Insights from the Tripod Design Trenches
By James Guest
In product design, creating a game-changing solution — even one that seems ordinary on its surface, like a tripod — and bringing it to market is anything but a straightforward process. With a product that’s already been optimized over decades of development and field-tested use, how do you come up with something that’s truly a significant improvement over what has gone before? What do your customers REALLY need, and will they actually buy what you deliver? And once you’ve conceived it, can it be mass-manufactured cost-effectively? There’s no tried and tested formula, but important ingredients are a detailed understanding of the market and your users, and lots of experimentation. And every time, you’ll learn things that will inform the process the next time around.
Our recent launch of flowtech, an all-new tripod technology, offers an informative case study in product design, engineering, development, and delivery. Here, we’ll share our best practices for developing truly customer-driven products, from initial inspiration through to cost-effective and efficient manufacturing.
Everything starts with ideas
It’s often said that you can’t force inspiration, and sometimes the best products start with a couple of simple ideas. In the case of flowtech, for some time we had been kicking around suggestions sparked by different people on our design team and their previous experiences using our tripods. By starting with an initial high-level objective to “rethink how camera operators work with our products,” we freed ourselves from having to conform to how things had always been done in the past; instead, we could focus on new ideas and how we could achieve them in the design. From there, we began to piece together a concept based on key design criteria: speed of setup, ease of adjustment for capturing the best shot, versatility, transportability, and cost from both the customer’s perspective and our own internal requirements.
At this stage, nothing is ruled out – even ideas that had been rejected from a previous product development or perhaps deemed too expensive, or features that customers haven’t been terribly fond of in the past but could be adapted in powerful new ways. One example is a carry handle located near the bowl on one of our previous tripods. That handle wasn’t a winner with our customers, but we realized its basic design would work beautifully when adapted for the quick-release clamp levers on flowtech, and these have turned out to be one of its most popular features.
Another approach that’s served us well is to look at the design of completely unrelated products from other industries to see how it could be applied to ours. It’s an approach you’ll see repeated time and time again; one example is the snowmobile, which combines ski-like runners with tank tracks, an engine from a speedboat and bicycle handlebars to help people get around on snow. What’s unique about the snowmobile is the combination of these features that had never been seen together before. With flowtech, we also looked to other industries and products. For instance, the quick-release carpet feet were also borrowed from the ski industry, inspired by the clamp-like fasteners on ski boots – a simple and elegant solution to a real customer problem.
Now that we had an idea of what the new product could potentially offer our customers, it was time to have our first discussions with them to validate the whole-product specification.
Truly understanding what the customer wants
With flowtech, if we were going to “rethink how camera operators work with our products,” we realised we’d have to go much deeper than simply asking users what they need. Our customers had told us they needed a tripod that offers not only great shot stability but is also lightweight and fast to set up. But those responses only tell a piece of the story.
To really understand how such factors impact the job of camera operators, we had to get out in the field with our customers. We stood back and watched them work, we asked a lot of questions, and whenever possible we used the products ourselves in the real-world. By observing and experiencing users’ working practices in a day-to-day field shooting environment, we were able to get a perspective that a mere questionnaire just doesn’t provide.
To put it in different terms, if customers say they want a lightweight tripod, it’s hard to understand the significance of “light weight” until you observe them trying to carry their gear from place to place and set it up in all types of conditions. In that case, we realised that “lightweight” is a function of “easy to transport,” which brings in other aspects such as comfort when carried on the shoulder, easy-to-grip carry handles, and transportability while supporting a full camera rig.
From paper to workable prototype
Now that the product specification looks good on paper (or computer), it’s time to create a concept model. This is something less than a working prototype, but a model that lets customers trial the features. Now the process starts to get really disciplined and iterative: based on that first usage trial, you’ll come back with new ideas and insights that you can match up against your original customer criteria. After tweaking the model, you get back out there and try it again, continually and strictly re-evaluating it against the design criteria and with the customer until you achieve the required result. The goal is to identify product attributes with the most potential that are also compatible with internal cost targets.
Next the product enters the realm of actual working prototype. Design is detailed and optimised to meet all of the agreed-upon specifications, and testing becomes paramount, especially for an all-new product. You can conceive the most beautiful tripod the world has ever seen, but can it take the punishment of day-to-day use in all types of weather and on all types of terrain?
We put flowtech through the most extensive test program we’ve ever conducted on any of our products. We submerged it in “swamp water” in our test lab – a smelly mixture of compost, sand, and other materials – to gauge how well it would work after being soiled and then how easily it could be cleaned. We submitted the tripod to temperatures as low as -40C and as hot as 90C, because there might just be a customer shooting in Death Valley that forgets and leaves it in the boot of the car. We doused the tripod in salt water to test for corrosion. We dropped heavy transport boxes on it, dragged it over rough ground, and loaded it up with a significantly heavier payload than the specified maximum. And to ensure the quick-release clamps we mentioned earlier would last, we created a dedicated rig for endurance testing that has performed well over two million clamping operations, since the clamps are one element for which there truly is no room for failure.
Great design, but is it practical to mass-manufacture?
Early on, we determined that carbon fibre construction would offer the perfect solution for flowtech, not only to reduce weight and make the tripod easier to carry, but also to contain the new clamping mechanism and provide the necessary stiffness that film and video professionals demand.
To meet these goals (but embracing the remit that nothing was ruled out!), we designed the carbon fibre portion of the flowtech legs with an oval, 3-D shape that tapers, making the legs wider near the bowl to give extra support to the payload. This was a radical departure from traditional tripod design. The first concept model showed us we’d be able to make the CF parts, but the unanswered questions were how we could mass-manufacture them and how much it would cost. We kept manufacturing practicalities in mind throughout the design process for all the other parts, but with the CF components we were taking a leap into the unknown.
With a huge amount of interest from customer trials building our confidence, our course became clear. As the 3-D-shaped carbon-fibre legs were fundamental to the tripod’s design and operation, we knew we absolutely had to make them producible in high volume and to the right quality. To achieve this, we once again took inspiration from non-related industries – tennis rackets, mountain bikes, and the automotive industry – that have successfully applied new manufacturing processes to produce 3D-shaped carbon fibre for delivering powerful benefits. Our thorough research into CF manufacturing processes led us to invest in a state-of-the-art manufacturing cell for braiding and resin-transfer moulding, run by industrial robots. It was quite an investment, and along the way we had to become experts in high-volume composite manufacture. But it also meant we’d be able to make our design profitably through a repeatable and high-quality manufacturing process. We also designed a facility that could be scaled easily for future additions to the product family (more about that next).
Keep it in the family
Our final piece of advice is to think about the big picture. You’ve created a beautiful product that customers want, and you can manufacture it profitably. But how feasible will it be to expand the family and add different models in the future to meet the requirements of different market segments? Once you’ve made a major investment in advanced automation and other manufacturing capabilities, how easy will it be to adapt that operation with minimal overhead?
With flowtech, this thinking was baked into the design very early on. The 75mm version was our beachhead model because we knew it would appeal to a very broad segment of the professional cinematography/videography market and especially operators who are more receptive to a radically new tripod design. Then came the introduction of flowtech100 at IBC2018. The next member of the flowtech tripod family, flowtech100 carries a heavier payload and targets a different category of users (ENG/EFP and live news). But the essential design of the new 100mm remains the same, and the newest tripod went through the same manufacturing and testing process as the 75mm version.
James Guest is Mechanical Engineering Design Manager for Vitec Production Solutions, based in Bury St Edmunds, U.K.