By Andy MacInnis
Ready, set, go… Design, make, sell!
Each fall, first-year IDM students try their hands at developing, producing and selling 50 copies of a product in a seven-week exercise called the Sales Gala. Evaluating choices, designing, engineering, sourcing materials, marketing, packaging, point-of-sales displays, shipping, and online presence were all part of the project, as was the biggie—manufacturing!
Any successful product must have a combination of desirability, feasibility and viability (DFV). A great product will be easy to make, sell out quickly and make money. Each of our teams learned how a product is affected by process repeatability, supply chain issues and late design changes. Mockups and prototypes tested with potential users proved or disproved desirability in early-stage concepts. Winning concepts were developed over multiple iterations into final feasible products, sometimes changing even after production had started. At the end of the seven weeks, the Sales Gala would provide the final piece of information: which products were most viable in the marketplace.
This year’s Sales Gala category was kitchenware. Teams produced a set of four coasters with a map of the Charles River flowing through them; an indoor growing station; a set of magnetic spice tins; a functional table centerpiece in the shape of a reindeer; a decorative bottle opener; and a serving bowl that gives out a tone.
Laser cutters, CNC milling machines and CNC routers were all put to work as large amounts of plywood, magnets, concrete, exotic wood veneers and bags of fasteners began to arrive. Even at this late stage, products were being pared down to their essence to allow success in our limited time frame. Decisions of finish, colors, and packaging were made between all-day machine runs and trips to the lumber yards. The IDM studio was getting cramped with stacks of work In progress, and students scoured the MIT campus for any open laser-cutter bandwidth.
One of the first things students learned was that keeping their product simple would drastically reduce their manufacturing workload. Elaborate ideas were quickly simplified or scrapped for simpler ones. Lofty goals of using only sustainable materials were tempered when availability or quality proved troublesome. Theoretical lessons became reality, as one or two extra parts for a product become 50 or 100 extra parts on the workbench. Learning to save a few minutes per part on an operation paid off in saving hours of work.
Some very clever solutions evolved as time evaporated and options narrowed. As an example, what was conceived as a bell to promote mindful eating became a beautiful, colorful concrete bowl as the bell proved troublesome to produce. Even transporting inventory across campus at the last minute taught a lesson about package sizes and the weight of concrete bowls in quantities of 50.
The project also brought a close group even closer. In the last few hours before the Gala, our cohort of 21 students showed their camaraderie by helping out other teams when they had time, ensuring that what’s learned by one team is shared with all. A group that started strong is now even stronger and more connected as a result of their shared efforts and successes.
Each team’s product took a different path to completion and had its own challenges.
Muddy Charles: An idea for a set of four coasters with a map of the Charles River flowing through them resulted in multilayered, multicolored wooden objets d’art that were laser-cut and hand-assembled. Gluing the layers was not as straightforward as expected, and students tried several methods before finding one that worked within the timeframe and available equipment. This project went through several iterations of material, number of layers, coloring agents, adhesives, and methods of cutting and assembly before arriving (at nearly the last minute) on the best way forward. The market for this item proved strong, with opportunities to continue production beyond the class project.
GRO: Addressing the problem of a limited gardening season for many of us, GRO designed a small, well-made growing station for indoor, year-round use. LED strips supply light to three small pots of herb seedlings. A CNC router cut the plywood frames that were assembled with hand-made wiring harnesses. Students considered dipping and spraying the frames but chose were considered, and simply brushing was selected. The wiring harness proved challenging to hide in an open wooden frame, so simply leaving it exposed (and safe for the user) won out.
Spice Palette: How many hidden magnets do you need to hold a dozen spice jars to a vertical board? How do you machine dozens of holes almost all the way through a beautiful and costly piece of mahogany without going through to the visible side? These challenges were met and conquered with a variety of CNC and manual woodworking machinery. A light coat of oil produced an attractive contrasting surface for the satin-finish spice tins. Now, how do we attach that to a wall? A variety of hooks, tapes, and fasteners were tried, and an adhesive/Velcro solution was chosen by the team to hang these useful spice racks.
Dear Deer: What started as a search for a solution to a crowded table top became a timely, seasonal centerpiece. Two options of laser-cut plywood reindeer, finished in two shades of tan and easily assembled by the customer, are there to greet your guests at the table, and to hold up a plate of cookies. Multiple possible methods of assembling these wooden pieces required lots iterations of slot sizes and several plywood types before the team found the best combination. There had to be load testing to make sure those cookies didn’t hit the floor, and only one material proved strong enough. The laser-burned edges in some areas were treated to a gold-like finish. Buyers got small jute drawstring bags to carry each unassembled reindeer to its new home.
Pivot: A bottle opener can be such an ordinary thing—useful but not terribly aesthetic. Team Pivot (named after the mechanics of removing a bottle cap) chose to create a memorable kitchen tool. The timeline suggested that the team not redesign the whole concept, but rather enhance what is available. Sourcing a flat, stainless opener allowed them to experiment with exotic wood overlays, such as purple heart, in multiple patterns. When faced with choosing just one pattern from a handful of really good ones, the team chose instead to produce three—one by each team member. Each design combines several colorful wood patterns that were laser cut to precisely fit, and bonded to the stainless opener. In addition to being beautiful, the wood enhances the comfort and usability of the base tool. Of the designs offered at the show, the one showing the planets sold out instantly, with the others close behind. Many customers purchased multiple pieces.
OKI: With the goal of a more mindful and enjoyable eating experience, the team conceived a pleasant-sounding bell mounted in a concrete bowl that would ring every time the user took a bite. While this worked in the prototype stages, it sadly proved unbuildable within the time constraints. The team had a great start on the bowl, and with that the focus of the project changed. There were challenges as plastic molds failed, and the team turned to steel bowls as the solution. The concrete recipe (mastered early on) and the new molds produced beautiful, smooth, two-toned serving bowls.
Pinch: Serious chefs require a serious pepper mill—So how about one that has some soul? First, source the best mill mechanism you can find in the right quantities. Then, acquire a few old mill building beams and cut them to size. Take a minute to admire the color and aroma of the longleaf pine that emerges out of the blackened, aged lumber. Wood is not known for it’s micro-precision, but this product has the advantage of CNC milling machine accuracy, keeping the metal parts aligned and happy. A borrowed router table completes the rounded corners of the blocks and makes them pleasant to handle. A touch of sanding and a splash of color bring out the reclaimed wood’s ancient beauty – and each piece enjoyed its own unique grain pattern. Add your favorite peppercorns and cooking each meal will be that much more rewarding.
Our students managed to sell all 50 items, and a few teams sold even more. The total sales reached $19,506 with a total gross margin of 47%. The Sales Gala event was a fun, creative and educational experience that helped students learn what sells, as well as how to design and manufacture products efficiently.