Early Concepting: The Design Before the Design

Thanks to ever-emerging technology, the design process is changing. New technology tools such as 3D printing are helping brands explore product design strategies before the design process officially begins. In early concepting, teams that may include marketing, finance, and design consultants are giving input to the design team.

The teams look at everything from competitors' products, sources for materials, different shapes, manufacturability, integration, and a range of other design issues. Some companies are using 3D printing to create mock-ups that can be tested with customers in focus groups -- all before the design process actually begins. The goal is to weed out poor product ideas before they go to design, and also to shorten time to market.

Concepting moves to 3D design tools

The new draw-it-on-a-napkin is the CAD program. As CAD programs become more ubiquitous and easier to use, they have replaced 2D sketching for early concepting. The advantage is that the concept on a CAD program is handier for passing around to team members. Plus, it's a quick transition to prototyping if the concept is already in CAD. "Early concepting used to be done with tools that were disassociated from a CAD tool. They used sketches and other disassociated tools," Brian Thompson, vice president of product management, CAD segment at PTC, told Design News. "Now the early concepting tools are becoming more connected to the design process. We're seeing direct modeling in CAD becoming more popular because it frees the design team to modify existing design models early in the concept stage."

Using concepting tools that are compatible with design tools allows everyone involved in the design process to access the early concept. "The whole idea of doing the concept design in a tool that is interoperable with the design tool, is that it is readable by anyone involved in the design process," Thompson told us. "So the design-for-manufacturing people can also see it. You don't have the manufacturing guys needing a special tool. You're all using the same tool."

Another advantage of using connected CAD tools for early concepting is that you can more easily begin the new design with an existing design, since the existing design is now on the same tool -- CAD -- that is being used in the concept stage. "Companies have this rich database of models that want to reuse. The tools they are now using for the early concept are compatible with their core design tools. They are doing the same concepting, but now they're doing it in a way that lets them reuse existing designs," said Thompson. "In some industries, a new product is just a slight iteration on an existing product. So if you can leverage that existing design, you get tremendous value."

3D printing -- a prototype of the prototype
There's nothing like holding a part in your hand, so 3D printing is becoming an important concepting tool. "Even in the early concepting stage, companies are building functional prototypes so they can evaluate the functionality of the design to see how it feels in the hand," said Thompson. "They want to know if it's strong enough. Does it package properly? With a 3D model, they can evaluate functional aspects of the design. We're seeing the use of 3D printing expanding in our customer base every day."

3D printing allows companies to develop full products that are a combination of multiple parts. These early mock-ups allow customers to see and feel the product while it's still in the early concept stage. "You can take a concept that includes 10, 20, or even 30 parts and print out it altogether as one part," said Thompson. "That way you can let your customers react to how it feels without revealing the inner design."

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