The Industrial Design Glossary

The industrial design community is as passionate as it is precise, and therefore there are scores of definitions specific to the field that are frequently used in the industrial design process. The following glossary outlines over 50 of the most frequently used terms and their corresponding definitions. 
Steve Escobar
September 2, 2021

Industrial design is the discipline of creatively solving real-world problems borrowing concepts from art, design, technology, and science.  A field heavily influenced by human-centered design, it drives innovation, celebrates practical applications, and focuses on a sound, if not enjoyable, end-user experience.  

Typical outcomes are physical products that are manufacturable, aesthetically pleasing, financially sound, and, of course, meet the requirements of the businesses for which they are designed. 

The industrial design community is as passionate as it is precise, and therefore there are scores of definitions specific to the field that are frequently used in the industrial design process. The following glossary outlines over 50 of the most frequently used terms and their corresponding definitions. 

3-D Sketch Model: See Foam Model.

ABS: (Also, ABS plastic) Any of a class of plastics based on acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene copolymers. A common material used for the production of final plastic parts, prototypes, mock-ups, and appearance models. Available in pellets, sheet, rod and block form, it is known for its stability and strength in these applications.

Amortization: The practice of spreading the fixed costs of production (e.g. tooling costs or other machinery costs) over a period of time. i.e. if a tool has a five year life, 20% of the cost is amortized each year.

Appearance Model: (Also referred to as a ‘hard model’.) An industrial design verification model. An accurate physical representation of the exterior of a product as it is intended to appear in final production. Typically CNC machined from ABS or REN shape from a CAD database, then painted and textured.

Assembly Drawing: An assembly drawings’ principal purpose is to check all parts and assembly, part details. It is an important drawing check prior to tool release.

Bill of materials (BOM): A table containing a list of the components and the quantity of each required to produce an assembly. A costed BOM includes pricing information. An indented BOM indicates how different components and sub assemblies relate to one another and the order in which they are assembled.

Brief: Instructions and requests provided to design team prior to the commencement of a project. The format can vary and may range from informal & verbal, to comprehensive document.

CAD: Computer-aided design is software used to assist with design and documentation.

Check Model: A model created using rapid prototyping techniques. These models are used to confirm that the database created has accurately captured the intent of the design.

CMF: Color, material, finish.

CNC Mill: (Computer Numerically Controlled) A mill used to create models and prototype parts from a variety of relatively soft materials. The mill uses an assortment of bits and carving tools to subtract material from a solid block.

Concept design: Early-stage design, not all aspects are resolved, however overall intent or direction should be apparent.

Concept Generation: The act by which new concepts, or product ideas, are generated. Also called idea generation or ideation.

Contract Manufacturer (CM): The external company that produces parts or products to order.

Control Drawing: 2D representation of a design, used to assist production. Often used in conjunction with 3D CAD data, a control drawing can provide information such as dimensions, tolerances and notes that may not be readily obtained from 3D data alone. Also called 2D drawing, engineering drawing or technical drawings. Similar to architectural ‘plan’

Cost estimate: Speck’s best guess of material and or manufacturing cost based on our experience and available information. This estimate may include some vendors’ quotations. The accuracy of our cost estimates will be determined for each project based on our customer’s needs.

Deliverable: The completed end result or outcome of a series of tasks.

Derivative Product: A new product based on changes to an existing product that modifies, refines or improves some product features without affecting the basic product architecture or platform.

Design Review: An evaluation of all aspects of a database or prototypes to confirm best practices for manufacturing and assembly.

E.E.: Electrical (or electronic) engineering.

Ethnography: A method of gaining insights into human behavior. A branch of anthropology that studies the characteristics of human family, culture and lifestyles.

Exploded view: Visual representation of an assembly, showing some or all of the components separated to illustrate the parts and their relationships to one another.

FEA: Finite Element Analysis. Computer analysis of a given structure; modeling the structure into a number of simpler elements, the detail of which allows one to determine precisely the stress field.

Feasibility Study: A feasibility study is an evaluation and analysis of the potential of a proposed project, based on extensive investigation and research to support the process of decision making.

Foam Model: A simplified physical representation of the exterior of a product, made from lightweight polyurethane foam. The foam, available in different densities, can be shaped quickly by hand or with power tools. Typically used in the early conceptual stages of product development. aka foam sketch model.

Form study: Type of prototype used to assess the external form of the design, usually full size, often in a single color or with minimal cosmetic finishes. The ‘clays’ used in automotive design are an example.

Front end: Preliminary stages of the design process, typically where overall configuration and desired appearance are established.

