People are often curious about what our secret sauce is for achieving such simple designs for complex products. While I could get into all the details — things like hiring great people, building a culture of excellence, emphasizing technical engineering skills, capitalizing on a broad database of reference designs, and leveraging manufacturing experience — I’d like to just focus on three things that have the most impact. These three things are based on looking at designs that we have simplified at Simplexity in a significant way (not by 10%, but 50% or more). I then further narrowed down all the actions taken during those projects to those pivotal moments that led to the biggest impacts.
So here are the 3 most impactful things you can do:
1. ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS.
Deadlines are always tight and people want to get started on the engineering details immediately. Determining the right architecture up front can save thousands of dollars down the line in both manufacturing and product costs, plus weeks or even months in schedule. You want to ask not only what the product must do, but why. Understanding the why gives you an understanding of the core needs and opens up the creative design space.
EXAMPLE: We were asked to cost reduce and improve a test tool that needed to move a page-wide print head into the right spot in a printer chassis. One of the problems with the prototype they brought to us was that the print head was binding as it was being loaded from the front via a custom-designed sled. Their engineers were also looking at how to improve the design, but were focused on incremental changes to the sled parts (i.e. changing to different bearing materials or geometries). We spent over an hour interviewing the client and one of the original designers to really understand WHAT the tool needed to do and WHY it was originally designed the way it was. The pivotal question that we asked was “Why is the print head being loaded from the front?” The answer of “well, we never thought of doing it any other way” was the key. Based on that, we were able to design a top-loading design that simplified the motion and eliminated any chance of binding. Our final tool ended costing only $6,000 versus $18,000 for the original design.
2. BRAINSTORM FROM A SYSTEMS PERSPECTIVE.
Bring all engineering (and non-engineering) disciplines to the table when brainstorming ways of solving problems. This opens the door for opportunities to simplify by eliminating parts or processes or changing the way a design is fundamentally approached. We have solved what appeared to be mechanical problems with a firmware solution, an electrical problem with a simple mechanical solution, and firmware problems with a new electrical component.
EXAMPLE: When designing the LOOP CPR Controller, we needed to figure out the best design for measuring both chest compressions on a manikin and for sensing when a CPR student breathes into the mouth. It turns out that when a student breathes into the manikin, its chest expands proportionally. The first simplification was to realize that rather than putting a flow meter or other sensor into the manikin’s mouth, we could just measure chest expansion and correlate it to breaths. The second simplification came from our systems perspective to brainstorming. While the leading mechanical solution was to put an instrumented strap around the manikin’s chest to measure expansion directly, it was the firmware engineer whose suggestion defined the final product. He suggested that if we switch from an accelerometer to an accelerometer-gyro combo in the product itself, he could write an algorithm that would correlate acceleration to position and no strap would be needed at all. Thus, through a successful firmware implementation, we were able to eliminate $10 worth of component costs, which also translated to lower packaging costs, lower service costs, and an easier-to-use product.
3. LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY FROM OTHER INDUSTRIES.
Take the time to study how problems are solved in different industries. Many clever solutions can be developed by leveraging ideas already used in other products and applying them to new areas.
EXAMPLES: We were tasked with designing the structural frame for holding a small vertical-axis wind turbine. The previous design was aesthetically pleasing, but when it came time to build it, the manufacturer had to build fixtures and hand weld 25 parts together, taking about 8 hours for each subassembly. We used the same approach as in inkjet printers to design interlocking sheet metal elements rather than individual plates. The resulting design was comprised of only 5 unique parts and only took 1 hour to assemble. What’s more, the new design was about 30% lighter and had about twice the torsional stiffness as the original design.
Another example was when we designed a camera based imaging system that needed to travel only 100 microns. That distance is the thickness of your fingernail! Rather than using traditional bearing and rail systems, we designed a mechanism that flexes in a very defined way to provide linear motion and achieves infinite bearing life. It is just as accurate, has no slop or backlash and only costs half the price of traditional systems. While this product is for the biomedical industry, we used a similar approach to that taken in double A-Arm suspensions in cars.
While there are many other things you can do to simplify designs (and your life while you’re at it), if you master these three, you will be well on your way to becoming a simplification expert.