Glossary of Product Design Terms

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88 Product Design Terms You Need to Know


If you are designing a new product, working with a product design firm or have an interest in hardware startups – knowing your way around product design terminology is critical.

For example, exploding a  BOM – may come as shock to those who don’t know BOM stands for bill of materials, and flashing it simply means showing a list of all the components in one view!

But a quick read of the most frequently used product design-related terms below will bring you up to speed, and ensure the next design engineering meeting goes smooth.

  1. Alias
    Brand of CAD software, most often used for free-form modeling and visualization. Becoming less prevalent.
  2. Animation
    A visualization comprised of moving images, usually created from 3D CAD, which allows a ‘movie’ of the design without needing physical samples. The quality of an animation can vary dramatically depending upon the application.
  3. Anthropometrics
    Study of measurements of humans. Used to inform ergonomics.
  4. Assembly
    A collection of components that are related and have interconnections. Parts joined together form an assembly. Maybe physical, also within CAD.
  5. Backend
    The later phases of a design program, closer to manufacturing. Within some organizations some of these activities are identified as engineering.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. CAD
    Computer-aided design is software used to assist with design and documentation.
  9. CMF
    Colour, material, finish.
  10. CNC
    Computer-numerically-controlled. Refers to various machinery used to produce prototypes, tools and components.
  11. Commercialization
    Commercialization is the process or cycle of introducing a new product or production method into the market. Many technologies begin in the laboratory and are not practical for commercial use in their infancy.
  12. Component
    Part. Single, discrete element within an assembly.
  13. Concept design
    Early-stage design, not all aspects are resolved, however overall intent or direction should be apparent.
  14. Contract Manufacturer (CM)
    The external company that produces parts or products to order.
  15. 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’
  16. Design Thinking
    An approach to problem-solving based upon the methodology used by designers, but (usually) applied to other disciplines, such as business and education.
  17. Detail design
    Determining and accurately documenting all the aspects of the design, largely related to the performance and manufacture of the part. Depending upon organizational structure this work may be carried out by engineers.
  18. DIA
    Design Institute of Australia.
  19. Dimension
    Distance or measurement.
  20. Drawing
    Usually refers to a precise black and white ‘line’ image often generated in CAD within a recognized format, used for communicating technical aspects of a design. See also control drawing.
  21. Eco-design
    Design with significant consideration to the environment also called green design.
  22. E.E.
    Electrical (or electronic) engineering.
  23. Ergonomics
    Application of principles that consider the effective, safe and comfortable use of a design by humans. An example would be the design of a handle based on anthropometric data and with subsequent usability testing.
  24. 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.
  25. FEA
    Finite-element analysis: a computer-based engineering tool for assessing structural aspects of a mechanical design.
  26. 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.
  27. Finish
    Surface treatment of component. Maybe functional and/or cosmetic, examples include polishing, painting and anodizing.
  28. Form
    The three-dimensional equivalent of Shape.
  29. Form study
    Type of prototype used to assess the external form of the design, usually full size, often in a single colour or with minimal cosmetic finishes. The ‘clays’ used in automotive design are an example.
  30. Front end
    Preliminary stages of the design process, typically where overall configuration and desired appearance are established.
  31. 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).
  32. 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.
  33. ID
    See industrial design; also internal diameter (e.g. the distance across the hole in a donut).
  34. IDEA
    International Design Excellence Award. Presented by IDSA.
  35. Ideation
    Idea generation, typically early in a project and in a relatively loose/abstract form. Brainstorming is an ideation technique.
  36. IDSA
    Industrial Designers Society of America
  37. Illustrator
    Computer software often used for 2D design work. Also used extensively by graphic designers.
  38. Industrial Design (ID)
    A term for the profession, as in the design of industrially-produced goods. Some attribute the origin of the phrase to a Kiwi c.1920, and it has been largely misunderstood by the public ever since…
    ID is generally interchangeable with product design, though industrial design (or ID) is more often used by people ‘in the know’. When a distinction is made, it is generally that whilst there is a lot of overlap, industrial design is more focused toward the earlier stages of the design process
  39. 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.
  40. Interface
    Elements of a product via which a user receives and inputs information. On a smartphone this may be as simple as a touchscreen and a few buttons. On a motorcycle it is far more involving, with both hands and both feet operating controls, along with visual display of information.
  41. IP
    See intellectual property.
  42. ME
    Mechanical engineering.
  43. Model (including CAD)
    Representation of a design. May refer to a physical item or a representation within computer software e.g. CAD model
  44. Mould (or mold in American-English)
    Tool used to create plastic parts. Typically made of metal.
  45. 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.
  46. Native
    The file type used by a given software program during normal use (creating & saving files) Example ‘.docx’ for MS Word. Native files are often not used to transfer design data, as translation formats such as STEP offer tamper resistance, revision control and do not have the interdependence that is common with CAD data.
