Everyone loves compact products. Smaller is better. It almost seems the thinking is that this communicates a higher degree of technological achievement, or greater versatility, or sophistication, but is it the best choice for many products? Does this approach from the onset make for unrealistic marketing promises, cause cost over runs in development, limit features and future offerings, and ultimately not deliver on the user experience? This article will explore some of the things to watch out for with your new product design program.
Anybody remember how awesome Blaupunkt car stereo products were? They were the ultimate European accessory in an auto in the 1980’s. They did function well. Their faces were loaded up with tiny, seemingly refined buttons to operate the many features in the 1 DIN tall format, about 2 inches tall, really the only size option available at the time. When you were in the car dealership or one of the many stereo installer stores’ display rooms of the day, the little buttons seemed great. They appeared to give you so many options, but when you tried to hit a specific button bouncing down the highway in your car, eyes sort of on the road, all manner of unintended selections were made. The crowded, compact interface, although a differentiator in the market, ultimately offered limitations. It also had to be a cost driver for the product. This has all changed and reversed direction now as simplified vehicle interiors with large displays, and easily accessed, consolidated buttons now prevail. Even the touch screen icons have some size to them in modern vehicles, and bigger displays are sought after.
From a company point of view, maybe the Blaupunkt scenario isn’t so bad though. Sure the radios were ridiculous to use while driving but the apparent complexity probably helped Blaupunkt in their high end market positioning.
In the 1990’s aircraft designs were moving to the dream of an “all glass” cockpit where all of the displays would move away from analog, mechanical dials and CRTs to flat screens with optimized read outs to simplify the flight deck work load, and of course military air craft, fighters in particular, were leading the way. There were several challenges at the time though, particularly for the harsh environment of a modern fighter jet, and with finding adequate supplies of robust flat screen displays to work with. All this was made worse by long development cycles with legacy designs tied to the particularly aircraft, each type with a unique set of layouts. Heads down displays had been planned for the aircraft cockpit based on past generation display technology and form factors, so in some instances a modern display might be going into a space intended for an older CRT display architecture, or where several analog dials had populated. A breakthrough was seen in using the versatility of projection displays as a single optical engine was envisioned as being able to have its output image re-sized for different flat screen, heads down displays, and, at the time, promised greater robustness and availability on the supply side than AMLCDs. But these new to be developed projection displays, think very small projection TVs, were challenged to meet some of the working environment requirements, and one of them clearly was space available in the older volumes set aside for the instrument to be placed in the bulk head of the aircraft. Literally an additional 5 mm of width for the heads down display in some of these aircraft applications could have saved significant funds in the effort to fit the new projection displays into the aircraft’s older display architecture volumes, not intended for projection style flat screens. The relationship between development refinement burden (dollars to develop) to squeeze stuff into the unintended space available (millimeters shy of volume needed) seemed exponential as the effort ensued.
The teams working on this did the job, and in about 70 percent of the time the project should have taken for first units built, but lots of resources were needed and large amounts of time were spent just figuring out how to use the space available versus other development refinement needs. Also, the tight size budget impacted the compact sub-assemblies which required significant effort to build and seal, something that similar products for non-fighter air craft applications would have never have required. Unfortunately for the world of projection displays, their days were numbered as AMLCDs and other aspects of flat screen technology became more available, in more sizes, more rugged or lending of themselves to be ruggedized, and their cost to implement into systems dropped as well. Fifteen to twenty years on now it seems like the LCD based flat screens where a sure thing but that was definitely not the case back then (remember Ford’s show car with the configurable projection display dash?), and the complex projection displays with their multiple opportunities and amazing promise were the only the way to go at the time. So much so, that it was worth spending the extra time to shoe horn them into existing package volumes as changing the volumes would affect too many things already fixed in the aircraft design, and you can’t just add a bump on the outside of a supersonic plane. However, the opportunity for cost savings via larger allotments of space for new displays for newer aircraft, like the F-35, were planned for ahead of time, and as display technology has stabilized some, this extra space would seem to have allowed for less painful implementations.
