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Rapid Prototypes – Part Deux.

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Ok, so a little tangent here.  A few days ago I talked about how the prototyping industry responded to a business need in the Product Design world by developing Rapid Prototyping tools.  In case you missed it, you can read about it here.  The Rapid Prototype industry, in my opinion was a practical CPI response to a significant time-consumer in the Product Design Cycle, which allowed the Design-Prototype-Test cycle to revolve quicker, ultimately driving products to market faster, with more frequency and more innovation.

At a micro level, Rapid Prototyping also drove foreseen and unforeseen behaviors and changes in the design cycle itself.  Some good, and some maybe not-so-much.

To recap, these descriptions of rapid prototypes are referring to 3D printing tools and processes that can generate a physical objects from electronic CAD files, or solid models.  An engineer can 3D model a wrench using a CAD package, and a 3D printer can ‘print’ out that wrench as an actual part made from a variety of plastics or metals.  This is a lot like the old Star Trek Replicator, just without the catchy sound clip or the funny uniforms.

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The use of rapid prototypes has changed how a lot of products are designed.

Prototypes used to be long-lead and expensive to make, which lead to longer design cycles because of the time lag between the design and test phases of the process.  This resulted in a limited number of trial-and-error iterations available to meet project time schedules.  The obvious fallout here was a culture of higher uncertainly avoidance within product development groups.  “If I only have 2 months to develop and prototypes take 3 weeks to make a prototype, then I only have 1 real test-shot.”  This lead to conservative innovation in products; try what you know kind of approach.  The upside here may have been a more thorough approach to design because of the limited number of test iterations available.  Engineers may have been more apt to invest their time into theoretical calculations, studies and general due-diligence up front.

In today’s world of rapid prototypes this design philosophy has changed.  Prototypes are relatively inexpensive and available within a few hours to a few days.  This effectively added a number of potential test iterations within the design cycle to meet the same deadline.  (or bring the project deadline in!)  In the same 2-month window an engineer may try 3-4 iterations of design.  The upsides here are that the uncertainly avoidance of the engineers significantly changed, as the penalty for failure decreased.  This in turn boosts the potential for innovation in product form and function, and it also opens the door for engineers to branch out into new construction techniques that were too risky to try before.  Remember the comments on the sleek and organic shapes of products today?

Of course there is no free lunch out there, rapid prototypes can have some downsides and pitfalls as well.  Directly opposed to the old-school design philosophy, rapid prototyping can lead to more guesswork on the part of engineers or less due-diligence required up front in design.  Without the ‘pain’ of failure, engineers may become sloppy in their design practices.  During product introduction to the market this could lead to a super-sleek appearing product that does not function well or fails prematurely.  Another potential pitfall of rapid prototyping and the reduction in due-diligence up front may be in the manufacturability of parts in general.  Take an injection molded part for example such as the mouse on your desktop.  That mouse was designed with a very clever shape that allows liquid plastic to flow into a steel tool, cool to take a set, then the tool opens up and the part pops out.  This is akin to a very expensive Jello-mold.  With rapid prototypes there are few limitations to geometry, so an inexperienced engineer may be able to design parts and components that ‘print’ easily and assemble together in a prototype stage, however they are not mold-able or manufacturable with ease. The first time an injection-mold tool gets locked up and junked because of a poor design, all that time gained in the design cycle in lost in the time and money of a retool.  This is the age-old dilemma, better design tools can drive innovation but dampen the basics.

I have to admit, one of the most innovative uses of rapid prototyping that I experienced was not in the product design or development area at all.  I met with an electro-mechanical fabrication and assembly firm in the Phoenix area last year.  This firm is fairly vertically integrated from this one facility, doing everything from sheetmetal punching and forming, finishing, wiring harness fabrication, PCB manufacturing and finished goods assembly.  The engineering manager at the plant had just purchased a 3D printer for under $1000 and started printing out scale models of his major equipment.  Why was he building this scale model of his facility?  Turns out it was to simulate and study material flow through his operation to identify and reduce wasted transportation steps of goods through the workflow.

CPI, driven by technology that was developed due to CPI.  How cool is that?

Can you think of uses for rapid prototypes in your operation?  Please leave a comment.

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Rapid Prototypes – CPI Driven

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The Product Design Cycle is just that, it is a cycle.  It begins with a thought that is formed into a concept.  It is developed from that concept through a series of prototypes into a good model.  The model is designed into manufactuable and producible good, then pushed out into the market for the ultimate acid test, customer acceptance.

Design cycles vary in duration depending on the complexity and nature of the product, anywhere from a few weeks to a few years.  All design cycles have one thing in common, they share a defined series of steps that just take time.  From a CPI standpoint, where would you start looking in the design cycle to crash the timeline and get products to market faster?


