THE PITFALLS OF PRIDE IN PRODUCT DESIGN: Collaboration is Critical to Ensuring All Aspects of Operations are Considered

THE PITFALLS OF PRIDE IN PRODUCT DESIGN: Collaboration is Critical to Ensuring All Aspects of Operations are Considered

WHEN MARKETING OR RESEARCH & DEVELOPMENT LEAD PRODUCT DESIGN, THERE CAN BE A VIEW THAT EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

Innovation is the core differentiator between most firms. It is laudable and the source of great profits. When focused on meeting undefined customer needs, it can lead to a long-term sustainable advantage. However, when it is led and managed solely by one group (such as marketing or research & development (R&D)) without input from others, we learned it can lead to serious or near fatal flaws. Failures to meet market demand, delivery dates and quality expectations can often occur when cross-functional teams aren’t involved.
For these failures to occur, there are three likely issues happening:
1.R&D and, to a lesser extent marketing, focus on innovation, rather than product details. They could be more focused on the technology or the application being highly innovative, but if it does not address a customer need, then when the product comes to market, revenues will be very disappointing. 2.Since the idea is unique to a specific department, they champion and shepherd the product through the process. This is very necessary, but it should not come at the expense of involving other departments or evaluating their objections. Overlooking serious concerns is a very real danger for many companies and consumers, when product idea trumps all other considerations, including consumer givens like safety and reliability. 3.When R&D adopts an attitude that all aspects of the product function are theirs to accomplish, they may dismiss the role that other functions perform. This insular view can end up costing the company more time, resources, or expertise that would otherwise lead to a more comprehensive product.

Case Study 1: Entering the Market for Juvenile Ride-On Toys

After arriving at one of the leaders in Juvenile products (car seats, strollers, infant care products, etc.), as the senior operations executive, I was exposed to a major new product initiative that was championed by our marketing department, our CEO, and our “partner” company in China.  The phrase that was frequently used was “Art to Part in Less than 12 Months.”  

