Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Adam Robinson, Plus Minus Design Leeds Inventors Group 20th October 2010

Adam explained the importance of good product design - pointing to the many products around us whose look and functionality has been determined by good design. Two thirds of UK businesses believe that design is integral to their future economic performance and the Design Council believes that every £100 spent on design increases turnover by £225. Design is a product package involving advertising, protection, brand development and publicity. Very often you are trying to create a lifestyle impression – convincing customers that they need the particular product in their lives.

Plus Minus Design, based in the centre of Leeds, has dealt with a great range of products – from physical products to app designs. Plus Minus Design are also heavily involved in eco development and are specialists in this area. Adam pointed out that there are big demands for this now particularly due to government regulations and consumer demand. Even a 5% improvement in this area can be quite significant and can lead to greater efficiency and lower costs.

As inventors know, very few things are totally new – coming up with an improvement or a variation is the challenge and design is the same – often changing something which is already there. Good design can add value to a product. Manufacturers prefer to see a tried and tested product rather than an idea so approaching them with a well-designed and tested product can make a big difference.

Adam then went through the various stages of developing a design. The Planning stage defines the boundaries of the project – the timescale, budget etc. At the Concept design stage different ideas are explored and put down on paper. The functional and aesthetic features begin to emerge. At the Development stage a small number of the initial ideas are refined and costed. Decisions have to be made in terms of which options best meet the clients needs and which should be dropped. Prototyping and testing is a vital stage. It can be expensive but many people don’t realise the value it represents. It indicates whether the product can actually work and it can show up potential manufacturing problems. Very often this can mean going back to the design and testing stage a number of times to iron out any problems. James Dyson made around 150 prototypes while developing his cyclone vacuum cleaner. The Design definition stage looks at materials, tolerances and components and results in a set of detailed drawings for manufacture.

He used Plus Minus Design’s “Solar Pebble”™ as an example. This product works by soaking up sunshine during the day and can then be used to provide up to 6 hours of light during darkness and also charge other products. Its purpose is to replace the kerosene lamps frequently used to provide light in Africa.

Adam’s view is that if you are going to protect a product (eg with a patent or registered design) it can be advantageous to do so at the end of the design process as the product may change significantly during this process. Plus Minus Design have several patents and they believe that patent protection needs to be international to be effective. However they also believe that sometimes a well-designed product can be just as effective in cornering the market as taking out a lot of protection on it as customers are likely to go for the best and most cost-effective product rather than the poorly designed one. Getting a product to market quickly is sometimes the best tactic. The “Solar Pebble”™ is not patented because they believe the low cost of the product and the branding will outweigh the advantages of patenting. Confidentiality agreements are obviously important.

Once a product is ready for production, there is usually the choice of self-manufacturing or licensing to someone else to produce. Manufacturing can potentially bring greater financial rewards but Plus Minus always go for licensing as manufacturing can involve significant amounts of responsibility, commitment and risk.