The Design For X (or “Design for Excellence”) methodology lays out a number of design guidelines for reaching the product’s objectives. The idea is to review and improve the product & process design before the new product is manufactured.
Many product designers design for functionality and for aesthetics. Of course, those are important, but there are other important questions such as “can it be made with mature processes?” and “can it be made within budget?” (a.k.a. Design for Manufacturing), “can it be assembled easily and without mistakes?” (a.k.a. Design for Assembly), etc.
Asking all of these questions in the initial product design, and then at every important milestone, is a way of detecting issues while they can still be addressed without excessive cost and delays.
Before you jump into the post, you may like to listen to an episode of my podcast where I discussed the different DFX product optimizations and their features and benefits in more detail with our head of New Product Development, Andrew:
Common DFX optimizations
Here are 12 common examples of the ‘Design for X Approach’ and its product optimizations. Think about how these would improve your product design and lead to fewer issues when being produced, used by consumers, and more benefits besides.
Design For X with an impact on the pre-production phase
1. Design for short time to market – focus on designing a product that can get to market as quickly as possible. Some understanding of how quickly the competing products can get to market is helpful here in order to ‘beat them.’
2. Design for Kickstarter & Indiegogo – You need to consider how to design for crowdfunding from the very start of the project if that’s your objective. First, certain types of products aimed at certain audiences tend to do well on those platforms, and you need to keep that in mind. Second, a “unique and smart” or “cool” edge will get you far. Third, you will probably commit to delivering products similar to your first look-good prototype, and it means you should confirm all the materials, processes, etc. by that point.
DFX with an impact on the production phase
3. Design for manufacturing (DFM) – the most common and most foundational of the “Design for X” approaches. Design for manufacturing makes sure that the parts that will make up your full product can actually be made with materials and processes that are relatively common and mature, in a way that supports your overall design intent. Look at the fabrication processes (e.g. die casting, plastic injection molding, extrusion…) but also at the surface treatments (e.g. powder coating, plating…). Certain combinations are highly likely to lead to issues, for example casting aluminum and anodizing it (because of the porosity of the surface).
4. Design for assembly (DFA) – also a very common “Design for X” approach. A simple product, with few parts and no awkward or difficult operation, will be easier and faster to assemble with much fewer mistakes. It often improves maintainability, too. A simplified assembly setup, as well as fewer quality inspections needed, will mean lower costs. For example, go for force-fitting rather than screwing or gluing, and think of how the manual operations can be mistake-proofed in advance. This is a deep topic, and you may want to refer to the book: ‘Product Design for Manufacture and Assembly‘.
5. Design for quality (DFQ) – design for quality is often planned at the same time as DFM and DFA since simpler and more mature processes lead to better quality. If, for example, a fabrication supplier can’t demonstrate that their first-time capability is very high for a custom part you are about to buy, you may have to send an engineer to work with that supplier and find ways to get capability up. The inspection & testing plan is usually also reviewed. Any specification that lacks tolerances, any requirement that can’t be tested easily, and any obviously missing test would be flagged.
👉 Listen to an interesting and detailed episode of our podcast where we discuss DFQ in detail.
6. Design for testing (DFT) – try to ‘bake’ measurable performance attributes into the product design, meaning that prototypes and production samples have features that allow tests to be run. The objectives are to detect issues, especially corresponding to the most important requirements, and to have very little doubt about the performance, functionality, and if possible safety, of an entire batch. Another concept of DFT is to make it easy to test the parts and the full product – for example, leave some space on the PCBA boards for testing pads, and make it possible to test each module before all is assembled together.
DFX with an impact on the ‘sell & use’ phases
7. Design for packaging – you may need to design and develop packaging which is attractive (especially if it is to be used in a retail environment), sturdy enough to protect the product during transit and storage, and/or allow for low-cost distribution (especially if you sell via e-commerce). The product’s size and proportions will have an effect on the packaging. Also, you may need to work on packaging which is cost-effective, recyclable, or sustainable, and easily constructed and packed before shipping, as examples of objectives. Think of types of packaging that may be suitable from the start of the product design.
8. Design for reliability (DFR) – anticipate potential sources of product failure. There are a number of ways to do that. Risk analysis tools such as the FMEA and the FTA can be used to examine how different designs could fail. Past findings on similar products and parts are useful, too. And accelerated reliability testing can usually be done as soon as early prototypes are available, in order to find weaknesses and address them. That testing has to reproduce some common sources of failure (e.g. high temperature + high humidity + vibrations, for electronic products), or has to reproduce the likely typical way the product will be used (e.g. an e-bike has to be ‘driven’ for 25 min, 2 times a day, in a combination of sunny and rainy weather, etc.). Once you have a solid theory of the ways the product will be most likely to fail, and after how long, you need to think of how to prevent those failures, with a priority on ‘catastrophic failures’. There are many techniques to improve the product design’s robustness and lifespan. For example, use parallel component systems for crucial parts of the product to provide a backup in case of problems.
9. Design for maintainability – this is closely related to DFR. The product has to perform as expected by the user throughout its expected lifespan, and that may require some periodic and planned downtime (e.g. oil check on a car). A large printing machine shows its real-time status as well as a diagnostic, and that’s very useful to users. Ordering and installing replacement parts easily and quickly is a major benefit to users. Having to do complex disassembly and reassembly, or having to replace half the entire product when only one part has an issue, is to be avoided if possible. Some companies took that to an extreme and went for modular construction, which means each part can be replaced separately over time.
10. Design for ergonomics – make the product very appropriate to the user’s body in order to be eminently usable. You may achieve a very user-friendly and ergonomic product by bearing in mind the physical attributes of users when designing it, making erroneous use difficult or impossible, making what the components are clear, signposting how to access them, making controls simple to read and work out, and more.
DFX with an impact all the way through the product lifecycle
11. Design for few SKUs – this one is usually not mentioned, and yet it is sometimes critical. Here are some good tips from the book ‘Product Realization.’
At the time of the first order, you may not have a precise idea of what your target market wants — that’s quite dangerous, as some companies launch manufacturing of too many colors, sizes, and/or other variations. They are then stuck with very slow-moving inventory (corresponding to the least appealing variations). After that initial phase, you will still want to keep the number of SKUs down in order to avoid excessive complexity and costs. For example, if you plan to ship your product to many countries, you will usually opt for 1 instruction manual in many languages.
12. Design for sustainability (DFS) – aim for the least amount of environmental impact possible during production, use, and disposal of the product by reducing the number of resources consumed and the amount of pollution emitted. Picking recycled and/or recyclable materials for the product and packaging is also a focus. Making it easy to re-use your product is a great thing. DFQ and DFQ have a strong impact on sustainability. ‘Green manufacturing’ is actually a wide topic, as shown here.
Note that sustainability also includes the social compliance of the companies included in your supply chain.
The design for x list is virtually infinite. If you want to put a new model of vehicle on the market, you will have to design for compactness if it’s mostly a city car, for the driving experience if it’s more of a sports car, for ruggedness if it’s to be used off roads, for adhesion on uneven roads, and the list never stops.
Is there anything I haven’t added to this list that you can share in the comments? Let me know.
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