When it comes to the process of creating a product, there comes a moment when you move from the purely creative to the concrete. It’s at this point that your product stops being a hypothetical creation that exists in thoughts, ideas, sketches, and brainstorming sessions, and starts moving towards actually existing in the real world.
We’re talking about product material selection.
At Beyond Design, we recognize that this can be a stressful process for some product designers. After all, up to this point your product has existed without limitations. In the brainstorming process, anything can be added, subtracted, refined, or improved upon in your design. But once you start selecting materials, you begin entering the very real limitations that come from creating a product in the real world.
That said, we find the product material selection process to be one of the most exciting parts of design. It’s the point when your creativity must adapt to the real world, and the moment when your product takes its most real step towards existing in that real world.
With that in mind, we wanted to share 5 of the most important things to consider when selecting materials for your product. Addressing these points will help you ensure that your product is manufacturing-ready when the time comes.
Before you get into the very technical details of selecting your materials, it’s important to start with what’s most important to you— and to your target customers. In the ideation and brainstorming stage, it’s easy to operate under the assumption that every feature is equally essential. But as you go deeper into the manufacturing process, you’ll discover that at some point you’ll have to make compromises.
For example, you might want the most premium materials possible— but with that premium quality comes additional cost. If your product is designed to be a premium product with a premium price, that may be fine. If not, you may have to factor cost heavily into your product’s materials.
That’s why it’s important at the beginning of the process to prioritize. Determine which features/traits are absolutely essential, which are important, and which are dispensable if necessary. This can feel like choosing between children, but it will help you realize that some things may not be as central to the success of your product as you initially believed.
The materials you select for your product will affect every aspect of your supply chain and manufacturing process. You might find the perfect material that has all of the qualities you want, but it might only be available from one overseas manufacturer and require extremely complex and time-intensive manufacturing processes.
With that in mind, it’s important to find opportunities to streamline your manufacturing process with the materials you choose (when possible).
Here are some important questions to ask yourself about your manufacturing process:
- Where will your material have to come from when you order it or have it manufactured? Will it come from the U.S. or somewhere overseas?
- Will you need to start with raw materials, or materials that have already been formed or extruded? Working with raw materials adds additional cost and time.
- Will you be able to purchase all materials from the same vendor, or will you need to work and coordinate with multiple vendors?
It’s important to get to a place where you truly understand how your customers will actually use your product— not how you want them to use it, but how they’ll actually use it. We all have idealized visions of how we see our products being used, but these aren’t always aligned with what our customers actually want and need.
Hands-on testing of early prototypes is essential, and it should come from your actual target users. You should set some basic benchmarks for the performance of the prototype, but otherwise your users should be allowed to use your product entirely based on what they want to do.
The more open-ended this testing, the better. It will provide you with valuable information about how your product will be used in the real world— and that will inform the materials you use to build it.
Different materials simply have different properties. You should evaluate the size, desired weight, shape, and components of your desired end product and use those parameters to inform your material selection.
For example, is your product designed with moving parts, or is it static? Certain materials hold up to repeated movement much better than others. If your product is physically large, using a dense and heavy material to produce it may make it too heavy to be feasible.
These are all questions you should consider, and they’re specific to your product— not just to what’s worked for someone else’s creation.
You can’t just consider how your product will be used— you need to think about where and when.
The environment a product is used in will determine a great deal about the materials you select. Will it be used in very hot environments or very cold environments? Will it be put under intense stress or only used casually by consumers? For example, some metals hold up well in corrosive environments, others will degrade quickly.
You’ll need to ensure that the materials you choose will hold up to the use cases they’re designed to serve. That said, you must be reasonable to take cost into account. It might sound great to say that your product will survive 50 years of heavy use— but is that something that will be truly valuable to your consumer?
When you take the time to ensure you select the right materials for your product, you’ll save money, reduce delays, and ensure great customer experiences down the road.