The phenomenon of cheaper, faster, better (better in terms of having more options) is more a result of global economics than it is a corporate mandate. If you think about Bauhaus (the origins of Industrial Design) and how it was intended to provide a social service of making houses and household product more accessible for the ‘have-nots’ in a Baroque society, Industrialization was the net result of an economic and social political position of that time and location. When Bauhaus demonstrated that their experimental process would save on materials, time and energy in the production and assembly of architecture, typography and products; they essentially invented the mass-industrial tools that we still use today. As these Industrial Design tools migrated to the North America they found new traction in commercialization, marketing and branding. Examples; Raymond Loewy streamlining for everything from Shell Oil logos, Locomotive Trains and the Coke bottle shape.
However, we are now experiencing another evolution in Industrial Design as it appears to be reaching the end of an evolutionary plateau, with emerging industrial economies such as China and India set to take over the way things get made (for better or worse). It is important to note that Industrial manufacturing will continue to exist, yet it must evolve to keep up with emerging needs of society and the new rules of global responsibility. In a similar way that Industrial processes in Europe became focussed on premium quality rather than mass-quantity, North American manufacturing will need to re-examine and re-evaluate where their strengths are and what long term potential exists based on examining holistic risks and opportunities.
Since the 1950’s manufacturing expertise in North America has been systematically reduced to ever more efficient assembly lines with ever increasing regulations and manufacturing processes with more emphasis devoted to marketing and advertising. As a result of this, manufacturers have become increasingly more clever at reducing the number, complexity and cost of manufacturing. However as we look forward to the next phase of evolution in our emerging world economy, the core Industrial Design skills and manufacturing expertise appears to be set for going open and experiential.
It is this technical know-how that is gradually being re-distributed throughout the Internet and it is allowing new micro-assembly methods for independents, proving a way to bypass traditional investment heavy processes and procedures. This is proving to be most beneficial for the emerging economies and independents start-ups. Fisker Automotive and Tesla Automotive are both companies who are touting their independent green credentials, and yet they using the same supplier base from larger OEMs to create their more sharply defined and powerful Premium Electric or Plug-in Hybrids vehciles. Most important to note however, is that these are still early days for these type of innovators.
Already there are other new (smaller scale) business models which are begining to pop up. As with many innovations, it is not always the originator of an idea who benefits from an idea or technology first. Sometimes the groundwork that has been laid down by previous business experiments and prototype models leads innovators to other business models with separate and an un-intended technologies and they are able to realize a novel new approach for use in a new type of product. An interesting example at this end of the spectrum is BPG Motors; an small start-up company born from a highschool science project in which the technology of Segway’s personal transporter was reformatted to fit into a motorcycle style package. After only a few short years, the company is now experimenting with a fold-up scooter prototype, the UNO III, which can transform itself to save space to be taken indoors and up an elevator. None of this would have been possible if not for the accessibility of open-source know-how and shared technologies (such as the out-sourced rapid prototyping of aluminum parts).
Are brand names, badges or marques of a manufacturer more important than what the physical product is? These are questions that I often think about. I think automotive manufacturers also need to address these kinds question before taking their brands into the realm of experience design. If a manufacturer of a brand cannot impart a more compelling story beyond what the end customer picks up from their dealership, then perhaps it is time for an investigation around what kinds of experiences, journeys and alternative narratives can be provided to consumers.
Industrial Design has often been criticized as one of the most destructive professions due to the resulting industrial waste, shortened mid-cycle enhancements and associated pollutants with the entire socio-economic, industrial and commercial program. There are several leading minds in transportation design and automotive design experts who acknowledge that the only way to improve current and emerging issues related to transportation and mobility is in collaboration with non-automotive sectors. More importantly there is now an industry awareness and emphasis on designing experiential brands, that take consumers beyond the realm of ‘yes or no type offerings’ or other stand alone products, and instead focuses on delivering a participative experience. This is the next evolution for Industrial Design as it requires a breadth of knowledge of both product, process and positioning.
So what does all this mean to brand-name manufacturers? Manufactures can do much more for consumers, and there are real needs that can be addressed right now beyond simply offering more products. The short answers could be in developing alternatives to car ownership, and alleviating time wasted for commuters stuck in traffic. There are many forms this could this take, most obviously transit buses and ride/share programs. But how could an automotive brand use experiential marketing to provide a premium service? Would there be anything from a brand to add to the experience beyond simply being an ‘outstanding, compelling or gotta-have-product’? Imagine an autonomous limo that picks you and and delivers you your destination, that is piloted by Google, co-branded by Apple and offers passengers an engaging experiences designed by Universal Studios. Or how about stopping off at Starbucks to recharge your electric hybrid while you enjoy your favorite cup of coffee?
The path forward is not yet clear, and there is still much deliberation about what vehicle architectures, electric infrastructure and vehicle servicing that will be needed in the future. However, industry already knows about the more immediate and frustrating issues of traffic, pollution and insurance premiums. If foresight indications are correct, then the R&D groups of large OEM’s need to begin re-evaluating what mobility means, and what role their brands will play in a service oriented economy. Creative technology environments are generally reserved for work in manufacturing R&D silos, however I know from experience that they can be quite flexible in accommodating new types of design and engineering (see my earlier post here). In order for OEM brands to gain access to the next evolution economy, the Researching-of and Designing-exercises for consumer experience based offerings, must be opened up beyond the silo of transportation designers. What is needed now, is a new platform to engage policy makers, urban planners and non-automotive businesses with those in the Automotive Corporate world.