A Q&A with Design for Manufacturing Expert Peter Ragonetti

“The more we can teach designers the language of the business of manufacturing, the better prepared they will be to have collaborative conversations with manufacturers.”

A Q&A with Design for Manufacturing Expert Peter Ragonetti

Spotlight articles shine a light on designers and design materials we admire. Our founder and principal designer Rebeccah Pailes-Friedman has met many wonderful designers in her time in the industry, and in our Spotlight interviews we ask them about their work, their design journey, and what inspires them. In this interview we spoke with Peter Ragonetti, an industrial designer who specializes in design for manufacturing, production sourcing, and supply chain management. He works with startups to bring their visions to life and is also a professor at Pratt Institute, where he teaches an innovative course in design entrepreneurship and crowdfunding. We talked to him about what it means to design for manufacturing, the power of collaborating with manufacturers, and how designers have changed their approach to manufacturing over time.

Q: Could you talk about what design for manufacturing and what is distinct about it as compared to other areas of design?

A:  The principle of the design process is that we do concept development, and in concept development we throw everything at the wall to come up with crazy, fun ideas. As industrial designers, we don’t always consider how things will be made. We’ll say, Oh, it’s injection molded. Oh, it’s sewn together. Oh, there’s an app. But once you start resolving the ideas, you have to start thinking about, How is this actually going to get made? So, design for manufacturing and design for assembly — DFM and DFA — they go hand in hand, because if you can’t make the parts, you can’t deliver what the client wants. 

This is something that’s very common with young designers, they come up with manufacturing processes they know and assume that something can be made the way they would make it in a prototype. In design for manufacturing and design for assembly, there are different processes — that can be more time consuming or less time consuming — that change the cost of your product dramatically. An example: some people don’t think about how long something can sit in a mold. So certain parts will be designed with complex geometry and people say, Yeah it’s molded. Well that part may have a cycle time — which is how long it sits in the mold — of say, two minutes to cool to the point that it can be released and hold its shape. And that two minute cycle time can change your cost dramatically from something that cycles in 20 seconds. That’s a big part of it. 

As designers we sometimes take for granted the capabilities of our manufacturers. Really understanding what they’re good at and designing with them to make sure that you’re not creating some sort of really complex scenario that they’re going to have trouble manufacturing or assembling or packing out.

Q: What might that life cycle from concept to production look like? Could you share an example?

A: Yeah, that’s a great question. When I talk with clients, I say that if you want to be safe and build in all of the quality control and sample checks, you should really think about 12 month cycles: from a concept to a product in a warehouse, ready to sell. A good way to look at it is, if you ever work for companies that have holiday launches, you’re designing for Christmas next year, Halloween next year. The intention is that you’ll go through your design, go through revisions, you’ll go through prototyping, you’ll get into your design engineering and design for manufacturing, you’ll get samples back. You’ll have time to quality control it. You’ll run into your tooling and production time, which on both ends is usually at least 45 days. So you’re talking about 90 days of just tooling and production time, and that’s without even doing the quality control at the end. Then if you’re shipping it from overseas, you have six weeks on the water. So thinking about those lead times and working backwards is a really good way to set yourself up for success. 

I often say, When do you want it to be in your customers hands? Because that’s a good way to go backwards and say, Okay, if I want this to be delivered to a warehouse in September for holiday sales, I need to have it in my manufacturer’s hands by the end of April or the end of January. If you’re doing stuff overseas, you have Chinese New Year, you have holidays to consider. That said, I’ve also run projects where we’ve had products on the market in nine weeks, you know? In that case, you take out a lot of options. You run a lot of parallel tracks and you don’t build yourself any safety net if something goes wrong.

Q: How did you end up focusing on this specialization?

A: As an industrial design student, I always enjoyed the process of how products broke apart into parts. People bring me a product and I say, Well, how many parts is it? They say, Well, it’s three, and I say, Well, what about that screw? What about that thing there? What about that sticker? So I always enjoyed the idea of thinking about projects in parts, and I always enjoy the idea of OEM, Original Equipment Manufacturing, making your own product that’s never existed before. You can think of it like Legos, you get to kind of make your own Lego set of how things go together.

When I started designing for clients, I realized that there are good designers out there that can do beautiful concept work but they say, let the engineers figure out the rest. And every time that I started letting engineers figure my products out, they started making them sort of ugly. They started putting in things that I didn’t like. And I said, Well why, why is this fillet gone? What’s this here? And they say, Well, that’s so it can release from the mold or What fillet? They didn’t even see it, you know? I realized that I needed learn some more details about how to put together technical drawings and full tech specs to release for manufacturing. Then I started working with engineers and seeing how they created drawing files, how they put together their CAD files, how they design for tolerance. I started realizing that I was a good designer, but I wasn’t a great engineer. I started working on that in my 20s and I realized it was a lot more added value to my clients if I was designing something that was a lot easier for them to take to a manufacturer, or if they needed a mechanical engineer to get it launched.

