Product Design & Development

The Generic Process for Developing New Products

Provides a Roadmap from Conceptualization and Design to Market Positioning and Strategy
A Professional Approach to Product Development

Product development is the process of creating a new product to be sold by a business or enterprise to its customers.  In the document title, Design refers to those activities involved in creating the styling, look and feel of the product, deciding on the product’s mechanical architecture, selecting materials and processes, and engineering the various components necessary to make the product work. Development refers collectively to the entire process of identifying a market opportunity, creating a product to appeal to the identified market, and finally, testing, modifying and refining the product until it is ready for production. A product can be any item from a book, musical composition, or information service, to an engineered product such as a computer, hair dryer, or washing machine. This document is focused on the process of developing discrete engineered products, rather than works of art or informational products.

       The task of developing outstanding new products is difficult, time-consuming, and costly. People who have never been involved in a development effort are astounded by the amount of time and money that goes into a new product. Great products are not simply designed, but instead they evolve over time through countless hours of research, analysis, design studies, engineering and prototyping efforts, and finally, testing, modifying, and re-testing until the design has been perfected.

       Few products are developed by a single individual working alone. It is unlikely that one individual will have the necessary skills in marketing, industrial design, mechanical and electronic engineering, manufacturing processes and materials, tool-making, packaging design, graphic art, and project management, just to name the primary areas of expertise. Development is normally done by a project team, and the team leader draws on talent in a variety of disciplines, often from both outside and inside the company. As a general rule, the cost of a development effort is a factor of the number of people involved and the time required to nurture the initial concept into a fully-refined product. Rarely can a production-ready product be developed in less than one year, and some projects can take three to five years to complete.

        The impetus for a new product normally comes from a perceived market opportunity or from the development of a new technology. Consequently, new products are broadly categorized as either market-pull products or technology-push products. With a market-pull product, the marketing center of the company first determines that sales could be increased if a new product were designed to appeal to a particular segment of its customers. Engineering is then asked to determine the technical feasibility of the new product idea. This interaction is reversed with a technology-push product. When a technical breakthrough opens the way for a new product, marketing then attempts to determine the idea’s prospects in the marketplace. In many cases, the technology itself may not actually point to a particular product, but instead, to new capabilities and benefits that could be packaged in a variety of ways to create a number of different products. Marketing would have the responsibility of determining how the technology should be packaged to have the greatest appeal to its customers. With either scenario, manufacturing is responsible for estimating the cost of building the prospective new product, and their estimations are used to project a selling price and estimate the potential profit for the company.

         The process of developing new products varies between companies, and even between products within the same company. Regardless of organizational differences, a good new product is the result a methodical development effort with well defined product specifications and project goals. A development project for a market-pull product is generally organized along the lines shown in Figure 1.

Concept Development


          Good concept development is crucial. During this stage, the needs of the target market are identified, competitive products are reviewed, product specifications are defined, a product concept is selected, an economic analysis is done, and the development project is outlined. This stage provides the foundation for the development effort, and if poorly done can undermine the entire effort.    Concept development activities are normally organized according to Figure 2.

Identify Customer Needs:    Through interviews with potential purchasers, focus groups, and by observing similar products in use, researchers identify customer needs. The list of needs will include hidden needs, needs that customers may not be aware of or problems they simply accept without question, as well as explicit needs, or needs that will most likely be reported by potential purchasers. Researchers develop the necessary information on which to base the performance, size, weight, service life, and other specifications of the product. Customer needs and product specifications are organized into a hierarchical list with a comparative rating value given to each need and specification.

Establish Target Specifications:     Based on customers’ needs and reviews of competitive products, the team establishes the target specifications of the prospective new product. While the process of identifying customer needs is entirely a function of marketing, designers and engineers become involved in establishing target specifications. Target specifications are essentially a wish-list tempered by known technical constraints. Later, after designers have generated preliminary products concepts, the target specifications are refined to account for technical, manufacturing and economic realities.

