Preston Smith's Corner

Deploying Product Development Expertise

2000 Product Development Management Columns

Consider how you might develop a product, such as a cellular phone, having a highly complex plastic housing. These days, such housings employ organic shapes with no straight lines, and the final product must withstand a harsh environment, including accidental drops. Such products demand a high level of design expertise.

Designing a cellular phone housing requires three kinds of design expertise:

  • Industrial design, for an attractive, intuitive, easy-to-use product
  • Mechanical design of the housing, to provide certain product functions while being robust in assembly and final use
  • Mechanical design of the tooling, which creates the molds rendering both the industrial design and the housing mechanical design.

Traditional practice has been to place these three types of experts in their respective departments and transfer the evolving design from department to department—over the wall, as it is often called. Not only is this sequential process slow, but it is wasteful too. Once the design gets to housing engineering, these engineers are bound to find some industrial design details that they cannot incorporate mechanically, so the project returns to industrial design for modifications. This squanders time and resources, and it also can bruise egos on both sides.

This scene replays as the project moves to tooling design. Inevitably, the tooling engineers discover features of the previous work done that cannot be executed in the tool, so they must return to earlier departments to negotiate a workaround. The process that looked so straightforward on paper is, in fact, riddled with inner loops of redesign.

“Best Practice”

As we will see, “best practice” is a relative term. However, the state of the art for most manufacturers today is to overcome the over the wall process by involving downstream players in the process early. Housing engineers work with the industrial designers while the project is in the industrial design phase to identify and avoid many issues while they are still easy to resolve. Likewise, tooling engineers become involved in earlier stages to ensure that the evolving design is manufacturable.

Companies that aspire to early involvement have discovered that it is not so easy to do in practice. First, there is the question of how early is early enough. Due to workloads in the downstream functions, seldom is the downstream expertise applied early enough. Second, how intensive does the early involvement have to be? We have learned that genuine early involvement requires devoting real mindshare to the upstream design, not just attending a few meetings.

Going Further

Even with clear, adequate requirements for ‘how early?’ and ‘how intensive?’some issues still do not get caught soon enough. Moreover, this consultative role teaches the players only a limited amount about what really goes on in the other departments. This is still a sequential process with a few Band-Aids applied at critical junctures.

Product Development Technologies, Inc. (PDT), a Lincolnshire, Illinois developer of sophisticated plastic parts and molds, takes a major step beyond today’s “best practice.” PDT organizes into the three departments described above. However, they routinely cross-train their designers by transferring them between departments—for the life of a project in that department. For instance, a housing mechanical engineer becomes a full-time member of the industrial design team while the project is in industrial design. Not only does the mechanical engineer get to “walk in the industrial designer’s shoes,” but he or she is also there to provide instantaneous monitoring and consultation on potential downstream issues. The cross-training goes both ways between all three departments. Such cross training is the expectation at PDT: designers in all departments are hired, promoted, and rewarded in accordance with it.

This cross training is relatively easy at PDT, simply because the firm is so fast in developing products; designers can co-locate with another department for the length of a phase and still not be away from their home department for long. PDT can complete industrial design, housing mechanical design, tool design, and tool building of a complex housing in about eight weeks. Nevertheless, this is a technique that firms in other industries can apply to move beyond “best practice;” if they are not as fast as PDT, it would represent a bigger commitment for them. However, the benefits are substantial, with respect to both time-to-market and more effective use of resources.


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

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