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Q&A with James West at Crux Product Design

Ben Hargreaves

Bristol consultancy employs an equal split of engineers and designers

James West is the company founder and a chartered mechanical engineer

Bristol's Crux Product Design is notable for employing an equal split of engineers and designers and a burgeoning reputation in developing devices for the healthcare industry. The consultancy is also unusual in having an operation in Germany. PE talks to founder – and chartered mechanical engineer – James West.

You have both engineers and designers here and try and keep the split at 50:50. Why do think engineering doesn't enjoy the image that design has?

Designers design the bits that the person procuring a product will interact with. An example we've had here is that we designed the cycling helmets for Team GB for the 2012 Olympics. All the engineering on the inside of that, all the technology, all the safety structures, and how it might fit and working with aerodynamics, our engineers did. But our design team did the colours and the graphics, and that's what's seen and picked up on by the media as a great-looking product. The designers get the glory and the engineering seems to be behind the scenes. And unfortunately that's a fundamental issue.

Do you think design and engineering are complementary to each other as professions? Do designers and engineers have quite similar ways of thinking about the world?

We have those sort of designers here at Crux. On the other hand, there are designers that very much purely go for the form of how something might be and that drives the project or product. We do real world products that perhaps emphasise function over form, versus form over function – where the engineering has to be cobbled into something that doesn't really suit it. For me, a really elegant design is something that uses the engineering on the inside, and that's brought through into the design and styling, and that can both look really good and work really well. 

You formerly worked in design for HP. Would you swap your former life for what you have now with Crux?

My life is very interesting now, and I feel I have more control over my own destiny. There's always new projects coming in from different industries, and you see the latest technology: it's a great place to be. 

Do you think British engineers could benefit from working closely with collaborators on the Continent as you do with your German operation?

I think so; I don't see why not. I personally find it enjoyable working with different cultures and people – everybody has different ways of doing things. The Germans have great engineering skills and a strong work ethic. We find them quite easy to work with – they are direct and you know when they are not happy with something. It's good for diversity.

Some of your work in the healthcare sector, such as the development of syringes for dispensing insulin with retractable needles, is strongly influenced by regulatory developments in the US. Is America the main driver of development of technology in the healthcare sphere as you see it?

The healthcare products we deal with, which are disposable drug delivery devices, be it injection systems or inhalers, are driven by the US Food and Drug Administration [FDA].. Yes, the FDA is ahead of the curve. An area that's coming in, driven by medical insurance companies, concerns patient compliance. For instance, proof that you are taking your medication as prescribed, how you should have it, when you should have it. Insurance companies pay out to provide medication, and if patients are being forced to seek medical attention because they are not following a medication regime, then it means more bills for the insurer. The insurers are questioning why they should pick up the bill if someone is not taking their insulin correctly, for example. What is coming in now is disposal products with data recording to monitor what a patient has taken, and when they have taken it. There can be benefits for the patient – for example if you want to check that an elderly relative is taking their medication as prescribed. By having this data capture there are benefits – as well as insurance companies monitoring customers. 

You took the decision at the height of the financial crisis to expand the business, trebling its size and taking on more designers. Is there is a benefit from investing in a business at a time of recession?

From our experience, yes – but this is the only business I've ever developed. But there is the Warren Buffett school of thought, 'be brave when others are fearful' – that's the kind of philosophy we took at that point. It felt risky at the time, when the media was saying everything is doom and gloom and it could be worst financial crisis in history. 

How big do you think you would like the business to get? 

There are some studies that suggest design agencies with more than 50 people tend to be less effective from a creative point of view, where middle management has to come in to oversee things. So we've always said that as we get to those sort of staffing levels in any one location we will look to expand by perhaps going to different areas of the world. Do we open an office in China or the US, for example? That's a way of growing Crux hubs around the world that grow to a certain size and that are still dynamic, creative, enjoyable environments to be in – and not overly corporate. That's really where a lot of our value comes from and in terms of attracting the right types of people for our jobs. We want people to work hard and be creative but also go home and have a life. 

Do you feel optimistic about the future of British engineering?

Definitely. There's much more focus on it and the government's awareness too of the value it has to the country. We've got some excellent skills and some of the best engineering skills in the world. We're a very inventive nation. The value placed on the profession should see more youngsters taking the sciences at school. And manufacturing comes alongside all of that: making the bits that are being engineered and exporting them. Even now suppliers are bringing manufacturing out of China and back to the UK because of quality issues and shipping delays. And there is a risk mitigation issue too, especially if you're supplying into Europe.
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