Do product designers need first hand interaction with the manufacturing process?

John Fogarty is the retired Bisley Director of Design. In an industry career spanning five decades he has witnessed significant changes in the relationship between designer and manufacturer. Here he makes the case for continued close physical collaboration.

The wholesale shift of manufacturing to Asia has taken with it most of the day-to-day, hands-on collaboration that was previously enjoyed between designer and manufacturer in the West.

While superficially this ought not to matter because modern communications technology enables real-time electronic sharing of design and engineering data; in reality something very tangible and valuable has been lost.  

Although both were for furniture manufacturers, in my first two staff appointments as a designer I was based in their London Sales Offices - 32 and 64 miles respectively from the factories in Essex and Suffolk. As I later discovered when relocated to the manufacturing site of the second employer, even this relatively short distance had been acting as a distinct impediment to the free exchange of ideas and to my ability to fully exploit the materials and processes employed.

Knowing that a whole host of individuals with a vast pool of specialist knowledge is available just the other side of the office wall is enormously reassuring and useful. Ones own knowledge base grows exponentially with total immersion in this macro culture.

The Purchasing function is moreover almost always based at the manufacturing site and a strong working relationship with this department and their network of subcontractors is absolutely essential if one is to gain an understanding and full utilisation of the materials and processes employed externally.

This physical disconnect between design and manufacturing is a topic that has been exercising far more influential minds than my own. It was touched upon by Sir Kenneth Grange in his recent Desert Island Discs appearance and another knighted British designer - Jony Ive of Apple - was recently musing on the subject in an article I read. 

If my 26 years at Bisley has convinced me of one thing it is the imperative of maintaining manufacturing in British hands and thereby of keeping as much of it onshore as possible. It is an immutable consequence of foreign ownership that international businesses will always find it hard to resist the lure of lower wages and - in times of global overcapacity - the opportunity to shut down operations in regions where the social cost of doing so is lowest. At the very least we ought to learn something from the sorry saga of the successive British Steel/Hoogeveens/Corus/Tata ownership and decline?