General Assembly (GA): A drawing or CAD model illustrating all the components of a finished product and their relationship to one another. May incorporate a bill of materials (BOM).

GUI "gooey": Graphical User Interface. ­ A touch-screen or control panel that provides graphical display of selection options. (GUIs have generally replaced text or command line interfaces.)

Human Factors: A phrase largely interchangeable with ‘ergonomics’, human factors relates to consideration of human users in the design of a product and environment. Some people make a distinction that ergonomics more specifically relates to the physical association between people and products.

Ideation: Idea generation, typically early in a project and in a relatively loose/abstract form. Brainstorming is an ideation technique.

Injection molding: The process of shooting molten material into a prepared mold. Once the mold is cool the product is removed and finished-- the little dimple you see in the center of a plastic lid, for example, shows the location of the spout where the plastic went in. Most solid plastic parts are made this way.

Intellectual property (IP): Characteristics of a design the owner may wish to protect from unauthorized use. Strategies include trade secrets and formal, legal IP protection such as utility patents & design registration.

Market Segmentation: The practice of dividing an overall market into groups of consumers with similar needs, where each of the groups differs from others in the market in some substantive way.

Mock-up or Foam Mock-up: see Foam model.

Mood board: Collection of images gathered at the outset of a project to help clarify and communicate aspects of the aesthetic of the yet-undesigned product. Interchangeable with theme board.

MOQ/Minimum Order Quantity: The smallest number of individual products a manufacturer is willing to make. The cheaper the object the higher the MOQ-- a plastic bottle might have an MOQ of 20,000 while a piece of furniture might be under 500. Arguing MOQs down is a delicate art, and worth learning.

Mould (or mold in American-English): Tool used to create plastic parts. Typically made of metal.

New Product Introduction (NPI): New product introduction is the complete process of bringing a new product to market.

Observational Research: A qualitative method of directly observing end-users interact with products. Also relates to the study of man in his environment and the study of man interacting with products in his environment.

Original Design Manufacturer (ODM): Company that designs and produces goods to be sold by other brands. The design may be initiated by the ODM or may be to meet a specification provided by a brand.

Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM): Contract manufacturer that produces complete, finished products. Manufactures products for other brands, (to the design and specification of those brands) which the brand then distributes. Common business model, with many brands outsourcing some or all of their production (to OEMs).

Parting Line: The mark on a molded or cast article caused by flow of material into the crevices between mold parts. Also known as FLASH LINE.

Patent Pending: ” The “Patent Pending” status or “patent applied for” is an official reference to a patent application to potential infringers that has been filed, but prior to the patent being granted.

PCB: A printed circuit board (PCB) mechanically supports and electrically connects electronic components using conductive tracks, pads and other features etched from copper sheets laminated onto a non-conductive substrate. PCBs can be single sided (one copper layer), double sided (two copper layers) or multi-layer.

Phase: A period within a design program that is identified as having a particular focus of activity and/or outcome.

A project may have a user-research phase, a concept phase, etc. This term is commonly used in the US, the word ‘stage’ is largely interchangeable."

Pilot Run: An initial small production run produced as a check prior to commencing full-scale production. The pilot run provides an opportunity to further refine assembly process or identify any remaining issues with the design or manufactured parts, thereby saving time & $ in the transition to full production.

Platform Product: The design and components that are shared by a set of products in a product family. From this platform, numerous derivative products can be designed.

Pre-Production Unit: A product that looks like and acts like the intended final product, but is made either by hand or in pilot facilities rather than by the final production process.

Product Styling: Product styling focuses on the experienced perception of the of product, device or machine design based on geometry, semantics, composition, materials, colors, texture and appearance of a product. The perception may be categorized into a historical or artistic style such as; art deco, streamlined, or with defined attributes such as; utilitarian, sleek, high tech, organic, cool.

Proposal: Stated approach to a design project. This is a response to a brief.

Prototype: A product model created using non-mass-production fabrication processes from the 3D CAD database. The prototype is used to check the database and discover any refinements necessary prior to entering mass production.

Quantitative Market Research: Consumer research, often surveys, conducted with a large enough sample (200 respondents) of consumers to produce statistically reliable results which can be used to project outcomes to the general consumer population. Used to determine importance-levels of different customer needs, performance ratings of and satisfaction with current products, probability of trial, repurchase rate, and product preferences. These techniques are used to reduce the uncertainty associated with many other aspects associated with product development.

Rapid Prototyping (RP): Various technologies for producing a prototype directly from 3D CAD data which produce a result far more quickly (typically within a couple of days) than traditional model-making.

