When racing to beat competition on a new product launch, every day counts. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) developed Manufacturing Readiness Level (MRL) to streamline the development process of new equipment and critical components, thereby enhancing national security. Many of the same strategies used in the DOD’s MRL tool can be used by industry to significantly cut time to market for new products, thereby boosting revenues and market share. Inspired by the DOD’s research, this article discusses how to optimize a new product’s MRL by focusing on the prototyping and pilot production phases of development.
1. Avoid Potential Scheduling Conflicts and Queues
Capacity constraints and production inefficiencies are the bane of operations, so it’s no wonder scheduling the time to prototype or pilot your new product initiative is often an uphill battle. Being unable to access equipment when it’s needed, or getting bumped at the last minute for a more important project, will interfere with the ability to meet milestones and keep to your timetable. And waiting for a production run to end before your project (and all the others in the shop) can be scheduled is an additional and unnecessary opportunity cost in terms of revenue potential and market share.
Additionally, limited availability of production assets restricts your team’s ability to explore a full range of concept scenarios to identify performance improvements or cost reductions.
If your organization doesn’t have dedicated manufacturing lines set aside for prototyping and pilot production work, you should seriously consider moving the work to an outside source. Even if there are plans to use an outside contractor, make sure that the contractor has a separate, dedicated area devoted to rapid prototyping and limited production runs or you may encounter the same issues as with internal resources that you were seeking to avoid.
2. Focus on Core Competence
Much of the value derived from prototyping and piloting new products comes from the interaction between the operations and development teams. Design engineers are not experts in manufacturing or operations, and vice versa, and it is not good project management to isolate these functions. Pairing the product development team with manufacturing and operations talent not only can cut weeks from your schedule, but it also enables the use of concurrent engineering principles to perfect designs and allows you to take potential manufacturing partners for a test drive.
Check whether your potential manufacturing partner has relevant material expertise that your team may lack. If your design has multiple components, look for some degree of vertical integration to prevent the inter-vendor finger pointing that often accompanies complex designs. Recently, we had a customer that tried to prototype a process for perforating a material with which they had limited experience. They lost two months before giving up and involving our engineers, who had an intimate knowledge of the material’s characteristics and were therefore able to build the prototype in a week. Another customer spent precious weeks trying to mediate which prototyping vendor was responsible when the two separate components they were working on didn’t fit together as designed. A single-source vendor for both components would have figured it out themselves without needing to raise the issue with the client.
The best project managers know how to value of each step and don’t hesitate to look outside the company for non-core capabilities.
3. Explore Outsourcing Process Validation
A commonly overlooked source of time savings in managing new product launches is the phase of inspecting and improving your manufacturing process. It often takes an internal inspection team up to six months to schedule and complete the process. By providing your contract manufacturing partner with the appropriate quality standards, you need only approve their validation protocol and the final output. We have seen this approach cut the time required for this final pre-production step by 60-70% versus using internal resources.
This approach only makes sense if the vendor handling your pilot production has the internal quality expertise to design, manage and report validation at a level commensurate with in-house capabilities. Ask to see case studies and the credentials of the quality director. If the capability is there, it can make a huge difference in your launch date.
The DOD’s approach to assessing the MRLs of new technologies and designs provides useful lessons into how to accelerate new product launch schedules. Relying on dedicated prototyping and pilot production, and having a willingness to reach outside the organization for non-core expertise can get you to market months ahead of competitors, and that means incremental revenue and market share.