Innovation in action: Embracing “Yes” in manufacturing and design
By Charlie Wood, PhD, Director of Engineering Research and Development, Fast Radius
Engineers are used to hearing no.
Whether it’s bold ideas getting shut down or the pressure for designs to conform to manufacturing conventions, engineering can be a tough field for innovation. Throughout my career, I’ve seen firsthand how bright engineers are limited by the need to filter cutting-edge concepts through legacy processes. As the director of engineering at Fast Radius, it inspires me to see talented engineers rediscover their excitement for chasing big ideas.
High-volume production is built on designing for consistency and precision, especially for traditional techniques that require significant investments in tooling or lead times. Expertise in manufacturing and design is achieved through years of hands-on work developing component or part designs for CNC machining or injection molding. However, the common design rules that become second nature over years of experience are typically characterized by limitations or restrictions. This is a great strategy for traditional part manufacturing, but can be constraining for new opportunities.
As a designer, moving away from “no” and embracing “yes” isn’t as simple as just changing vocabulary, and it’s not an easy switch to undertake alone. Manufacturers and designers can create an industry in which designs focus on making new things possible rather than conforming to tradition by challenging each other to think in different ways and say “yes.” From everyday part production to tackling new demands, saying “yes” can be the first step toward setting our designs free and unlocking new, innovative paths forward.
These large-scale changes in manufacturing mindsets won’t happen overnight. But they start with saying “yes.” Fast Radius embraces this mindset in our partnerships, and we’re inspired by seeing engineers do the same. Here’s how to adopt this philosophy in your work and change our industry for the better.
Start with yes
Not every manufacturing challenge requires a cutting-edge solution, but the “yes” philosophy still applies. Sometimes, a series of small “yeses” can turn straightforward part production into a more innovative relationship. We will also take on projects with complicated supply chain solutions that require multiple manufacturing techniques across continents. We know that a single fulfillment option is rarely the best solution for a complicated assembly and companies working to remain competitive in the open market.
Similarly, engineers who are in the earlier stage of their careers and still learning common manufacturing rules can benefit from building trusting relationships with their manufacturing partners. These small “yeses” through sharing information and challenging conventions provide ample opportunities to break through tradition and find new solutions to big, complex problems.
One of the most powerful ways engineers can embrace “yes” is by intentionally investing in long-term relationships with your manufacturing partners. For example, one client came to us looking to produce a complex assembly that had over a dozen parts made with different materials and manufacturing processes, and procured through different means. Through the lens of traditional approaches, this assortment made a lot of sense; some components were purchased off the shelf and others made custom at low volume. Rather than seeing the complexity and turning away, the customer worked with us to reimagine assembly and take a totally radical approach to manufacture the part as a single part. To most engineers, that would seem crazy and impossible, but only when compared to legacy approaches.
Now, this partnership on one part has blossomed into other work that is simplifying their supply chain and transforming their business. But this leap forward never would have happened if they hadn’t said yes by trusting us to guide them past the conventional design space to redesign, and then produce that first assembly.
Forging true partnerships
For a long time, engineers have viewed suppliers transactionally. The interaction includes a few main questions — “Can you make this? How much will it cost? How long will it take?” — but it usually ends there.
I’ve worked with many manufacturing experts who are great at what they do, but tend to give binary responses. You often hear either, “Yes, I can get you that on my timeline” or “No, we can’t do that.” The realm of what is possible is typically the overlap of what you are comfortable designing and what they are comfortable making. This type of relationship can constrain what engineers feel capable of creating. If you’re operating based on what’s been done, the ceiling for innovation is low. In my role at Fast Radius, I’m challenging engineers and our production team to rethink this dynamic. The key to innovating successfully is doing it together. These partnerships take us from a company that makes parts to one that helps develop products, and elevate engineering to more strategic positions within companies.
We realize it takes trust to hand us or other manufacturers the reins for designing and developing products. That’s why we take partnerships seriously. The more engineers can build long-term relationships with partners who challenge norms, the better off the manufacturing industry will be. For instance, Curtiss Motorcycles initially approached us for a simple quote on a series of parts. But throughout our relationship, our work became less about fulfilling part orders and more about rethinking assembly and transforming their manufacturing processes.
These connections don’t happen in traditional, transactional relationships. Even if it’s a more challenging road, seeking out collaborative, open-minded partnerships will propel your company’s growth and help us all redefine what’s possible.
Manufacturing innovation is difficult. There’s a reason engineers and manufacturers don’t try new things. There are thousands of ways to get it wrong and usually only a few ways to get it right. When designers learn how to make parts for CNC machining or injection molding, they stick with it and hone their skills within those processes. Venturing into new territory opens you up to risk — of losing money, failing or missing your project deadlines.
But elevating our industry and expanding your horizons requires entering unknown territory. For those designing parts, this means accepting that failure is an inevitable and essential part of growth. Creating a part for additive manufacturing for the first time may result in a few missteps before you get it right, but this period of exploration is where the magic of manufacturing happens.
Shifting mindsets in this way can be a rocky transition. Innovation is a two-way street, and if an engineer is going out on a limb, their manufacturing partner should be there to support them. For us, this support takes several different forms. Through providing easily shareable and open online resources, making parts for you, or structuring relationships to allow for collaboration and joint reviews, we try to make this transition as smooth as possible.
I’ve seen the outcomes of manufacturing relationships centered on growing together. We began our relationship with Digital Aerolus by improving the way they produced two additive parts for their industrial drones. They trusted us to get it right, and over time, we’ve helped them identify manufacturing processes and materials for more than 117 parts across their product lines. Today, we’re making 95% of the bill of materials (BOM) for the ground control unit on their latest drone. When you find a true partnership that leads with “yes,” you are able to manage your risk while creating enormous potential for growth.
Building the future
Embracing “yes” means knowing the boundaries of your capabilities, and then figuring out how you can push them. Innovative ideas shouldn’t just be R&D exercises — they should become reality. Real-life implications for their work motivate our engineering partners and our team to pursue bold ideas that move the industry forward. We want to make the transactional transformational, with true partnerships that benefit us both.
Whether it involves getting comfortable with initial failure, investing in relationships or focusing on exploration, we invite our customers and partners to start implementing a yes-first mindset in their work. The future of manufacturing stands on the other side.