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Designing OKW Products Is A Discipline For Masters

OKW's Industrial designer Martin Nußberger

Industrial designer Martin Nußberger is the owner of polyform, a Munich-based independent design office that deals with individual product solutions. He has been working with OKW for more than 20 years.

Martin outlines the unique set of design challenges involved in creating OKW’s next generation of standard electronic enclosures and tuning knobs.

Designing the PROTEC enclosures

Q: In which product areas is OKW successful?

A: The main emphasis is on medical technology, measuring and control technology, mechanical engineering and communication technology. Plastic enclosures can be easily penetrated by vibrations, everything that has to do with Bluetooth or WLAN nowadays: plastic enclosures have a clear advantage here.

Q: The materials used are therefore determined by future applications?

A: Yes, of course, but it must be said first that OKW comes from the plastics application sector. It works traditionally with this material. Ninety per cent of the enclosures manufactured there are made of plastic. In addition, there is a market segment for metal enclosures, folded, welded or cast – or made from aluminium profiles.

The topic of aluminium is strong at the moment. Profile technology has the advantage that you can cut profiles of different lengths, that is, you can produce enclosures that vary in length. In addition to the standardised sizes, it is thus also possible to meet one-off customer requirements and wishes in other dimensions.This is not possible with plastic. In plastics production, new sizes require new tools to produce the mould, and only then can the new size be produced.

Q: Are there any other requirements that you as a designer have to meet?

A: At OKW, design development is always governed by the major issue of sustainability because the product life cycle of these products is simply so incredibly long. In this context, a period of 25 years is really nothing.

This is the big difference between these products and those that are developed directly for the end user. Here, the life cycle is – rightly – assessed quite differently. In this standard enclosure sector, however, you develop a product that has to achieve a certain degree of recognition so that, in turn, other companies can turn it into a product for their end customer.

And the decision to buy an enclosure is not made at the moment it is launched on the market but is possibly offset by several years. Even then, this product has to be as appealing as on the day of the first draft, and its design must be in line with the zeitgeist.

Q: On the one hand you are tied by the materials and the production range, on the other hand you actually work in a large vacuum, because you don't really know anything about the end product that the customer is going to use.

A: The variability of the end use is my daily fascination – and my daily task, for at OKW we don’t know beforehand what the customer wants to do with the one or the other enclosure. Among the variety of existing enclosures, he can choose what meets his requirements and what pleases him.

However, there is also the opposite effect: a customer likes a certain enclosure so much that he is prepared to adapt his own ideas to what he has found, because at that moment he says: “That's it!” In fact, designing OKW products is a discipline for masters because I design standard enclosures that have to satisfy not only OKW but also OKW’s customers and their end customers.

This requires a certain amount of restraint, which allows OKW’s customer to make the design he likes his own. He must be able to diversify the enclosures in such a way that the end customer realises: this product comes from the company XYZ. The scope for design by the customer must be taken into account in order to be truly successful, because the competitor of the OKW customer might use the same enclosure.

Q: How do you ultimately reconcile the technical requirements – the specified material, the requirements for a required certification, and all the above factors – with the beauty of the form, with what appeals?

A: The challenge is to reconcile a wide variety of factors. In a new development process, each of my customers, and their potential customers as well, benefit from the wealth of experience which I have gathered from various customers.
I would even go further: in product development, all experience plays a part, technical experience but also the experience which one has gained throughout one’s life.

The aesthetics of the product are and remain my goal. The designed products should be beautiful and attractive and arouse desire – an emotional component that resonates despite all technical requirements.

For me, however, the attraction of the entire process lies each time in balancing the various requirements which the products have to meet.

Q: Does this mean that the design cocktail is mixed anew each time and matched to the product?

A: Yes, although OKW does this very well, because the wealth of experience is simply enormous: when you see enclosures by OKW, you know where they come from. Not a general store, but a consistent quality standard, materials and design that are recognised as high quality.

Q: The sophisticated design language of your product, which must remain variable and specifiable, is also the messenger for the idea behind the product.

A: Yes, we always assume that a product should be seen to be useful. A coffee machine is a coffee machine and not an iron. So if I make an enclosure that ideally is to be used on the wall, then that is what it should look like. You should be able to see what its function is and trust it to perform this function: the message should be, “That's a good enclosure on the wall.”

If I’m looking for a case that I can wear on my body, I have to see at first glance that it won't hinder me, that it will not hurt anyone; the comfort has to be visible. A handheld enclosure must have a certain charisma – even before you have taken it into your hand – “I'm sure that feels good.”

Q: Now we have reached the next level, namely the end consumer, who you also have to think for!

A: Of course, in a development process, the industrial designer is definitely the advocate of the end user. Let’s go back to the handheld enclosure – the handheld enclosure refers only to the end user. Ultimately, every OKW customer benefits from the fact that we can supply him with an enclosure which tells his customers: “This product works!” It attracts the end customer’s attention and at the same time promises durability, functionality and ergonomics. You also purchase this promise when you buy an enclosure from OKW.

Q: You have brought with you your latest designs for OKW, the redesign of a series of enclosures that you already designed in 1992 and which you have just reworked. You were asked to give the series a new face – why?

A: DATEC-TERMINAL, the predecessor, the only standard enclosure with an inclined operating panel, has been around for over 20 years now. So far nobody has copied this, not even our competitors. It is a pure OKW domain and very successful.
Nevertheless, I was asked to design something new in this very area. After all, our perception of form changes over time. So the specific question was: what would the enclosure look like if we made it today?

The result is the PROTEC series of enclosures. The decision has been taken but the shape was revised once more in the decision-making process. It is not rectangular in the end product but square. The standard enclosure is grey white, neutral, so that the customer can apply his design clearly and visibly to the object.

Q: Apart from the fact that you can incorporate into the new version all the experience that OKW has gained with the tried and tested enclosure, the current design trends flow into the new design. The experience values also include past – and potentially future – customer requirements.

A: Yes, and above all the experience we had in purely technical terms with the predecessor. In fact, it is particularly important with this design that we should show very few enclosures from the front, so that a large customisable user interface can quickly turn the product into the customer’s own product.

There is thus very little design on the plastic enclosure itself that could stand in the customer's way. This is what makes the quality of this design so special.

The inclination was taken from the previous model, there was no reason to remove it from the form language of the product. What is actually new is that we decided to develop it in a square form. This in turn has to do with customer requirements.

With the old enclosures, we had small display surfaces in the head area of the operating area. Today, user interfaces are often designed with generous dimensions and preferably with landscape orientation rather than in portrait format. With an enclosure that hangs on the wall in portrait format, I would then have a lot of remaining space in the rectangular shape with a landscape-format operating panel below the screen.

In future, however, everything will take place in a more compact environment than before. Electronics are getting smaller and smaller, visualisation requirements are increasing and complexity is extremely high. For this reason, finished components are used for visualisation, and this must be taken into account at the planning stage. Now we could make a landscape-format enclosure, and this would best meet the requirements of a modern display.

However, we know that standard enclosures are used when the standard elements or display sizes that already exist can be combined with other functional elements. A few buttons, a rotary knob, a laser, a loudspeaker, some other function is usually added.

With the square footprint, the installation of a rectangular display leaves a residual area – not too large – which can be used for additional functions. The customer’s main focus is thus on tomorrow. And with the new version, the product remains unique, aesthetically up to date, not only now, but also in the future.

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