  47. New Product Introduction (NPI)
    New product introduction is the complete process of bringing a new product to market.
  48. 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.
  49. 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).
  50. Off-Tool Sample (OTS)
    Initial sample created using production tooling. Used to check design and ‘tune’ tooling prior to making production quantities. Common to have at least 2 generations of OTS (OTS1, OTS2, etc.) as first OTS will often not have cosmetic finishes applied to tool.
  51. Organic
    Describes form. Soft, irregular shapes, as occur in nature.
  52. OTS
    See off-tool sample.
  53. Part
    A single element. Some products, such as a paperclip, consist of a single part. Often a product is an assembly of multiple parts.
    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.
  54. Percentile (as in ’5th percentile’)
    Term used within ergonomics to indicate a portion of the population with regard to a particular trait. Using height for example, of a sample population 50th percentile is the mid point, 5th percentile would be the shortest 5% of people within the sample group, 95th percentile the tallest 5%.
  55. 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.
  56. 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.
  57. Pro/E
    Brand of CAD software, subsequently named ‘Wildfire’, and now ‘Creo’ (the family of products still widely referred to as Pro/E). Well-established platform for mechanical CAD with large user base.
  58. Program
    A body of design work for a single organisation, typically involving multiple projects. Alternatively a piece of computer software, increasingly called apps or applications.
  59. Project
    A specific, defined design task. In this context often a product. May also be more narrowly defined, such as a piece of stand-alone research or a conceptual exploration used to gather knowledge without necessarily being intended for production.
  60. Proposal
    Stated approach to a design project. This is a response to a brief.
  61. Prototype
    A model made during the design process to assess aspects of the design prior to manufacture. Usually physical, but may take other forms, including on-screen or even Post-it notes. For glossary of terms relating to prototyping see separate article, (coming soon!)
  62. Quality Assurance
    Quality assurance (QA) attempts to improve and stabilize production (and associated processes) to avoid, or at least minimize, issues which lead to a product’s defects.
  63. Quality Control
    Quality control (QC) is a process in which the quality of all factors involved in production is reviewed. It emphasizes testing of products to uncover defects and reporting to those who make the decision to allow or deny product release.
  64. Quality Management Systems
    A quality management system (QMS) is a collection of business processes focused on achieving quality objectives to meet customer requirements. It is expressed as the organizational structure, policies, procedures, processes and resources needed to achieve the desired standard of quality.
  65. 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.
  66. 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…
  67. Research
    May be undertaken at different times in a project, for different reasons. Common types are user research, competitor research, and research into materials and process.
  68. Rhinoceros (Rhino)
    Brand of CAD software, tends to be used for free-form modelling and visualisation.
  69. Sample
    Item demonstrating one or more characteristics of a design. Can differ from a prototype in that a sample may represent a material or process, without necessarily being in the form of the design in progress.
  70. Scale
    A ratio of size to allow documentation of designs that are too large or small to be documented effectively at true size. For example a chair may be drawn at 1:5 scale (one fifth of full size). A scale may also refer to a ruler with graduations to easily measure scaled drawings, but this is more common in architecture.
  71. Schematic
    A structural or procedural diagram, especially of an electrical or mechanical system.
  72. Sketch
    An image that is quick to generate and does not contain complete detail. Also used as an adjective, e.g. sketch model.
  73. SolidWorks
    Brand of CAD software. Widely used platform for mechanical CAD.
  74. Stage
    See phase.
  75. STEP file
    Computer file format for cross-platform transfer of 3D CAD data.
  76. Styling Freeze
    Point in time after which no further changes to the appearance are intended. This may be implicit and not formally identified.
  77. Sub assembly
    An assembly that forms part of a larger assembly. For example the display of a smartphone.
  78. 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.
  79. System Architect
    System(s) architects define the architecture of a complex system in order to fulfill the technical requirements. Such design includes a breakdown of the system in components, how these components interact together, and generally what technologies they employ.
  80. System Architecture Plan
    It is the conceptual model that defines the structure, behavior, and more views of asystem.[1] An architecture description is a formal description and representation of a system, organized in a way that supports reasoning about the structures and behaviors of the system.
  81. Theme board
    See mood board.
  82. 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.
  83. 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 material 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.
  84. 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.
  85. Tool, tooling
    Catch-all phrase for dedicated elements of manufacturing equipment used for the mass production of components. Tooling is a general term which includes molds used for injection-molded plastic parts and dies used for cast metal parts. Investment in tooling often represents a major capital expense and time component of new product development programs.
  86. User
    The person or people who will use the design. A product may have multiple users, for example ‘users’ of a piece of medical equipment may include the patient, the doctor, and technical staff.
  87. 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.

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