It has been said that a perfect first generation product probably took too long to get to market so if you are leading into a new product category it is best to get out fast and see what customers really want. Given that there is a disproportionate cost increase in making something smaller as you pack new tech into it, going with an initial offering of a moderate sized design may be the best goal. At these early stages of an emerging market segment for most offerings there is no default customer expectation. This is not to say, “Super size it,” just that having room to add in features, innovations, and be able to handle the unexpected but unavoidable changes that come about in product development, especially in new ventures, that the extra room may be literally a company life saver. The cost to go back and re-grow and adjust proportions of the product’s outer skin in a way that the product’s look is not ruined just because a certain internal component is not available in a more compact or custom package can be a killer to getting to market. If your competition gets on the scene first with a bit bigger unit then they may shore up market segments you cannot regain easily. It is kind of like investing in their future at that point.
Trimble Navigation did this well back when handheld GPS receivers were something most people had never seen, even in Silicon Valley. I remember showing off a Trimble Trimpack GPS receiver to a group of people. It was a civilianized unit based on the military package, cleverly made, and the time was not long after the first conflict with Iraq in the early nineties. These GPS receivers were almost magical to on lookers and were seen as a victory for American know how with amazing stories of how troops knew right where they were in a desert that once had confused armies and gotten people hopelessly lost. And the Trimpack was big. Compared to the GPS capability of a compact modern smart phone the Trimpack was not all that accurate, and simply huge. I carried it in an oversized fanny pack with its lead acid battery attachment and a back up battery pack. The battery packs alone were bigger than most modern electronic handhelds. The Trimpack had all kinds of features accessed through a knob, two toggle switches and a small pixilated LCD screen, and ultimately some of these features, like knowing where the satellite constellations were located in the sky, was not a feature most customers would ultimately use on a regular basis. Nor would such a large location device ultimately be viable for broader market adoption.
It would be more than a decade before smart phones with enhanced positioning capability were available to people though, and battery life and size would be addressed in future GPS receivers and value added positioning products as companies spent large amounts of resources to improve the technology. Trimble had been an upfront leader. Going forward with GPS and putting it in the hands of people and troops early on. The Trimpack was a big success. It did its job well at the time, and lead to follow on projects for vehicle and aircraft applications, back when such technology was still an add on. The Trimpack outer housing allowed for some room for growth in product features, which allowed the, then small company of Trimble Navigation, to not have to afford costly plastic housing changes as they expanded offerings to emerging markets. The case had been cleverly designed to facilitate use and could be applied to different applications. This was key to early follow on products, updates and even continued life under government contracts that preferred if the contract treated the much improved second generation as only an updated product, which was a viable approach if the outside of the unit looked the same.
The Trimpack now seems dated in all aspects but this was the right choice at the time. It could have been even a bit smaller initially but this clearly would not have been a wise choice nor was it necessary for the product to be a hit. The tech was new, was being made available for the first time to new users, and a smaller product would not have supported the initial versatility needed to get the units out and expand on the design. Subsequent products would be smaller and more dialed in to market desires and emerging expectations. Competitors would seize on only what was necessary for given markets when they released their first generation handhelds, which were smaller, but these were really second and third generation products, and in some cases they only looked good, they didn’t work as well.
Smaller would not have been better for the Trimpack. There was plenty of time to go smaller in all of the follow on products, as needed and where needed. The larger Trimpack left room for risk, growth, variations, and brought revenue in, in a timely manner from a brand new market.
