Product Development Through Concurrent Engineering

The initial QFD analysis that we did in our previous article helped to develop a draft product definition. This product definition needs further detailing and has to go through several iterations before we get our concepts cleared and develop a marketable product plan

In our previous articles on developing a charge controller for wind power, we discussed the features it must have to make the product attractive. We also used the quality function deployment analysis to discover the features, components, manufacturing process, and quality assurance approach of that charge controller.

The draft plan we made so far needs expansion with further details. For instance, we need circuit diagrams, PCB design, product packaging, user manuals, manufacturing plan, sources for materials, marketing plans, budget, pricing, etc. All these skills are not available to a single person, so we need people with electronics engineering, supply chain planners, package designers, embedded software designers, accountants, web developers, and a marketing team.

When we start defining the product, we have too many options and very few details about what we plan to make, its features, design, manufacturing plan, supply chain structure, distribution plan, pricing, market, etc. The initial QFD analysis that we had done in our previous article helped to develop a draft product definition. This product definition needs further detailing and has to go through several iterations before we get our concepts cleared and develop a marketable product plan.

There can be various paths of product development. In technical language, we call this path a development model. Each of the product development models has certain advantages and certain drawbacks. The first decision we take in product development is to decide on this development model. Let us look into some of the popular development models and understand where to use which one.

Waterfall model

The traditional approach to product development had been to start with listing the requirements of the product. Once these requirements are frozen, then the product architecture is defined. Then the technical detail design is made, which is followed by an implementation plan, design verification, maintenance plan, distribution plan, and marketing plan. This model is called the waterfall development model (see Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Waterfall development model
Fig. 1: Waterfall development model

The waterfall model simplifies communication between different skill groups. In this model, each group works on the product concept at a time. Once a team finishes its work, it hands over the outcome of its work to the next team. In the days when communication facilities were in their infancy, computing resources were very costly, and waterfall model was the only option available to product developers. In those days, this model worked nicely.

Fig. 2: Spiral development model
Fig. 2: Spiral development model

The problem with waterfall model was the time taken to develop a product. Each team worked in a sequence, which resulted in a long delay between product conceptualisation and its realisation.

The second problem was the lack of interaction between different groups. This lack of interaction often resulted in manufacturing difficulty, poor quality, and maintainability. At times, such poor interactions resulted in costly changes in design and manufacturing processes at advanced stages of development.

The waterfall model is not suitable for developing complex products.

Concurrent engineering

These days we use a process called concurrent engineering (CE). In the CE approach, evaluation, designing, and planning happen together. Team members with different skills get involved in the designing process right from the beginning and evolve the product by working together.

Let me give you a small example of how the involvement of members from different functional groups helps to improve product design. This author was developing a control system of an automated press for making compressed earth blocks. In the press, a mixture of soil and cement is compressed to form blocks. These blocks are an environment-friendly alternative to terracotta bricks.

Manufacturing of these blocks required close dimensional tolerances. As the ram presses the soil it has some inertia. For this reason, power to the ram needs to be cut off ahead of the endpoint. The distance the ram travels after power cut-off is governed by the plasticity of the soil. This property varies widely from batch to batch. Sensing the point where to cut off the power posed a challenge with conventional sensors.

During the prototype trial of the press, one of the production team members came up with the idea to fix a stopper at the endpoint. He suggested using the sound ram made when it hit that stopper as the sensing system for adjusting the endpoint sensor. Under normal conditions, the ram will touch the stopper with a soft click. If the clicking sound is missed, then he will lower the sensor. If the ram made a hard clapping sound, then he will raise the sensor. That operational innovation greatly simplified the design and improved dimensional quality of the bricks.

Current advances in communication and collaboration technologies involving computers, the internet, and video conferencing enable us to interact with people often sitting at different geographic locations easily. In the concurrent engineering approach, the team will discuss and evolve design ideas on a real-time basis. In this process a large number of iterations are possible.

Spiral model

The spiral development model is one of the simplest concurrent engineering approaches (see Fig. 2). In this model, development happens through many development workshops or sprints. These are intense and focused interactions involving all team members to achieve a specific goal. There is no rule on the number of sprints in the spiral process. During the sprint, the team will go through a cycle of planning, developing, evaluating, and suggesting further improvements.

The product development plan starts with a sketchy concept. It gradually evolves into a proof of concept mock-up, a working prototype, pilot samples for test marketing, and finally the marketable product.

The spiral development model enables rapid product development. It uses rapid prototype development technologies like 3D printing, CAD-CAM, simulation, etc. In the spiral development model, all team members can work together.

For instance, while the designers are making a circuit design, the supply chain team can use the shared bill of materials to develop suppliers. The costing team can work out the production economics, while the production team can plan their production strategy right from the start of designing. Each of these teams gives their feedback and works out the best possible options.

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