Q: How might the constraints of a given manufacturer influence how you solve a design problem?

A: I would say, if you have the opportunity, go visit your manufacturers and see how their shops are laid out, see how their assembly lines are laid out, and see how the production lines are laid out. That starts triggering new ideas. You realize: Oh wow, I didn’t know you could make something like that. It starts giving you this opportunity to design around capabilities. 

At the same time, If you’re working with a manufacturer and they’re saying, I don’t think this is going to work, or I think this is going to be an issue and you say, Do it the way I designed it, and you sign off on it and it’s a problem, they’re not responsible for any mistakes. I’m not saying that you need to go after a manufacturer if there’s a mistake, but you want the shared responsibility of the product being successful. So if a manufacturer has a suggestion about…I can use the example of CNC [Computer Numerical Control]. Adding chamfer cuts to CNC jobs dramatically increases the time the job is in the machine. Instead, adding filleted radiuses actually isn’t that bad. So if you’re designing a part and you have all these chamfers on, all of a sudden, you’re getting these really high part costs and you talk to your manufacturing, they say, Well yeah, you designed it with all these complicated extra steps that the tool path has to make, so you’re adding costs to your part. So your manufacturer might say, We’ll make it however you want. Here’s your $60 part price. But a good manufacturer that you have a relationship with will say, Hey, man, if we just turn all these chamfers into slight radiuses, we can reduce your tooling time. You reduce your part costs by six bucks. So it’s a two-way street working with manufacturing and designing for manufacturing.

Also, the sooner you get out in front of what you’re planning to manufacture and start talking with people, the better off you are. A lot of times designers will work to this perfect thing, and then they send it out for manufacturing, and the manufacturer says, That’s a really tough part to make, or Can’t we just source that open channel? And the designer says, No. No, I designed it, it’s perfect. It’s ready. It’s important to be flexible, to work with them to get the best product. They want to pass all the quality control problem tests. They don’t want you to come back and say, Hey, this isn’t working. But if they’re designed to your specific thing and it’s wrong, it’s on you.

Some suppliers, they’ll just make whatever is on the drawing whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, because that’s their job, to make what’s on the drawing. But great suppliers work with you. You sit down with them, you do some sketching, you talk through things, you open models, you spin it, they say, This is a problem area. Or, Can you add some draft here? Having that that flexibility allows you to get much better parts, much more quickly, with better pricing

Q: How does the collaboration with a manufacturer differ from country to country?

A: Language barriers are always always one thing. But designers do all have the universal language of being able to sketch and do visual communication. I was working on a pet product, it was a small animal habitat, a lot of molded plastic, and we were resolving some connections, how parts fit together and the little rings and collars that fit on it. And I’m sitting with the engineers. He didn’t speak English, I don’t speak Mandarin, and we have two interpreters. We’re sitting there and we’re working, and I’m drawing, and he’s drawing, and he’s drawing on my drawings, and I’m drawing on his, and we solved the problem without ever speaking. We drew it out. And then the interpreters started talking to each other. And we were already sitting back, sipping our Coca-Colas. So then we’re going to do this and add this. I say, Yeah, that’s exactly it. Yeah. And then both of us are doing a thumbs up, so that’s that’s one way. 

Doing offshore manufacturing overseas: every country is a little different. Southern China and Chinese vendors, some of the Vietnamese and Thai vendors are very good at getting you numbers very quickly. They will ballpark estimates for whatever you’re sending them. And then they may raise your cost if it’s more complex. They’re trying to secure the deal so they’ll get you a quote within a couple days. In America, getting quotes from manufacturers is a little more tedious. They’re a lot more diligent in checking costs and looking at parts, and it can take weeks sometimes to get quotes in America. I do a lot of American manufacturing as well, but it’s a lot more of: get on the phone and have phone conversations. For the people out there who are scared to pick up the phone and call someone, that won’t work. American manufacturers aren’t checking their emails every day. They will ask you to fax them things. I don’t want to say it’s antiquated, but generally most of the manufacturing — tier two, tier three — that I’ve dealt with, you need to just get on the phone. Call them up, talk to them and they have no problem. They’ll answer your call every time. It’s a very small factory. They’re very busy, they don’t have time. They don’t have people directly dedicated to communication like you would get in an Asian factory. In those places you have a dedicated person who’s talking to the engineers, who’s talking to the shippers. And their job is to just correspond with you every day and get you quotes quickly.

