With NX, a leading industrial design firm defines the customer experience of an iconic home product from BT
Using NX allows industrial design to maintain ownership of the creative vision all the way through to manufacture
Protecting the “sweet highlights” of design
One of the top industrial design agencies in the UK, Alloy helps its clients build profitable brands by delivering an excellent user experience. Winner of numerous awards in product design, interaction design and design strategy, the agency works with unknown start-ups as well as global brands such as HP, PZ Cussons, Toshiba and Virgin Atlantic. It has a longstanding business partnership with BT, which is now entirely a service company. With no manufacturing capability itself, BT places huge trust in Alloy’s understanding of the tooling and manufacturing process.
The UK’s biggest internet service provider (ISP), BT provides broadband services to 3.5 million UK households via the BT Home Hub router, a flagship product delivering entertainment, internet and voice. Alloy had already designed the second edition of this design icon and, in 2009, BT asked the company to develop the next generation: BT Home Hub 3.
The project brief called for taking advantage of new chipset technology and creating a more compact, and therefore more environmentally friendly, form; delivering an easy-to-use home experience for customers of all ages and abilities; and ensuring lower support costs for BT. In line with the product’s existing reputation, the new shape would need to be both memorable and protectable by virtue of it not being easy to copy.
Gus Desbarats, chairman and co-founder of Alloy, observes, “A brief from BT is usually quite strategic and, in this case, the main theme was radio frequency or, in customer terms, reliable wireless connection. In contrast to the two earlier models, there was no requirement for Hub 3 to incorporate a removable handset and so, from an industrial design perspective, this meant that the form needed to work even harder to create a strong identity.”
Not just a pretty picture
Industrial designers at Alloy do not follow a sequential model in which they develop a design and then pass it to a third party to fulfill. “In a linear process there is potential for the creative vision to be undermined,” says Desbarats. “Industrial design is applied psychology, whereas engineering is applied physics. It’s extremely important that designers retain control all the way down the line, particularly as engineers may lack understanding of ergonomics, behavior and aesthetics. Our view is that industrial design needs to be the owner of tooling definition for the external surfaces, the internal space layout and all interactions with the customer.”
For these reasons, along with the desire to avoid unnecessary duplication and any data ambiguity at handover to engineering, Alloy adopted Siemens PLM Software’s NX™ software in 1996. Licenses for the advanced 3D computer-aided design (CAD) system were acquired from Siemens PLM Software’s partner, Majenta PLM. “We work continuously with Majenta to optimize internal best practices and investigate new working methodologies that support product design development across multiple sectors,” notes Desbarats. “Majenta provides specialist expertise through one-on-one sessions and then we conduct our own internal CAD training.”
Desbarats explains that Alloy originally chose NX because of its sophisticated surfacing capabilities: “We feel that industrial design challenges 3D CAD in more complex ways than engineering does because we are working with advanced surfacing across complex assemblies.”
Andrew Fayle, a designer at Alloy, adds, “The X-form and I-form tools, which allow direct manipulation of surfaces, are particularly useful. With parametric modeling, I can always go back later to an early design decision – apply curvature to a flat surface, for example – and see the change propagated so that everything falls into place.”
NX is used immediately from first concept to visualize the entire lifecycle of a design: how it will appear on a page, integrate within a range of products, be perceived by users and function all the way through to its disposal. This encourages meaningful conversation with clients and enables constructive research that contributes to the emergence of form. “We use these tools to quickly explore numerous concept directions early in the project,” says Fayle. “Hence, the arc form and the ‘double lens’ aspect of the BT Home Hub 3 evoke the sense of a radar, yet are non-threatening.”
Once the form is clear, using NX allows Alloy’s designers to look at individual components; specify size, density, weight and clearance; and assess manufacturing feasibility. They make educated estimations about the space needed for circuit boards and batteries, even denoting where connectors fit. Their aim is to map the total customer experience, including functional aspects, such as cooling and the temperature when touched. With the Hub 3, for example, there were thermal issues with the newly integrated chip and significant venting needed to be incorporated into the compact shape.
Andrew Fayle says: “The synchronous technology tools of NX, such as ‘replace face’ and ‘move face,’ allow quick evaluation of different surface geometry without needing to go back and edit ‘foundation’ features early in the part navigator. For example, we can look at a few vent concepts before committing to changing the underlying sketches and related features. The tools of NX are really powerful; with one action we can achieve what takes several steps using traditional industrial design tools. This allows more time to concentrate on getting the concept and user experience right.”
Alloy utilizes a number of techniques to gather user feedback and, in the case of Hub 3, this led to an unexpected new feature: a removable key that fits into the back contains the web security code for quick and easy reference.
Transcending language barriers
The whole development process for Hub 3 took just 13 months – from brief to consumer launch. It took just three weeks to convert research insight into design intent, address behavior, generate multiple concepts and build and test simulations with NX.
The new form exceeded the original targets regarding size and cost of manufacture. For Alloy, working with NX enables early prototyping, ensuring manufacturing feasibility and reducing late changes. According to Desbarats, using NX from the start takes 50 percent of the mechanical engineering effort out of the equation. He explains, “Engineers do not have to study drawings or re-create data. This provides huge savings because building the outer shell usually accounts for 60-80 percent of the effort.”
Alloy works with engineering teams all over the world. Handover to manufacturing is simple, speedy and error-free, because with NX, there is no requirement to copy or interpret and the opportunity for misunderstanding is essentially eliminated. All communication is through the solid model, which transcends language barriers. The use of NX also allows Alloy to audit compliance easily, so designers always check that geometry and tolerances are exactly as intended and that surface blends and highlights are retained.
Desbarats maintains that one aspect of an industrial designer’s job is to challenge engineers and he describes one notable achievement. “Using NX enabled us to give Hub 3 a very distinct arc shape that could still accommodate a conventional circuit board,” says Desbarats. “One of the companies bidding to manufacture said it was impossible to make. We were able to show them how and, in the end, they were very open to our approach.”
Creating customer experiences and brand expression
Fayle notes, “Using NX is a huge strength for us. It supports decision-making early on in the development process, takes us from concept to production tools within a single environment, and avoids long revision loops. It enables us to retain orderly and timely responsibility for our design.”
Desbarats concludes, “Our core purpose at Alloy is the application, evolution and understanding of industrial design. Human behavior ultimately controls business success, and as industrial designers we are creating customer experiences and brand expression. NX enables us to realize our creative vision and tackle technical risk. It is a tool for designers who want to be leaders.”