We came across a very sad case recently. Fripp Design is constantly approached by Inventors with what they consider to be the product that will make their fortune. We like to think we are honest enough that, if we consider that the idea is likely to be a commercial failure, we don’t get involved with the project.
It is a shame not everyone else thinks that way.
This guy had developed a new product which, in itself, is very clever. The thing is; it doesn’t solve a problem, it is difficult to understand and, worse still, the industry it is aimed at would see a reduction in their revenues and this product needs the support of that industry to get to market.
We could see this straight away but this chap had spent £35,000 of his life savings in getting various patent attorneys to protect the idea worldwide. He was under the illusion that patents were granted to products that had a commercial value. Sadly the paper the patent is printed on is worth more.
We could register a patent for a blow up dart board, yet it would have no commercial value at all! Protecting an idea is important only if somebody is likely to copy it. And to want to copy it, it must have commercial value.
We’ve all been to the cinema and been bombarded with the reasons why copyright piracy is a crime; but there is another consequence of software piracy too.
Fripp Design is constantly bidding for projects where ‘competitors’ undercut us by offering ridiculously low prices and the clients ask us; how do they do it and why are we not as cheap?
The answer comes in how you define the competition! We at Fripp Design only use fully licensed and legal copies of high value software programs from the likes of Autodesk, Solidworks etc. Sadly, these programs are freely available off the Internet; you can download copies of Solidworks with a ‘crack code’ and you are, in effect, competing with legitimate design companies like Fripp Design. If they are using illegal software, it is likely not to be up to date which could have consequences in the design process.
Fripp Design would like to see greater emphasis from the major software vendors in eliminating this practice. We understand that to keep the software feature rich, so we can deliver exceptional design capability to our clients, comes at a price. However, it is very frustrating that part of that price is the ‘write off’ value of piracy which we, as paying clients, pay for…we are in effect subsidising these low cost ‘competitors’ to compete with us!
We believe that software vendors should not to accept the piracy write off and make their software more secure. In that way, they and legitimate customers benefit.
Fripp Design are regularly approached about student placements, which we always have to decline (see our earlier blog on this subject). But it has got us thinking about the role of Universities in supporting student placements.
As the global economy is in recession right now, is it right for Universities to be offering sandwich courses when placement places are not guaranteed? For employers, the challenge is the time required to manage the placement and, at what commercial value it brings them in the short term given the difficult and uncertain economic climate?
Surely a much better approach is for Universities to work with local employers; planning industrial placements? We would suggest going even one step further; as the Universities are funded by students; shouldn’t there be an obligation on the Universities to provide funding to employers to support the students in their placements?
We at Fripp are firm believers in education; however we think there needs to be much greater co-ordination between Universities and employers where the University if offering a sandwich based degree course.
This morning (Tuesday 24th February) there was an article on the BBC Breakfast programme about the Government’s plan to expand the number of Apprentice places in the UK. There was some criticism that Apprenticeships were a method for the Government to manipulate the unemployment numbers and for employers to get staff on the cheap.
Fripp Design has had some involvement in modern Engineering Apprenticeships through the Engineering diploma being piloted in our region. Through meetings with various employers, it is very clear that Engineering Companies are desperately short of quality trained staff and welcome the opportunity to provide modern apprenticeships to people who want to learn a skilled trade. Certainly, in engineering, the idea that Apprenticeships are a way of getting cheap labour cannot be further from the truth. Engineering is a highly skilled profession requiring significant investment in time and money by employers, ensuring the apprentice has the skills needed to do a highly skilled job. For employers, there are risks; at the end of the Apprenticeship, an apprentice is free to leave and take his/her skills to another employer.
We understand the publics concern when the Government talks about apprenticeships in office administration and other ‘lower skilled’ jobs; there is a danger that we do devalue the term ‘Engineer’ as we already have done in this country compared to doctors, accountants, solicitors etc; something we believe should and needs to be avoided.
However a modern Apprenticeship in a highly skilled profession is something we should all welcome and everyone needs to understand that an apprenticeship is a partnership of mutual benefit to both employer and employees.
Whenever we quote for a design project, we always break it down into individual components and explain to the client the various stages involved. We do this as we feel it is important to engage the client in the process so they have ownership of the design as it develops.
The first stage for us, before we consider any form of designing is basic, old fashioned and, in some circumstances, mundane research!
For us, we need to immerse ourselves in the world of our client and our client’s clients. We need to understand the motivators behind our client’s clients’ purchasing decisions. We need to understand what/where/how our clients will gain a competitive advantage through our Product Design. We need to know what the design trends are, what materials are available to us, what new, innovative manufacturing techniques might work and how best to get our clients a return on their investment.
In our proposals, we always break down the time involved in each part of the Product Design project as we believe in being transparent with our clients. The challenge comes when the client tells us that they have already done their own research and ‘know what they want’ and how to respond to this!
There are occasions when this works out fine as the research covers research specific to the Product Design; however it is more common for the research to be market related research rather than product related research (if this makes sense). Maybe we need to explain this better in our proposals or accept that the language of Product Design research is too difficult to quantify? Whichever it is, there is a fundamental point of principle; nobody would build a house without the foundations so why would anyone commission a product design company to design a new product without doing a thorough job in the initial research stage?
Related to this is the subject of inventors who go down the Patent route without first talking to a Product Design company…we’re saving that for another day!
As product designers we are constantly being approached by individuals and companies alike about new product ideas (rather than new product designs). The first thing we always ask is ‘do you have any patent and/or design protection on the idea?’ If the answer is yes, then the client is free to disclose information to us. If they don’t have any protection, then we simply say ‘don’t tell us anything more until we have a non disclosure agreement (NDA) in place?’
