For many, the term rugged product design evokes images of electronics built into thick plastic frames, military equipment, and the OtterBox.
However, the term can mean a lot of different things depending on the application. One significant factor in what determines how “ruggedness” is applied to something depends on the end-user. An electronic toy for a child may need to be water resistant, crack resistant, impact resistant, and cheap enough to be appealing to customers. A piece of military electronics might also need to be water resistant, crack resistant, and impact resistant, and cheap enough to be appealing to customers.
So how do we determine the “ruggedness” of a product? We look at several different factors including environment, application, end user, cost, aesthetic and several others.
Let’s consider four different scenarios where each user needs a screwdriver. Even though each user is doing the exact same thing with the screwdriver, their needs are wildly different.
When working in an engine, a mechanic probably wants a few things: a magnetized screwdriver to get screws out of inconvenient places, good grip even with oil, and durability because screwdrivers are helpful as little pry bars.
Water is inevitable when you are fishing. A fisherman wants a tool that will not rust easily rust can quickly make a tool useless. It would also be handy if this screwdriver could float.
A surgeon’s screwdriver must be sterile even if it is a one-time use tool. It must be strong enough not to shear or break and it cannot react or cause reactions to chemicals. Many surgical tools are also small.
Even in space, screws need to be turned. Astronauts need tools that are easy to operate in their bulky suits. It needs a tether so their screwdriver does not float away. And ground crews need the tool to be as lightweight as possible since it’s expensive to launch things into space and billed by the pound.
What Does Rugged Product Design Really Entail?
One thing each of the above examples has in common is they are all turning screws. Whether it is an engine, a fishing rod, a medical implant, or a piece of hardware on a space station, it’s the same job, just different requirements to do that job. What is rugged for one user may be useless to another user.
There is often a question about rugged product design and how much it will cost. In each case, a product will get more costly to manufacture as features are added, but another overlooked issue is that as features are added, they can make the design and engineer process more difficult to service and can also drive up the cost of the product.
For product design agencies, a major objective in each case is to help clients find a balance between the cost of manufacture, serviceability, and function. This exact balance can be seen frequently in watches. A highly water-resistant watch may need to be sent back to the factory for service, and this usually means that watch is expensive since it’s built with many features to survive rough conditions. A watchmaker could make the watch less expensive by incorporating features that are less protective, but also give the consumer the ability to service their own watch.
Serviceability is one of many questions facing product managers, and in some cases, a product needs no serviceability at all. Many rugged products are one-time use, such as motorcycle helmets or some first-responder equipment. They only need to work one time, but until they do their job, they need to stay functional until they are used.
Market inputs also play a big role in determining something is rugged. While many of the things that make a product rugged are functional features of its design, sometimes something can also be made to look the part. A simple steel rod might be all you need to roast a marshmallow, but a steel rod with a bend at the tip and a rubber grip will probably appeal to customers and sell for more money. The bottom line is, both rods will do the same job just fine, but one of them has been branded with the term “rugged design”.
If you brand a piece of electronics as being “military grade,” then customers are going to assume it can put up with a tremendous amount of abuse — and it’s probably going to look tough too. To be sure, actual military hardware is tough, but it’s built to similar industry standards as many other rugged products.
Soldiers spend a lot of time outdoors exposed to rain, cold, heat, and dust, and they spend a lot of time moving around. A soldier needs equipment that can endure continuous exposure to the weather and won’t break when it’s getting bounced around while in transit. This is not different from good camping gear, which is sometimes marketed as being “military grade.”
The takeaway is that being “military grade” does not ensure a product is rugged — its design and function do, and these functions are proven with various brand standards and market codes (such as an IP Code).
Other terms abound, like “medical grade,” “drop safe,” “aircraft grade,” are often used to entice customers by giving them a sense that a product is strong enough to perform an intense task and will be worth their money. Not to say any product that says this is misleading, but it highlights how a customer can be swooned by the “rugged” aesthetic of a product, just like in our marshmallow stick example.
Rugged product design is a matter of turning what you want a product to do into a physical product. If you want to make a waterproof TV with a touchscreen for tailgate parties, then by design your TV should be designed to withstand those particular hazards. If your end product is not waterproof and the screen easily cracks, then you have just made a regular TV that probably shouldn’t be outside.