This seemed like a commendable strategy in that the introduction of new products had historically been slow, with many customer disappointments in meeting promised launch dates. These prior issues created a vulnerability to which our competition was eager to exploit. Fixing this by timely introduction of new products was highly desirable.
As part of coming on board, I became familiar with our major new product introduction for ride-on toys at a high level. This new product launch would place our company into a new category at our major retailers, and there were great expectations for success. However, the operations team was excluded from involvement in reviewing the details of the design and execution of the product since our function, Operations, was confined to execution for existing products and not overall strategy. There were many other pressing priorities as we were heavily involved in planning the “Factory of the Future” including: a complete overhaul of the factory including technology, equipment, layout, distribution centers, and implementing the most impactful facets of lean manufacturing. The design/product development function was under marketing, and the manufacturing of the product would be at our “partner” factory in China who was currently producing ride-on vehicles in limited quantities for the China market. Many of the elements of the design were wholly accomplished by the Chinese factory with minimal involvement of the US-based design team. To make matters more complicated, the overall supervision of the production line, the logistics, and the subsequent distribution of the product were responsibilities of the international operations and US distribution teams.
Quality Assurance was a shared function between the CEO and the operations team as Juvenile Products is highly regulated and heavily scrutinized by the Consumer Products Safety Commission in Washington, DC. The potential injury to a baby or toddler was then and still is an area of high concern for our company, the industry, the parent, and the Federal government.
In China, the consumer protection orientation of the government is much weaker. An example is that car seats were mandated for infants and young children in the US at the time and virtually non-existent in China and certainly not mandated. Similarly, in China, there was virtually no mechanism for consumers to report their issues to the government. Disciplines such as failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) were underdeveloped to prevent quality issues and minimize consumer risks. The more prevalent attitudes would be “buyer beware” and “we followed your design and therefore you are accountable, not us.”
My first significant exposure to the battery powered ride-on toys (like Power Wheels by Fisher-Price) was during my first visit to several of our supplier factories in China with our international purchasing team. This factory complex encompassed over 10,000 teammates in a variety of Juvenile product categories such as strollers, car seats, infant swings, highchairs, etc. Our company was purchasing over $50 million in products from them and had been for several years. Their reputation for quality, cost, and delivery was strong. As they were also the largest retailer of their own Juvenile products in China, they believed they were extremely good at product development. For the China market, they were, and our Marketing team (of which Product Development was a part) believed that they were fully capable.
Our China partner had been successfully manufacturing and selling 6-volt battery vehicles for toddlers for several years. However, we were introducing a 12-volt battery vehicle for young children weighing significantly more than toddlers (6-volt users) for the US market. During that first visit to our China partner, we were to observe the assembly of the first vehicle. There were the normal types of starts and stops on the production line. When the vehicle finally exited the line, there was a celebration. The vehicle was driven around the factory floor and performed well. However, when the vehicle was driven on the pavement in the parking lot, it barely moved. When driven onto the grass, it did not move, nor would it move up a slight incline. This lack of power would be a major problem for children in the US. The gearing assembly had been incorrectly engineered and was not able to transfer enough power from the motor to drive the vehicle under some resistance.
The replication of 6-volt engineering to a 12-volt requirement was inappropriate, and a new gear box was required which would necessitate a 6-week delay in production. Our first issue arose after the Engineering and Testing team had been excluded from the design process. A quick review by engineering resources would have discovered the problem, but that step had been deemed non-essential and would have added time to the original project timeline. No one in Product Development had thought to see if the engineering calculations for the drive system were correct. This issue resulted in informing our two largest Juvenile products customers that we would miss the January in-store date by six weeks.
Several months after the introduction of the ride-on to the US market, a second issue was discovered. Some parents reported smoke and heat from the compartment under the child’s seat. These vehicles were shipped back to our headquarters for analysis. Troubleshooting the problem revealed a circuit design issue on the control board which allowed overheating and melting of the plastic components nearby and thus the smoke. The control logic was designed by our China partners and not reviewed by engineering resources in the US. Coincidentally, this overheating issue was discovered on the firetruck model (second vehicle within the product line). The control logic was redesigned, and the problem corrected. Once again, the step of including US engineering in the review of the product was not done. In fairness to Product Design, we did not have that capability in-house and we contracted with a third-party electronics firm to accomplish that task. This issue resulted in the Consumer Products Safety Commission mandating a recall of all vehicles produced since the very first vehicle was assembled. A significant cost was incurred, and we lost the confidence of our consumers.
The concept of “Art to Part in 12 Months” was only accomplished by leaving out critical steps in the process. The need to “control” all aspects of the design and introduction to achieve that timeline required leaving out other departments. The reality of this was that the timeline was vastly exceeded to produce high quality products.
Another aspect that was left out was a thorough review of existing patents to ensure that we would not infringe upon other companies. This too resulted in great cost as we settled with a competitor for multiple patent infringements.
The main lesson learned was that compression of the timeline, while desirable, cannot be achieved by eliminating critical steps. Time can be compressed with concurrent engineering but never with linear product development. Second, this experience taught us that other departments may provide critical skills to the successful launch of a product. Finally, Product Development assumed that they had the skills and knowledge necessary to successfully design the product in concert with the China manufacturer. This arrogance resulted in this catastrophic series of events.

