Editor’s note: The RTP Product Pipeline is a recent addition to WRAL Local Tech Wire. Its purpose is to help entrepreneurs, business leaders, educators and inventors better understand the product commercialization process. Montie Roland and Vass are co-founders of the RTP Product Development Guild, Inc. Roland is also the president of the Carolinas Chapter of the Product Development Management Association. Roland is the President of Montie Design, a product design firm in Morrisville. Their column appears weekly.

MORRISVILLE – Design, by it’s very nature, is an iterative process.

Product design process begins with creating preconceptions. Those preconceptions are used to create a prototype. The prototype is then tested and the test results are evaluated.

The evaluations are used to form new preconceptions and the process begins again. These iterative cycles can focus on the entire design, or they can focus on a small area (or technology) of the product. This process relies on prototyping and testing. Prototypes come in many forms. The word “prototype” is commonly refers to a working model of a product, or product concept. A written, or verbal, description of the product could also be a prototype. A sketch could also serve as prototype.

The exact nature of the prototype isn’t as important as the effect of the prototype, which is to validate the success, or failure, of the product. As the design progress, the cycles of iteration become more focused, as the developers refine the product.

Different industries have differing levels of toleration number of iterations in a design sequence. Machine design is a good example of an industry with a low tolerance for iteration in the design process. Engineers that design machinery attempt to practice design in a very linear fashion. The goal in the machine design industry is to reach a finished, and proven, design in the least amount of time with the least number of changes or redesign cycles. This approach attempts to follow the straightest path to a completed design.

This “straight arrow” approach leads us to classify this industry’s design methodology as a linear one. Even with this approach, iterations are necessary. Design iterations inevitably occur during the process of design a new piece of equipment. The can be caused by a machine, or system within a machine, that doesn’t perform as expected. When this happens, that part, or sub-system, is redesigned and redeployed. Because of these issues the machine design industry does not have a completely linear process.

The linear nature of machine design is driven by two factors. The first factor is the prevalence of a function requirement and the minimization of aesthetic requirements.

In my opinion, the biggest cause of the use of a linear design process in the machine design industry is the percentage of engineering / design costs as compared to the total cost of producing and marketing the machinery. Many machines are custom, or semi-custom, to the specific application (often manufacturing). This results in a small number of units to amortize the engineering costs against. This is a situation where the cost of design and engineering is a significant percentage of the total cost to produce the each. As a result, savings in the cost of design have a significant impact on the profitability of that design.

Consumer products are examples of products with a very iterative design process. These products are typically produced in high volumes. This allows the cost of design and engineering to be amortized over a large volume of product sales. In higher volume products, there is more incentive to spend more time on the industrial design and front-end design (fuzzy front end) stages of the design process.

Any product, or service, will be judged by the market place based on the experience that the product provides. Machinery is evaluated on institutional-experience criteria including performance, ease-of-use, speed of installation, return on investment (ROI) and uptime. Consumer products are evaluated on end-user experience criteria that include ease-of-use, aesthetics, coolness, usefulness, perception that the product creates and the experience that the user has when interacting with the product. The latter criteria are very subjective and difficult to capture in a product requirements document.

Product iteration allows the design team to explore a variety of concepts. The evaluation of these concepts helps to decide which concepts to integrate into the product and which concepts to drop from the product. Many times the issue isn’t whether a concept is good, or bad, but rather “is it appropriate?”

Product developers, designers and engineers use the available resources (which are always finite) to work towards achieving the best product possible. The nature of the product and the expectations of the industry and customer ultimately drive the exact nature of the design process. However, design is iterative and the best designers use the iterative process to design great products.

Editor’s note: he opinions of the author are his own and do not necessarily represent those of WRAL Local Tech Wire.

Questions? Comments? Send them to Rick Smith (rsmith@wral.com). Smith is editor of WRAL Local Tech Wire.