Low Volume needs Smart Design

Product design adds value to products by increasing their appeal. It helps improve the way they look and work, provides differentiation and helps them sell. Traditionally it has been associated with mass market products but increasingly new manufacturing techniques allow product design to add value to products manufactured in their 10s and 100s.

The past ten years have seen great success by design lead companies such as Apple, Samsung and Dyson. They have been responsible for an increase in design awareness with customers expecting more from all the products they buy. This does not pose a problem for companies whose business deals with parts manufactured in the hundreds of thousands. For them tooling budgets are not an issue and products can be designed using multiple high quality injection moulded plastic and pressure die cast metal parts. These processes lend themselves to smooth seamless shapes and high quality finishes. Companies like Apple push these processes to the limit demanding higher and higher quality finishes from their suppliers which in turn increases the expectations of consumers and buyers.

So where does that leave companies trying to meet these customer expectations with low volume products and limited tooling budgets?

While metal components have always allowed for a certain degree of flexibility in production approaches plastic can be much more problematic when it comes to low volume. By combining clever design and developments in rapid manufacturing techniques it is possible to create low volume products with a style and uniqueness to rival that of their high volume cousins.

One such process is casting plastic parts using polyurethane (PU) resin in soft silicon tools. This process was developed originally for model makers to produce up to 20 parts from a single master model. Advancements in materials and process have turned this into a viable solution for the low volume manufacture of plastic parts. Sebastian Stanley of Complete Fabrication says ‘10 years ago we wouldn’t have dreamed of using resin casting for production parts but now with advancements in materials we wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it for low volume production’. Like high pressure injection moulding the process allows for the design of softer more complex forms with high quality finishes. Although part prices are relatively high tooling investment is much lower.

Another exciting new area is direct manufacture. This is a process where each part is individually generated from a computer file in small batches using one of the 3D printing processes such as SLA or SLS. These processes give the designer even greater flexibility than conventional mass production techniques allowing for the generation of interesting complex forms without the restrictions imposed by tooling. This process also lends itself to making bespoke parts, custom made for each customer’s requirement. These processes require no tooling but once again part prices are higher than conventional approaches. Material limitations and finishes are also be a important consideration – parts will need a degree of processing to obtain an acceptable level of finish.

Injection moulding itself offers some low volume approaches that can be very attractive in terms of part costs. Depending on the project numbers can be the low hundreds. UK toolmaker BK Tooling have experience of this and find it an increasingly popular approach thanks to their ‘off-the-peg’ tooling system. While the injection mould tools themselves will never be low cost, the inherent advantages of no post finishing and low unit costs can make a lot of sense.

With all these processes readily available and improving all the time, it is possible for companies to produce visually competitive products even if expected volumes are low and manufacturing budget limited. You don’t need to be Apple to use design to give you the competitive edge.Of course design and the appropriate use

If you would like to find out more about how design for low volume manufacturing can make a difference to your products please get in touch – our advice is free.