underbody. But the superb execution of complex manufacturing and an overall holistic design made the Mercury engine their ultimate choice.
``As industrial designers, we're often in the middle of marketing and engineering,'' Saul said. ``We have to be looking for those engineering innovations that can offer our clients a competitive advantage. ... We were very impressed with the number of products and just the innovation from a manufacturing standpoint.''