As an engineer at an established product design firm we see this sizing trade off often as we have the good fortune to work with client’s that have unique and emerging technologies representing break through markets. Often times though a start up will desire to hit a home run with the first product, or a marketing department wants a super sleek and small design. Even our own industrial designers seem predetermined that smaller is better, but is it? If the client has a brand new technology and a moderate budget, as many smaller companies or start ups do, then the smaller is better approach can have very high costs, risks and schedule impacts. It behooves the team, client and design firm, to take a cold hard look what time to market, available funds, fabrication costs and even second source components for electronics will actually require, and then leave room for all of those issues for the initial product offering. The cost of bringing the new, fully packaged technology to market will be high enough, significantly increasing that cost and delaying progress in the name of making it smaller and sleeker is ill advised, particularly when the size reduction is not that significant and a brand new market isn’t expecting a smaller product, yet.
Besides, much will be learned from producing the initial product, more than can be anticipated, and the market feedback will be tremendously valuable. Also, chances are the second generation product, particularly as market forces and competitors all push the market segment, will allow for easier size reduction based on lessons learned, the value of specific features to customers, and newer, more compact sub-component parts availability. So why would a company guess at these things and delay getting to market with struggling to hit a product size that isn’t initially recognized as a mandatory market acceptance requirement?
We typically build all of our designs on top of the internal parts of a product to ensure that we are “right sizing” the industrial design concepts from the beginning. We ensure that issues with thermal management are addressed right up front so a new technology can run properly, often to be used in harsh environments and with customers who will not be forgiving of it when it shuts down suddenly or just gets too hot. And even with all this care taken up front we still end up growing a product from the first hand sketch concepts to final engineering for prototype building because of component availability, alternate sub-part options, and lessons learned during parallel development of the client’s technology. A little larger outer package concept with some room to accommodate the development cycle challenges, can permit internal changes without the set back to budget and schedule, and allow for growth for some things in a half generation product offering.
This is not to say disregard product constraints. If the product needs to fit the size of carryon luggage then this can be prioritized and considered from the beginning, driving decisions to put effort into sourcing sub-components at higher cost as needed. However, if the first of its kind offering is desired to fit in a pants pocket but the initial research is indicating that electronics and features desired are not currently available to meet that design goal, then the size discussion is needed to be had early on. Decisions on features, components and overall product offering goals versus product costs and schedules need to be weighted. The new, never seen before, product offering is better off getting to market sooner and fitting in a good size jacket pocket now than taking an additional 18 months to develop and still not fitting so well into a pant pocket.
So why not just stretch the industrial design shape of the new product in the direction of growth needed and send it off to tooling for the new housing? Most well thought out product designs are using shapes and features in relation to each other to support various functions and convey a desired style, while perhaps masking certain undesired characteristics. These products are the companies face to the world and can become their brand language. The aspect ratios and relationships between surfaces are actually doing more than the particular size and shape may seem to be doing at first glance. These key details affect how customers perceive the fledgling product. If things are stretched or rescaled without thought put into it and in a hap hazard way, then all the effort in creating the new look may be lost. We have had to repair such asymmetrical changes done by other design firms, clients themselves or manufacturers. What appears to be a simple fix can really spoil all the efforts and hoped for results. It really is surprising to see how easily a thought out design can be screwed up. This too is why having that little extra room, on a new product, allows late in the development cycle changes to be absorbed without having to stop, back up, and do a bunch of work to get back to where the team had been. And again this is important more so for new to market products and new companies.
So next time you are contemplating the fastest way to get your new technology to market, and you are assessing budgets, schedules, risks and market needs, don’t be afraid to save money, get to market faster, learn from your new customers, and be just a little bigger. The next generation can be shrunk. It will leave you room to grow smaller.
About the author: Charlie has spent the last 14 years engineering products for our clients at StudioRed. With over 25 years of experience working as a Mechanical Engineer, he has strong materials and fabrication experience. He spent many years developing GPS systems for military applications, military aircraft displays, and ruggedized products.
As head of Engineering at StudioRed, he ensures our client’s products will be manufacturable and cost efficient to maximize our client’s business’s value. Charlie has broad customer base in medical, computer and communications products designed for low to high volumes and low cost production. To read more by Charlie check out his article on prototyping.