The Complexities of Color, Material, Finish (CMF)
Your plasticky-feeling TV remote control, that glossy white phone charger that scratches too easily, and your super premium headphones all evoke specific emotions and convey a sense of value during the lifetime of the product. This is one of the most important aspects of the design of a product, known as the CMF, which stands for color, material, and finish.
How a product feels in the hand, reflects light, weighs, and even its temperature can affect how users perceive it. Remember when every product was made of transparent colored plastic? That rocked. Remember matte beige computers that smelled like cigarette smoke? Those were kind of a bummer.
At larger corporations like Google, entire teams exist to determine the perfect mix of textures, colors, and materials to ensure products are perfect. In most cases, these specifications are made by an industrial designer and a mechanical engineer.
Let’s dig into how CMF is determined, what impacts these decisions, and how to ensure that choices made now aren’t detrimental during the lifetime of a product. We’ll help you understand why a request for “matte blue plastic” should actually be “YS1283 textured Pantone 2025C Cycoloy c6600 PC/ABS.” Fun, right?
Of the three components of CMF, color is the easiest to specify and comprehend. Typically, each manufactured part is one color, although some manufacturing processes, like double-shot molding and pad printing, allow parts to have multiple colors and textures.
How It’s Specified
Asking for something to be just purple is a surefire way to be disappointed, as there are thousands of colors that may be considered purple. Luckily, a few standards exist to convey exact colors to manufacturers, and the most commonly used is the Pantone Color System. Using a standard color system ensures that the purple you specified doesn’t come back too red or blue. Each color in this system has a unique formula of colors — specified as proportions of RGB (red, green, blue) or CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) pigments.
Which black do you want?
When specifying the color of parts, it’s important to obtain physical samples of the color chip. Oftentimes, you may fall in love with a color you find on the Pantone website only to realize the sample you obtain looks different than it did on your computer or phone screen. Different lighting conditions, part curvature, and textures impact how colors appear on parts. While the samples aren’t cheap at $20 or so each, we strongly recommend purchasing a few color samples in various shades before committing to a color. Once you find the color you like, purchase one or two extra samples and ship them to your factory to keep as the “golden sample” to compare finished products against.
During the manufacturing process, a special tool called a colorimeter is used to compare the color composition of the finished product against the desired RGB or CMYK values. Like everything in the manufacturing world, tolerances are used, and colors may deviate up to a predetermined +/- of a specific percentage away from the desired value. The more variation allowed, the less parts are scrapped and the lower the costs, but the colors may begin to be visually different.
Pure white plastic parts are some of the most difficult parts to injection mold because they easily show variation or imperfections which may be caused during the molding process. Proper cleaning and material handling are especially important with pure white parts and they tend to show scratches and dirt over long term use. Because of these challenges I like to advise clients to steer clear of them if possible.
Paints, metallic coatings, and secondary processes like pad printing or screen printing can be used to adjust the color of parts. Some plastic parts have metallic flakes, glitter, or chalk added to change the colors or show swirling textures.
Color is the simplest component of CMF to modify when manufacturing, so it’s easier to experiment with it. With injection-molded plastic parts, the colorant is mixed into a large quantity of plastic pellets. To change the color, the injection-molding machine is purged of the older material and new colorant is added to the pellets. Ordering the same part in various colors may incur a new setup fee for molding and can impact the price per unit. For example, ordering 1000 pieces of a part molded in a single color typically costs less than ordering 500 in one color and 500 in another.
Impact of Material and Finish
The material and texture or finish applied to the part can also affect the perceived color of the part. A glossy surface tends to make colors appear more vibrant, while a heavier matte texture may dull the color. Materials like ABS plastic can faithfully reproduce vibrant colors (like Lego bricks). Polypropylene tends to make colors look more milky or soft (like shampoo bottles), and glass-filled plastics can look chalky or have swirls of imperfections in them.
Metals tend to have more limited options for colors. You can change the color of sheet metal parts by coating them with powders or paint, and aluminum parts may be anodized with specific dyes to adjust their appearance.
Mechanical engineers and industrial designers typically collaborate on the material selection process to ensure the product looks and feels great but can also function correctly and is manufacturable.
Using the classic categorization system of “family, genus, species” helps to understand the types of materials that can be used on a product. Asking for something to be made out of plastic is similar to requesting to eat a mammal for dinner. Technically, you’ll get what you ordered but the odds of getting what you envisioned are slim.
Family: What type of material are you using?
Most products are typically made of plastic, fabric, metal, and/or glass. Fancier products may also incorporate cork, ceramics, or wood, but we’ll ignore these for now. Metals are used when a product needs to feel solid or heavy, transfer or withstand heat, or take a beating. Plastics are used when low costs and high design complexity are required and when parts need to be lightweight or flexible. Glass is used when parts need to be thermally and electrically insulating, stiff, or highly transparent and also when impact resistance is less important than clarity.
Genus: What specific material composition are you using?
