New Product Development

I’ve been doing this New Product Development thing for almost 10 years now. Yes, I do count my internship as relevant experience. Perhaps some may scoff at the notion, but perhaps they had crappy internships where their biggest responsibility was getting the boss his / her morning coffee. Maybe I was lucky: I had an awesome boss, and an awesome team. I enjoyed having full design and documentation responsibility right from day one; and I especially enjoyed being expected to fabricate, assemble, and test the things I came up with in CAD. It’s because of that type of experience that I think it’s completely reasonable to include those 3 years in the total.

New Product Development is a process, not a product itself. It doesn’t matter what field you’re in, what you make, or what you sell… NPD is a process. I’m most familiar with the “Phase-Gate” model for implementing this NPD process, but there are many others. The only thing which makes the process different is how each company decides to adapt and modify it to suit their needs. A quick summary of the concept and general framework of New Product Development is here. Enjoy!

Where to Start with Understanding the Process

Bloom’s Taxonomy is a neat breakdown of how learning can happen. I first read about it back in 10th grade government class, I think. It’s obviously stuck with me since then, for whatever reason I thought there was tremendous value in it. I didn’t learn about all of the phases back then, just the Cognitive one, so I typically only go back to that. Cognitive is basically related to the information and critical thinking skills, Affective is the emotional portion of interacting with what’s around you, and Psycho-motor is essentially ergonomics. When applying these ideas to NPD, it should become obvious that one does not need umpteen years of experience, or a degree, to be able to operate in the higher levels of each phase; and further, one can easily adapt to a niche which has no familiar aspects quite quickly if one simply starts at the basics. However, the Information Age has presented us with a unique opportunity to jump in at the Knowledge level of the Cognitive Phase without having to memorize anything previously. It basically gives us the opportunity to skip the whole “previous experience” requisite almost entirely. At the very least, we have the ability to flex our cursory knowledge of very general Design Engineering practices as we tackle brand new gadgets. It’s interesting, I view this ability as a very positive thing, a strength in a world where first movers are moving faster and fast followers are having a hard time keeping up; whereas some tend to view it as a crutch. I can see the point either way, but it is what it is. We either adapt to the new tools and processes, or we get left behind. I found The Shallows to be a very interesting read on that topic, in particular.

Learning Step 1: Study and understand how a specific company uses the industry standard models of New Product Development. Study their products and services. Study their past successes and failures. This is where you’re using some of that knowledge in the links above, while gaining additional knowledge. Comprehension is next.

I’ve learned that NPD isn’t what I thought it would be back when I was still young and excited in the Engineering field. The idea of “new” doesn’t necessarily imply a requisite for patents and breakthrough inventions, etc.  Innovation can happen in a lot of ways. Let’s talk about Innovation, actually. The problem here is that many people (or maybe it’s just me) tend to view Innovation as a constant push to develop patentable ideas, or to design and build things which have never been done before. That’s patently false, pun intended. And you don’t need 30+ years in the industry… heck, you don’t even really need 2-5 years… do be able to recognize an opportunity to add value to a product / process by simplifying it, making it a new way, or offering it to a new niche for a function which it may have never been used. It’s perfectly acceptable to collect COTS (Commercial, Off-the-Shelf) components, assemble them, and offer it as a “new” product… especially if that offering answers a market need, or participates in a market trend. More on this point later.

Learning Step 2: This is slightly tied with the inception of a New Product Development project (ie Idea Generation and Idea Screening). Typically a cross-functional team (meaning a plethora of experience fields / levels, as well as representation from multiple internal or external disciplines) gets together and comes up with something awesome to do for the next few weeks or months, even years. Again, I emphasize that you don’t have to be some highly experienced expert in the related field to handle this one, and you don’t need umpteen years of experience. This is also where some steam starts forming at the Application and Analysis levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I read a fortune cookie once which said “An expert is someone who knows a whole lot about very little.” Take that as you will. By the way, I’m using Wikipedia a lot… it’s just to get you started. I recommend using some of your own Google-Fu if you’d like to challenge the validity of the citations on those links. Have fun!

