Product Design Firm Strategies: Lean vs State-Gate
It can happen in large companies, as well as in small emerging businesses. Product design firms often tend to gravitate towards the sexier elements of a project: defining and validating feature sets, design, prototype development, and functional development. Careful attention to each of these areas is critical to a successful development effort. But there is another focus area that can deliver a fatal blow to products in the final stages of development, and that is Optimization for Manufacturing. If ignored, the outcomes can include sporadic quality issues, delays in initial shipments, COGS that exceed pro-formas, and even complete re-builds of production tooling.
If this focus is so important, why not focus on it as a primary development item from the start, on all projects?
Product design firms incorporate newer approaches like Lean Startup—in place of older ones like Stage-Gate— because the newer methods ensure that product development efforts focus more on addressing prioritized risks unique to each product. If the product relies on emerging manufacturing technologies, or it is going to be sold into an extremely price competitive market, manufacturing is likely a high-risk, high priority item. In these cases, the cost or viability of production may be just as important than the value of the feature set to the market.
So, what exactly is manufacturing optimization? Manufacturing optimization, when executed properly, results in a final product design that not only provides the features and functions demanded by the market but is also compatible with the manufacturer’s equipment and processes, at the volumes needed. A critical element to successful manufacturing optimization is the engagement of the actual manufacturer that will make the product in the development process. For a product that is entering a less competitive market space, production cost may be less important. In these cases, the feature set should be the primary focus of early-stage work, however, it is still important to avoid concept choices that preclude realistic manufacturing plans.
Focus on optimization for manufacture is part of a structured product design and engineering process and should start with the feasibility study.
Product Design Strategies to Optimize for Manufacturing: Case Studies
Case study #1: An enterprise dock for handheld PC’s.
In this project, it was clear from the concept stage that conventional manufacturing processes would be suitable for the product. However, the product did need additional features which were key to the value of the design. These features included a retention system that required the use of slides that move perpendicular to the draw direction of the injection mold tooling to produce the part correctly, as well as considerations in the design to accommodate the slides in the part geometry. Addressing this high-risk item early in the development process avoided tooling changes later that would have been extremely costly.
In this example above, three decisions by product development fir led to smooth and efficient optimization for manufacturing:
- A manufacturer was selected early in the process—in this case, before product design even began.
- The development team was led by an individual who provided the design vision and was a process engineering expert with knowledge in the manufacturing processes relevant to this product – in this case, plastic injection molding.
- In addition to validating use-case and feature set, the development team engaged the manufacturer early and often to ensure the development output was compatible with the specific capabilities and limitations of the manufacturer.
These three decisions ensured that optimization for manufacturing was included as a development priority, through the structured development process.
Product Design Firms Strategies Case study #2: Smart Coffee Grinder
In a second example, manufacturing optimization occurred in a similar way—this time for an IoT coffee grinder—but at different times to accommodate a Kickstarter campaign to fund the development.
Kickstarter (and similar platforms) provide a unique means to validate a concept and generate funding for production and generally, working Kickstarter prototypes are required for a product-centric campaign, but the prototype only needs to demonstrate the core functionality of the product.
In these projects, a critical project milestone is a prototype with specific, limited features and characteristics. Typically the development budget to achieve this milestone is limited, with a successful Kickstarter campaign providing the funds for the second half of development. This means manufacturing optimization does not need to be included at all in early-stage development so that development resources can be focused solely on the Kickstarter prototype.
Even before the development of the smart grinder project began, the client company and the product design firm agreed that manufacturing optimization would intentionally be pushed to late-stage development.
This approach to manufacturing optimization would allow for the fast development of a prototype incorporating the key functionality for minimal cost. All parties recognized that the net development dollars to a manufacturing-ready product would increase because of this choice. This was a valid business decision, with some risks and some rewards.
Ultimately the Kickstarter campaign was successful and the project was now driven partly by a delivery target date.
As with the previous example, product design firms engaged the manufacturer early to address potential challenges. In this example, the manufacturer was engaged later in the process, to keep early development costs low. As the development team expected, the manufacturer did have specific needs which required significant iteration to the product’s internal geometry and materials.
The product design started to diverge from the prototype in the Kickstarter campaign to accommodate manufacturing requirements. Many system elements had to be completely re-designed, adding cost and time to the project, as anticipated when the decision was made to forego manufacturing consideration in the initial design. Because of this planning, none of these extra costs and time came as a surprise to the client, and this is a key aspect of this strategy.
In this example, some of the things that led to higher cost optimization for manufacturing were:
- To minimize time and cost to get to an initial functional prototype, manufacturing optimization was not included in the early development.
- The manufacturer selected had specific requirements, which were more costly to address in late-stage design than they would have been in the early stages.
Unlike the PC dock in example 1, the implementation of manufacturing optimization later in the grinder was suitable because of the funding approach and business model defined by the client. These examples show two different routes to take to a successful optimization for manufacturing.
Optimization for manufacture is key to the success of a product development project, and to the product itself. Product design firms with careful evaluation of manufacturing risk relative to feature sets and function is a starting point and can determine how much to focus on manufacturing optimization in initial product development work. Dedicated focus on optimization for manufacture in mid and late development, including direct collaboration with manufacturers during product design can reduce risk in multiple areas. This strategy for product development will also help avoid unexpected expenses are identified early on.
So regardless of whether a company is just getting off the ground, or is well established, optimization for manufacture is a critical element of a successful product development project and is required for a successful product launch.