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The Path to Invention PUBLIC ACCESS

Some Companies Have Found a Way to Reach an Elusive Goal.

[+] Author Notes

Uti Mahle is vice president of marketing at Co Create Software in Sindelfingen Germany.

Mechanical Engineering 129(09), 37-38 (Sep 01, 2007) (2 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2007-SEP-4

This article discusses creating new products is something everyone must do, but you may wonder at times how anyone succeeds. The pressures of creating a new product, assessing the risks involved, and getting the product out to market first (never later than second) are overwhelming. Companies that find success through innovation will choose to repeat this practice. The aim of the team design is to let designers with different engineering strengths and backgrounds add perspective, and to prevent the main designers on a project from losing perspective. Some successful companies combine their product development work with downstream engineering and production teams. Software should be easy to learn and to understand, and should not have any pitfalls when someone makes last-minute changes. It is a benefit to allow different specialist areas to have input at any time without affecting the design data.

Innovation is difficult. Creating new products is something everyone must do, but you may wonder at times how anyone succeeds. The pressures of creating a new product, assessing the risks involved, and getting the product out to market first (never later than second) are overwhelming. Despite the challenges and financial risks, almost every company is engaged in this activity. Why? Because the potential returns are worth the gamble.

A 2006 study by the Boston Consulting Group indicates that 72 percent of the companies asked said that innovation is in their top three strategic priorities. However, almost half, 48 percent, described themselves as dissatisfied with financial returns from their innovation investments. A report by Boston Consulting Group, Innovation 2005, probably summed up the reason best: "In the end, it is clear that the biggest challenge in innovation remains execution, not invention."

Every company has ideas-usually, a lot of them. But many companies lack the ability to properly execute those ideas. It's like baking-without the complete recipe, the cake simply won't rise.

Every week I talk to companies engaged in product development, trying to discern what makes them good at it. In these discussions, there are common practices that make them successful, and methodologies woven into their culture that simply work. With that in mind, here are the top four practices we see that make innovative companies good at what they do.

Every company has a design team. Usually, it consists of people on an organizational chart each working on a part of a project. To drive innovation, a team needs to work together.

Team design drives much higher levels of performance by empowering any engineer to pick up a design and carry it forward. Designers work in a cross-functional manner, speeding development by eliminating resource bottlenecks. More important to innovation is that team design improves the quality and creativity in product development by bringing together multiple perspectives to solve problems and share specialized insights across a range of products.

Companies that find success through innovation will choose to repeat this practice. The aim of team design is to let designers with different engineering strengths and backgrounds add perspective, and to prevent the main designers on a project from losing perspective.

Team design is collaborative in nature and requires the active and ongoing participation of everyone-electrical engineers, industrial designers, production engineers, and all other team members. But while they are involved and contributing value throughout the project, it is rarely a full-time commitment, and it is important that they interact on other projects running concurrently.

DIRTT Environmental Solutions is a company that designs and manufactures highly innovative modular interiors. (DIRTT stands for "Doing It Right This Time.") AccOl'ding to Geoff Gosling, the company's director of design, "We regularly move people from one design to another. Everybody gains similar levels of knowledge across the product line, and we avoid narrow perspectives on any solution."

RKS Design, maker of the RKS Wave Guitar, focuses on interaction within the design team as a way of keeping people-and the project-engaged. "While our development process has stages to it, it isn't one of serial interactions or handing pieces over the wall," said Ravi K. Sawhney, founder ofRKS Design. "Our product development processes look more like a rugby team moving down the field together rather than a relay race where the baton is passed between individuals."

Teams that share ideas and information have an open communication forum for their ideas to thrive as a result. This concept of team design is a significant differentiator from companies that don't innovate well, where designers and engineers are allowed to keep their ideas secret and their designs even more secretive.

Team design is a powerful practice that requires the right technology, the right processes, and the appropriate encouragement to practice. For designers and engineers to share ideas, and participate in team design, they must be empowered to do so. This takes a supportive culture and relies upon the strengths of a company's managers.

According to Sawhney at RKS Design, "From our experience, the person who creates the most iterations of a design in the least amount of time wins."

This is repeated at all the successful firms I talk to. Because the innovation process is one of discovery, it demands the freedom to explore ideas-and as many as possible, in as short a time as possible. All agree that the process of discovery cannot be mapped or fully anticipated, and that the designers have to be given the power and the right tools to investigate new thoughts that may solve a set of problems.

At DIRTT Environmental, the company practices a hybrid of set-based design-a lean product development practice. The company often runs parallel design efforts to tackle a problem, with separate teams approaching the problem from different points of view and using varied expertise and disciplines. The two separate teams then reassemble and compare their solutions-often coming to still another hybrid solution that takes the best of each team's design effort.

"When you don't care what alleys you are going down, you find the unexpected-and that is where innovation happens," Gosling said. "You almost never go with a single option in the final product. You end up with a hybrid of several."

Being able to create many different iterations of an idea, test them, and come to a conclusion about each one gives a design team a distinct advantage over one that develops in a single, linear direction. But, successful companies stress that team members should not be punished for having an idea that doesn't float.

According to RonJohnson, founder ofWAGIC, "No effort, no idea, no direction, nothing is a waste, and innovative companies should always treat it as such." WAGIC is a product development company that manufactures new products for home improvement stores.

"Chances are good that an innovative idea that doesn't work right now can be shelved until the right moment comes along,"Johnson said. "We have seen that occur with several of our currently highly successful products."

Some successful companies combine their product development work with downstream engineering and production teams.

"Prior to starting WAGIC, I managed engineering departments that utilized outside design firms for product development," Johnson said. "While they came up with some very cool-looking designs, many of them were simply not manufacturable. We inevitably had to redevelop the products to become so. We quickly realized how much that was costing, and expanded our in-house design team with engineers who understand the issues that exist in going to production.

"This lesson became the catalyst for the formation of our development team at WAGIC, multidisciplined develop ment teams who not only design the products, but also transition and support the products in production," he said. "The end result is an iterative process for product development which ensures smooth and cost-effective transition from development into manufacturing and, more importantly, ge.ts the job done right the first time."

Sawhney at RKS Design agreed. "Collaboration is the ability for us to share ideas and tap into the experience of the entire team, and we have engineering involved from the beginning," he said. "The design vision, requirements, and engineering are all fused. There can be no disparate parts of the process, or the product design stands to fail."

It takes the right tools and culture for these processes to work. A company must make sure that whatever software it uses will enable and never hinder the design process. RKS, DIRTT, and WAGIC use a Dynamic Modeling (or history-free) approach to a 3-D product pioneered by CoCreate.

Here are some basic guidelines that may help in choosing software that creates a flexible, innovative environment, reminiscent of how successful product developers work:

Make sure you enable team design practices. You need an environment where a group of people can easily see and share designs, jump onto them in an instant, and be able to add input easily. Software should be easy to learn and to understand, and should not have any pitfalls when someone makes last-minute changes. It is a benefit to allow different specialist areas to have input at any time without affecting the design data.

Software should be able to rapidly explore a new idea, and many different directions of a new product. Once you discover a piece that should work, you should be able to easily add it to another model, without complications, without endless compatibility issues, without hassle.

And, design software should be immediately compatible with downstream engineering needs, to the point that you can conduct CNC machining or sheet metal work directly from your original design files.

The RKS Wave Guitar developed from a process that has been compared to "a rugby team moving down the field together."

Grahic Jump LocationThe RKS Wave Guitar developed from a process that has been compared to "a rugby team moving down the field together."

Copyright © 2007 by ASME
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