Designing with Unobtainium

With all due respect to the Avatar movie, unobtainium is not something only found on Pandora.  In fact it’s designed into many products every year right here on planet Earth.  For those of us who identified this mysterious substance years ago, in fact the movie was a bummer as it took away the punch line of a favorite inside joke within the productization community. “Hey, she designed that widget out of unobtainium.  He he.” Or some such–I never claimed to be good with jokes.

In the very real world of product development, designing with unobtainium happens all to often.  Sometimes its literally a material choice; other times an unreachable tolerance spec; all too often its not literally unobtainable just way to expensive for the application.   The last example is frankly the most common–designing in a material used by NASA for some new consumer widget is an overused but nonetheless often accurate analogy.

I recently crossed paths witha  company that had indeed designed their latest consumer widget in part out of unobtainium.  Their prestigious industrial designer had designed a product look that garnered rave reviews, hundreds of thousands of web site hits, and the eternal thanks for the sales team which now had customers beating the proverbial path to their door.  Just one little hitch–no one could make the critical part.  Literally no one: to date three top suppliers had tried and more or less given up.  With a NASA supplier waiting in the wings. The sad thing is that there are probably 100s of ways to modify  the spec to yield a product that is equally attractive, yet everyone kept beating their heads against the “why can’t you meet the spec?” wall.

To all such problems of course there are eventually solutions, but all too often at a great cost and considerable hit to schedule.  It would be far better to take into account the impact of the various specs on vendor pool, costs, yield, throughput and lead time early in the design process.  As in this example, starting to think about this even in the concept stage, with the industrialization engineer sitting side by side with the industrial designer, could in many cases lead to an equally cool design yet one that could be easily built with non fictional materials.

What stories do you have on designing with unobtainium, or designing out unobtainium?



  • Hale Foote

    Scandic is a custom job shop working with spring materials, both stampings and parts made from wire. We often work with industrial designers on parts that really push the edge. Sadly, we have found that unobtainium sometimes has a companion element, nobidium, which we have to use.

  • Chuck Post author

    Thanks to everyone for their comments in multiple forums. I’m waiting to see “enriched unobtanium”… (thanks Joe)

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