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15 June 2022
Designing Industrial B2B Solutions – Why Do We Need It Where We Can't See It?
In this article, we will show and explain how industrial design came to be successfully applied in places where it was previously largely ignored, such as network infrastructure equipment, industrial machinery, and even measuring devices.
With the help of real-life examples, you will be able to see how style and bold color schemes can visually transform nondescript or, quite frankly, ugly devices into something that pleases the eye. This approach helps manufacturing companies stand out from their competitors, increase sales, and attract potential customers at trade shows.
Disclaimer. We are in the business of electronics design and do not sell equipment. All the devices that are listed in the article are only shown for reference purposes and not with the intent to advertise the devices themselves.
As history would have it, design is often at the forefront of B2C consumer device development. However, in the industrial solutions market, buyers have not been spoiled with truly beautiful products or a variety of colors.
This approach is now rapidly changing, and a focus on design allows B2B companies to gain a competitive edge in the battle to gain customers. Let's take a look at how this works in a few popular market segments.
1. Telecom network devices: industrial switches, servers, and routers
On the left are some standard routers, while on the right are the unusually orange ASR 8000 routers of the Swedish company Waystream and the azure models from the MACH1000 series from the German company Hirschmann
There is currently a huge variety of server rack and cabinet switches available on the market. The vast majority of them look something like the one shown in the photo on the left: black, metal, with a bunch of connectors, with the only decorative element being the manufacturer's logo.
It seems like a no-brainer – you buy the thing, put it in a server room, and forget about it. After all, no one looks at them except for sysadmins anyway. But what exactly should you buy if there are so many offers with similar prices and comparable characteristics? All things being equal, the simplest solution would be to choose the device that caught your eye from the get-go, i.e. the one that seemed more visually appealing. Plus, if you buy a bunch of switches that are in the same style, then the server room will turn out beautiful as well. :-)
Thus, we see that design can make a difference after all. Potential buyers filter the lists of available products by price and characteristics, and then pay extra attention to the devices with unusual colors and atypical case designs, simply because they are more noticeable against the background of other familiar solutions.
The American company, Extreme Networks, launched their 5420 series of managed switches on the market – but they painted all their devices in a distinctive purple color
Of course, we can’t forget the new telecom devices from the major global manufacturer, the American corporation Dell. Here, the manufacturers did a great job with the design and took an approach that shows an understanding of why this is necessary:
Reflectometers (OTDR) are measuring devices used for finding defects in cable lines and another type of product from the world of network infrastructure.
Ever since these devices hit the mass market, their design already seemed to be on the right track. The manufacturers immediately realized that although these are special-purpose devices, they must be comfortable and aesthetically pleasing to justify their high cost.
However, tangible steps forward have been taken in this market segment. Old models are being discontinued and replaced with versions that have a more modern design. At the same time, these updates are not limited to fresh colors and new buttons, but aim to completely revamp the look of the devices.
For example, let’s take the Lithuanian company Lifodas, which sells devices under the FOD brand:
Lifodas updated their OTDR line a few years ago and focused on protecting the device’s case from shock and moisture. The company also switched to a more user-friendly display and updated the interface.
And now the devices that were created within the framework of an outdated approach to design are losing out to their competitors:
Optical multisensor reflectometers from two different Chinese companies: APL-2 Tribrer and FirstFiber 9000PRO-S1
When looking at the OTDR market as a whole, the tendency to move from a vertically-oriented case to a horizontal tablet format with an enlarged display starts to become apparent. Some push-button models have also made the switch to touch control.
3. Industrial control systems
Now let's take a look at the world of industrial automation, starting with the controllers (PLC). At first glance, it may seem like they are all the same, with the only difference being the logo. It would also seem that design is certainly something that would be unnecessary and trivial for such a device.
It would not be far-fetched to say that industrial designers were involved in the design of Xinje devices. Of course, they were involved. Even such a simple casing had to be sketched, the 3D model and assembly structure had to be worked out and prepared for the launch of mass production. However, in this case, the design did not become a meaningful tool of influence and likely failed to attract potential buyers. The product looks boring, outdated, and cheap.
Now let's look at the first timid steps that manufacturers have started to make towards using design to form the corporate identity of their products:
Hager and the ABB Group have launched a line of residual current devices (RCD) with signature bright stripes and colored caps. A barely significant change, but undoubtedly more fun than their Chinese counterparts pictured above.
