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Foreign markets challenge U.S. engineers

Foreign markets challenge U.S. engineers

Next time you're relaxing in front of a roaring fire, take a moment to reflect upon the regulatory difficulties faced by the designers of the fireplace.

Even such a basic item as a gas-burning firebox must be carefully designed to satisfy international regulations. Engineers at Hearth Technologies (Lakeville, MN) faced this challenge with their patented one-piece, gas-burning fireplace. The vacuum-formed ceramic fiber "firebox" provides great insulation, so customers can get more BTUs in less space, while still having a masonry aesthetic.

But when Hearth tried to sell the firebox overseas, they ran into several new challenges, said Hearth's David Lyons:

  • The fireboxes had to be rated by testing agencies like ASTM, since Europe is so stringent in regulating fibrous materials such as insulation. These regulations also demand extensive labeling.

  • European cities tend to have such old buildings that their existing firebox spaces are too small to fit Hearth Technologies' products

  • Filing for European patents is typically very time consuming

The hurdles to selling products in Europe can be so significant that some companies simply seek other places for their products. While Hearth still sells 85-90% of its products in the U.S. and Canada, the company looked beyond Europe and found that Australia and New Zealand had much less stringent regulations. And with more modern architecture, it was much easier to fit the units into existing homes there.

This year, many companies such as Hearth Technologies entered Design News'annual Global Innovation Award competition (sponsored by Omron), describing the challenges they faced in designing a product for the global market, and how they overcame them. This year's winners were a team of engineers from Compaq Computer Corp., who in a "skunkworks" project designed a new computer-the AlphaServer DS10L-after funding for the project was cancelled (see DN2.26.01, p.106). Still, they met international standards and sourced parts from anywhere they could, and today their server is globally assembled and marketed.

Contest sponsor Omron Electronics Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) awarded $5,000 to Systems Engineer Mike Rolla and his team and a $15,000 scholarship, which Rolla designated for the University of Massachusetts at Lowell.

Entry forms for the 2001 contest will be published in the 7/2/01 issue of Design News, or go to www.designnews.com for a complete description of the contest.

In a different industry, Paul Mueller also ran into challenges when he tried to market his carbide indexable endmill abroad. The Millanyangle(TM) 2000 adjusts in increments of one degree, so it can cut any angle, he says. But he couldn't simply set up shop and sell it abroad.

"When I go door to door with this, it sells like hotcakes," says Mueller, VP of R.M. Tool and Mfg. Co. (Elgin, IL). "But I can't just do it all myself."

Some challenges he cites:

  • Foreign patents can be very expensive: he spent more than $7,000 over two years to patent the product in Japan. Translating technical descriptions soaked up much of that time.

  • Translating the instruction booklet added additional time and expense

  • The Millanyangle operates in English units, not metric. While this is not a major problem-since degrees are measured with the same units everywhere-it presents an additional hurdle to marketing the product overseas.

Many of these troubles are easier to handle for companies that are very large, and that have an international presence already. At Ford Motor Co., engineer Jim Loschiavio helped design an interior, glow-in-the-dark, trunk release latch. Cited as a safety goal after several children perished while locked inside hot car trunks, Ford had to make them adaptable not only for new cars, but also retrofittable to all Ford cars worldwide.

Despite the fact that Ford engineers had to work with multinational suppliers and manufacturers, the whole process went smoothly. "Technically speaking, it wasn't a very challenging thing," Loschiavio says. That's because he was working with large companies like Bosch and Eaton; while Bosch may be headquartered in Germany, he always worked with the engineers in their American offices. Even when he had to converse with distant contacts, it all came down to frequent communication: "With the advent of the computer and e-mail, they're only a click away," he says.

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