Over the last decade product development, manufacturing, and marketing have undergone sweeping changes, creating new rules. Product life cycles have gone from years to months, manufacturing resources have moved from around the corner to around the world, and distribution has moved to the Internet and to a handful of big box stores as small owner-run stores have gone out of business.
Products have become more complex. We now have not just devices, but systems and platforms, such as Apple’s iPod with its iTunes and online music store, and the Amazon Kindle, an electronic book with its own online bookstore and their Whispernet wireless network. With systems such as these you can make your purchase and be enjoying it within minutes.
Today we take an entirely new approach to how we do product development compared to a decade ago (see Figure 1.4). No longer can we afford the time to follow a sequential process, passing the product from engineering to manufacturing to marketing to sales. It’s now done concurrently, with all the disciplines working together at the outset and contributing throughout the project. Not only is it faster, but it gets us better products.
Figure 1.4 The old and new ways
In addition, companies need no longer do everything themselves, but instead use resources that didn’t exist just a few years ago. More companies focus on doing what they do best and let other companies do for them what they do best. Worldwide resources give us huge new capabilities, whether we’re a large or small company or even an individual. Developments in digital technology, the Internet, and high-speed communications allow us to use a manufacturer in Asia, a call center in India, and a designer in Europe.
Products are being designed using software that creates digital data to define every detail. This allows the engineer to send a digital file anywhere in the world in just seconds. It can go to a model maker in Taipei to create a prototype in a couple of days and to a toolmaker in China to build plastic tools used to produce the product in high volume. The same file can be fed into a machine to print out a three-dimensional model in an afternoon.
Any of a multitude of suppliers can be located in seconds on the Internet using Web sites such as Asian Sources and Alibaba. Fill out a single request form and it will be transmitted electronically to the relevant companies, who often respond within a few hours.
Advances made in the electronics industry now allow us to create products by assembling electronic building blocks like Legos. Companies with little electronics skill can quickly create sophisticated products.
Formerly, complex electro-mechanical consumer products took years to develop. Polaroid’s SX-70 camera, their first to fold small enough to fit in a jacket pocket and use film that didn’t need to be peeled apart, took more than five years to engineer.
There was little competition to be concerned about and the product would be on the market for many years to come, perhaps a decade or more.
Today the competition is much more intense, and products are revised and improved more frequently. Why? Because if you don’t do it, your competitors will, and it’s often the only way to maintain visibility in the crowded market.
Cell phone models, once lasting a year or two, are now being replaced in as little as three months. Some digital cameras and iPods are replaced or upgraded every six months.
For all these reasons we’re forced to work at a more frantic pace. There’s little time to conduct extensive market research and to go back and start over. Experience, intuition, and gut play a bigger role than ever. It’s like running at a marathon pace just to stay in place.