Diego Tamburini, manufacturing industry strategist at Autodesk, explores how new processes make product development and innovation better and faster.
The ability to innovate is one of the key competencies manufacturing companies need to maintain competitive differentiation.
Changes in customer demand and in the way we design, make and use products are prompting manufacturers to modernise the way they’ve traditionally developed and introduced new products to market.
Gone are the days of products being developed in isolation behind company walls, with only a handful of employees making all the design decisions, and of long-drawn-out product development cycles aimed exclusively at mass production.
Agility; crowdsourcing; community involvement; customer co-design; mass customisation, and low volume production are the new skills manufacturers have to learn to remain competitive.
Traditional product development processes have several drawbacks. Namely, the customer is out of the loop during most of the product development process: they are only “touched” by the company at the beginning of the product development process through market research, than at the point of sale and service.
In addition, customers get the marketing department’s “interpretation” of what they want, while there is often a time delay between an idea coming to light and the eventual manufacturer and sale of a product, during which time customer preferences could change or competitors have the opportunity to strike first.
Historically, product development has also been aimed at mass production, to take advantage of economies of scale in production. But at the same time, it represents a significant investment risk – particularly if it’s found that the product has design or manufacturing flaws, or the market doesn’t respond to it as expected.
Launched by Autodesk and The Manufacturer – and supported by key partners, the Future of British Manufacturing Initiative takes a hands-on approach to enable British design and manufacturing companies to respond to the challenges of trends the likes of Industry 4.0 and the Internet of Things.
Gain a firmer grasp of the trends that are shaping design and manufacturing, and how other companies are already responding to them, by attending one of the four regional Future of Making Things event at a High Value Manufacturing Catapult Centre:
- April 28, Digital Catapult Centre – London
- May 25, The MTC – Coventry
- June 15, AMRC – Rotherham
- September 21, AFRC – Renfrew
It also severely limits the ability to offer personalisation or customisation. In addition, once launched, feedback on how the product is performing usually comes to the marketing and engineering departments via the services department as opposed to the customers directly.
As a result, companies risk introducing the wrong product, to the wrong target, at the wrong price, time, and volume. All these risks can make even the most forward-thinking company play it safe, ultimately harming the process, or limiting innovation to a small number of more risk-tolerant start ups.
Forces shaping innovation
There are forces that are making it harder to sustain the status quo – or at least gain any competitive advantage under it. Changes in consumer behaviour, a demand for personalised products and the growing global market are all playing a role in creating new pressures and opportunities for manufacturers.
In addition, customers increasingly want to be more intimately involved in the product development process, particularly during the early stages of ideation and design. They feel more empowered, and are favouring those companies that offer them the opportunity to propose ideas and directly impact the direction of the product.
Not only are market forces determining changes, but so too are the way in which products are designed and made. There is greater collaboration both through crowdsourcing communities, and internally within companies, while data sharing is increasing, and people are proactively reaching out and requesting input from others.
Attitudes toward intellectual property are also shifting, while technological advancements and connectivity are driving further change.
Where to start:
- Engage your customers more intimately in the product development process: embed them in your design team, allow them to provide ideas, empower them to vet and select solutions. Let them interact and comment on the design early on and allow them to interact with designers and engineers. Liverpool-based supercar manufacturer, BAC Mono claims that every one of their cars is different – how? Because they are harnessing the latest technology to offer serious levels of customisation – from 3D printing steering wheels to perfectly fit the customer’s hands, and visualisation software that enables them to play around with almost every element of the car’s design before they buy.
- Consider Agile product development: even though hardware and software product development are very different animals, several of the Agile product development principles that have been successfully used for software development make a lot of sense also for hardware development (for example, customer collaboration, test-driven development, and frequent delivery of working features).
- Favour software solutions over hardware solutions: before the emergence of embedded systems, the only way to solve problems was with mechanical solutions. Even with the emergence of embedded systems, we still solve the main problems with hardware, and leave software and electronics for mainly for control purposes. However, as microprocessors and sensors become more powerful, smaller, and cheaper, it makes more sense to solve problems with software instead of hardware. In fact, when presented with a problem to solve, you should first ask yourself: can I solve it with software? The advantages of doing this are that software is easier to customise, deploy, and update than hardware.
- Master low volume production: this is arguably the hardest, but potentially most differentiating change a manufacturer can make at this time. Low volume production is the key to mass customisation – the ability to provide personalised products to your customers. But in a less extreme situation, the ability to economically produce different products in small batches is also the key to address demand fragmentation and globalisation. This not only leads to changes in your manufacturing processes, planning and factory design, but also in the way you design your products (for example, to require less or no custom fixtures, to be 3D printable, etc.)
- Connect your products: by connecting products not only can manufacturers deliver new and enhanced customer experiences, but they can also extract valuable insight from the data their sensors collect. This can be used to deliver new attached services, or be fed back into the design department to improve designs, or even offer new business models such as Product-as-a-Service (under this model, the customer doesn’t pay for the product or spare parts, but rather “subscribes” to the product and either pays a fixed amount on a predetermined schedule, or by units of “outcome” produced by the product – like Watts of power or tons of material moved). In addition, when products are connected, it’s easier for the manufacturer to update their software. The quintessential example of this upgrade approach is Tesla, which has been delivering over-the-air updates to its Model S for years, recently upping the ante with its Autopilot update. Deployed wirelessly, the update essentially turns these vehicles into autonomous, self-driving cars—without requiring a visit to the shop.
The changes proposed may not work for all types of products or companies. For example, embedding your customers into your product development process can be – if not properly managed – potentially distracting and inefficient, as it becomes harder to stay focused on what the company does well, and what ideas actually make good sense. Also, intimate customer involvement may be a problem for products whose designs are highly sensitive or confidential in nature.
That said, I would argue that these changes – properly implemented – can be helpful for most cases. They can work for companies big or small, complex or simple products, low or high volume production, startups or established companies. What’s essential is that manufacturers review their processes and relationship with their customers to drive efficiencies and find new opportunities and, crucially, don’t risk falling behind.