One of the most prominent trends in today’s markets is the reality that the customer is now king. Consumers are demanding ever more innovative products that are tailored specifically to their needs, dictating the types of features and functionality they require, and as a result, are driving the direction of many different types of products.
As the result, the ability to respond quickly to changes is key to surviving in today’s turbulent and competitive markets, whether you’re making cars, cell phones or other consumer products. Bottom line: Product design today must be agile, iterative, and flexible. Manufacturers must strive to offer greater product customization or variety, but continue to keep unit costs low.
Another factor that increases the need for design agility is the prevalence of collaborative design. Product design now requires input from many divergent groups within a company, including sales and marketing, logistics, accounting and finance, manufacturing, engineering, Quality, and possibly even customers and suppliers. These collaborative team members weigh in and offer input throughout all the various stages of design—from concept through to production—so the ability to respond to change requests quickly, nimbly and continuously is essential.
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” –Charles Darwin
Design agility, by definition, is a manufacturer’s ability to react quickly to sudden, unpredicted changes in customer demands or market changes for products. Flexibility is essential to respond to changes that are inevitable during the development cycle as customers change their minds, markets shift, and new technologies arise. Design agility requires that manufacturers design products that can either be quickly evolved or can be customized to meet customers’ specified requirements and changes in the market.
Companies can increase their ability to respond to such changes in product requirements by developing families of products (often referred to as product platforms) that are designed for modularity and reconfigurability. These modular product structures enable manufacturers to adapt a product late in the design cycle or in manufacturing—or even in distribution—to better suit the needs of an individual consumer with as little disruption as possible.
By doing so, they are better able to quickly respond to changing market conditions or customer requests by making slight modifications to base or modular designs to create newly customized products. Manufacturers also need to be able to reconfigure processes or systems to accommodate sudden changes in product designs.
Product development processes can decrease flexibility
Many strategies put in place to foster product innovation may actually thwart manufacturers’ efforts to increase design agility. Phased product development processes that emphasize heavy up-front planning coupled with established project management methodologies promote an organized plan-your-work, work-your-plan approach to product design.
At the beginning, the project has complete flexibility but by the end of the initial planning or concept phase, the project budget, schedule and product requirements (design intent) are established and approved. From here on, the design process has restricted flexibility. While these approaches have their advantages, they can also make it difficult to make changes midstream in development.
While last-minute design changes are inevitable, this staged approach requires designers and engineering to anticipate what those changes might be during the planning phase. While this approach keeps design projects on schedule and within budget, it can also hamper the design team’s ability to deal with design changes as they arise, which can often be later in the design cycle.
Parametric modelers can facilitate design agility by making it easier to deal with last-minute product changes. When designs are created in a history-based parametric CAD system, the user can make a requested change, and then leverage the model’s parametric interdependencies to propagate changes throughout the rest of the model. If, however, the user making the change doesn’t understand the underlying model structure or if the change lies outside the tolerable parametric ranges, issues can arise. Often this requires engineers to start from scratch.
Direct modeling systems can make it much easier to deal with these last-minute design changes. With direct modelers, users can make changes to the model at any time, though design intent can be lost. A hybrid approach that utilizes both parametric and direct modeling tools can help design teams by providing them with flexibility and the design intelligence provided by parametric interdependencies.