Mapping the cycle out from a macro level, there appears to be a good opportunity in the prototype creation stage.  Frankly, you don’t want to rush design and shortcutting testing is a recipe for product quality issues.  Prototype manufacturing on the other hand is an area that traditionally takes a good deal of time, and is required before testing can start.  The prototype industry has picked up on this opportunity and has been working on technologies to provide better and faster tools to design firms.  This looks like a classic example of a low-effort, high-impact activity that can shave significant time in the design cycle.


Old-School is all relative, but “back in my day” – 20 years ago designing electro-mechanical component packaging and sheet metal enclosures, the standard lead-time for a metal bracket was 6 weeks.  This would place a 6-8 week ‘dead zone’ between the finish of the design step and the ability to test it out.  This also meant that your design better be perfect, because it was too time-consuming to redo.  Another funny thing was happening, we were sticking with sheet metal designs because prototypes ‘only’ took 6 weeks.  Injection molded plastics or diecasts would require prototypes machined from blocks of metal, this was 10 weeks easy, and expensive to boot.  Holy cow, who has time for that?  The end result were products that had a lengthy design cycle, and in a lot of cases were limited metal-bending square shapes.

Business demanded change, and the prototype industry responded.


Again, relative term, but over the years design-shop pressure on prototype vendors has decreased standard lead times on traditional prototype techniques.  Sheet metal is roughly 1-2 weeks, made possible by the alignment of design CAD tools to metal-bending processes and systems used by metal shops.  The big innovation, in my opinion was the widespread use of Rapid-Prototype tools such as 3D printing and SLA’

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s over the past 5 years or so.  3D printing, just as the name implies, can create a physical model of a part from CAD geometry automatically, within a couple minutes to a couple hours, for a relatively low cost.  Compare this to the 10 weeks of machine time and expense that was needed in the past to create a prototype of a plastic injection molded part.  This is a game changer.

3D printing, and other Rapid-Prototype services not only cut down the time engineers spent waiting for their prototypes to be fabricated, but it also allowed engineers to explore

alternative construction methods.  In the past, plastic design was desired by engineers for a variety of reasons, but took too long to develop.  Not anymore.

Ever notice that more products are made from plastics and diecast metal today versus 10 years ago?  Notice that it’s hard to find a flat surface on products today?   They all seem to be organically shaped, smooth yet curvy, ergonomically shaped to fit the user.

This is CPI at a macro level, changing how products are designed and developed.  The end result is a better product for the consumer, available faster than ever before.  I have a feeling we will be touching on Rapid Prototypes again, but on more of a micro level.

If Rapid-Prototypes were inexpensive and quick, what would you mock up outside of Product Design?  Thoughts?

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Process – Necessary Evil?

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What comes to your mind when you hear that word?  Are you jubilant in the comfort of knowing exactly what the next step is, or are you feeling claustrophobic because your creativity just got hog tied?  Lean evangelists live by process because what can be identified can be measured, therefore evaluated and improved.  Creative types reject process because you can’t schedule innovation, you can’t track and improve original thought.  A good Product Developer can meet in the middle, or swim in both lanes when needed.

I would consider myself a lean advocate, not a lean evangelist.

Back to process.  Process is a step by step instruction to accomplish a task.  Processes can include steps taken by one person or a group of people or resources in a defined sequence.  Line a number of processes up and you get a workflow, or a scenario that starts with a certain input and produces a packaged outcome.  In a manufacturing sense, think about assembling a pair of scissors.  The processes may include steps to procure the raw materials, steps to deliver the materials to the assembly line, steps to assemble the scissor halves together with a rivet, then steps to test the scissors for form and function, then steps to package the finished scissors for shipping.  This is very linear, very repeatable, very consistent.

The beauty of this process is that each step is measurable, you may know exactly how long it takes to attach the 2 halves together with a rivet.  This allows you to match the processes before and after the assembly steps to maintain a steady flow of goods.  It takes 30 seconds to assemble, but 1 minute to pick the parts, then you need 2 resources picking parts, it’s that simple.  Once the steps are measurable, you can adjust the steps and see how they affect the process, then adjust the other processes to match.

Still following?

Some might think, “This process stuff is great!” but in the world of Product Development and Design things get grey.  The benefit of process is repeatability and predictability of the workflow, but the downfall is the loss of flexibility to deal with variation.  Lean principles offer a quiver full of Six Sigma tools to eliminate variation, but variation is what the design cycle is all about.  On the flip side, those who refuse to accept process can tent to get lost in the weeds, particularly creative types who can’t be bothered, and should not be bothered by the details.

