Managing Manufactured Products: Design and Development "Product people - Product managers, product designers, UX designers, UX researchers, Business analysts, developers, makers & entrepreneurs 17 April 2018 True industrial design, industrial engineers, industrial product design, manufactured products, Product Development, separation principles, Mind the Product Mind the Product Ltd 1029 Product Management 4.116
· 5 minute read

Managing Manufactured Products: Design and Development

In my last post we examined some of the unique requirements that need to be defined for manufactured products.

Now, let’s start designing and developing.

Industrial Design vs Industrial Engineering

In software, we all understand and appreciate that our UX designers aren’t the best at coding and our coders aren’t the best at UX design. The same principles will apply to industrial designers and industrial engineers.

Industrial designers prioritize form over function. They have expertise in human factors, aesthetics, and usability. They’ll put your long list of functional requirements aside and be more interested in observing your customers’ behaviors, examining user stories, and sketching and prototyping potential solutions to meet customer needs. And to top it off, their outputs will be cool and exciting.

Your industrial engineers will prioritize function over form. They understand the mechanical and electrical principles required to make your product work. They’ll read your functional requirements again and again, create compliance matrices, and won’t worry too much about the look and feel of their intended design. But, you can be sure that their design will work at a technical level.

In our scenario of a wearable fitness tracker and health monitor for outdoor adventurers, you will need both disciplines. The best development teams create a healthy tension between industrial design and industrial engineering. You, as the product manager, must serve as the referee, arbiter, instigator, and peacemaker. If your industrial designers take over, your stakeholders may fall in love with a conceptual design that can never work. If your industrial engineers take over, you may end up with a working product that nobody wants to use.

Let’s look at how this may play out in practice. Your engineers have designed a laser module that can monitor blood oxygen levels, and you intend for this to be a key differentiating feature for your product. It works great. However, the module has a circuit board that’s 1in x 2in (2.5cm x 5cm) in dimension and nobody will want to wear a device that large on their wrist. As your industrial designers begin to develop physical concepts, they need to respect the fact that this amount of circuit board area may be required, but push the electrical engineers to consider ways to use both sides of the board effectively, use flexible connectors, and get more aggressive about component spacing in order to optimize the form. Your engineers will be reluctant to change something that already works, so you’ll need to arbitrate this clash between form and function to ensure your customer gets what they want.

Managing Physical Contradictions

The above example is a physical contradiction. We want a circuit board to be small, but also to have a lot of functionality. The decisions made when facing such contradictions will often make or break your product and the impact of such decisions may not be felt until late in the development process. Fortunately, there are some useful tools for product managers to deploy when facing these contradictions.

Too often, contradictions are resolved via trade-off. The development team compromises, such that neither the form nor function is well executed. The Separation Principles technique presents a way to resolve contradictions in a way that may also uncover solutions that delight your customer.

There are four separation principles that can be considered – time, space, scale, and condition. How might this work for the contradictions in our scenario?

  • You want a long battery life but the power consumption of your display screen of choice is high. A separation in time solution would light the display only after the touch of a button.
  • You want to do advanced data processing to show the wearer how their fitness level is increasing over time but this requires a larger, more power hungry microprocessor. A separation in space solution would offload the advanced data processing to a smartphone or computer.
  • You want the device to be lightweight and shockproof. A separation in scale solution would use lightweight composite materials that have low inherent strength but become strong when layered together in a structure.
  • You want the display to be readable in direct sunlight and blackout conditions. A separation upon condition solution would adjust the display backlight automatically depending on the ambient light level.

When evaluating the potential ways to resolve contradictions via separation, be sure to consider unintended consequences that could affect your ability to meet other product requirements and check that your users will adopt the design choice. In other words, avoid sofa beds. Though a logical example of using separation principles, a sofa bed is often ugly and uncomfortable when folded up, and just as ugly and uncomfortable when unfolded.

New Product Development Processes

For the most part, the software development world has cast aside traditional phase-gate and waterfall development methods in favor of Agile methodologies. So, you’ll be surprised to find that the traditional methods are still used widely in companies that develop manufactured products.

These traditional methods are in place mostly because of the financial risks associated with developing physical products. Software development budgets are dominated by labor costs while hardware development budgets are a combination of labor and material costs. Those material costs rise as you move through the development process and more prototypes are built, capital investments are made to set up production, and contracts are executed with external suppliers. As a result, senior managers in the manufacturing environment want to enforce gate reviews to approve or disapprove these escalating expenditures in an effort to manage the financial risk.

The emergence of affordable rapid prototyping and 3D printing technologies is beginning to shift this thinking. It is becoming more possible to keep material costs down until later in the product development process and manufacturing companies are loosening up the early stages of their development cycles to increase innovation efficiency.

Still, at some point you will need to make the case for transition to production, and that decision will be scrutinized by your stakeholders in a gate review. My next post in this series will examine how to prepare for that gate and set up a successful launch of your manufactured product.

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