Dealing with design changes at any stage in the design cycle is an inevitable reality for manufacturers. Having a clear, agreed-upon design specification—based on strong market research, customer requirements and engineering methodologies—can help avoid many errors that might require design changes, but even the most promising and well-thought-out designs can require changes for myriad of reasons throughout the design cycle.
One thing is certain. Making changes to the model becomes increasingly more expensive and disruptive the farther along it is in the design cycle. Making a change once a product has gone to market can have even more dire consequences in the form of costly product recalls, possible consumer litigation, and a loss of confidence among customers. The damage to its brand, caused by a widespread recall in 2010, cost Toyota an estimated sales loss of $770 and $880 million. The cost of lost consumer confidence is hard to quantify, but is probably just as significant.
Though estimates vary in terms of quantifying the expense of making changes, a fairly simple rule of thumb is that the cost of making design changes increases by a factor of ten at each step of the design process. So while a change made during the initial concept stage might cost $10, by the time that model reaches the production stage that same change could cost $100,000. Manufacturers know this. Unfortunately, mistake happen. So the question becomes, what’s the best way to deal with changes rear their ugly heads later in the design cycle?
That’s a common question asked when late-stage design changes are required. Sometimes they are necessary to respond to shifting customer needs. Other times they may be caused by site-specific manufacturing capabilities. Changes might be required when there is a change in material or manufacturing method, which can be caused by a lack of material availability, difficulty obtaining a specific component, or a change in vendor.
Often these occurrences are the outcome of disjointed processes within the organization that fail to keep design team members apprised of changing product requirements and manufacturing-based design parameters. While design teams must focus on the design, upstream and downstream teams must continuously provide product requirements data to the designers.
When a change is required, it’s essential for all team members to communicate openly and collaborate on how to find the appropriate solution. Making a change to the design will often affect downstream processes so engineers and designers must be realistic about how the change will affect schedules and cost estimates and communicate with those affected by this change.
Though having a well-written design specification can help to avoid some design changes, it can also lead to inflexibility and a lack of responsiveness when changes are required. Companies must add continuous touch points with customers so they can test product concepts, prototypes, and features along the development and launch cycle. Studies have shown that doing so can reduce cycle time by as much as 30 percent and lower development costs by as much as 40 percent compared to the more traditional gated design approach with strict adherence to design specs developed early in the design cycle.
But these lean design methodologies fall short at the front end of the process. The enhanced efficiency of lean product development is (like the gated model) still highly dependent on early stabilization of requirements, rather than iterating, optimizing, and trading off requirements to get to the winning product design. As a result, whatever innovation there is in this approach tends to be based on safeguarding the status quo rather than being creative — leaving companies vulnerable to disruptive changes in the market later on.
The bottom line is that increased globalization has created an increasingly competitive landscape for manufacturers. The product development environment has become too volatile for rigid, standardized process. Designers and engineers—along with the rest of the design team—must be flexible, open and ready to deal with the inevitable changes required throughout the process to resolve issues quickly and get products back on schedule with as little disruption as possible.