I always marvel at the amount of work, conversations and ingenuity that go into making a truly exemplary electrical device. Dozens of conference calls, hundreds of man-hours and thousands of employees come together to move a device through the product development cycle from concept to store shelves. However, all of these moving parts can create friction and derail the entire project if not managed properly.
The key to preventing this type of breakdown? Communication. Companies that are able to create and maintain clear communication channels with their partners stand the best chance of success. That said, there are some common communication mistakes that take place between electronic device companies, components companies and manufacturers that can easily be avoided.
The Product Design Game
Product designers and engineers have a difficult job in that they’re often creating completely original designs with unique needs. This problem is exacerbated when it comes time to meet with a components supplier because they have a general idea of what parts they will need for their device, but aren’t entirely certain. That little bit of gray area can start a calamitous butterfly effect as the engineer’s description may be overly vague, which can cause confusion and delays.
While there should always be room for improvisation and serendipity, there are some considerations that designers and engineers can think through before meeting with their components suppliers that would greatly help the conversation. These include:
- What is your budget?
- What margin are you trying to make from this particular device?
- Where will your product be available? Different countries have unique standards for devices so make sure you understand the requirements of all the markets the device will be sold.
- How is the product going to be used? Think about the context of the device’s use to better select components that will provide longevity and a great user experience.
- How many volts do you think your device requires? A general understanding of the electrical requirements of the device will help guide the conversation around what types of switches can be used.
The Salesman Dilemma
Let’s just say it: most salespeople do not have technical expertise. They are the revenue generators of their companies and, as such, are prone to tell the clients what they want to hear and make promises that can’t be kept because of time, price or capability. That is why I recommend tempering the “sales guy” effect from the component side by pairing them with someone from the technical side of the house. The balanced team will help evaluate the application, make informed recommendations and ensure client requests are realistic. In many situations, designers aren’t switch experts and ask for things that are either not available or do not exist. Having an expert on hand helps the team decide upon switches that are well suited for the desired application.
Manufacturing Should Not be an Afterthought
The final major gap in communication happens when products head to the manufacturer. The problem stems from the fact that many companies have separate manufacturing and design groups. Decisions are made without input from manufacturers and designs show up at the factory floor that look wonderful but simply cannot be made. A product’s design must be thought of outside of the CAD domain, and in order to do that, companies need to enable a system that creates a great relationship between manufacturers and designers, particularly if those operations are based in separate countries.
The best thing a company can do to coordinate the efforts of the product design and manufacturing teams is to utilize a product manager. Product managers are empowered with a high-level view of the entire process and can head off problems before they become crises. They can run regular meetings between the two groups to make sure designs are easy to put together with a high level of quality. Product managers set everyone in the organization up for success as engineers are not forced to take on responsibilities outside of their core skill set.
The Purchasing Merry-Go-Round
The role of purchasing within a product’s lifecycle is incredibly important. Too often, engineers select a switch that works without consulting the purchasing team’s input. This can create problems if the preferred component does not fall within the budget and the purchasing team asks engineering to look for alternatives. By not communicating with one another, these two departments can grind progress on a project to a halt.
To avoid this situation, purchasing departments can work directly with engineering to set a bill of materials (BOM) budget. This budget figure is crucial to help guide the engineering team’s choices in terms of what components are brought in for testing, and which, ultimately, are selected for the product. The purchasing team can also help inform those components selections by letting product designers know if specific parts were difficult to locate in distribution or other variables that may affect their price.
The Problem with Everybody Getting Along
Many problems stem from time-crunched people trying to move too quickly but the one that seems to come up most frequently is an unlikely scourge: geniality. I’ve seen smiles and politeness rot away the foundation of more projects than I care to admit. Both designers and their partners come to the table overly optimistic about the device and the capabilities of the components. They “Yes!” each other to death, leave their meetings feeling great and then watch in horror as deadlines are missed and expectations are not met. How bad it gets and how far it goes depends on each parties’ honesty in the first few steps in the product development lifecycle.
Companies and their partners need to get comfortable making each other uncomfortable. A level of trust must be established quickly so that each group can ask the types of difficult questions that keep projects on the rails. Both sides need to be critical to effectively leverage each other’s knowledge and expertise. They shouldn’t be afraid to ask each other what they need within a realistic timeframe.
That’s not to say that the relationship between designers and components companies needs to be contentious. Not at all. But in order to get the best outcomes, both sides of the table need to be free to voice concerns and keep the other group honest to ensure a smooth collaboration.
Communication is the foundation upon which all successful product launches are built. Managing these four common problems within the product lifecycle can be the difference between a profitable device and one that never sees the light of day. Honesty and respect among design, engineering, manufacturing, purchasing and components groups are extremely important as it empowers people to voice concerns, clarify specifications and removes any opportunity for problems to spin out of control.
About the author: Kyle Peterson Product Marketing Manager, America at C&K with over 17 years of experience in the components industry.