Beware of design pitfalls

DN Staff

May 20, 2002

5 Min Read
Beware of design pitfalls

Mike Gerdes knows the importance of understanding cultural differences, especially differences in languages. He's part of a design team at Hunter Engineering (Bridgeton, MO) that produces automotive alignment equipment sold around the world. "Instead of translating the word caster into the Italian service manual as incidenza, it was transcribed as indecenza, which means indecency in Italian," says Gerdes. "Asking the technician to measure his indecency was not what we had intended."

Mix-ups in communications are just one of the pitfalls engineers encounter when designing products for foreign markets. Language differences, cultural preferences, and variations in standards all impact product design. "We first need to know the preferred language that is to be displayed to the operator," says Gerdes. He points out that Hunter Engineering currently supports over 40 languages worldwide. He adds that it is normally a good idea to minimize the use of text and instead use internationally recognized symbols where possible.

"Safety and compliance issues must also be addressed," says Gerdes. "We have a dedicated export group within our company and a network of 65 distributors worldwide." He adds that it is important to have an established distributor network that can obtain reliable market information and product feedback. Gerdes also suggests that design engineers get to know their customers' specific requirements. "Do not assume these requirements are the same as for the US market."

All equipment that Hunter designs for foreign markets has electronics. "Other countries typically do not use 115 or 230V, 60 Hz, single-phase power as we do in the US," Gerdes points out.

Special deliveries by design. The last place anyone would want a misunderstanding over safety and electrical problems is in a birthing bed, which is why the bed manufacturer Hill-Rom uses labels with graphic symbols instead of translated text. "The products we export from the U.S. are not any different except for voltage changes," says Sandy Richards, an engineer at Hill-Rom (Batesville, IN), manufacturer of the Affinity 3 birthing bed. He notes that beds produced in Europe are specifically made for that market and are not typically exported to U.S. "The majority of our products are designed to work in those markets with some slight modifications for different voltages," says Richards.

Understanding how products are positioned in foreign markets and how they are sold in those markets is also important to Hill Rom. "Typically, In Europe, they want a product that is robust, but priced low because of the way the health care system is set up," says Richards.

His advice for designing products for global use includes learning about the markets. "What are the hot points for selling in that market?" he asks. "What doesn't sell in that market?"

Richards also believes that simpler is always better when it comes to design. "Do not overcomplicate a design," he explains. "Make it easier for end customers to use and the product will be easier to sell."

Culture isn't everything but...The most important thing about designing for global markets is understanding cultural differences, according to Paul House, the product development manager at Thermon (San Marcos, TX). "It may not be exactly correct to say that culture is everything, but it would be quite close," he says.

Thermon, a manufacturer of products for heating pipelines, vessels, and foundations, attributes its success abroad to the development of a close-knit technical team from different parts of the world, according to House. He explains that from the beginning of a project, when people work together to define product requirements and project goals, to the end, where they develop independent but similar product literature and instructions, close communication and quick resolution of problems by consensus are the key elements.

"Don't assume that you can project your ideas and ideals into another culture", says House. "And never attempt to dictate to that culture. You will fail." He emphasizes the importance of listening, and working closely with trusted individuals in other cultures. He adds that a good understanding of their environment and point-of-view is important. "If you discount their ideas and contributions, you will fail."

Harmonization of safety standards is a key element at Thermon. Due to differences in electrical certifications and traditions, there are some differences in the company's product lines from one country to another. "Most of the differences stem from slightly different approaches on electrical safety standards." For example, he points out that in the U.S. there are requirements for ultraviolet resistance for plastic electrical enclosures that are used outdoors. "In Europe, there are no specific requirements for this characteristic, but many manufacturers provide this protection on a voluntary basis."

House says that because products are designed for use in both markets, Thermon customers obtain the benefits of receiving products that meet all the requirements of both markets.

House's advice applies to many other products too. Customers sometimes benefit when engineers integrate product features designed for one market into the same products sold into other markets. But it begs the question: In addition to their technical training, will engineers now need courses in cultural anthropology?

Engineers quoted in this article entered the 2001 Design News Excellence in Design competition. They indicate that designing products for foreign markets requires a thorough understanding of cultural differences and standards. Entry forms for the upcoming competition are available at and in the magazine starting with the July 22 issue and ending with the September 9 issue.

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