Can physical product designers work from home?


Can physical products be designed and developed by teams working together virtually, from home? At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, one-third of the employed American workforce worked from home. Despite this, only 3% of those were from the manufacturing sector. The field of physical product design had not previously attempted work-from-home models due to the need to access physical facilities for prototyping and testing, fear of leaking critical intellectual property assets, and the belief that it is easier to communicate technical details in person. Thus, my team and I used the widespread shift in virtual work to study the feasibility of this working style for physical product designers in the long term. We present innovative strategies that can be adopted by managers in this field and persisting challenges that still need to be addressed. This article is based on our paper recently published in Research in Engineering Design — you can read the paywall-free version here.

Remote physical product design is rarely studied nor attempted

Despite the wide range of research conducted on virtual collaboration and remote work practices in general, there are relatively few studies focusing specifically on product designers that work with physical products. Some say that this is because product designers are locally mobile and move around the office to communicate, collaborate, and maintain awareness — so they need to be co-located [1]. Others say that access to physical parts, prototyping tools, and testing laboratories is the biggest hurdle to remote physical design [2]; although the advancement in rapid prototyping tools like 3D printers may help to overcome this [3]. One of the most common arguments may seem less related to physical products — scholars argue that physical distance reduces communication frequency [4] and chance encounters with people from other teams [5]. These encounters are critical for innovative design: they can help to generate new ideas [5], share “tacit knowledge” across teammates [6], and reduce the complexity of shared mental models [7].

We interviewed 20 physical product designers shortly after the transition to virtual work

To fill this gap in the literature and investigate the applicability of these theories to current product design teams, we interviewed 20 physical product designers from June to August of 2020, closely after the switch to remote work. We targetted those who worked in a team to build a hardware product; our final sample consisted of 7 women and 13 men, from 16 different companies and 10 industries, spanning roles from entry-level to vice president.

A general product design process with the phases Planning, Concept Development, System-Level Design, Detail Design, Testing & Refinement, and Production Ramp-Up. Includes design reviews as diamonds, in between each phase which are shown as forward arrows.
General product design process. Image from author but adapted from [8].

Intangible Design Activities

Intangible design activities are those specific to product design that does not rely on physical products, prototypes, tools, or testing.

Tangible Design Activities

Tangible design activities are those activities within product design that build, test, or otherwise require the use of physical products and tools.

Communication and Project Management

Communication and project management are major themes that play a role in all phases of the product design process; every designer we interviewed discussed challenges within these themes.

A list of the challenges and strategies presented in this work, broken down into intangible design activities (spanning the planning, concept development, system-level design, and half of the detail design phases), tangible designs (spanning the other half of detail design, testing & refinement, and production ramp-up phases) and communication and project management (which spans the entire design process).
Summary of challenges and strategies, presented by activity type. Image from author.

COVID-19 allowed product designers to realize the feasibility of a more flexible working style

The designers we spoke to noted that they didn’t previously believe that it would be possible to work from home in their role, nor were their organizations prepared with the policies and practices needed to do it effectively.

Key Takeaways

Although long believed to be ineffective, we found that physical product design is possible while working from home. Tangible Design activities — those that include physical products, tools, and facilities — are still the most challenging tasks to complete. These unaddressed challenges, such as inadequate tools for design representation, slow design iteration, loss of de-risking opportunities before production, and difficulties accessing people and their work, present areas that should be focused on by design managers and researchers in the future. We’ve also collected innovative strategies that design managers can implement immediately:

  • Adopt virtual whiteboards (particularly with an investment in hardware tablets), and lightweight CAD sharing tools (such as Onshape) for design collaboration.
  • Move towards a model-based systems approach when developing complex products, so everyone can access the single source of truth.
  • Adopt digital solutions (such as pdf redlining, automatic charting of test results, and zoom stream supervision) for activities that normally require in-person presence.
  • Invest in rapid prototyping tools to allow designers to prototype from home studios.
  • Create purposeful opportunities, in the form of new meetings or additions to existing meetings, for watercooler conversation and spontaneous knowledge transfer.
  • Use visual, shared project tracking tools to align priorities and keep track of everyone’s progress.


[1] Bellotti V, Bly S (1996) Walking away from the desktop computer. CSCW.

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