Design firm blends ethnicities and experiences

A troika of local industrial designers are benefiting from technological advances resulting in the lower cost of designing consumer products. Notch Design Group of Providence was established in August 1997 by Rhode Island School of Design graduates Edgar Laguinia, 30, Jeremy Howard, 27, and Luke Michas, 27. The group met four years earlier when transfer students in the school’s industrial design program.

The Filipino, South African and New Jersey native brought to the table a mix of degrees and experience in management, marketing, and architecture. But they can’t help crediting timing with a good deal of their nascent success.

First there was the mutual friend who vacated his Allens Avenue industrial design shop, freeing up 2,400 square feet of office and workshop space for Notch to lease. The deal included about $50,000 worth of prototyping equipment and computers. The threesome estimated they spent another $30,000 of their own money on upgrades, including the equipment they brought from home.

On top of their personal luck, changes in the industry have helped defray start-up costs.

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Since the late 1980s, the cost of setting up a computer-aided design (CAD) or computer-aided modeling (CAM) work station, including hardware and software, has taken a dramatic nose dive. The same can be said for the all-important process of prototyping, according to Gianfranco Zaccai, president of Design Continuum, Inc., of Boston.

In the evolution of software, costly packages that required a Unix operating system have been replaced with much cheaper versions that run on Windows. Increased competition among software manufacturers also has forced prices as high as $50,000 per work station to dip as low as $5,000 or $6,000, once discounts are applied, Zaccai said.

Notch has stopped using about two-thirds of its CAD software, relying mostly on SolidWorks, a 3D solid modeling software that runs on Windows NT, Howard said.

When it comes to prototyping, the proliferation of so-called “service bureaus” equipped with desktop, computer-controlled milling machines has had a similar effect, Zaccai said. What used to require drawing and machining can now be accomplished with an electronic file sent via email. The cost-savings are found less in materials than in the time spent performing a job, Zaccai said.

The end result of better and cheaper technology is obvious for newcomers like Notch:

”Now small companies can compete with big ones,” Laguinia said.

While most early-stage design shops “tend to specialize over time” by “kind of slipping into a niche,” Notch hopes to distinguish itself by “staying broad,” Laguina said.

The ability to take on any task gives the company an air of “freshness” that potential clients seem to like, Howard said.

Notch’s client list is indeed eclectic, starting with RISD’s Universal Kitchen Project. The academic exercise in designing the kitchen of the future helped launch Notch. Laguinia, Howard and Michas worked on the project as students. Soon the project reached beyond the classroom into industry, at which time Notch signed on as a corporate sponsor, performing research, development and prototyping.

Since then, Notch’s projects past and ongoing include toys for Hasbro’s Tonka line; bicycle tools and accessories for Pedro’s USA; a golf shoe sole and cleat for Titleist and Footjoy Worldwide; lightweight luggage for Samsonite; tree protectors for Four Season Farm of Maine; a portable lettuce harvester for Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; and market research for Bose Corporation, among others.

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