My take on process in design cycle?  A good process should have minimal steps to accomplish the task.  An effective process should clearly set the inputs, provide milestones and allow deviation between those steps for personal creativity and experimentation, and define the final expectations.  “This is where you are, these are things you need to hit, there is where you need to end up.  Figure out the rest.  Have fun along the way, keep me posted.”  One key from Lean principles that I am a fan of is the revision of process as requirements change, or as innovations occur.

What steps within the design cycle are process-able?  I will leave that for another day.

What I do know is that I struggle with process on a daily basis.  What are your thoughts?

Speed is of the Essence – Product Development

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How often have you heard that and thought it was just lip service?  How often are you given a tight deadline, only to have the delivery date get moved up?  How did you feel about your boss, your team, your organization and the quality of your work product when you got pushed to delivery early?  Irritated I assume, along with a variety of other emotions.  In the product development field I feel these emotions almost daily, and I hear these emotions verbalized from my team all the time.

Why are we in such a hurry all the time in business?  Competition of course, doing things better than the next guy.

The reality of Product Development is that the products of today are the Ideas of yesterday.  Good product concept guys are thinking 5-10 years out.  Good Product Management guys are looking 1-3 years out to commercialize products.  Good Product Development teams have design cycles in the 6 month to 2 year range to release products to market.  Operations now require time to ramp up the supply chain to get the product to the end user; this may take 3-6 months or more depending on the product.    In today’s world this is not a linear process, which means every stage of the product life cycle overlaps in order to crash the overall schedule.  Supply Chain starts working before the product gets released; Product Development teams begin foundation work before Product Management gives the green light for development, and so on.  AT the end of the day this means that innovative product ideas are old news by the time they hit the market.

What’s the problem then, every organization has to deal with the same cycle right?  Wrong.  Larger organizations may have the engineering might to overcome problems quickly, but have too much process to react quickly.  Smaller organizations may have more flexibility to react quickly, but may have limited resources to overcome obstacles outside of their core competency.  The key is that the first one to market has the advantage, either as the product leader if it is successful, or as a product killer if the product is rushed and fails to wow the consumer.

The old adage, “Loose lips sink ships” is a huge issue in the design cycle.  As time goes on, information gets out.  Through employee interactions within their community conversations, through vendor interaction, through supplier co-development, or a number of other innocent or nefarious means.  A simple example of this is in prototype development.  Most firms use outside companies to fabricate prototypes and fixtures for products in development.  Guess what, other firms also use these outside companies, it’s not hard to walk through a fabrication shop and peek at other firms products in fabrication.  It’s a reality that good ideas are discovered by competing firms, and if the idea is good enough it is almost guaranteed to be integrated into their next product.

Back to speed here, the best defense is a good offense.  The risk of a product being copied, beat to market or missing the market timing gets significantly greater the longer the product is in the development cycle.  Unfortunately this big-picture message can get lost to the troop on the ground, the engineer in the cube or the tester in the lab who is only hearing the whip get cracked.  Hopefully this helps put a little bit of rhyme to the reason.

Remember, the first one to the finish line wins!

Did you find this conversation helpful?  Please leave a comment.

The flying lumberyard – AKA Spruce Goose

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Here I am sitting in a hotel room in Bandon, Oregon, overlooking the beach and crashing waves.  I’m pretty excited this morning, because low tide is in 20 minutes and I’m ready to go tide-pooling with my dog.  Problem is that there have been gale force winds all night and the rain is horizontal.  I can hardly see the beach, but can sure hear the breaking waves.  I guess beach combing is not on the docket for today.

Yesterday went a little more like plan on our little holiday, my wife and I visited the Evergreen Museum in McMinnville, which was an impressive collection of aircraft, space vehicles and a water park.  The water park seems a bit random, but hey, it works.  The claim to fame for the Evergreen Museum, besides the Boeing 747 parked on its front lawn, is that the main building was constructed around the Spruce Goose, the largest all-wood airplane ever built, and briefly flew in 1947.

If you are not familiar with the Spruce Goose, you can read about it here.  The Dime Store description is that it was the largest airplane built for its time, and remains one of the largest built to date.  The scale of the project is amazing, and standing underneath the wingspan is impressive.  The brainchild of Howard Hughes, it was built in 1943-1947, it is an aquatic plane that weighs 300,000 pounds, the wingspan is more than a football field, 8 propeller engines and was intended to carry 750 wartime troops.  Most unique is that it was built entirely from wood due to war-time material shortages, using construction techniques developed for the project.

I am fascinated by this undertaking, given the scale and the timeline that was achieved at this time is history.  The typical design cycle that I drive towards for a new slot machine product is 14 months, which historically gets compressed to the 8-10 month time frame from concept to production.  This is today, using today’s technology of solid modeling, rapid prototyping and electronic simulations.  All of these tools have evolved over the years specifically aimed at reducing the time to market.  How were Hughes and company able to pull off the Spruce Goose in 4 years, napkin sketch to first flight?