There are many variations of each material — aluminum, carbon steel, and stainless steel are all metals but are chosen for specific purposes. Aluminum is lighter, wears more over time, conducts heat better, and is cheaper than steel. This is advantageous when designing a cellphone, but not good if you’re designing a stove. Plastics are chosen based on their cost, weights, UV resistance, softening temperature, flexibility, lifetime, and strength. Polycarbonate is great for clear plastic parts that need to be impact-resistant, but ASA is better for resisting sun exposure over a long period of time.
Species: What brand of material are you using?
There are hundreds of brands making ABS plastic these days. Big-name manufacturers like Sabic or Makrolon have various blends of ABS that are more flexible, UV stable, cheaper, or easier to mold. If you want to be prescriptive, you can specify only a certain manufacturer and blend are used on your parts, but this may raise the price. Similarly, in the world of metals, aluminum 6061 is stronger and more expensive than 3003, while 304 stainless steel isn’t magnetic and is more ductile than 316, which is more resistant to corrosion. There’s always a tradeoff and there may be multiple options that fit your needs. Consult with a materials expert or mechanical engineer if you’re lost.
Impact of Material and Finish
Not every material has the same capabilities for colors and finishes. Metals typically can be polished, brushed, or blasted to impact their appearance but have more limited color options. Plastics are the easiest materials to change color and texture since this is done in the mold and during the manufacturing process.
The finish of a part impacts its texture and appearance and impacts how light reflects off of a part, how it feels to the user, and how easy it is to clean if dirty. For instance, glossy surfaces may look beautiful when a product is first unboxed but may wear down over time and look worse than a textured surface.
Injection-molded or die-cast parts tend to have textures applied directly to the molds. This texture is imparted on the molded part and ensures each part is consistent. VDI, SPI, Yick Sang, and Mold Tech all have their own standards to define plastic surface textures.
The depth of the texture impacts how the part can be designed, however. A part with a very rough texture may stick to the mold more than if it was glossy, and the part will need sloped sides or a more complicated mold to ensure it can be manufactured.
Plastic molding standards include recommended minimal draft angles that should be applied to a part to help ensure the appearance is correct and repeatable. These standards are available to purchase as large books made of molded plastic sheets with various textures molded in. These books tend to be very expensive and need to be handled with care to ensure they aren’t damaged. Some truly insane texture options are available, like wood grain or the tiny PlayStation logos that are engraved on the controllers.
Metal parts have fewer texture options. Parts can be blasted with different-sized glass beads or sand grains to impart a rough texture, or they can be tumbled with polishing compounds to make them glossier. Certain parts can be passed through equipment that uses special brushes to apply a consistent striped pattern to the metal surface. Powder and E-coating (electro coating) processes typically have a few texture options available like matte, eggshell, and gloss.
Painting processes can create beautifully glossy finishes seen on cars or can be used to match textures across multiple materials. Special rubberized coatings or soft-touch paints can also be added to parts to make them grippier. Note that some soft touch coatings may wear down over time and with exposure to chemicals, leaving a sticky residue or a noticeably shiny surface underneath. I tend to recommend avoiding rubberized coatings unless absolutely necessary for this reason.
Impact of Color and Material
Finish options vary depending on the material used, as indicated above. Certain colors are also harder to reproduce accurately with specific finishes. A molded plastic part that has the color Pantone Black C specified will look much darker if it’s on a glossy surface than if it’s on a matte texture. Glossy white surfaces tend to show scratches, dirt, and oils far easier than darker colors.
The Impact of CMF
The same item made out parts with different color, material, and finish can evoke very different feelings by a customer. A glossy black plastic product may feel cheap while the same part made of sandblasted aluminum feels premium. Using translucent plastics or bright colors may make it feel more playful than if it was made of white or gray colored plastics. Matte beige feels outdated or corporate while a warm gray might feel futuristic or tactical. Industrial designers tend to provide renderings of their concepts made out of various CMF options to show the impact that a simple color or texture change may provide. It’s important to tailor the CMF of your product to your target market and the emotions you wish to evoke.
How to Choose
So now that you know what CMF means and the complexities surrounding each option, what do you do next? Texture books and color swatches are expensive. Limited information can be conveyed over the internet and on screens, so you’ll need to get creative here.
When working with clients, I like to ask them to send me some example products they enjoy, and I try my best to match them. Sometimes, I ask them to head to a store and look at a display model of a product I have with a known texture and color. Other times, I mail them my expensive texture book and color chips and panic slightly.
Some material libraries exist where you can pay to touch, feel, and compare CMF combinations, but they’re few and far between and tend to be fairly expensive. Photorealistic renderings in computer programs like Keyshot or Blender can also help convey the final appearance, but they don’t help with the feel.
Ultimately, a combination of renders, examples of products with similar CMF, and a healthy imagination are required to fully understand what a product will look and feel like. You won’t know for sure until you have the parts in your hand. Receiving that first manufactured sample of your parts is one of the best feelings in the world, and it’s why I love being a product design engineer.
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