Manufacturers fall into three tiers. Tier one includes companies like Foxcom, which makes iPhones. They are down to tolerances of 100ths of an inch. They want four decimals after every dimension to make sure it’s exactly right. And they’re fantastic. They have every sort of safety certification, and they’re great to work with. They’re normally very expensive. They normally have very long lead times and you normally have to have pretty high qualities to work with them. So most companies that aren’t Apple or GM or GE end up working with Tier Two and Tier Three, which are in my opinion just as good but there’s a little less support. As I said, you may have a guy who’s on the factory floor watching parts come off the mold and not answering emails.

Q: What changes have you seen in how designers approach manufacturing over the course of your career?

A: It’s interesting, and this kind of comes back to design education. We don’t really train designers to talk to manufacturing. We barely train them in what manufacturing methods are. So they don’t have the language to even start the process of understanding what getting a quote from a manufacturer looks like. I’m not saying that that’s across the board. It depends what kind of company you’re with, some companies are structured such that designers are just supposed to design. You submit your drawings to an engineer. The engineer approves the drawings, and that goes to a sourcing person. That sourcing person talks to the manufacturer and then changes get made. And then it comes back down to you. You have to make the changes and it goes back up the line. I was fortunate that in the company I worked with when I first came out of school, which was JW pet, I was speaking directly to my manufacturers. Every single day they were sending me drawings back. They were sending me models. I was sending them models. So I got very comfortable talking about manufacturing with manufacturers. Then in my job after that, where I was a design director, I was speaking to them directly about making orders, setting up the cost of goods, figuring out where we can save money. The more we can teach designers the language of the business of manufacturing, the better prepared they will be to have collaborative conversations with manufacturers.

To be able to say, I want to quote my product freight on board with packaging, fully safety tested versus someone saying, Here’s a glass, quote it for me. They’ll quote it for you to pick it up at their dock, in bubble wrap, thrown in a giant box. You’re not giving them any sort of packaging requirements. You’re not giving them any sort of shipping requirements. Good sourcing people, good manufacturing people, good designers have been doing this for a long time. They want to quote in multiple quantities to see where the price breaks are. They want to look at tooling in different pricing. They want to look at options of different packaging and different shipping options because that may make or break the cost of goods.

Q: Do you have any advice for designers about how to address this hole in their education?

A: There are a lot of really good resources out there. I like to use crowdfunding to teach all these basic methods. After you have a design ready to go, what are the next steps? And we go all the way through sourcing and quoting and setting up orders to sales channels and funnels. Kickstarter has great resources on this. I highly recommend meeting and talking to engineers. Alibaba is the website where you can source manufacturing, and they have templates of quote sheets. Read what is included in it, like you would read an Amazon listing. They’ll say, This product is a minimum quantity order of 1,000 units at X price. It comes packaged in a white box…

I had a friend who was launching an apparel company and he went on to YouTube and he just watched YouTube videos about people talking about fulfillment and manufacturing and problems they had with things getting stuck in customs, things being shipped improperly, how to set up shipping documents, and how to talk to manufacturing. The big thing about making anything is that every single product and every single item you want to produce has its own unique challenges.

So whether it’s a dog toy, whether it’s something that has a computer mouse, a cup, they have their own challenges, they have their own safety requirements, they have their own import regulations. It’s a very broad thing to try to navigate. Ideally if you are thinking about launching your own product, I highly recommend finding someone in that industry who’s done it and asking them questions. They’ll say, Hey, that thing is a 30% tariff to bring into the United States, maybe you want to find an onshore or nearshore option. So we talked about onshore, that’s domestic U.S. Nearshore, that’s Canada and Mexico. Then offshore is Asia, India, South America. They may say, You really want to look at going to Vietnam for this because they’re experts at this type of material. You can find anything you want to make in China but there’s fantastic metal stamping out of India, there are incredible soft goods and textiles out of Turkey. Start getting creative and really thinking about where you want to get something made, because running to China is not the only answer, and fighting with U.S. manufacturing and having to deal with the slow moving beast that is, is also not the only answer. I source globally for everything I do, just out of curiosity, you know?

Q: What are you working on that’s interesting to you at the moment?

