The widespread adoption of digital design shows that it makes a powerful contribution to R&D effectiveness and efficiency. Design tools can be invaluable in visualizing ideas, developing a detailed design and conducting fast iterations. These are all good things. Yet our research suggests that digital design is not a panacea. Unless it is complemented with sound management practices, unforeseen problems will be introduced into the product development process.
Some background will help explain why. It is well known that since the 1980s, the new product development process has evolved from traditional engineering teams working together in one place to an approach that is more global and virtual. One major factor that has enabled this transition has been the proliferation of digital design tools such as highly capable computer aided design packages (such as Parametric Technology Corp.’s PTC Creo Elements/Pro (formerly Pro/ENGINEER), Dassault Systèmes’ CATIA and SolidWorks), rapid prototyping technologies (such as 3D printers), and collaboration tools (such as Microsoft SharePoint, Google Docs and project wikis).
A second factor leading to increased use? Lower prices. Today, capable CAD packages can cost as little as a few hundred dollars and can run on desktop or laptop computers costing a fraction of those required just five years ago.
One of the most widely studied payoffs of digital design was the Boeing 777, which was designed, modeled and tested virtually by an extended development team. The benefits of this approach included identifying part interference and fit issues before expensive physical prototyping and having different members of the organization (customers, manufacturing representatives, vendors, service and maintenance individuals, etc.) view and participate simultaneously in the design process.
Since the time of the 777, the use of information technologies and services has accelerated thanks to the proliferation of tools and IT solutions to support digital design through the entire new product development spectrum.
Systems for 3D printing (from companies such as Z Corp.) allow designers to quickly produce prototype parts directly from CAD files, permitting the physical validation of engineered designs in a matter of hours.
Power analysis tools, often integrated into CAD systems, allow virtual testing before any physical prototypes and preliminary manufactured parts are produced. From airflow within a jet engine (fluid dynamics simulation) to strength and fatigue testing on a vehicle chassis (finite element analysis), these tools offer the potential to reduce cost and improve design iteration efficiency.
And process management tools, such as product life cycle management and requirements management, have proliferated to dimensionalize costs, part reuse and customer needs. Moreover, engineers can vet concepts with colleagues around the globe through virtual collaboration technologies that are now commonplace and, increasingly, free.
In sum, today’s product development is nearly all digital — allowing teams to go from idea to precise parts quickly and permitting them to revise and validate throughout the development process.
So, what’s the problem? There are potentially two. First, because the technology makes the work look complete at every step in the process, it can create a false sense of security. There can be a tendency to move on to the next stage in the process before teams have taken the time to learn user needs, construct alternative solutions and vet both of these. In other words, the “fuzzy front end” of the design process may be cut short — to the company’s long-term disadvantage. This is, we believe, one of the major reasons product failure and success rates have changed little over the past several decades.
Second, the very ease with which designs can be digitally drafted and prototyped might afford engineers the opportunity to “try it again and then, again and again.” In other words, the final design process can remain fluid longer than is useful. The ability to quickly iterate designs can lead to a spiraling effect, chewing up time and labor expense and mitigating the benefits of digital design itself. Research has shown that these “virtual design rounds” can account for 75% of total project development costs, and they can delay project completion. For example, Airbus suffered severe delays in the development of its new A380 due to issues with CAD revisions.
The net takeaway from this: While we are favorably inclined to the positive impact of digital design — who today would argue against the use of computers for any aspect of commerce? — we wanted to understand these two unwanted effects and how to best mitigate them. To accomplish this, we embarked on a longitudinal study of the product development activities of 145 firms that are heavy users of digital design technology. Given that a majority of engineering time is spent in front of a computer revising CAD models, we focused our lens on the engineering bullpen. We surveyed and interviewed engineers and managers to understand how digital design work is performed. Here’s what we learned.
Modern digital tools allow fast iterations of design features and dimensions, once the engineer constructs a virtual model. This ability creates a strong pull for product development teams to jump to building digital design models right at the start of the project. Because digital design applications are inherently precise, the “fuzziness” of wide-open concept exploration can be avoided for what seems to be a highly evolved design that is then prematurely moved downstream. That, we found, can lead the R&D team to shortchange valuable activities such as extensive user research, intensive parallel concept development, and deeper systems and architecture design as part of the front end of development.
Thomas Allen found decades ago that teams pursuing a number of parallel concept developments at the front end of design most often proved to be the winners over similar projects where teams finalized a design early in the process. This supports the common sense understanding that rushed decisions are often not the best. In the case of engineering design, a rushed decision can ultimately lead to more work downstream in the process as other engineers are forced to improve things.