Analyze Competitive Products:     An analysis of competitive products is part of the process of establishing target specifications. Other products may exhibit successful design attributes that should be emulated or improved upon in the new product. And by understanding the shortfalls of competitive products, a list of improvements can be developed that will make the new product clearly superior to those of others. In a broader sense, analyzing competitive products can help orient designers and provide a starting point for design efforts. Rather than beginning from scratch and re-inventing the wheel with each new project, traditionally, the evolution of design builds on the successes and failures of prior work.

Generate Product Concepts:       Designers and engineers develop a number of product concepts to illustrate what types of products are both technically feasible and would best meets the requirements of the target specifications. Engineers develop preliminary concepts for the architecture of the product, and industrial designers develop renderings to show styling and layout alternatives. After narrowing the selection, non-functional appearance models are built of candidate designs.

Select a Product Concept:     Through the process of evaluation and tradeoffs between attributes, a final concept is selected. The selection process may be confined to the team and key executives within the company, or customers may be polled for their input. Candidate appearance models are often used for additional market research; to obtain feedback from certain key customers, or as a centerpiece of focus groups.

Refine Product Specifications:    In this stage, product specifications are refined on the basis of input from the foregoing activities. Final specifications are the result of tradeoffs made between technical feasibility, expected service life, projected selling price, and the financial limitations of the development project. With a new luggage product, for example, consumers may want a product that is lightweight, inexpensive, attractive, and with the ability to expand to carry varying amounts of luggage. Unfortunately, the mechanism needed for the expandable feature will increase the selling price, add weight to the product, and introduce a mechanism that has the potential for failure. Consequently, the team must choose between a heavier, more costly product, or one that does not have the expandable feature. When product attributes are in conflict, or when the technical challenge or higher selling price of a particular feature outweighs its benefits, the specification may be dropped or modified in favor of other benefits.

Perform Economic Analysis:    Throughout the foregoing activities, important economic implications regarding development expenses, manufacturing costs, and selling price have been estimated. A thorough economic analysis of the product and the required development effort is necessary in order to define the remainder of the development project. An economic model of the product and a review of anticipated development expenses in relation to expected benefits is now developed.

Plan the Remaining Development Project:   In this final stage of concept development, the team prepares a detailed development plan which includes a list of activities, the necessary resources and expenses, and a development schedule with milestones for tracking progress.

System Level Design

        System-level design, or the task of designing the architecture of the product, is the subject of this stage. In prior stages, the team was focused on the core product idea, and the prospective design was largely based on overviews rather than in-depth design and engineering. Once the development plan is approved, marketing may begin to develop ideas for additional product options and add-ons, or perhaps an extended product family. Designers and engineers develop the product architecture in detail, and manufacturing determines which components should be made and which should be purchased, and identifies the necessary suppliers.

       The product architecture defines the product in chunks, or the primary functional systems and subsystems, and how these systems are arranged to work as a unit. For example, an automobile is comprised of a body and a chassis with an engine, a transmission, final drive, frame, suspension and braking system. The architecture of an automobile design determines the platform layout, whether the vehicle is front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive, the size and location of the engine, transmission and final drive, the overall design of suspension system, and the layout and type of other necessary subsystems such as brakes, wheels, and steering. The architecture may determine the layout of the exhaust system, but it would not provide the detailed engineering needed to determine the diameter and thickness of the exhaust pipe, the detailed design of mufflers, nor the engineering of motor mounts and exhaust hangers needed to isolate vibrations from the passenger compartment.

       The architecture of the product, how it is divided into chunks and how the chunks are integrated into the total product, impacts a number of important attributes such as standardization of components, modularity, options for change later on, ease of manufacture, and how the development project is divided into manageable tasks and expenses. If a family of products or upgrades and add-ons are planned, the architecture of the product would determine the commonality of components and the ease with which upgrades and add-ons can be installed. A system or subsystem borrowed from another product within the company’s line will economize on development, tooling and manufacturing costs. With outsourced components, the supplier may contribute much of the associated design and engineering.