REN Shape: A dense, easily worked foam material which is ideal for making detailed models and prototypes, master patterns, tooling aids, forming tools and for proofing CNC programs. REN Shape will produce very stable, dimensionally accurate models with well-defined edges and surface detail.

Rendering: An image of a proposed design which may be generated by various means including marker pens on paper, 2D software, or 3D CAD visualisation software. The detail provided in a rendering can range from quite abstract and suggestive to photorealistic. In layman’s terms, an ‘artist’s impression’. I have no idea why the term rendering is used…

RFP: A request for proposal is a document that solicits proposal, often made through a bidding process, by an agency or company interested in procurement of a commodity, service, or valuable asset, to potential suppliers to submit business proposals.

Roto molding: Another way of molding plastic, usually used for larger pieces. Molten plastic is shot into the mold which is then rotated in all directions creating an even layer of material throughout. The inner void is often filled with expanding foam for rigidity. Municipal bins, coolers, kayaks and rain barrels are often rotomolded.

Schematic: A structural or procedural diagram, especially of an electrical or mechanical system.

SLA: A method of rapidly curing a resin with a laser to produce a 3D CAD data. One of the most commonly used rapid prototype techniques; the finished part usually does not require machining.

Soft Tooling: Prototype tools which are usually built of less permanent material (such as aluminum or rubber) and are used to create a limited number of parts to be used for testing of engineering and manufacturing elements. This method will typically yield fewer parts than hard tooling, but with shorter lead times.

SolidWorks: Brand of CAD software. Widely used platform for mechanical CAD.

Sourcing: The long and difficult process of finding someone to make your product. The goal is to partner with a manufacturer who has great quality standards, sustainable production methods, treats their workers well, and is a good communicator. 

Sourcing Agent: Someone who will do sourcing for you. Can make your life much easier or much harder. Often has a mechanical engineering degree.

STEP file: Computer file format for cross-platform transfer of 3D CAD data.

Storyboard: Related to product development, storyboards are grouped rendering or images of products or concepts used to demonstrate an approach or philosophy. The "board" typically refers to foam-core.

Supplier: A company that provides goods or services relating to the item being designed, typically prototype or production components. For design the term is largely interchangeable with ‘supplier’ (though this may be debated by a procurement specialist!). Supplier is more commonly used in Australia and the UK.

Surface Database (or CAD Surface Database): This is a computer aided design file that defines the outside surfaces of the product. The surface database can be used to create computer renderings showing lighting and shadows, and is also used to fabricate appearance models to verify that the surfaces captured in CAD faithfully represent the hand shaped industrial design model. A surface database is the modern replacement for a design control drawing.

Tech Pack: A document containing everything needed to produce a product: CAD drawings, BOM, assembly instructions, color codes, etc. Also called a Spec Pack.

Thermal Management: Heat generated by electronic devices and circuitry must be dissipated to improve reliability and prevent premature failure.[1] Techniques for heat dissipation can include heatsinks and fans for air cooling, and other forms of computer cooling such as liquid cooling.

Thermal Simulation: Thermal simulation calculates the theoretical temperature and heat transfer within and between components in your design and its environment. This is an important consideration of design, as many products and materials have temperature dependent properties. Product safety is also a consideration—if a product or component gets too hot, you may have to design a guard over it.

Tolerance: Dimensional variation that can occur between nominally ‘identical’ components during manufacture. Tolerance may refer to a dimensioning approach to define this, or the variation observed in parts.

Tooling Lead Time: The time required to create tools for the production of product parts. Lead time may be many months for large tools. Tooling Lead Time is a critical factor to consider when determining the viability of a projected product launch time.

Tooling Liaison: A service performed by Speck, whereby we interface with tooling vendors to ensure appropriate levels of data transfer take place.

Tooling: For plastic injection molding, the solid stock of materials that serve as molds for products. Tools are synonymous with molds, although tools typically have a longer lifecycle (number of parts that can be fashioned) than molds made of softer materials. Tools may be developed for production parts or prototype parts. See Amortization. Other types of tooling are used for manufacturing requiring stamping, roll-forming, extruding, die-casting, etc.

Vendor: A company that provides goods or services relating to the item being designed, typically prototype or production components. For design the term is largely interchangeable with ‘supplier’ (though this may be debated by a procurement specialist!). Vendor is more commonly used in the US.

Witness Line: A term that is used in cast and molded parts, a witness line is a visible seam on the plastic part as a result of two parts of a mold coming together. (see also: Parting line).

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