The reason we do this is pretty straight forward. If something is in the public domain and has not been protected, then it is now considered to be available to anyone to use and is almost impossible to, then, protect (there is something else known as prior art; but you need to speak to a patent attorney about this).
So an NDA is simply an acknowledgement that two parties agree to share information ‘in private’ i.e. it is not available to the general public.
We have, what is referred to as, a mutual NDA i.e. the privacy works both ways i.e. anything you disclose to us, we’re bound to keep secret and anything we disclose to you bounds you to secrecy too.
Be aware, an NDA has to have a cut off date i.e. where the secrecy finishes; they cannot go on forever (apparently it’s to do with contract law…a contract by its very definition has to have an end date otherwise its not a contract); our NDA has a 3 year limit as we feel if neither side has exploited the opportunity in that time scale, then the idea is unlikely to succeed anyway.
There are a number of ‘off the shelf’ NDAs available on the web now so don’t feel you need to engage the services of a lawyer to be able to demonstrate that your idea is not in the public domain. Although NDAs have consequences for a breach; we’ve never come across any occasion where this has been enforced.
Fripp Design resell 3D Printers for ZCorp in the US. “What is a 3D Printer and why would you want one at home?” we hear you say.
An ink jet printer is a 2D Printer…it prints ink onto a two dimensional piece of paper. Now imagine, rather than paper, you have a 2 dimensional piece of fine powder and, rather than ink, coloured glue to bind to the powder. Imagine then moving the powder down one grain width i.e. the thickness of the powder grain, sweeping another 2 dimensional layer of powder over the original layer of powder. You then ‘print’ the coloured glue onto this layer, move it down, sweep in another layer and repeat again and again, building up a 3D model as you go along…hope this explains the principle (there are many other ways of doing 3D printing; this is the method ZCorp use).
Many of the manufacturers are crystal ball gazing and looking to a future where 3D printers cost no more than a 2D printer (at the moment they cost £10K+) but why? Well they believe that, in the future, you won’t go to a toy store to buy model cars/planes etc, you’ll download a file and print on your home printer. If you need a spare part for your consumer product, you’ll download a file and print on your 3D printer at home…and so on.
Sounds good? Yes, but there are lots of issues. How do you provide warranties, how do you know if a child is downloading a toy file which is not fit for their age (thinking toddlers downloading small toy soldiers etc)? How do you guarantee the right quality?
At the end of the day, the worse thing that happens when you print on a 2D printer is you are sued for deformation of character…with a 3D Printer the lawyers will have a field day. Don’t get us wrong, we’d love to buy a 3D printer at 2D printer pricing…but it is unlikely ever to happen.
We have recently taken part in a public procurement exercise to provide consultancy service to UK manufacturers and this got us thinking.
Why does anyone bother with Product Design (other than the obvious one, you need some sort of product or you’ve got nothing to offer customers; I guess what were really saying why bother with Product REDESIGN). Another way of asking the same question is; where does product design fit in with a company’s strategy and how does design give a company a competitive advantage?
Here are some thoughts and ideas of where Product Design is part of (or should be part of) a company’s overall competitive strategy:
1) You cannot make a customer buy from you but you can control and reduce your costs
2) If you operate in a competitive mature market, price becomes a key tool in your sales tactics and pricing is a function of cost and cost is a function of Product Design
3) If you can streamline the logistics of getting your product made and getting it to market; you will gain a competitive advantage and getting a product made is a function of Product Design
4) Reducing the time it takes to get things made will give you a competitive advantage (lower cost and faster delivery); getting things made is an output from your Product Design
5) If you can design your product with fewer components; you reduce costs and gain that time advantage; reducing component count is a function of Product Design
6) If you operate in a FMCG business where design is fashionable, you want to get new products out on time and on budget to make sure you keep customer loyalty; the timely delivery of new products is a function of the Product Design itself
When engaging with a client, we start from the premise that we’re not designing for the client, we’re designing for ourselves. We need to understand the business drivers behind the product design so we’re designing with the knowledge that the client’s investment in us and their product is to give them, what we call ‘the unfair competitive advantage’.
As the economy shrinks, there is pressure on all organisations to reduce their costs. We have noticed a trend by some organisations to offer a competition/prize for a piece of design work. Fripp Design have a definite policy of not participating in such events as we consider this is a low cost way for companies to get lots of ideas for a new product development. Effectively Sale or Return Design. We have other concerns that design is a collaborative venture between the client and the design consultancy; you cannot do design in isolation. The energy of the client is as vital to the success of a project as is the ‘design juices’.
Where the competition involves our local community and other stakeholders in our industry, we are happy to help; however we think the concept of Sale or Return design is a dangerous precedent for our industry; not only for design companies; but for those commissioning the design as well.
We at Fripp design are passionate about design and passing on that knowledge when and wherever we can. As University Graduates ourselves, we understand the value of Product Design placements in gaining valuable work experience and understanding how commercial design companies operate.
However, we also believe that there needs to be commitment from the employer to provide the time and resources; ensuring that the work experience adds value to the student.
As a busy Product Design consultancy working on a number of commercially sensitive projects, it is impossible for us to provide the time necessary ensuring we add that value. Many students offer to work for free. Although this is laudable; there is an ethical dimension to how we operate; we never expect anything for free. As we say above, we would still want to commit our time and resources to make a placement worthwhile and we would be concerned we could not fulfil that obligation.
Product Design is a noble profession and we wish you every success in your studies and your future career.