Detail Design

        Detail design, or design-for-manufacture, is the stage wherein the necessary engineering is done for every component of the product. During this phase, each part is identified and engineered. Tolerances, materials, and finishes are defined, and the design is documented with drawings or computer files. Increasingly, manufacturers and developers are turning to three-dimensional solid modeling using programs such as Pro-Engineer. Three-dimensional computer models form the core of today’s rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing technologies. Once the database has been developed, prototype components can be rapidly built on computerized machines such as CNC mills, fused deposition modeling devices, or stereo lithography systems.

Testing and Refinement

         During the testing and refinement stage, a number of prototypes are built and tested. Even though they are not made from production components, prototypes emulate production products as closely as possible. These alpha prototypes are necessary to determine whether the performance of the product matches the specifications, and to uncover design shortfalls and gain in-the-field experience with the product in use. Later, beta prototypes are built from the first production components received from suppliers.

Production Ramp-up

        During production ramp-up, the work force is trained as the first products are being assembled. The comparatively slow product build provides time to work out any remaining problems with supplier components, fabrication, and assembly procedures. The staff and supervisory team is organized, beginning with a core team, and line workers are trained by assembling production units.

Technology-Push Products

         The generic development process is used with technology-push products, but with slight modification. With technology-push products, the company acquires or develops a new technology and then looks for appropriate markets in which to apply the technology. Consequently, an extra phase is added at the beginning during which the new technology is matched to an appropriate market opportunity. When the match has been made, the generic development process is carried out as described.

Models and Prototypes

      The terms prototype and model are often used interchangeably to mean any full-scale pre-production representation of a design, whether functional or not. I prefer to use the term model to describe a non-functional representation and the term prototype to describe a functional item. An appearance model is a full-scale, non-functional representation that looks, as closely as possible, identical to the prospective new product. Modeling and prototyping serve a variety of purposes throughout the development effort.

       Early on, engineering prototypes may be built of systems and subsystems to bench-test performance and debug the system before proceeding with the design. Appearance models prove out styling and ergonomics. A full-scale mockup of an automobile interior, for example, provides a real-world test of ease of ingress, seating position, access to controls, visibility and appearance. Models and prototypes are necessary because of the limitations of theoretical work and artificial mediums. A product can be designed and put into simulated use on computer, but one doesn’t really know how it will work until the item is built and tested in its intended environment. Prototyping and modeling efforts begin virtually at the inception of the project and continue into production ramp-up.

The Role of Industrial Design

       According to the definition given by the Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA), industrial design (ID) is the “professional service of creating and developing concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value and appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both user and manufacturer.” An industrial designer combines artistic form with engineering necessities. The ID practitioner blends the human meanings expressed through form, color, and texture with the mechanical realities of function in a way that broadcasts a coherent and purposeful message to those who experience the product. Good industrial design can create additional product benefits through the selection of materials and the architecture of the design. Industrial designers have extensive training in art, as well as training in basic engineering, manufacturing and fabrication processes, and marketing practices. Dreyfuss (1967) lists five critical goals that industrial designers bring to a team when developing new products:

  • Utility: The product’s human interfaces should be safe, easy to use, and intuitive. Each feature should be shaped so that it communicates its function to the user.
  • Appearance: Form, line, proportion, and color are used to integrate the product into a pleasing whole.
  • Ease of Maintenance: Products must also be designed to communicate how they are to be maintained and repaired.
  • Low Costs: Form and features have a large impact on tooling and production costs, so they must be considered jointly by the team.
  • Communication: Product designs should communicate the corporate design philosophy and mission through the visual qualities of the products.

       Industrial design is costly and the value per dollar spent is often difficult to quantity. The value becomes obvious, however, when one experiences the results. When the purchaser intuitively understands a product’s function, and senses the quality of its construction and the integrity of the company that produced it, these subliminal messages are normally the result of good industrial design.

       Industrial designers usually become involved in a development project almost at the outset. Enthusiasm within the development team increases when industrial designers develop an attractive concept early in the project. When members have a real concept to work towards, the effort ceases to be a purely cerebral exercise, and instead, comes alive with personal meaning.

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