Case Study 2: Revolutionizing Pneumatic Power Tools

Later, at a company that manufactured pneumatic power tools in China, but wholly designed the tools in the US, a similar set of difficulties occurred. In this case, the Research and Development department reported to Marketing. Complicating the design and development process was that the company had suffered greatly during the Great Recession, and several engineers had left for other opportunities.
The new product was highly revolutionary for the pneumatic power tool industry. Rather than relying on an air compressor with a long hose for the supply of pressurized air, it would involve a sealed chamber of nitrogen gas that would be pressurized by a piston driven with a lithium ion battery. Therefore, there would be no need for the compressor, and the tethering of the tool to either compressed air or an electrical outlet. This would provide great convenience to the end user. There was high visibility and hopes for a successful launch of this product as it was forecasted to be a great driver of revenue in a tough market. This product had been under development for several years and was in the product-testing phase (in-house). Prototypes had been shown to customers and expectations had been set as to in-market dates.
During testing, it was discovered that the product could not maintain the pressure of the nitrogen-filled cylinder over a sustained period. It was anticipated that the cylinder would hold pressure for 3 years during normal product use before needing to be replaced. The reality was closer to two weeks. Much engineering time had gone into the design of the piston and the cylinder with heavy focus on the texture and finish level of the interior of the cylinder. Also, an O-ring and lubricant ensured the smooth operation of the piston along the surface of the cylinder. Despite repeated designs and different finishing techniques (honing), changes to the cylinder’s interior surface did not provide a solution.
Failures were assigned to poor execution at our captive manufacturing plant, the assembly of the tool, or overfilling or under filling of the required amount of nitrogen. Another possibility was the manufacturing line was using too much or too little lubricant. Testing was performed in the US while manufacturing and assembly was performed in China. This greatly added to the time for potential problem resolution even as we air freighted samples from China to the US. Also adding to the issue was the lack of observation of the operators as they were performing their tasks. This was alleviated by filming the tasks and sending as an attachment via email. It was confirmed that manufacturing was following the procedures as specified. Then it was back to Research and Development to define better procedures. As we had 70 years of in-house pneumatic design experience, it had been assumed that manufacturing was creating the issues with performance rather than there being a design flaw.
At this point, it became the responsibility of my Operations team to discover the root cause and resolve the issue. In thinking through the issue, I did not feel comfortable with our engineering expertise in designing high pressure sealed systems. We had an extensive history of supplementing pressurized air on demand as we had always had an air compressor to recharge the pneumatic tool. Therefore, I began to question every aspect of the design. One of my discoveries was that we had specified the O-ring based upon our past experiences with O-rings being part of the traditional pneumatic tools. Another factor contributing to my skepticism was that the lead designer of that part of the tool had 35 years of in-house design experience and had never worked with this type of system previously. Also, the Vice President of Research and Design was not an engineer. Both were very accomplished in our historical domain of compressor-assisted tools. Recalling the failure of an O-ring in a Space Shuttle disaster, I decided we would seek outside expertise from an O-ring manufacturer to high pressure compressed air systems.
In order to resolve the issue, I contacted a source that had provided parts for the Space Shuttle project and was introduced to a well-qualified O-ring manufacturer that routinely provided their products to many companies within the high-pressure space. After being introduced by the company’s sales executive to their Vice President of Research and Design, we had a discussion followed by him visiting our facility. In less than one hour, he concluded that we had specified the wrong material (hardness) for the O-ring and that we should change the dimensions to allow for better compression of the material with a different hardness level. In less than two weeks, we had new O-rings that, when installed in the existing design, resolved the issue. By the way, the O-ring manufacturer was our current supplier who had never been asked about the problem due to the confidentiality of the design. The supplier had been kept at the traditional buyer-seller relationship focused on price and not performance.
The next issue discovered was the life of the lithium ion battery between charges. This issue had not been previously discovered because we had always used a battery right from the charger for testing and had never used the tool over an extended period. By this time, lithium ion batteries were routinely used within the power tool industry. Rather than contact a factory and purchase an existing design, the company had decided that it would design its own battery and selected a source in China that manufactured quality kitchen tabletop appliances but had never manufactured a lithium ion battery before. Complicating our problem was the loss of electronic design expertise during the Great Recession. The engineers who had designed the battery were no longer with the company.Having just lived through the sealed pressure problem and resolution, we immediately began to source designs from other companies within the power tool industry (not pneumatic) who were producing tools using lithium ion batteries for the US market. We avoided one company that had a gas-assisted pneumatic tool as they were a direct competitor but explored options with several others. The short shelf life problem took longer to resolve because we had a fundamental design difference. We had designed the battery control logic within the battery and the other companies had designed the control logic within the charger. After conceding that change in design philosophy, this problem was resolved slightly increasing the cost of the tool sold with the charger, but commensurately decreasing the cost of the battery. Later, we discovered that there was more profit in battery replacement than in tool sales.

Summary

By changing our focus from a single department or company needing to completely design and manage a project, to fulfilling a market need by delivering a new product by the most effective process, we were able to resolve the issues of a lack of expertise. Time to market is a compelling issue; however, it cannot be achieved by leaving out steps.  Involving vendors in product design and problem solving will also greatly speed up the product timeline.

Cautions

Although China and other countries each have their own strengths, they do not have the long history of US consumer products companies, nor do they have the mechanisms to ensure high quality at low consumer risk due to their lack of experience in serving the US market.
The need to maintain confidentiality has its limits. When exceeding one’s historical expertise, a company should hire that expertise permanently, acquire that expertise via a well-qualified product design company, or consult with vendors who are worthy of trust.

Contact Jeff Cartwright

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