In my years of product development in the Medical Products Department at DuPont, I had the opportunity to work with some very bright people. One Fellow, a senior professional at the Engineering Development Laboratory (an independent resource for all departments in DuPont) often battled with his dilemma with me: Who should begin the conceptualization of new products—Engineers or Industrial Designers?
The answer isn’t clear, and maybe shouldn’t be. There is room for everybody and diversity has its benefits. I know doctors, scientists, engineers who draw very well, but who chose not to become industrial designers. So, maybe the answer lies in another question: What attributes are more valuable in early product development… words, numbers, drawings, CAD?
My experience has been that some of the best initial contributors are those who are risk takers. Not necessarily skydivers, but people who can cope with the unknown, the “fuzzy front end”, and who can conceptualize without having all the facts.
Assembling a diverse team is also essential. The unique insight brought about by such diversity is important when crafting a requirements document. By uniting individuals with different backgrounds, unique experiences, knowledge of the science involved, familiarity with the market, and insights into the products’ users, the documentation of requirements can have greater clarity. Interestingly though, I’ve found that most team members can agree with one another’s descriptive words and perspective, but can’t really see the
picture in each other’s mind.
The reality is that people always have some kind of picture in their mind when they write requirements. It’s wide, it’s tall, hand held, floor standing, bench top, big display, lightweight, sleek, robust. The requirements should chiefly be based on a desired outcome, like speed and performance, but what one sees could easily be different. In fact, it usually is. Early visualization, therefore, brings speed to product development and should never be overlooked or postponed.
CAD is the visualizing tool for most engineers, but hand drawing begins the visualizing process for most industrial designers, providing designers the benefit of building much faster consensus for preferred ideas. By combining drawing skills with knowledge of the team’s desires, the illustrator can advance discussion and avoid postponing debate. Early changes are less costly, especially when they’re in pencil. In addition, people are more willing to contribute their ideas and suggestions for change during the early conceptual phase of development.
CAD is hard to change. No one says that out loud because CAD is sold to the market as “easy to change.” The parametric software features in most CAD programs add complexity to the relationships between parts. This is usually a good thing, until you start deleting and redesigning parts to allow for unanticipated change. Each part adds to the assembly and to the relationships among parts, making late CAD changes agonizing, resulting in a less robust CAD model. And if your conceptual effort begins in CAD, even early changes can be painful.
If CAD is your computerized visualizing tool, then “rapid prototyping” is your first opportunity to tangibly evaluate the part. So, a 3D printer generates the preliminary part. Now imagine that the development team had invested 160 hours in a product concept and upon tangible review the product is deemed too big or too small? Why not instead consider a hand-crafted model, sculpted or fabricated quickly by a gifted designer in just 20 hours? By leveraging early and quick contributions to visualization like hand-crafted models, development speeds up and consensus can come sooner. Pictures are great, but no doubt, models trump pictures.
I knew another engineering fellow in DuPont named George, a scrimshaw artist. He was very expressive, not your typical technical-guy personality. He could draw and visualize very well and in perspective. He was comfortable to quickly stand up in a meeting and sketch an idea. People thought he was special, and he was. He and I worked for weeks on a system to rehydrate lyophilized chemicals with radioactive liquids. The system’s chemistries targeted different organs and were automated by the device “on demand.” A great many requirements were considered and the designs changed consequently to accommodate them. George believed he saved months and an even greater deal of funding by sketching the entire system before ever committing to building and demonstrating technical feasibility.
Today, every medical product developed, is guided by a stage-gate process, meaning that each stage has a starting point or expectation and a deliverable that must be met before one can proceed forward to the next stage. Truly smart organizations will gather opportunities and review them for further progress down the gauntlet of procedural product development steps.
The early “Approval-for-Market-Research” phase is often based on a series of questions formulated in a simple word document. Though some propositions are only appropriate as word-filled questions, others would truly benefit from artistic visualization.
For product conceptualization, encourage early visualization through images and tangible discovery through models among a diversity of individuals. It will save time and money, and definitively build invaluable early consensus. People will always work harder for ideas they feel they’ve contributed to, and that they believe in.
So it really doesn’t matter if the chicken or egg comes first, but it is crucial that “someone” in the product development process helps to visualize a business team’s preferences as early and as clearly as possible.