I understand it’s a matter of resources, larger projects need larger resource pools.  Of course the more people you throw into the kitchen the greater level of coordination and bureaucracy are required.

How is all of this relevant?  For me it is a wake-up call when faced with deadlines and design specs that seem unrealistic.  No matter how large the task seems, look back at history and see what was accomplished.  Another take-away for me is that better tools are not the only answer, we often fall into the ‘if I only had XXX, I could meet the challenge’ trap.  Hughes carved he largest plane in history from a pile of lumber for crying out loud.  Hughes also did not get wrapped up by roadblocks, instead he innovated solutions to work through, or work around the challenges.

I’d like to think all challenges are overcome-able, although it may take a little work.

What are your thoughts?  love to hear them, please leave a comment.

Gizmos and Gadgets — AKA, Toys!

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Products.  Every put much thought into them?  Sure, if the gizmo you just purchased is fantastic you might tell a friend.  If the widget you are playing with is a piece of crap, breaks or does not perform you might tell the world.  Beyond the user experience, have you ever thought about how that product was conceived, designed, developed,  manufactured, packaged, shipped, presented or installed and made available for the ultimate durability test—–meaning you the consumer?

Before I got into the industry of product development I had a pretty naive view of things.  I took for granted the development effort and extensive supply chain that sat behind that new GI Joe figure that was hanging on the store rack.  Funny how we form our early views, I recall watching the Tom Hanks film Big when I was 13.  The film was really not my cup of tea at that age, heck, I don’t remember much about it at all except for a little snippet when Hanks and his young costar were in FAO Schwarz critiquing toys.  The younger star declared that this little toy robot only cost a dollar to make in China and it was selling for a lot more than that, how is that fair?  Funny how a 30 second clip can form a long-term splinter in your mind, all I know is that I was pissed the next time I went to the store and that GI Joe was $8.

A few years down the road I have realized that every product, either on the shelf or in your home, or even dispensing soda at your favorite junk food place has an entire history book of product design behind it.  It’s not magic, it took work!  Now I flip my mind to the dimension of supply chain and backtrack the transportation, packaging, assembly, etc, etc all the way back to the minerals being dug from the earth or grown from seed.  Wow.

Contrary to 12 year old logic of Hanks and his little costar, I am not just paying for the manufacturing cost.  I am paying for the history, the effort, the labor, the whole chain.  Now when I look at the GI Joe (and I still do look at toys, BTW), I wonder how it’s possible that they are so cheap!

What’s your gut feel when you are out shopping around?  Do you see an overpriced piece of plastic or do you see the momentous effort it took for it to get there? 

Let me know what you think.


Continuous Process Improvement – Defined

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Continuous Process Improvement (CPI), what is it and why should you care?

Aside from what can be gleaned from it’s super-sexy namesake, the term CPI is probably fairly foreign to those outside of the Supply Chain field.  In everyday life though, I’d like to think most folks practice some facets of CPI in their normal routine.  Look back into your own habits, actions or activities from the past, can you pinpoint something you tried and it turned out right, correct and perfect the first time?  Balancing your checkbook?  Creating a recipe?  Riding a bike?  Studying for that big exam?

CPI, at a personal level is embedded in the learning process.  Activities that a person engages in, specifically repetitive activities seem to get easier over time.  This is most likely explained by trial and error, persistence and experience; building on what works and abandoning what did not.  I watched my daughter teach herself how to bake, it took quite a few batches of cookies until she nailed a consistent recipe for success, now she sells her cookies for $.25 a piece at her high school, go figure.  Other activities can have more direct learning curves, such as riding a bike.  Falling down hurts, and pain happens to be a pretty powerful and effective teacher, the rider learns quick what works and what does not.  Jumping forward a little bit, the cues and challenges of activities will evolve over time.  Once the rider masters the ‘survival skills’ to prevent skinned knees, he is off to work on curb-hopping and skids.

Again I pose, why should you care?  This seems so obvious.

In the business world there can tend to be a certain level of stagnation of progress in many fields, particularly repetitive plug-and-chug type disciplines.  Operations, Manufacturing, Accounting, even some portions of the Product Development Cycle can tend to follow a prescribed routine that has been trained in, passed down and maintained across organizations and across disciplines.  New Product Design tends to be exciting and innovative, think iPhone, think Corvette, but after the initial ‘wow’ of the concept, Engineers skilled in the trade work to grind that concept into a commercially viable product.  We Engineers have learned how not to skin our knees, but taking it to the next level is the key to increasing the company’s value.

CPI was born in manufacturing as a method to identify and measure steps in the process, so that logical decisions on those steps could be made to make the whole system work better.  Why not use CPI concepts in the Product Design Cycle, where they fit, before products hit the manufacturing line?