Conair Group Inc. teams spent time observing customer processes to develop the firm's SlimLine compressed-air dryer for injection molders with small throughput needs.
The SlimLine can be mounted on the feed throat of a processing machine.
Each year, observers from the Pittsburgh-based auxiliary equipment maker take research trips to customer sites to watch plant operations. The purpose: to conceptualize potentially new products and services.
Formalized in 2003, the program seeks to identify customer needs and market opportunities.
``Often we spend at least three days in one plant and may visit a sister plant on the same trip,'' said Eric Pitchford, senior industrial designer. ``We need to be there for multiple days. Multiple issues arise on different days.''
Patience can be rewarding. A processing operation may go smoothly and then suddenly deteriorate.
``People are pulling their hair out, and we get to videotape a bad time in the life of a processor,'' said Pitchford, who reports within Conair's marketing department and serves as a liaison with the firm's engineering group.
Conair representatives have been to numerous plants over the years. At the end of each visit, the Conair representatives sit down with the customers for a thorough debriefing.
``They understand we are there to help them,'' he said. ``They trust us and are looking for feedback.''
The SlimLine emerged from visits to four injection molding facilities, mostly in the Midwest, over three months in early 2005. A final design concept went to the engineering group in May 2005.
The design team prepared detailed sketches and wrote manufacturing, packaging and shipping specifications.
``When we do the work upfront with the right specs, the engineer is freed up to build and design the right product'' without as many questions, Pitchford said. A team headed by Wes Sipe, senior mechanical engineer, translated the concept into reality over many months.
Rapid prototypes emerged by September, and the final design was completed a few weeks later. Testing took place in Conair's process development laboratory, which uses molding equipment on consignment.
For the shroud and control cover, Conair chose thermoformed ABS. Kenson Plastics Inc. of Warrendale, Pa., forms the cover.
While the hopper is fabricated of stainless steel, ``we are going outside the bounds of sheet metal to do what our customers desire, all based on observation,'' Pitchford said.
Conair invested in tooling for an aluminum casting that integrates the hopper and dryer in a single unit forming the machine's base.
By investing in tooling for the casting, Conair delayed SlimLine's time to market by about three months but obtained a better product, Pitchford said.
The thermoformed cover and integrated casting form a clamshell that houses the controls and compressed-air mechanisms.
``The integrated design makes the assembly process efficient and reduces the amount of components a customer will have to deal with in the future,'' he said.
SlimLine production began in April at Conair's Franklin, Pa., plant.
At NPE 2006, held June 19-23 in Chicago, Conair displayed five SlimLine models offering hourly throughput rates ranging from 0.5 pound to more than 50 pounds. Prices start at $1,775.
The largest model is 47 inches high, including the built-in hopper, 15 inches wide and 24 inches deep.
Observations from the 2005 customer visits identified other concepts, with some under development now.