I was told a number of years ago that the first sign of an industrial designer is one who looks underneath a table as well as on top. That is certainly an interesting way of putting it and I can’t agree more. More often than not, during discussions with the general public, their immediate response to my job title revolves around sketching nice images, choosing color themes and generally “making it look nice”. Obviously, they’re not wrong, as good form and appearance of a product are critical in order to have a successful product. However, what is often misunderstood is that as designers, exploring and developing the inner workings of a product is just as important in order to present a truly feasible concept.
What product designers will often find is that the face of the product is a small portion of the new product development (NPD) process. In the case of consumer hardware, the larger portion focuses on a complex, yet beautiful puzzle, often never even seen or experienced by the end user. It’s a result of collaboration between numerous specialist teams, all combining their knowledge in order to make everything fit and work together – while fulfilling mechanical, manufacturing and design requirements.
What annoys me is that it’s a real shame that the puzzle is never seen. Take a smartphone for example. You as the user will experience the outer face of this product daily. You may notice the that it fits nicely in your hand, or it’s lighter and faster than the predecessor. These are what we refer to as product benefits. How these are actually achieved is not of concern to the end user, they simply must meet in order to gain a competitive market edge. However, how these are met is the beauty I am referring to. So, I’ve taken an old smartphone from the office and decided to put a case study together by pulling one apart to illustrate my point.
Our candidate for the job is nothing impressive but a perfect example. What makes it perfect? It’s a well used, $50 touchscreen phone, typically bought for short term use before being discarded. However, it has an immense about of detailing within it, which is often overlooked.
Removing the back panel
Upon opening the back case, we’re greeted with a wealth of detailing and information. The first thing I noticed is the plastic housing. Low cost and highly detailed parts such as this can only be manufactured by a process called injection molding. This allows highly accurate parts, fast turnover, and low part cost after the initial investment is made.
Molded parts like this are accompanied by a series of markings, usually on the inside face, which describes aspects of the product.
- Date stamps can record the date/batch/time of day of manufacture. This can be useful for manufacturers in order to isolate groups of product and troubleshoot any problems they may be experiencing.
- Recycling details and material information is there to identify the plastic once the product is discarded. The back panel is marked with >PC<, which refers to the Polycarbonate material.
- Disposing details. This Phone has a “Do not dispose to landfill” logo in several locations. It is important that as consumers we adhere to this. This is because a large portion of e-waste is thrown out each year directly to the landfill, causing chemicals to contaminate the soils and surrounding waterways. If you see this logo or have any electronic waste, it is best to drop these off at your local region’s E-waste station where they can be handled correctly.
- Fire ratings to meet safety standards. The Back panel is marked with “V1” which ranks the product within “UL-94” fire safety standards.
- Identification numbers unique to the phone such as IMEI. This is the phone’s electronic and unique signature which records the country of origin, models details etc.
Upon removing and looking at the battery a little closer, we can first see the overall specifications of the battery, A lithium-ion, 3.7 volts, 1300MaH (milliamp hours). Underneath this, we’re given a series of logos.
- Lithium-ion batteries represent the latest in secondary (rechargeable) battery technology. Providing higher capacities, lighter weight and lower self-discharge rates over alternatives. However, these can be very dangerous when overheated – as illustrated by recent exploding phone events over the past years.
- Voltage refers to the overall strength of the battery, whereas MaH refers to the capacity. The higher each number, the stronger or longer lasting the battery will be.
- CE refers to the product meeting European conformity standards – which qualifies the product against health, safety, and environmental standards.
- Recyclable – take to an electronic waste centre!
- Non-disposable / Not intended for landfill. Again, this is due to the battery’s chemicals (which are classes as carcinogenic) leaking within landfills and then contaminating groundwater as it flows through. However, many of the chemical compositions can also be recycled for another life.
Opening the next portion of the phone was a little more tricky – it required some convincing! Since products such as these are designed with a short life frame in mind, serviceability is not an important factor. Furthermore, opening this panel is where we pass the intended line for users to interact with. Therefore, designers will intentionally make this panel harder to remove. During manufacture, these back panels will be added during the final stages of assembly once the product has passed through numerous fixtures for quality control testing.
Once removed, we get to the good stuff! The motherboard PCB (printed circuit board) is exposed and showing the raw components. Examining the plastic back plate, we can see a series of grid-like ribs which run across the product. These are a solution to a molding constraint. They are in place to add strength and reduce the amount of material used while allowing the curved form on the outer facing side of the molding.
Other components of interest show the camera lens, Micro USB, SD card holder and sim card holder – all being attached directly to the motherboard. You will typically find these on isolated PCB assemblies in high-quality phones to allow replacement parts to be installed if the component were to fail.
Removing the motherboard
Removing the motherboard exposes the back of the screen and front housing. This side of the PCB is kept clean in order for it to lay flat on the screen, with the exception of the forward facing microphone. Notice how the tops are still connected? Once the bottom flex cable is disconnected, the motherboard can rotate along the top edge to allow a clean install of the screen assembly.
PCB assemblies like this, in a practical sense, are the real product behind the mask. However, they are delicate and require housing for various reasons. Therefore, usability requirements such as button placement, size, form are outlined during early stages and worked alongside with electronics engineering team as a specification.
Once the screen was removed, all the components can be laid out side by side. Notice that the entire phone is assembled with 8 screws in total. The rest of the components are housed via clipping features or location bosses in the plastic moldings. In a general sense, fewer parts make for faster assemblies and lower bill of materials (BOM) costs which directly affects the retail price down the line.
It also shows that as product designers, it is imperative that we understand and help establish what’s inside a product, in order to shape what goes on the outside. Our process at Blender focuses on both internal and external factors during early stages of our design process, utilising industrial designers, mechanical engineers, and electrical engineers order to produce feasible concepts.
Tear down processes like this is an inspiring and fun way to learn about how things come together. Please do note, if you are keen to attempt this yourself please be safe. Some products are fine to tear down, others are not. If you have any hesitation or stumble across warning labels, do not continue. It also goes without saying, there is a high chance that something will become damaged and no longer function. So find old/cheap/discarded products from your local op-shop, not your fancy new iPhone. Remove all batteries from the product, unplug any leads and allow the product to sit for several hours to allow any charge to dissipate within the product.