New Product Development Primer
Bringing a new product from concept to successful production is not magic. There are well-defined stages which have evolved along with electronic technology. In fact, electronic based products are prolific partially because of the straightforward development scenario and the relatively low cost of tooling required. This description of the steps will aid those not familiar with the process. Electronic products range from small and simple to grand and complex. Some are based on embedded microprocessors and therefore contain software while others are purely hardware. At the risk of over simplification, the following stages are generic enough to be true for a broad range of electronic products.
Description of the NeedIt's a cliche because it's true; necessity is the mother of invention. Accurately identifying the need is essential. A detailed written description of the user's need to be satisfied by the new product must be clear so that the completed product will actually fill a real need. This step is usually the responsibility of the marketing department. It is, without doubt, the most important step because all development work that follows will be based on the assumption that the need was accurately identified. The cost of a mistake at this stage is disaster.
Finding a Solution to Fill the Need - Design and EngineeringThis is where all the creativity and experience is combined to find a solution to the product need as defined. From flashes of inspiration to years of laborious experiments, this step is the subject of many books. If we focus on electronic circuit design, some of the procedures are taught in engineering schools. The approach depends on the strengths of the inventor. Some rely on math or simulators to offer predictions of results. Others spend most of the time constructing breadboards, models and prototypes. This important step can easily be "outsourced" to product development contractors who have staffs of engineering and design talent and the necessary lab equipment, instruments and CAD systems. In any case, the final result will be schematic diagram representing a functional breadboarded circuit.
Protecting the InventionMany will focus on this stage alone. It is actually the least important, but it is easy enough to hold onto the ownership of a truly unique solution. A lab notebook kept up to date with your step-by-step work through all steps of development is the proof of your work. Have important pages signed and dated by a colleague under a statement that the content is "witnessed and understood". Later, if you chose to protect the intellectual property with a patent, the lab notebook is the key to establishing the date of the work. A search of existing patents will be required to see if others haven't done the same work. There is more to be said about patents which is beyond the scope of this document, but keep in mind that in many cases, a patent will only buy you the right to sue someone.
Building a PrototypeTaking the product to the market requires the construction of a working model or prototype. This milestone is a wonderful proof that all the work including the assumptions and hypotheses were on track. The prototype can be photographed for advertising and demonstrated to the sales department in order to get the marketing program started and it can serve as the key to financing. Depending on the type of product, the prototype can require industrial design, CAD mechanical drawings, and plastic models, but certainly a printed circuit board to be designed, assembled and tested. If the prototype is to be used for photography, more detail is required. If a microprocessor is embedded, the software has to be completed.
Field TestingThere are two important results to be gained from putting prototypes into the field. Marketing feedback in terms of how well the product fills the need is the most critical. The technical staff needs to know how well the first units perform in terms of functionality and reliability. Gathering the data from this beta test period is serious work and listening to the results is not easy. There is great value in the data since small problems can be corrected before they become large disasters. The number of prototypes required for a proper beta test depends on the ultimate size of the production run as well as the complexity of the product and the nature of the specific market. For many products, a multiple stage roll out is recommended starting with a handful of units shown in focus groups followed by 1% to 5% of the first production run at carefully selected customer sites.
Production EngineeringThe feedback from the field tests is digested and the designs are modified where necessary. If these changes are extensive, the field test stage should be repeated. Component parts require their own engineering chapter. Although component selection is accomplished during the circuit design, there are issues of assembly labor costs, availability and multiple sources which are finalized in pre-production. Testability is another subject unto itself. The quality and the cost of the final product is effected by all the design stages, not final test. When the design is frozen, fixtures can be built for automatic assembly, in-circuit and functional testing of the printed circuit boards. Sophisticated assembly and test equipment is programmed for insertion of parts or for verifying connections and functionality. Final assembly of numerous boards and other modules into the enclosure is usually done with hand labor and the final test requires a custom designed functional test set. Often the complexity of the functional test systems becomes greater than the product itself.
ProductionWith the assembly and test fixtures in place, components are ordered to meet the quantity required by the market. Long lead time and single source parts need to be ordered early and expedited to insure that production can begin on schedule. Some parts require incoming inspection for quality and some must be prepped for assembly. If the volume of production is more that 50,000 units per order and if low cost is critical, off-shore assembly may be warranted. Currently, the cost of assembly in China can be very appealing, but there are hidden costs for management, quality control, shipping, tariffs and financing. If assembly in China is justified, use a factory that you know and keep your agent on the premises during your job. We recommend running a parallel line locally for producing about 10% of the volume assembled in China.
There is considerable advice which should accompany the description of the stages of product development. This document is not a complete thesis, but the following key issues need to be understood.
The Relative Cost of MistakesAn error made during any particular stage of development will be inexpensive to correct while the project is still at the same stage. If the error is not found and remedied, the cost of fixing it during the following stage can be 10 to 100 times higher and 1000 to 10,000 times during the next stage, and so on. For example, a minor misjudgment at stage 1 when the need is being identified could be corrected by mere reading and editing a document at the cost of $100. The same error can cause problems that could easily cost $10,000 to undo during the engineering stage and if uncaught, might cost $100,000 in wasted field tests and could become a $1,000,000 disaster at production.
Time to MarketThe time to market is a concept which must be understood since the results can make or break a new product. The product is going into the rapidly changing but sizable electronics market. Studies have been done which show that a 3-month delay in getting a new product to the market, can result in the irretrievable loss of 25% of the potential profit. A longer delay is more serious and eventually, as competition establishes market share, a late product becomes almost worthless. If profit is to be maintained, the development of a new product must be accomplished cleanly by professionals.
QualityThe quality of a product can not be increased by implementing tighter quality control. Quality must be a high priority during the entire development process. Professional product design and development firms have proven that using high quality methods is often less expensive than the lower cost approaches.
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