Preston Smith's Corner

Procuring Technology to Improve Product Development

1998 Product Development Management Column

This newsletter normally addresses management approaches for accelerating or otherwise improving product development—tools such as integrated development or voice of the customer. However, if you look at advertisements in the magazines your development engineers read, you will find all sorts of “wonder drugs,” such as solid modelers, rapid prototyping systems, finite element software, and product data management (PDM) systems. How do these technology tools fit with the management tools normally covered here? Which is more effective? How do you take advantage of both?

These two things—management tools, technology tools—can reinforce each other well, and effective developers today use both in well-planned combinations. However, this integration does not come easily. It is difficult to stay on an even keel, and the powerful marketing and compelling graphics associated with some of the technology tools can be overly influential.

Understand Your Business Drivers First

Before buying anything, understand what you want your product development to do for your business. Do you want to be an innovation leader? Is exemplary after-sales service the key? Is your goal expansion into global markets? Each of these objectives requires a different thrust and different management and technology tools. Without answers to such questions, you are likely to be swayed by dynamic presentations or low price when shopping for technology, and you will not derive the value from it that you could with more focused solutions.

Know the Weaknesses in Your Current Development Process

Analyze your current development process relative to your business objectives. Where are the bottlenecks? When are customers dissatisfied? Which products fail to win market acceptance and why? Which products are most profitable? Why? Where does a project tend to start unraveling?

Typically, benefits from the technology tools are dramatic, but they effect only a small part of the development process. For example, computer-aided design (CAD) appears to be broadly applicable if you view product development as design, but if you are trying to improve customer input to your designs, or accelerate beta testing, CAD is unlikely to be helpful. With this information you will be a far more savvy shopper for solutions that will truly add value to your process. You can also find more specific solutions that may be less expensive.

Ask What the Tools Will Do for Your Process

Knowing your process’s weaknesses, discover precisely how a proposed technology will address these. For instance, rapid prototyping clearly has potential to cut development time, but its real potential is more subtle than just making prototypes faster. By being able to show a prototype to marketing or suppliers earlier in the process, you can make some pivotal decisions much sooner. Such “secondary” effects are in fact the major payoff, but only for those who discover them. (Examples of how a broad variety of technology tools accelerate development are provided through three case studies in Chapter 9 of our book, Developing Products in Half the Time: New Rules, New Tools; ISBN 0-442-02548-3.)

Integrate Technology Tools with Management Tools

Procuring technology tools will not provide automatic benefit—plenty of management attention is still needed. Tools such as today’s sophisticated CAD systems require massive amounts of training before designers are proficient with them. One client found that once it had provided this training, its CAD engineers left the company, because these engineers now had a market value above their employer’s substandard salary scale. It was “back to the drawing board” with the company’s whole compensation system! Showing early prototypes to marketing, as suggested above, will not automatically result in earlier decisions. Marketers have learned to delay decisions as long as possible, so gaining benefit from earlier decisions will also require management attention to changing marketing’s behavior.


(c) Copyright 2013 Preston G. Smith. All Rights Reserved.

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