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Facing the challenges of new product development

04 May 2011

What are the real challenges that new product development (NPD) teams face as they work through the design process? This week, I have invited Nicos Raftis of IP Research, a company that works closely with NPD teams, to pose the questions that design teams should be asking as they embark on their projects and how, by dint of careful data gathering and analysis, they will be equipped to meet those challenges.

At a fundamental level, the competitive advantage of companies can be linked to two key factors: the ability to generate new intellectual property that offers superior value to customers, and the ability to capitalise on it quickly. But what does superior value mean? There are two key components: differentiation and performance. 'Different' is only meaningful in relation to what is already there. The essence of innovation is novelty.

A solution may be more or less innovative depending on whether it operates within the prevailing paradigm or whether it breaks away from the prevailing paradigm. Customers appreciate a new product or service when they compare it - and the benefits it provides - to other alternatives. Companies have to answer the question: “In what way do we want to be different from the competition and how do we achieve that?” The second component of performance is essentially a promise towards the customer that their expectations will be met.

The NPD team has the responsibility of delivering designs that meet the requirements of differentiation and performance. For the team, this means tremendous pressure in order to produce and implement superior concepts, and do it quickly.  This alone, however, is not sufficient. There is the expectation, implicitly or explicitly, that concepts need to be patentable so that they can protected. There is also the absolute requirement that designs should not infringe on others’ intellectual property, otherwise the firm may be dragged into legal adventures.

And finally, there is the expectation that decisions with regards to technology platforms and adopted technologies should be such as to allow for a number of development cycles before they are superseded or made obsolete by some other technology. Designers make hundreds of decisions by intention or by default. In fact, NPD can be considered as a deliberate decision making process that can be supported by knowledge and other factors.

“If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Isaac Newton’s famous comment in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676 highlights the value of the knowledge of prior art. The creative work of each individual builds upon the efforts of his predecessors. Each perceived opportunity, once successfully managed and exploited, becomes the stepping stone for more opportunities and more successes.

As technology has evolved, and as the competitive space has become increasingly crowded, the number of problems that we face as a scientific community is growing exponentially as a direct result of previous success. The complexity of these problems is also increasing, as more variables are discovered and the intricate relationships between them become apparent. In some instances, scientists are forced to span multiple domains as they search for solutions.

NPD teams need to make well-informed decisions as each stage of the new product development process from strategic assessment, to opportunity identification, to problem definition, and to conceptual design.

In the beginning of the 20th century, a scientist called Wallas in his book,
The Art of Thought (1926), proposed a theory describing four stages of thought: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. Since that time, scientists have been examining how each of these stages may be supported. For example, in the preparation stage, information gathering is an important element. Information is also important in the verification stage. It is like soaking the brain in this concept space so that significant insights may emerge. As more structure is added with respect to how the concept space is being represented, the human brain is much more able to process that information.

What is information? An elegant definitions is to say simply that “information is the answer to the question asked”. Therefore, what matters first and foremost is asking the right questions. Then, gathering the data, analysing it, and interpreting the analysis in order to deliver reliable answers to those questions. Some questions that may be important include: What are emerging technologies? What are alternative means of satisfying this function? How are enabling technologies evolving and what is their maturity?

Two important sources of data are patents and scientific publications. The patenting system has evolved to a huge repository of concepts and of data on inventors and assignees. There are more than thirty million inventions on record. This ocean of data when properly analysed can reveal technological trends, competitor activity, experts in the field, alternative means for implementing technological functions. The problem is that it is easy to get drowned in an ocean of data. Specialist skills and expertise are needed in order to process this ocean of data and provide reliable answers.

How do designers benefit from this information? To answer this we first need to ask the question: “What are the specific factors that drive and enable our problem solving?” We find that to some degree, the solutions themselves drive our problem solving, providing us with new knowledge, with new enabling technologies, new applications, and new tools that enable us to solve problems we would never have dreamt of solving before.

These solutions are referred to as the prior art. Knowledge of prior art helps us both in problem finding and in problem solving. Knowing what problems others have attempted to solve, and how well they managed, can help us identify opportunities and better frame our own problem.

NPD teams spend much time in carrying out background research in order to gather this knowledge. Frequently, this is done not very efficiently since they lack the specialist tools and skills in order to navigate through the data ocean. Much time is wasted in this effort and the results are usually patchy and incomplete.

But direct use of knowledge of prior art in problem finding and problem solving is only one aspect of its value. Another important value is its use as a communication tool. It provides a shared vocabulary of concepts to communicate design problem description, and it provides a reference vocabulary supporting the retrieval of solution concepts and their modification.

In doing so, the effectiveness of a team that is likely to include designers and engineers from many disciplines as well as people from marketing, production and other functions - and frequently the customer himself - is greatly enhanced. And when information is represented visually, so that team members can perceive it at a glance, its power as a communication tool is multiplied.

For the DPD team that faces the tremendous pressure to produce and implement superior concepts, and do it quickly, knowledge of prior art is critical.

My thanks to Nicos Raftis for his thought-provoking guide to successful design implementation. For more information about his company, IP Research, and its services, click here.

Les Hunt

Reader's Comments:

From Mr Mark Lock:

Interesting article. We have a few embryonic products we are looking at currently, from past experience I have found that those with the ideas tend to design for themselves and what they want to do rather than for customer's and their actual requirements. This is why communication and feedback (marketing) is essential in the early stages to save wasting time and money, paper work exercises are much cheaper than making an "un-saleable" product.
Our approach now based on a recent product introduced (in 3 months)...
1. Research current products available and market potential for large volume sales.
2. Simple 3D design for feed back and costings.
3. Prototype A for feed back and design finalisation.
4. Prototype B (Beta Product) pre production unit for sending out samples and sales literature...

From Mr David Wickham:

Interesting to read about ‘prior art’ – superior value can only be acknowledged by a customer – Superior value is perceived if the product / service received exceeds expectations (time, delivery, capability PRICe etc etc).  Differentiation is only one element/contributor to achieving superior value – many (engineering) businesses get too bogged down too soon with innovation, yes its important but it’s also far easier to first ask customers how you are perceived against your competitors – price v features, price v quality etc etc the measures are limitless. More often than not our clients aren’t positioned correctly and that’s where we come in making  sure they get to be understood and positioned correctly – basically making their offer/usp better understood and ultimately perceived as superior value.  How many UK sales teams end up with brilliantly engineered solutions desperately looking for a problem?

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