Keir Hart and his team stress collaboration, communication, and technology to successfully iterate to product development success
Flying Pig Designs officially started in February 2015 in Keir Hart’s downstairs office. “I had piles of kid toys behind me and I had a 3D printer crammed next to me, so tight that it kept bumping me every time I moved my arm.” The Flying Pig Designs name came about from a conversation over a novel robot concept discussion with a colleague. “Yeah, when pigs fly,” his friend said. The name stuck.
Hart started working at a very young age for several small companies. “But then as I got older and graduated with a mechanical engineering degree, I pretty much jumped into big companies.” He worked for several large companies, some in the medical industry, but missed working at small firms. “I like small companies. I thought they had more fun ideas. They worked a lot faster, which is a bit more my pace”
Then Hart came to a turning point. “I just wanted to start working on my own and started doing designs on the side just to make a little bit of extra cash for my family. Within about a year I kind of had to make the decision, to do this full-time, or put this on the back burner and work for somebody else?” he said. Now fast-forward, nine years later and they have a 4,000-square-foot space with half of that dedicated to manufacturing and assembly.
Growing Customer Base
Flying Pig Designs offers engineering, research & industrial design, idea realization, and manufacturing transition services. They have 10 people on staff, both contractors and full-time employees with 200 years of combined experience. Most of their customers are also smaller firms.
“A medium-sized company is about as big as we’ve gotten really. I’m not opposed to doing things with larger companies, but we just tend to cater more towards solo entrepreneurs, smaller companies, 50 people or less,” Hart explained.
Based right outside of Denver, they primarily cater to the Colorado area. However, that footprint continues to grow. “Because of LinkedIn and the way that the world works, we have clients in Arizona, we’ve had a few folks on the East Coast, so we are starting to cover a wide swath.”
Collaboration, Communication, & Technology
Hart stressed collaboration with the client at every step of the product development journey. “We have an introductory call just to get to know them; make sure they’re a good fit for us and we’re a good fit for them. And after that, it’s sort of the standard, ‘let’s sign an NDA’ talk and a lot more detail about the project. And then, from there, again, it’s more of a dialogue.”
Hart and his team like to be thorough and honest with their client calls. “We’ll talk through what they’ve done to date. Any requirements that they have, make sure that we can actually deliver on the technical requirements that they’re looking for,” Hart explained. “We’re pretty transparent here. We tend to share rates and give feedback. All that sort of stuff is part of these meetings. Just so the client knows what they’re getting into.”
Hart explained their two-pronged approach that mixes both customer care and technology. “From a communication standpoint, we try and do as much in person as we possibly can with the least amount of technology. Sometimes we don’t have a choice but we try and bring things into in-person meetings as quickly as we can. But on the flip side of that, on the technology side, we try and do as much automation and robotics as we can afford to do.”
The technology and equipment are effectively used to aid their process. “The big machinery or any sort of automation or even software is really to augment what we’re already doing. We’re not looking to replace steps or anything like that. It’s really to make what we do faster and better because everything is time to market in our industry.”
Flying Pig Designs brought in 3D printing very early on. “Within a couple of months of me starting, we had a 3D printer up and running and going and it was a fairly large format one. We’re always investing in 3D printing technology.” They also have a wide variety of other equipment. “We have a mill that we brought in, which a lot of houses don’t typically have in-house. We want to be able to make pretty much anything in the prototype shop that our engineers need to.”
Eye on the Prize
Hart always has the bigger picture in mind. “Again, it’s about time to market, so we vertically integrate as much as we can. We are able to go back into the shop and make onesie, twosies, and not have to wait for quotes. I don’t want to have to wait for outside materials to come in or explain to our vendors if we’re trying to do, drawings, ‘You don’t need to do those steps.’ We can just come back in the lab and make what we need, test it, and move on.” They are also looking at implementing a robotic scanner to look at some of their parts.
Hart explained that sometimes, a client had to be educated about the process. “A customer will come in and say ‘Hey, I built this prototype in my garage, I’ve got a patent, I’m ready to go to production.’ And you have to explain ‘We’re not quite there yet, here’s all the other steps that you have to do to safely get this on the market.’” Even after a proof of concept, there will still be production and regulatory hurdles.
“Most of the time the stuff that you do in your garage is not going to work for a plastic injection molder or a sheet metal house, so we need to do CAD models and drawings and prove it out using those processes. We need to validate all those vendors and then you can go to the production floor and validate your process. Verify the laundry list of stuff that you have to do, and most folks don’t know that.”
