Porticos Product Design: The Art and Science of Listening

It’s easy to forget that behind the products you use every day are people. Sure, there are also spec sheets and CAD designs and testing labs and budgets. But critical to the process of bringing a product to life are people doing a very human job: they’re listening.

Sean Ahr, Porticos Director of Engineering, notes that the skill of listening carefully to customer input is part of what sets Porticos apart, from the initial idea all the way to the final production run.

Listening to Spark Creative Ideas

Sean explains that unfortunately it’s common for engineers to approach a project from the perspective of the spec document, not the end user. But he has found that satisfied customers are those whose needs have been noted, written down, and met in creative ways.

He describes the scene: “When you can listen to a customer’s stories, think through their potential needs, and bring them ideas they hadn’t thought of yet, you can see their faces light up.”

And that level of insight doesn’t come without a willingness to listen and empathize: it’s a constant exercise of stepping into the customer’s shoes, helping them imagine their in-the-field needs, and designing their product with that end-user in mind.

Listening from Start to Finish

In every step of the design and production process, Porticos makes a point to listen:

Product Specification Document: The time when the largest amount of listening happens, this is when a team of Porticos engineers and the customer sit down and write in plain English the goals for a product. The engineers ask lots of questions and then open the floor for the customer to speak into those questions: What must the product do? What would it be nice if it did? What abuse will it take? What performance standards must it meet? Sean says, ‘Working through those questions as a team, instead of us talking at the customer, makes sure we’re focusing on what’s important to them before we start designing.”

Budget and Timeline: It’s tedious, but teamwork and input from the customer at this phase makes sure unique needs are heard and met. A customer might have a budget limit or a date on the calendar for a trade-show, and those details can shape the design in significant ways.

Conceptualizing: Bringing CAD screens or hand sketches, Porticos huddles with the customers for an exciting first look at how this product might come together. At this stage, listening to customer feedback is critical. “We’ll give them options A, B, and C,” says Sean, “and we usually end up with a hybrid–maybe ‘mostly A, with a little bit of C.’” But that customer input–whether it moves Porticos forward or back to the drawing board–is critical to a useful final product and satisfied customers.

Prototype / ALPHA phase: When the customer can offer feedback on tactile things like ergonomics, fitness for use, size, and aesthetics, listening closely to what they say–and asking questions about what they don’t say–directly shapes the final product. Says Sean, “This hands-on meeting with the customer gives us and them confidence that the product can work in volume manufacturing.”

Testing: While customers typically know best what their products will live through, they don’t always know how to convert those situations to verification or reliability tests. Porticos helps the customer in determining which test are best suited and developing the verification and reliability test plans.

Production Planning: All the listening pays off when Porticos visits the factory with the customer and passes the torch. Sean says, “At this point ,we’re no longer the listeners, question askers, and idea generators: instead, we’re the technical support.”

Pilot Run: After spending so long imagining the customer using the product, Porticos is always excited to see it actually land in their hands.

Listening as Connecting

Porticos prides itself on going the extra mile to listen to customer’s needs, uncover needs they might not have even known, and meet those needs in unexpected ways. When a customer finds that their product exceeds their expectations in the field, that hard work of listening pays off.

Marketing Piece for Thermally Conductive Materials

Porticos, Inc. remains on the leading edge of the design of plastic housings for electronics applications. The housings are usually molded of a highly thermally insulative plastic such as ABS or PC. However, when the device is a heat generating application, the insulated housing can have hot spots and can cause the device internally to reach undesirable elevated temperatures. In this case, it would be advantageous to have a plastic material that is thermally conductive. The heat will be distributed to the housing and convectively cooled to the ambient air. With the ever increasing need for electronics to produce power in a smaller space, the advanced thermally conductive plastic, CoolPoly™ made by Celanese, may alleviate the heat problems.

Traditional plastics soften with temperature and can deform under load more readily with elevated temperatures. By conducting and dispersing the heat more uniformly, the thermally conductive plastics will stay cooler and maintain their shape and load capability. In addition, the need for active cooling may be obviated.

Figure 1. Example of housing designed of thermally conductive plastic

Compared to alternative material housings such as metal and ceramics, the thermally conductive plastic can be molded cost effectively, weigh less and have other added benefits associated with injection molding such as complex shape, component consolidation and high volume production. However, in production, it is important to work with an injection molder that is familiar with the material so that the molding process parameters are properly controlled to prevent molding issues; most prevalent being the proper molding temperatures.

CoolPoly™ is available with thermal conductivities in the range of 2-10 W/mK and beyond, depending on the grade. By comparison, the thermal conductivity of typical ABS and PC have a range of .15 – .25 W/mK. This magnitude increase may make a significant difference in the overall thermal management of a product design.   To the feel, the difference is dramatic. Holding a part made of this product feels cool to the touch, as the heat is taken from your hand. Furthermore CoolPoly™ is available with electrical conductivity or electrical isolation to meet a wide variety of applications. More information can be found at www.celanese.com/coolpoly.

Celanese Principal Engineer, Len Poole, remarked on the working relationship with Porticos. “While collaborating on a development project, Celanese found Porticos to be innovative and agile when facing challenges, and unafraid to use our cutting edge processes and materials to arrive at the best solution for their customer.”

According to Michelle Demers, a Project Lead at Porticos, “Celanese was very helpful in suggesting different CoolPoly compounds to balance the parameters between strength and thermal conductivity.​  Datasheets were provided, and sample materials were made available for purchase to mold product for comparison.  During the molding process, Celanese played an integral role with expertise and knowledge to adjust the process parameters for the best material flow, part fill and part formation.  I was impressed with Celanese for their overall support for our application.”

Ref. Celanese website: www.celanese.com/coolpoly