Structuring Product Design and Engineering Projects

By Ryan Gray

The success or failure of a product development effort depends on many things. The development work itself will focus on testing and validating features, functions, and designs in order to maximize the likelihood of a successful product. But the structure of the development project is just as important as the product design and engineering work.

Product design and engineering projects are inherently risky. The best product development companies have learned how to structure projects to quickly identify the highest risk elements of a project, and address them in an efficient, intentional way.

Project plans are specific to every project, and are a little bit different every time. But a general starting point for structure that we have had a lot of success with is described below. It is a phased approach that applies Lean Startup principles, as well as some elements of Agile Project Management. Each project phase is built in a way that a decision point or change in direction can be made prior to the next phase. Product design and engineering by nature, includes a lot of variables, decisions, and changes in direction. This is why reputable product design companies typically scope projects in smaller phases. The decisions and findings in one phase will change the scope and cost of all subsequent phases.

Phase 0: Specification Development and Feasibly Study.

Product design and engineering projects that don’t start with this step often fail, because without this work the development work cannot be properly focused. The product specification can take many forms, but it always serves to capture the intended function, characteristics, and constrains of the product or system. In parallel, feasibility study work explores whether it may be possible to achieve the required functionality with existing technology, or if new technology must be developed. Read more about our Phase 0 approach on Core77.

Phase 1: Concept Development, Component Research

In this phase, the product specification developed in Phase 0 is used to generate concepts for the product or system. Often times, multiple product concepts are developed. At the same time, initial research into components (board level components, power supplies, batteries, etc), happens. In some cases, components are brought in for characterization — a process that lets the product development company quantify the characteristics of components or subsystems. At the end of this phase, a winning concept is chosen, and taken forward to Phase 2.

Phase 2: Preliminary Product Design and Engineering

In Phase 2, initial engineering work starts to define the details of the product or system. We are still a long way from production at this point, but partial prototypes may be built to test specific mechanisms, aesthetics, electronics, or firmware. For larger, more complex products, this is often where virtual reality design reviews start to happen regularly.

Phase 3: Design Iteration

This phase focuses on rapid iterations of the product design through cycles of Build-Test-Learn. Multiple prototypes are built and tested, with the design constantly being updated to incorporate findings. The prototypes can be physical ones, or can be in virtual space. It is common in our office to use Virtual Reality to review prototypes, allowing for very fast design iterations. Once functionality aligns with the Phase 0 product specification, this phase is complete.

Phase 4: Design Finalization, Design Freeze

With the Phase 3 prototype demonstrating the required functionality, optimization work can begin. Engineering analysis work happens to add durability, and electronics are refined for efficiency.

Phase 5: Design for Manufacture (DFM)

This phase focuses on modifying the design to ensure that it is compatible with the needs and constraints of the manufacturer. Every manufacturer has different requirements base don their equipment and processes. So applying input from the actual people that will manufacture the product at volume is critical here.

Phase 6: Regulatory Work and Initial Unit Inspection

With the design fully optimized, production tooling is built, and initial production units are ready for inspection. Regulatory testing and compliance work also can begin, since actual production units are required for by most regulatory bodies.

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