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A new look: process brings clarity

In the third in a four-part series about redesigning our packaging (make sure to check out part one and part two), I’m going to look at our design process. As you’ll have read in the previous post, we quickly realised that redesigning our packaging was about much more than boxes; it was the manifestation of an entire supply chain. With so many interdependent systems, there wasn’t a clear place to start. We attacked the problem with endless discussions, wall-sized diagrams, drawings and lots of excel sheets. We realised that our packaging was fundamentally a design problem, with lots of engineering and finance problems contained within it. We had to combine blue sky thinking with the constraints of our production processes and the needs of our subcontractors who would be assembling and shipping the products. We found three guiding principles, modularity, postponement and future proofing. These interrelated concepts are crucial enablers of our growth.

The more modular we could make our products, the more flexible our systems could be and the more we could respond to our current (and future) problems. Our previous packaging wasn’t modular at all. Every component was different, and they didn’t link to each other in size, shape or organisation. Our quest for modularity began with the details of our existing products. How tall, wide and deep are they? What common dimensions do our PCBs share? How many Touch Boards take up the space of a single jar? Looking at the relationships of our existing products and the combinations of products that went into our kits we could quickly see that we could create a universal set of dimensions that might accommodate all of them. But would it work for products that we had yet to design? Would we make more chemicals, hardware or even a consumer product? If we made a consumer product, what would it be and how would it sit next to our current products? These provoking questions were a crucial part of our initial design process. We began to establish a universal set of dimensions, testing them against various scenarios.

We realised that modularity had other benefits too. Smaller production runs would give us the option to iterate our artwork. Developing a design ruleset for the packaging was inspiring new product ideas. Modularity was about making as few sub-assemblies as is necessary. We now have what we call an “inner” and an “outer” box. A product sold on its own, taking a 10ml tube as an example has an inner and an outer. Used in a Touch Board Starter Kit, it only uses the inner, being contained in the Touch Board Starter Kit box. The modularity of the physical sizes means that we can quickly develop new products because we can use the modules to host new components or new combinations of existing ones. If we want to sell a kit with four 50ml jars of Electric Paint and a few 10ml tubes, we can easily do that because it fits into our existing system.

“Postponement” is a production theory in which you postpone the final assembly of the product to the last possible moment. A flexible production methodology was crucial for us as having products tied up in other products (10ml Electric Paint in a Touch Board Starter Kit) was creating stock outages. Conversations with our fulfilment partners highlighted the fact that they would be able to construct our kits almost ad hoc. Taken to its extreme, a Touch Board Starter Kit would only be assembled at the point or order, pulling specific components off of the shelf to create the final product. This flexibility would allow us to run a lower stock level, de-risking the business’ cash flow. We also had to consider our partners. We subcontract our production, logistics and fulfilment, so we had to check that proposed changes to the system reduced the burden on our critical partners.

Future proofing was crucial. We had already experienced the costs of designing packaging only for the existing products. It was important that we thought as far ahead as possible to accommodate what we might make. We focused on the physical size of products, sales channels and market segments to help describe our 18-month product pipeline. Would we be making products significantly larger than our current products? Would we make products that customers needed to assemble (i.e. they would come with multiple separate components)? These conversations pushed us past designing for the current moment and built a foundation that will allow us to create better products, even faster.