Interview: Paul Neal

Written by: Paul Fanning | Published:

How does a design consultancy contribute to the development of other people's products? Paul Fanning asks Paul Neal of Product Partners.

The role of the industrial design consultancy can be a contentious one as far as many companies are concerned. For some, such organisations may be perceived of as an unnecessary adjunct to the product development process.

Unsurprisingly, Paul Neal, co-founder of leading industrial design company Product Partners (pictured left, second left) disagrees. "I think our diverse experiences benefit clients, who may be bogged down with only having the one experience of 'what they have done before'," he says. "What we can do is bring a fresh and innovative approach to their new (and old) problems as we're not restricted by past experiences and failures. Sometimes you need an outsider's input."

Nonetheless, Product Partners does face resistance from time to time. However, as Neal points out, this can often be a function of when and how its clients come to it. "They come to us at all sorts of stages," he says. "It could be that they've got into a mess and come to us as a last resort, which is not really where you want to be, as sometimes you get a reluctance on the part of certain individuals to work with you. On the other hand, there are other companies who involve us from the strategy stage all the way through to production."

Since being established by Neal and co-founder Steve Gallichan (pictured left, far right) in 1995, Product Partners has risen to become an internationally-recognised and award-winning consultancy. Indeed, not only has it won the Plastics Industry Awards, it is the only consultancy also to sit on the judging panel.

With clients ranging from industrial names like Baldor and Parker Hannifin to leading manufacturers of consumer and medical equipment, the company's client range is described by Neal as being 'more or less everything except aviation, space travel and automotive', pointing out that 'designers thrive on diversity and not speciality'.

So how exactly does Product Partners fit into the development process? Says Neal: "We effectively become an extension of the development team; undertaking responsibility for the areas around the inner periphery of the development process. Often we are a catalyst for the project once it's underway in one form or another. We can affect marketing, we can question engineering, but very often, we bring everything together. We get involved with looking at the market from a product design point of view – what the market might require; we develop the concept and stylise it; we engineer it in CAD; and we have a hands-on model shop and some basic FEA and rapid prototyping. Ultimately, though, we bring the same process to a problem regardless of whether the problem is a sutureless connector for heart valves or for something in the drives and controls market."

However, there is no sense in which the company would claim to be expert in every area, with the result that sometimes it needs to consult others. Says Neal: "We have associations with various companies that we can dip into to expand our team. Those expertise can come along with the client, but if necessary, we can manage the whole thing."

The rise of the inventor in recent years (something Neal ascribes to the popularity of 'Dragons' Den') has been an interesting development for the company, with a number of successful projects having resulted from such approaches. However, it can be a little hit and miss at times, as Neal explains: "First of all, you have to make sure that these guys have actually researched the product they've got. Someone can come in with a great idea and you go on Google and there it is already. That said, there are one or two we've worked with who come up with really great ideas and some of them have gone on to be quite lucrative."

For all their successes, however, there can still be a perception of Product Partners as not being 'proper engineers'. Says Neal: "We're creative first and engineers second, which often means we don't really fit in anywhere. It's always been that way, though. By the other people at art school, industrial designers like us were always regarded as engineers. But when you leave art school and start working in engineering, to an engineer you're a designer. Only recently we were described by one client as 'the felt-tip fairies' – that was quite a shocker!"

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