Quite a few years ago, I remember taking a road trip in the summer. Not a family road trip to see the Grand Canyon or an all nighter drive to New Orleans. No, this one was for work. I visited a number of manufacturers at the time, taking tours of their facilities and conducting interviews to understand their product development process. During one of these visits, I heard one of the most profound statements.
“We don’t want innovation in our development process.”
It was one of those moments where you’re saying “uh huh” and “yes” and “OK” while you’re trying to wrap your head around what was just said. Inside my head, I kept saying “what?”… “WHAT?” But in the end, it all made sense. Let me explain.
Offline Technology Development
You see, this manufacturer consciously organized their technology development such that was separate from product development. They had an R&D organization that explored new technologies, new materials, new applications and the like. They developed it to the point of application, meaning it was stable with known behaviors, parameters and performance. From there, it went onto a virtual shelf where it waited. When a new product development project came along, one of the first things the system engineers did was figure out what configuration of technologies would go into the new product. From there, the engineering organization’s job wasn’t to come up with new technology, it was to application engineer all of these technologies together, to integrate them, into a new product.
I thought the resulting organizational structure and process was interesting was pretty interesting. You had a R&D organization that is always maturing and development technology to the point of commercial applicability and then putting it on a shelf. The organization has your highly creative, innovative, out-of-the-box thinkers that like to explore and experiment. On the other hand, you have an engineering organization whose goal is to integrate these technologies together into a seamlessly integrated product. The folks in this organization are much more problem solvers, and trouble-shooters. They also probably are much more systems oriented than focused on a single discipline.
Inline Technology Development
The contrasting approach, obviously, is to develop new technology as you also develop a new product. In that case, you would have segments or systems within the product that would be introducing new concepts and technologies alongside others that already exist and are being used in existing products. Here, the staff skills you need and the processes you follow can be dramatically different. You have to make sure you use the right ones for the right cases.
Why the Difference?
The whole point of the engineer who said “we don’t want innovation in our development process” had a point. Innovation in terms of technology can be disruptive. When you’re developing a new technology, you don’t know if it will take 1 week or 10 weeks to get through prototyping on its own, much less integrated into a larger product. As a result, developing technology alongside a new product can result in delays, errors and a lot of development dollars.
Now when you get right down to it, neither of these scenarios may look exactly like your development processes. There are some caveats to take into consideration.
- Suppliers as Offline Technology Development: I know in industries with long supply chains, the suppliers are the ones that do most of the technology development. When it is ready commercially, they’ll bring it to their customers (the OEM manufacturers) and pitch to include in the next product development project.
- Crowdsourcing? You might think that crowdsourcing new concepts and ideas fit in here. And it kind of does fit. But usually those efforts result in a new product and not necessarily a new technology that gets application engineered into a new product.
Conclusions and Questions
In my experience, I’ve seen technology development that has been done in an offline manner by a separate organization and then application engineered into a new product as well as new technology being developed as part of a new product development project. It seems to me the offline model introduces far less risk to product development projects but coming out of the recession, I wonder how many manufacturers can truly afford to take that approach.
That’s my take. What’s yours? What type of technology development approach does your company employ? What advantages or disadvantages do you see? Sound off and let us know.
Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.