So, innovation and development of ideas… what does that really mean? Do you need some huge corporate bank roll to fund the building of these gadgets? Or can it be done organically? The gentleman I spoke to seems to think that “buying off-the-shelf components and putting them together isn’t exactly New Product Development.” I think that’s a dangerous misconception of the terms; and it just shows a lack of vision / depth of understanding. It’s discouraging, sometimes even demoralizing, to be confronted by people who still think the “old ways” are the only “good ways.” Organic New Product Development… basically the whole reason I started this blog / site, and my related Facebook page… is growing incredibly fast. Get on that boat now before you miss out. If you’re one of those “I’ve been doing this for 30+ years so I know everything, and anything new is bad because it’s scary and different so we must kill it so we can preserve what’s always worked for me” people… I implore you to take a step back and re-evaluate your whole position. People like MakerBot, ShapeOko, Arduino, even Facebook and the engine running this site (WordPress) themselves (the list continues into oblivion at this point)… THAT’S New Product Development in 2013. Why? Read on, my friend!

In 2013 we’ve seen a significant push on sites like Kickstarter or Instructables, for example, for gadgets. These would normally have been reserved for the big corporate bank rolls, but thanks to some GREAT utilization of COTS components coupled with some creative re-purposing or configuration, we’ve seen a surge in the ability to access, even own, those gadgets right in our own garage or desktop work space. It’s no longer a problem for the garage tinkerer to get a 3D printer or simple CNC mill… and what does that mean? Simple, my friend. Simple, indeed. It means that MORE PEOPLE will have access to being able to take their IDEAS and put them into a tangible, real format so that EVERYONE can COLLABORATIVELY engage in NEW PRODUCT DEVELOPMENT and INNOVATION. This is the really important point from that, so pay attention here: The next big idea may not come from some fancy company with a huge building and global manufacturing support. It might come from some random person’s garage in some po-dunk town, by some person who doesn’t have a degree, doesn’t have 2-5 years of experience, and isn’t interested in your 30+ years of doing things the same way just because your “formula” has become a comfortable habit.

That has huge implications, my friend. Sit down, I have more to lay on you.

The most innovative and important things to happen to the Design industry, in general, have been coming out of these organic movements. You don’t have to take my word for it, go have a look on Maker Faire’s site. It’s like a flea market for all things innovative, techie, artistic, etc. In fact, one of the most awesome 3D printing systems I’ve seen has come out of an organic growth process at that Faire: MakerBot. If you still don’t believe me at this point that New Product Development, Design Engineering, or just highly technical engineering in general can’t possibly exist in an organic, user friendly, universally accessible format… maybe you should read on. Or look at other blogs, like this one. Earlier, when I said “more on this later,” this is where that “this” is. These are all people who are taking COTS components and doing revolutionary things with them. I really want to drive that point home, because this is where NPD really shines. Why re-invent the wheel, when people really need the vehicle? Or something entirely different? Go ahead and simmer that one for a bit… I’ll wait.

Learning Step 3: Design and Validation of ideas. With so many OpenSource CAD packages, CAM packages, and easily accessible fabrication gadgets, it’s only a matter of time before we start seeing the sales of these gadgets in electronic format. Or, if they fall into the Creative Commons realm, you won’t even need to sell them. Soon, you’ll be able to download a 3D file of the thing you want to have, and you’ll be able to just print it out right at your desk. In terms of Bloom’s Taxonomy, this is the final parts of Analysis, with Synthesis and Evaluation added on.

When so many people can access innovation so easily, doesn’t that change the landscape a bit? Doesn’t that mean the models which have worked for 30+ years need to evolve to keep up? Doesn’t that mean competition is no longer limited to who can carry the biggest resource pool? I think it does. And I can see a significant shift looming on the horizon. The Old Ways may not make it very much longer, if the people stuck in them can’t learn to adapt and overcome.

None of what I’ve written about seems to have some kind of tenure requirement. In fact, this video (while unrelated, directly) fairly simply sums up how I feel about this seemingly arbitrary and completely meaningless system of tenure. What does 2-5 years, 5-10, 10+ years of experience really mean? Can you honestly apply that cookie-cutter rule to everyone, especially in a world teeming with early talent, young drive, and technological advancement at an exponential rate? What I mean is, when an Engineer reaches 5 years, he / she doesn’t magically wake up and suddenly, Matrix style, know things they didn’t know before. Same at 10 years, etc. It’s a stupid and silly measure of the worth of person, in my humble opinion. If you subscribe to that measure, it’s possible that you’re skipping over truly talented people while selecting the ones with potentially less vision simply because their resume lists X years in Y field.

As a final note of inspiration: thinking outside the box has become a very inside the box thing to do. When everyone jumps on the bandwagon of thinking outside the box, doesn’t that just effectively make the box bigger to encompass all of those “radical thinkers?” It’s a silly notion. Forget the box, I don’t need it where I’m going. And neither do you.