A: I have a couple projects going on right now that are really fun. One of my ongoing projects that I’ve been working on for a very long time is a hearing protection product called Earos. It was founded by a gentleman named Ronnie Madra who owned all the biggest nightclubs in the United States, and he developed tinnitus, the ringing in your ears from being in loud environments. He went and bought musicians earplugs, which you get custom fitted for, and they cost 300 dollars each, and then he promptly lost them. He hates phone ear plugs because they actually create an occlusion effect, like when you cover your ear and it sounds like you’re underwater. You can’t hear people talking and you can’t hear the music clearly. Ear plugs for musicians have a tenuation, they allow sound in and just reduce the volume. So he said,  Is there a way we can design these so they’re not $300? He developed a product called Earos that I got involved with at the inception, about seven years ago. I just love this project. We talk about wearing sunglasses, we talk about safety and health in so many other parts of our life. We don’t talk about our hearing. And hearing is so important because it doesn’t fix itself when it goes bad. So we developed this product with some MIT engineers. I did all the industrial design work, and then we launched a crowdfunding campaign. We raised a bunch of dough on it and then we worked with U.S. manufacturers to get it made. We currently mold this product in New Jersey. I think it is such a cool product; it helps people and it allows people to go out and have fun.

I’m also coordinating the minor in entrepreneurship at Pratt. We’re really trying to grow the entrepreneurial spirit of art and design school. Artisan designers are naturally entrepreneurs. You don’t become an artist and say, Well I’m going to go punch this clock every day. You have to be already entrepreneurial to want to sell paintings, to want to be a designer. Creatives often have this fear that they’re not business people, and they’re worried about going into the business side of things. I love sitting there and saying, Listen, an MBA from Harvard knows just as much about launching a product as you do, and it’s your product. MBAs and business people, they’re trying to run existing businesses. They’re not trained to launch brand new companies. 

The very successful father of a friend of mine gave me great advice once. I said, I want to start a business but I don’t know what I’m doing. He said, Well, start one. I said, I don’t know anything about it. He said, No one is stopping you from starting, from being an entrepreneur. You just have to start. 

So I’m trying to take some of that imposter syndrome away for these students, giving them the opportunity to have this dialogue with me and with speakers I bring in. They get used to hearing this business jargon and they feel much more comfortable when they launch something. That has been something that makes me very happy and proud.

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Small Scale Manufacturing

Prototyping and Initial Production Runs

The Smart List is a monthly list of multi-media recommendations on everything design, curated by Interwoven Design. As a group of aesthetically obsessed designers, there are a lot of beautiful products and objects we love and enjoy. These products make our daily lives special and inviting and we want to share them with you. This issue is a collection of small scale manufacturers for prototyping and initial production runs.

The Smart List: Small Scale Manufacturing

Print Parts

We rely on Print Parts’ impressive 3D Printing capabilities to conduct early design tests and validate ideas during our creative process. Their team of skilled additive specialists is always on hand to assist with printing parts and overcoming any challenges that arise.

Conveniently located in Manhattan, just a short subway ride away from our studio, Print Parts facilitates a swift turnaround of iterative 3D printed components. Their manufacturing lab excels at producing cost-effective prototypes and high-quality samples.

To ensure top-notch quality, every order is accompanied by a comprehensive Quality Assurance Checklist. This meticulous inspection is carried out by one of Print Part’s operators before the parts are dispatched for delivery. This way, all parties involved can rest assured that the components meet the required criteria.

via Print Parts

Athena 3D Manufacturing

Athena 3D Manufacturing was established in 2019 with a clear objective: to utilize 3D printing to produce top-notch parts at scale and competitive prices. Over time, Athena has grown its offerings to include a range of additive manufacturing methods like HP Jet Fusion and Markforged Metal X technology, post-processing services, CNC machining, injection molding, cast urethane, and engineering design services.With their ability to develop high-performance, quality parts quickly, Athena 3D helps us iterate quickly through 3D printing and even runs small production runs for us to develop high fidelity prototypes to our clients. Combining their exceptional components with our prototyping capabilities empowers us to fabricate fully functional, photoshoot-ready products with confidence.

via Athena 3D Manufacturing

Carbon 3D

Carbon® is a pioneering 3D printing technology company that empowers businesses to create superior products and accelerate their time to market. Their impressive client roster spans the globe and is particularly distinguished by innovative solutions in the automotive, footwear, and athletic industries. Among their standout projects, Carbon’s ongoing collaboration with Adidas stands out, where they utilize 3D printing to craft lattice midsoles for shoes.

Through their ingenious application of additive manufacturing methods, Carbon 3D has revolutionized lattice structures, allowing us to replicate foam-like qualities in plastic parts. This opens up unique use-case scenarios that were previously unattainable through injection molding or traditional 3D printing. Working alongside their personable and knowledgeable team, we’ve enjoyed a seamless process of iteration and prototyping.

via Carbon 3D

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