The Korean manufacturer LS Electric took things a step further with its use of color (pictured below). Of course, we cannot forget one of the world’s leaders in industrial relay automation, the company Bosch. In the latter case, the simplicity and strength of the brand is their strong point. Bosch controllers look unobtrusive, neat, and streamlined. They don’t clutter their design with unnecessary visual noise:
In the last part of our review, let's take a look at how things are going with equipment for relay protection and automation. Such industrial equipment can be found at a factory or, perhaps, at a specialized exhibition. Similar to the case of the routers, it would seem like another one of those things that just does its job, so there’s no need to fix something that’s not broken. No one goes near them except for maintenance personnel anyway, right? Perhaps. But the decision of which ones to buy is still made by real people, not robots. For the former, ergonomics and aesthetics are important and are taken into account when such decisions are made.
Regardless of the manufacturer, relay protection and automation equipment has a similar set of key components: the display, keypad, LED indication lights, and connectors are placed on the front panel and all the invisible components that connect to the panel are built into the case itself. This is where the similarities end and the differences come to light.
Let's start with some of the worst examples, both from an aesthetic and usability standpoint:
In the case of the solution from company ABB (pictured left), the keypad could have been implemented much better. While on the right we have a similar problem with the ImPR1 microprocessor device from the Ukrainian company Impulse.
So what do successful solutions look like in today’s day and age? Siemens currently occupies a leading position in the design of such devices. They have developed their series in a consistent style, which has a pleasant color scheme and excellent ergonomics. But this is a huge global company, so their reputation does not allow for anything less than greatness, which is why they have their own separate industrial design department working around the clock. Let's take a look at an example of pretty good design of comparable terminals currently in production:
Not only did these two manufacturers structure the membrane keyboard elements well, but they also engineered an integrated case with plastic parts and even took the protection of the connectors into account.
Naturally, the rapid change in how companies approach the design of B2B electronics is not limited to the fields of industrial relay automation and network infrastructure. You have likely noticed that visually appealing solutions have appeared in other segments as well: impressive-looking medical electronics, bright and vivid solutions for construction machinery, and professional cleaning equipment. Medical centers all over the world are quickly becoming filled with such beautiful hardware. Surely you know how awesome Karcher cleaning equipment looks. :-) You may have even noticed the stylish and award-winning design of the hoisting cranes from the company Konecranes in the header image for this article.
In any case, we can now summarize our points and answer the question that we asked at the very beginning of our review:
So, why do we need design in a place where it would seem that no one will see it – in industrial B2B solutions?
Improved competitiveness and customer retention. Companies around the world are switching to a new approach to designing their products in the modern world and to compete with them, price and functionality are not the only factors need to be taken into account. Design also plays a key role in the buying decisions of customers.
Increased value of the product through the improvement of its aesthetic characteristics. "Ugliness doesn’t sell!" said the popular American industrial designer Raymond Loewy, highlighting the commercial value of design. In the B2B market, purchasing decisions are not made by the end-users, but by their bosses. These decisions are also guided by the appearance of the product. Rather, they will buy something that seems more beautiful, modern, and simple when compared to the competing products.
Justification of price differences in a product line. People are less reluctant to pay more for something that's more beautiful. If a product is expensive, it should look the part. Good design helps justify the cost.
The company’s reputation. Design helps build trust in a brand and creates an image of stability and uniqueness.
Consistent style as a large-scale sales strategy. If the product is not a standalone device, but part of a series, then a consistent design across the entire series increases the chances of additional sales of other devices from the same product line.
Benefits from a marketing standpoint and during participation in industry exhibitions. A stand that has products with an innovative design draws more attention from visitors.
Improved export opportunities. Products with outdated designs may hold their own on the domestic market for quite some time, but on the global scale, they will not be able to compete for long.
Improved usability and user focus. Consumer-centered design makes products safer and easier to use.
Upgradable product lines. When developing a new design, it is possible to take into account the possibility of replacing outdated components with updated ones, which will eliminate the need to design a new enclosure from scratch.
Reduced production costs. Design updates can not only improve appearance but also help lower manufacturing costs by reducing the number of parts, changing materials, and other characteristics without sacrificing functionality or aesthetics.
Judging by the design development orders that we receive from foreign companies, and by the new solutions that are unveiled at international exhibitions, the B2B market is no longer content with choosing solutions based solely on their functionality and price. Companies are actively introducing a new approach to design through the hiring of in-house industrial designers or outsourcing the design to third-party companies in order to get a fresh look at their familiar products and rethink their appearance, convenience, technology, materials, and mass production capabilities.
Do you want to estimate how much it will cost you to upgrade the design of your industrial devices or even create a new design from scratch? Contact us and we will be happy to discuss possible solutions with you – all while taking your goals and budget into account!