Finding the Happy Path
Ottawa-based Design 1st’s multi-disciplinary team takes on any design challenge.
In the mid-1990s, Kevin Bailey had a Canadian design engineer’s ideal job. Managing a diverse team of more than 100 product developers at Nortel Networks, one of Canada’s largest and most cutting-edge corporations at the time, he and his team oversaw a $13 million annual budget dedicated to creating the next generation in telecommunications devices. Day to day, Bailey was responsible for anything from exploring new product ideas, developing prototypes to integrating new product into the global manufacturing divisions at Nortel.
In 1996, however, he made the often-harrowing decision to leave the relative security of corporate culture to start his own company, Ottawa-based product design firm Design 1st. In many ways, it would be a stark departure, yet his experience at Nortel helped lay the foundation of the new firm. Looking back over the past 20 years, Bailey says he has integrated a lot of the successful elements from his Nortel days into his own company.
“Now we sit here in 2016, I have a 28-person creative team that goes end-to-end, including business strategy, industrial design, interface design, detailed mechanical and electronics engineering,” explains the Design 1st president. “And with our embedded software team, we can move quickly to solutions across many markets.”
Over the past two decades, Design 1st has built its reputation developing physical products that need custom electronics, coupled with that “wow factor” needed to compete with large U.S. design and engineering firms. Today, the company primarily focuses on developing connected devices, in line with the growing trend toward the Internet of Things (IoT) and connectivity. Bailey says his team has the capability to compete and can take on approximately 70 product development projects each year.
“Connected products are much harder to design than just hardware products,” explains Bailey. “If you design an IoT connected product…it isn’t just the physical device you need to worry about. It’s the wireless infrastructure that gets the information up to the cloud, the application software and any next level services. It’s a whole rollout of useful and interdependent applications and services to users, which includes the hardware devices, that makes this much more challenging.”
It is for this reason that Bailey has developed the company to have a wide range of capabilities under one roof, making projects much easier to manage and faster to deliver. In addition, the company works with cloud software design partner, Macadamian Technologies, which does the application layer and cloud interactions.
“It’s called the happy path,” says Bailey, who explains that the phrase in product design refers to a development process in which everything works as planned. “The product is tested early, the business case and manufacturing strategy are bang on and the time to market is met. However, the reality path in product design is that you spend a lot of time with all the exception conditions to figure out why a product is not working as planned and the problems show up on many fronts if you have not been down the path before.”
To maximize the happy path, Design 1st has built a diverse team with many specialties. For example, the company has an internal group that deals only with a manufacturing strategy and set-up. The company’s quality management system (QMS) builds the necessary FDA documents for product development. Bailey notes that this all needs to be done while the design team is designing without distracting them too much.
For the most part, every member of the team deals with two to three projects at once. For Bailey, this is the best way to balance things, as project needs go up and down throughout each client’s development process.
“We load balance and move projects around while having a very tight team,” he explains. “We are in a co-located area so we can shift people to work on different things depending on the demand on every given project. As most staff is aware of open projects, it takes very little time to come up to speed on newly assigned activities.”
Bailey, on the other hand, likes to be involved in almost every project. On any given day, he could work on strategic elements of 10 different projects. This is part of the reason Design 1st is focused on “fast collaboration” with clients. For the most part, many customers have never visited the Ottawa-based headquarters. Instead, the company has developed tools to allow them to work remotely and collaborate with clients and suppliers all over the world. It’s as easy as clicking on an icon on Design 1st’s homepage, which brings users to a two-way secure “digital whiteboard”.
“It works two-ways, but it allows us to do really quick interaction with customers daily,” explains Bailey. “The most important thing here is to be able to convey things to customers – draw ideas, make decisions together…It works anywhere and our clients don’t have to know the tools.”
Design 1st has created over 500 unique products for a variety of different companies in a wide range of industries including wearable technology, medical equipment, robotics/mechatronics, commercial and consumer products. Recently, the firm worked with co-founders, Will Nault and Tyler Richards, of Fantasy Scoreboards Inc., an Edmonton-based company to develop an IoT at-home NHL scoreboard.
“Two inventors from Edmonton came to us after trying to [develop the product] themselves,” says Allan Kerr, VP Analytics for Design 1st. “Their costs were overrun so they came to Design 1st and we helped them piece the project together.”
Nault and Richards already had a working prototype. However, Design 1st quickly realized they needed to start from scratch as the prototype’s physical design, selected materials and volume manufacturing features meant that it could never meet the market price point Fantasy Scoreboards had identified.
Design 1st had only five months to engineer a completely redesigned scoreboard that was ready to ship to market. The company ensured the new design was in line with market targets, future-proofed the product firmware coding with the cloud managed control, and managed hardware costs.
“[The Fantasy Scoreboard] sits in your house with a corresponding app that feeds in all the NHL game data,” explains Kerr. “The user is able to select which games to show up on the scoreboard.”
Prototyping and production development were done simultaneously, enabling Fantasy Scoreboards to progress from design to a market-ready product that was able to be shipped out to customers.
For now, Design 1st is designing a wide range of products for its clients including the next-generation of desk telephones, a project for which Bailey’s Nortel knowledge will come in handy. The company is also developing a next-generation umbrella, stairs to help paraplegics on and off Learjets, fuel cells, internet-connected pump controllers, a relaxation bracelet and the next-gen flip chart.
Bailey notes that the medical market has become more and more of a focus for the company. The more technical or complex a product development is, the better this team fits. They are currently working on a concussion assessment device and a connected body thermometer.
“There are a lot more medically-focused products, especially with the aging population,” he adds, “In Canada, we are way down in medical device development than say the U.S. or abroad. We are a much smaller fraction in new product development than our percentage of population.”
Currently, 90% of Design 1st clients are North American based. Of those, almost half are Canadian and 10% are Ottawa based. The remaining 10% are global clients who cannot get the services Design 1st offers in their local markets.
“Growing the company to upwards of 500 people sits out there as a possibility and opportunity,” Bailey says. “It takes advantage of all of these talented students that are coming out of the core business, industrial design and engineering schools and giving them a place to go that is product development oriented in Canada. Product development is really fun and exciting. Just ask anyone who works here.”