Engineering the Products People Need


I have been teaching mechanical engineers the process of design for more than 15 years. Traditional engineering design courses focus on technology and not context. The result is a downstream focus on making a design work rather than on identifying the best design in the first place. By teaching engineering students qualitative methods to understand the market, such as ethnography and task analysis, and then converting that understanding to a value-based product specification, the downstream process becomes more efficient and effective.

Engineers find their comfort zone in making technology work. They are very comfortable thinking about how to refine and improve a design until it is optimized or at least functions well under a set of given conditions. But a well-optimized design is worthless if it does not meet the desires, or at least needs, of the customer.

All too often, engineering students find themselves with a design that is flawed because it failed to solve a market need, causing undo late-semester stress, all-nighters and, often, a last-minute major redesign.

LIFE IMITATES SCHOOL. If this sounds a lot like the way your company works, you are not alone. Many companies are so focused on the downstream lean manufacture of a product that they miss the point that a well-made product will only sell if it excites the market. If these companies realize their error prelaunch, it is late in the development process, when they must struggle to salvage the product with patches and fixes, throwing their quality measures out the window.

So take notice. Methods to effectively train engineering students in the process of innovation are the same that you need in your organization today. Engineers must learn to identify and understand an opportunity for a new product or feature and then carry that understanding through conceptualization to detailed design and verification.

In my classes, which are often associated with a corporate sponsor, the assigned problems are open-ended: environmentally conscious machining for a machine tool manufacturer; using the space under a trailer for a performance, safety, or utility purpose for Alcoa; tools that fit on a robotic platform to inspect, repair, or clean a sewer system for RedZone Robotics; or products to help the elderly live independently.

IDENTIFYING PROBLEMS. From these open-ended problems, students must seek out opportunities for products that improve people's ability to function within those contexts. The first step is to analyze what my colleague Craig Vogel and I call the SET factors -- social drivers, economic conditions, and technological capabilities -- that define the context of a market.

By analyzing these ever-changing market dynamics, developers can begin to identify opportunities to meet needs or desires of consumers that aren't currently being met by the market. The frustration of truck drivers trying to measure and distribute the load over each axle or the difficulty of the elderly getting in and out of their cars both represent opportunities for products or services.

To really grasp those needs, however, engineers need to borrow the methods of ethnography, task analysis, anthropometrics, and other disciplines that are now being used by the leading design firms and innovative corporations. At this stage, an in-depth study of 7 to 20 users leads to much greater insights than the 1,000-person survey that is useful once a product concept has been identified.

To get that, a group of my students who wanted to understand opportunities to help the elderly get in and out of cars spent hours at the window table of a Bob Evans restaurant observing the myriad ways older people did just that. This in-depth observation identified four techniques including variations of falling and crawling.

ADDING VALUE. These and other methods are used to gain a deep and intimate understanding of the key stakeholders. What are their needs, wants, and desires? These findings are mapped into a customer-focused value proposition using a method we called a Value Opportunity Analysis (VOA), which breaks value into specific categories (such as emotion, ergonomics, identity, and core technology) and sub-attributes (such as adventure, independence, personality, point in time, ease of use, and craftsmanship).

These attributes can be defined in the context of a specific market opportunity and then used to enumerate goals that a successful product would have to meet in order to fill the market gap. A tool for a sewer robot must be safe for the worker above ground and prevent sparks in the sewer, an explosive environment. It must also be durable and have an aesthetic appropriate for a sewer application yet stand out at trade shows. The interface to the trailer axle load shifter must be clear, easy to use, and accessible from the cab, while the process of shifting the load must be faster then the current manual process.

This resulting value-based product specification differs from standard approaches to educating engineering students. Rather than just thinking about a cool gizmo that might work but probably satisfies only a limited number of people and needs, the team understands the design requirements of a successful product. Product conceptualization becomes more efficient and more effective, and the resulting concept can be detailed for patenting and production with the confidence that the necessary product features have all been identified.

In my 16-week course, this process has resulted in the design of a seat that slides out of a car, enabling comfortable and easy ingress and egress for everyone, as well as other solutions.

THE BIG PICTURE. These methods nicely complement any traditional approach to engineering design. Similarly, they work with any stage-gate process found in most companies. The stage-gate process of meeting certain design requirements as you go, in order to progress through the process, emphasizes lean manufacturing and efficient timing to launch. However, it lacks an understanding of how to navigate through the early gates. Our approach gives structure and method to this early design process, making the later stages more effective and productive.

In the end, the students learn a process of design that requires an understanding of societal and business context and a process of innovation that balances creativity with the pragmatics of performance, costs, and quality.

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