Here at 4D Products, we feel the design process falls into 5 major categories;

  1. Research and Concept Development
  2. Detail Design
  3. Prototype and Test
  4. Manufacture Readiness
  5. Marketing Material

Research and Concept Development

One of the most influential and exciting stages of a project happens right at the outset, and this is where the design team really prove their worth. After careful research of the product area and existing competitors, the designers are able to develop a deep understanding of the project and hone in on the key features of the design. At this point, the team creates mood boards where a wide range of existing design features are brought together to present our client with initial ideas about the feel and style which the product could have. Such mood boards tend to focus on specific details, such as material surface finishes, or colour palettes. They offer a great way to develop a general design language for a product, which can then be drawn upon throughout the design stage as a guide.

With the design direction in mind, the team then set to work developing a range of concept designs. These designs typically start with quick hand sketches where a wide range of ideas can be quickly explored. We try to vary the designs such that we present some relatively simple, and easily implementable ideas, but also some more radical ideas which may not previously have been considered, and of course some in between the two! This allows our clients the opportunity to explore a diverse range of options, giving them the best possible choice to pick the design direction which is best for them. With regular communication and feedback between the client and designer, the concepts are gradually filtered and refined to produce a highly resolved design which can then be taken forward into the next stage of the project.  Often our clients choose several designs to take forwards to explore further. These designs are either in the form of high-quality hand sketches (using both pen and paper, and digital sketching tablets) or computer-generated images.

The value of this stage of the process should not be underestimated – often clients come to us with an image in their minds of the final product, and are keen to start straight at the detailed design stage. However, time and time again, when they do choose to go through Stage 1 of our process, they are delighted to be presented with ideas and images of the product which they had never previously considered, ultimately leading to a more exciting final product which wows their customers.

Detailed Design

With a concept design(s) chosen, the design time now begins to develop 3D CAD data. This is a 3D model of the product which is used in both prototyping and also later in manufacture to specify the exact geometry of the design. During this stage, particular focus is paid to details such as internal support features for PCB’s, snap-fits to ensure enclosures can be ‘clipped’ together, and manufacturing considerations such as draft angles to ensure that the product can move smoothly through prototyping to full manufacture without significant changes.

Again, throughout the stage, communication with the client is key to ensure the design is in keeping with their own product vision, and regular feedback and review presentations help the project move forward efficiently.

While manufacturing considerations are always in mind, the initial detailed design stage (Stage 2) is aimed towards prototyping the enclosure using a rapid prototyping technique such as 3D printing or CNC machining. Once the design is ready for such a process, and the client has given their approval, the project then moves onto Stage 3 – Prototype and Test.

Prototype and Test

With the first version of the 3D design approved by the client, the product is prototyped using a suitable rapid prototyping method. For most enclosures, the most cost-effective method initially is 3D printing. This process allows complex geometries to be produced quickly and efficiently enabling key features to be tested such as the fit of internal PCB’s and the functionality of features such as snap-fits and fixtures. One of the key limitations of 3D printing is the availability of production materials – typically 3D prints are produced in a Nylon-based material. This material is very strong and durable, however, it won’t offer the same look and surface finish as a typical production material such as ABS or PC. An alternative option is to use CNC machining where exact production materials and finished can be used however this is a slightly more expensive process and is often used further on in the design process to provide final validation of a design. With an initial prototype, it is common to pick up many improvements to the design, and this is a natural part of the process. A product will typically go through a number of design refinement/prototyping cycles (i.e Stage 2.1, 3.1, 2.2, 3.2) to incrementally improve the design. It is worth noting however that every project is different, and so some simple enclosures may only require 1 or two prototypes, while more complex projects with moving parts and intricate features are likely to require more iterations to reach the desired design.

Testing and improving an enclosure during the prototyping / detailed design cycle is critical for a successful product, and it is important to keep in mind, that making modifications to a product once it has gone to production is a significantly more expensive process. Therefore investment during the detailed design and prototyping stages is never wasted!

Manufacture Readiness

Once a design has been validated through prototyping and testing, it is then time to prepare it for manufacture. This process involves instigating discussions with potential manufacturers – often drawing on our extensive connections within the industry both in the UK and also China. An ongoing discussion with manufacturers is usually established to work through any required modifications to fit with their particular tooling requirements. Throughout the design process, general manufacturing requirements are kept in mind to minimise the changes required at this stage, however, there are invariably minor modifications required specific to each manufacturer to ensure the final product is produced to a high standard, and in the most cost-effective manner.

One critical aspect of this stage is the production of 2D engineering drawings. While some manufacturers, particularly in the far east are sometimes happy to produce parts without engineering drawings, this can often lead to issue further down the line. These issues are primarily due to discrepancies between the manufactured part, and the original 3D data. Without a pre-agreed set of engineering drawings, there is a much-reduced ability to hold the manufacturer to account for the quality of the parts. A full set of engineering drawings allows the part designs to be fully defined, with key dimensions and tolerances specified. For instance, on a drawing, it is possible to define a feature-length within a very fine tolerance (i.e +/- 0.05mm). If the final production part is to fall outside of this range, then the engineering drawing acts as a key measure to hold the manufacturer to account to correct the issue rather than you as the customer having to pay for expensive modifications to tools yourself.

Marketing Material

With your product now on its way to manufacture, now is the time to market it. And what better tool, than a set of high resolution, photo-realistic renders or animations. 4D Products have the tools and expertise available to create such material as per your requirements to really show off your product in its best light. Ranging from still shots to complex moving part animations, this material is great for online marketing applications such as your company website, or through social media channels.

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