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6 Design and innovation 3: the Brompton folding bicycle

6.1 Reprise: concept to prototype to production

Go to buy any functional product, and you will almost certainly be presented with a range of different designs. Some of the differences will just be in the styling, but there may also be real differences in function or quality, which may be reflected in the price. Different design concepts lead to competing products with particular sets of advantages and disadvantages. Moving from concept to production depends critically on the industrial and social context. An idea for a new product, or a modification to an existing design, requires both human effort and financial input if it is to come to fruition.

Part of the design process is the development of prototypes. A prototype is a 'test' version of the product, and may have different functions depending on when it is constructed during the design cycle. If the product is simply having a change to its styling, the prototype will be important in establishing the 'look' which will be attractive to consumers. If a new piece of technology is being used to improve a product, the job of the prototype may be more technical: to ensure that the product's performance is up to scratch. Prototype development may be one of the most costly and time-consuming stages of finalizing the design; it may involve extensive market research, or prolonged laboratory and consumer testing.

If the design life cycle is shortened, to hasten the arrival of the new product in the marketplace, the risk of failure goes up. More designs for a product arriving faster on the shelves is good for consumers, who will revel in the choice, but not good for employers or employees who are staking money and jobs on success!

As an example, James Dyson is on the record as saying that the design of his cyclone vacuum cleaner came about after the making of 5000 prototypes.

The third case study I have chosen to continue the design story is an accessible example that allows me to look at some engineering specifics: it is the design and successful production of a folding bicycle. At the end of the study I shall consider the general lessons and issues that arise from the study. However, remember that most designs fall by the wayside, so its success makes it atypical.