Critical steps in getting products to market

4 min read

It is said that, within the electronics industry, only one in seven product concepts is a commercial success and just 25% of product designs prove to be a winner. This is also applicable across the UK and in all sectors. So what is going wrong and why do so many fall by the wayside?

Because nearly all new product development work is non deterministic, there is always an element of risk in R&D. But, if risks aren’t taken, the boundaries will never be pushed. However, one could argue that the approach taken to R&D process management partly decides the fate of any product under development.

In a commercial environment, products have to shine in comparison to the competition. Technical challenges have to be surmounted, architectures innovated, capabilities maximised and aggressive performance goals set to ensure outputs from the process are not accidental loss leaders. Frequently, a short timeframe is applied to the development and design phase. Whilst R&D costs will be lower, the suitability of the design for production may be poor. Engineers will be working without manufacturing in mind, with a set of requirements that do not capture the critical success factors for the product.

To minimise risk early in product conception, it is essential the voice of the customer be heard. At all stages in product development, key stakeholders – executive management, marketing and engineering specialists – need to work together so the customer’s requirements are reflected in what is being asked for.

The process followed some years ago by a leading mobile handset company is an example of how things can go wrong. Its design engineers spent 12.5 man-years developing a phone’s architecture, testing it, getting it fully operational and ready for final approval. Only then did the marketing department became involved, noting the phone had the wrong feature set and the wrong ‘look and feel’. The project was shelved, with nothing to show for the effort.

In effect, there are two separate organisations – the design team and the production team –
and the first 'chucks the design over the wall' to the other

This classic example of what happens with poorly executed development reinforces the alarming statistic that 50% of R&D resources are allocated to failed or killed projects.

Many companies approach design implementation in product development in a similar manner, although stage gate reviews, stakeholder involvement, evaluation of competitor landscape, end market manufacturing and aftermarket solutions can vary greatly. Questions that need to be addressed include: which technologies will be used?; what is the feature set?; what and where is the main competition?; which geographical regions will the product need to support?; and what is the balance between quality, cost and time to market? These are critical success factors.

Only one in seven product concepts is a success and just 25% of product designs prove to be a winner

Typically, a project begins with one set of goals, but marketing input, technical challenges and feature set adjustments mean the project’s scope changes. Change can be managed, as long as it follows a coherent process.

First, without predefined control mechanisms, the launch window may be hit, but with the wrong product. The product realisation team needs to keep focus on the critical success factors. With a 35% failure rate for products at launch, it is hardly surprising that two out of three executives become disappointed with the whole product development process.

Questions to be addressed range from which technologies will be used to what will be the critical success factors?

Secondly, without well defined processes, any amendment increases risk – and managing that risk that is important. For a successful outcome, teams need to be adaptable and prepared to make necessary and sensible changes to ensure they get closer to the window of opportunity – but never on an ad hoc basis.

While focus on change management and a well defined development process will help improve the likelihood of success, it is also imperative the development team focuses on the goal – a successful product launch –not just on achieving the design intent.

Too frequently, when a constrained budget for a project is signed off and the green light pressed, everyone piles in to write the requirements and implementation begins. Pressure is put on engineers to complete the design quickly. This drives a mentality where the design team ends up rushing the prototype and passing the design to manufacturing too early.

In effect, there are two separate organisations – the design team and production team – and the first ‘chucks the design over the wall’ to the other. As the manufacture phase ramps up, realisation dawns how poorly the design is made in reference to manufacture. Designers have to return to the drawing board, impacting on time and money. This will also distract them from assignments they have since begun.

To avoid this, certain factors need to be addressed in the design phase to ensure smooth passage in production:

  • What is the test strategy?
    Has the product been designed with testability in mind? Is suitable manufacturing test equipment in place?
  • How are the components selected – online searches or engineer preference?
    Designers should engage with the supply chain early on to define component availability in the region of manufacture. Specifying unsuitable parts or suppliers can cause headaches in production and design iterations.
  • Line of sight
    The engineering team needs to see a development through prototyping, transition and into manufacturing. The manufacturing team needs to see back into design to prepare for what is coming, which may involve processes or technologies new to manufacturing.
  • An experienced project manager is crucial
    With good product realisation experience and process, a high tech background and good people management skills, they are key to a successful outcome and represent the voice of the customer. In some companies, the chief engineer will handle the technical aspect and a programme manager the resource planning, scheduling and budgeting. A dedicated project manager covers both roles and often has a design background with learned manufacturing knowledge.

A company with design and manufacturing departments is likely to be more aware of the needs of both teams and understand where a product is coming from and going to. A design house without such an affiliation is unlikely to have that visibility.

A prototype will be made for a customer, who thinks ‘great, that’s the design done, let’s get it made’, but the consultancy hasn’t taken the supply chain and manufacturability into consideration. There is a disconnect halfway through the product realisation flow and a cumbersome solution has to be found, resulting in lost opportunities, schedule delays and budget increases.

It is surprising how disconnected product development can be in some companies. Product development is not an academic exercise; engineers need to be offering a practical service to develop a product and define requirement capture, specification and follow into implementation with a clearly defined feature set.

Mistakes are always fixable, but it takes people with proven experience and flexibility to achieve results. Companies that employ a range of disciplines are more able to identify potential problems. Every customer has different problems, so insight is gained and transferable skills acquired.

Companies shouldn’t panic; they should take the long term view in product development, plan the process through to product launch and beyond. This will save time and money in the long term and increase the chance of commercial success.

Author profile:
John Simpson is senior engineering manager at Plexus.