The Importance of Mastering Materials Use and Manufacturing Processes

Our guest contributor py brings us this week a very informative article on how a designer can get better in the use of materials and their manufacturing processes. As usual it is very well researched, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Thanks py!


A strong understanding of material use and manufacturing processes is essential and needed in the Industrial Design industry today. Materials are an important consideration for any product design that needs to be realized. Therefore the right selection of materials and manufacturing processes is important in enabling a successful product launched to market.

Due to the advancements in modern technology, the range and variety of materials have increased way beyond basic materials such just wood, metal and plastic. So how then can we choose the right material for our products?

1. Function and Personality of the Materials

First and foremost, one has to grasp a good knowledge of materials characteristics. Different materials have different functional properties. Ceramics are particularly heat resistant and hard. Plastics can be easily formed into an infinite range of shapes and colours.

Glass is hard and has some outstanding optical qualities. Wood is easy to work without necessarily using expensive machinery and is also naturally highly decorative.

While it is easy to consider materials only from the perspective of obvious functional attributes, the emotional and aesthetic qualities should also help define the product as much as the form and function. The surface texture, the translucency, the softness or hardness all have an effect on the way a product is perceived and used for different product characteristics.

So considering the two above perspectives, evaluating the requirements for the final product should help to decide on the right material. In 2001 – 2003, Chris Lefteri came up with a series of books of in-depth materials studies with Rotovision on the following, that has given very updated and in-depth materials studies suitable for industrial design usage.

Chris lefteri books

2. Manufacturing Processes, Quantity and Cost

This is the next important factor that one needs to consider when manufacturing their products. Choosing the right material and having a good understanding of various processing methods to form products are very essential factors to decide the suitable manufacturing methods.

For example, glass can be a very cheap material but handmade pieces can be very expensive, as compared to the tooling of a mass-produce wine bottle. Plastic, on the other hand, are very cost effective tooling processes for large quantities. Different methods of casting, forging, moulding and stamping also cater to different demands for tooling costs, unit price, product volumes and rates of production.

Therefore, it is always good to start a matrix which matches the design demands versus the various manufacturing methods suitable to see which would be the best manufacturing process suitable.

A book that I would highly recommend would be the latest design book by Chris Lefteri called “Making it – Manufacturing Techniques for Product Design.” Published in 2007, it gives an extensive overview of all the possible and updated design manufacturing processes possible for different materials.

making it

3. The question of sustainability

The increasing importance of providing a sustainable future also means that designers and manufacturers today have to be more selective with the materials, and to ensure that they have added sustainable value. Therefore choosing the right material that has strong sustainable qualities ( recyclability, energy efficient, solar-powered etc.) are important. This is to ensure that usage of sustainable materials are applied more intelligently in the society.

The “Total beauty of Sustainable Products” by Edwin Datschefski, is an eco-product design book that explores the sustainable values of every eco-product existing in our society through evaluating 4 eco-elements values : Cyclic, Solar, Safe, Efficient.

With the continuous evolution of materials, material hybrids and more efficient manufacturing processes, it is highly encouraged that the use of materials goes hand in hand with skilled and relevant production technology methods. Therefore, it is important for us, as designers too, to be well-aware of the evolution of the design materials and processes around us. Finally, by having a great feel of the material’s properties as well as manufacturing processes, designers can find that they will be able to draw great inspiration when redefining product languages and forms.

edwin datschefski

  • AUdall

    September 21, 2007 at 3:55 pm Reply

    Excellent post. Working in product development and sourcing, I routinely see firms come to us with products designed by ID teams that were not optimized for overseas, mass manufacturing.
    Occasionally, expensive or exotic materials are called out that may not be available or is very expensive overseas, or the design is not tooling optimized and tooling is more expensive, etc.
    I suppose it is understandable that 90% of IDs will probably never visit the actual production facility–because many would consider it unnecessary to do their job. But I agree wholeheartedly that becoming familiar with these things as well as wrapping one’s mind around the production process, will substantially help an ID design a great product that is feasible in the market.
    Thanks for the insight…

  • py

    September 9, 2007 at 4:13 pm Reply

    Hi Saikat,
    Thanks for the tip on Discovery Channel. I’m glad you liked this article. I understand what you mean about certain designers lacking the understanding of materials and manufacturing processes. Even I myself had this problem before, too, when I first started out. So these books really helped me through a lot to understand materials and maufacturing processes in greater light.
    Another good tip other than reading is also to actually go see the actual manufacturing processes existent in your company or your vendor’s company, to see how things are actually made and done.

  • Saikat

    September 9, 2007 at 12:32 pm Reply

    one more thing!
    Although it’s not directly related but Discovery Channel’s “How It’s Made” is a nice program about mass manufacturing and covers some aspects of material and process.

  • Saikat

    September 9, 2007 at 12:21 pm Reply

    this is an amazing article !!
    thorough understanding and interest about material and process is perhaps the most important attitude any industrial designer and as important as her/his passion for industrial design.
    i have come across many people who are not bothered by material, process, fit and finish….
    i think this is one of the fundamental and practical aspect of industrial design which makes it different form ‘art’ or ‘sculpture’.

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