Making a Difference
“It sounds cliche but they’re [the projects] all kind of my kids,” Hart admitted. Some of the projects are especially rewarding. “We had a project in which we built an attachment that goes on top of an endotracheal tube when a physician is going to be intubating a patient. Basically, they put a tube down their throat so they can breathe. During that process, you just can’t get a lot of oxygen. If you can’t, intubate quickly, your oxygen levels drop very, very dramatically. And with this product, we were able to provide 100% oxygenation throughout the entire process. We actually stopped the timer at 15 minutes. We were literally at a hundred percent the entire time. It was just a simple little product and it worked really well.”
Hart believes that their customer service is what sets them apart. “There are a lot of folks that do what we do and a lot of folks who are a lot bigger than us, but our clients keep coming back.” Flying Pig Designs recently calculated that their retention rate was between 70 and 80%. “Basically, if a client has a second project that they know about, they come back to us about three-quarters of the time.”
Hart takes employee development and enrichment very seriously. “Training is something that we do a lot of, and there’s a bunch of different ways that we handle it. On Fridays, we’ll host a lunch and learn so everyone shows up with their lunch and we have some sort of generic but useful topic.”
Keir also encourages his employees to think outside the box. “We’ll also do what’s called ‘Sandbox Time’ on Friday afternoons. It’s a personal project that an engineer can work on that is adjacent to the business. It’s a pretty broad definition. It needs to be something that is new to them, something that they have to research, or a product that they designed that they want to work on. This allows Flying Pig Designs’ employees to not only build their portfolio but also build their knowledge base and apply that to their clients. It’s been a lot of fun.”
With that consistent stream of work, expansion is on the horizon. “As expansion goes, we’re not totally at capacity in terms of engineering space, but for the manufacturing space, we’re getting pretty close. Flying Pig Designs is considering a space near them that would allow them to double their footprint. “That will become pure manufacturing space and a little bit of storage.”
They are hoping to bring in some additional machine equipment. “I want to bring in some inspection equipment, basic injection- molding and sheet metal, and just kind of expand that feature set out, as well as provide an assembly space.”
Not all of the growth has been easy though and labor remains an important factor. “We’ve definitely hit a labor shortage, not only on the manufacturing side but on the engineering side as well,” Hart explained. “They seem to be loosening up a little bit, but unfortunately, because of all the layoffs that have been happening this year.” It has recently taken them six months to fill engineering positions that in the past took two months or less. And on the manufacturing side, things are even more difficult. “On the manufacturing side, we still haven’t filled the positions we’re looking for.”
Hart also described that partners were crucial to the success of his business. “The short story is that no man is an island and no company is either. We can do a lot, but we can’t do everything. To some extent, we can do some assembly depending on the product, but we can’t do clean room, or those sorts of things right now. We can’t do plastic injection molding because we don’t have that in-house.”
However, Flying Pig Design has found several local partners. “We have vendors that we partner with, and we bring them in very early on the process. Typically within the first phase or two, we want to start getting their feedback, and getting their processes engaged with the design to make sure that everything transitions as smoothly as possible.”
What Hart looks for in his vendors is the same level of communication and quality that he hopes to provide to his customers. “Capability is obviously number one. Communication and the ability to work together goes a very long way. They have to be able to communicate. We’re a customer service business. We’re a time-to-market business and if you can’t communicate, we’re just not going to hit our goals.”
There are a couple of other factors that also come into play. “Beyond that, we look at some of the peripheral things like how sustainable they are, not just from a financial standpoint, but do they make a lot of really nasty chemicals or do they take care of the environment.”
Flying Pig Designs has their eye on the future. “As far as some of the trends we’re seeing it looks like business is starting to come back to the States, but they’re still very competitive with clients going to places like China just because of the cost. The United States is going to have to figure out a way to compete on that cost whether we like it or not.”
Hart sees a way forward with technology and an agile and educated workforce. “I think the only way that we are going to be able to do that is as a culture, not as a country. [We need] to invest in high-tech and be nimble about how we approach problems.” He has several specific recommendations. “I think the ways that we’re going to do that is going to be implementing AI and implementing robotics,” he explained. “It is also going to be using people in ways that we haven’t typically in the past. Technology needs to be used as an aid to what we can already do so that one guy can do five different processes, rather than the one or two that he can do today.”