A clearly defined and well-organized product development process lies at the heart of an effective Engineering environment, yet only a few companies have taken advantage of the potential advantages it offers. Instead, most companies continue with a traditional, ineffective product development process - so find that development costs are too high, development cycles are too long and products don't correspond to customer perceptions of quality. If they improved the product development process, they would overcome these difficulties.
The product development process is made up of a number of inter-related tasks. The aim of the first set of tasks is to produce the information that defines the product and the information that defines the processes that are used to make and support the product. Then, other tasks are carried out to make and support the product.
The process of defining and making a product can be very complex, expensive and time-consuming. For example, it can take several years to define and make products such as cars, microprocessors, and even cameras. The process may contain several thousand tasks. These may be carried out by many different companies working in different places round the world. Hundreds, or even thousands, of people may be directly involved in these tasks.
Of course, not all products are the result of such complex processes. Sometimes there may only be a few people involved in the process and they may all be on one site. They may be able to carry out all the activities such as specification, design, analysis, documentation, test and production in a few weeks. In such cases, the process is generally well-organized and the people involved in the process have a very good understanding of the overall process as well as their own roles and tasks.
In product development processes that involve hundreds or thousands of people and tasks, it is not uncommon to find that no one person understands the overall process. Each person has a detailed understanding of their own role and tasks, but no-one is able to describe the overall process in any detail. Although no-one understands the overall process, it does exist. It is made up of certain tasks carried out in a certain order. The process works, it has worked in the past, and it is expected that it will work in the future.
The individuals in the process try to bring about improvement by improving the way that their particular tasks are carried out. For example, a design engineer might believe that a new CAD system would help improve the productivity of a particular design task. As nobody is responsible for the overall process, nobody checks to see that the productivity of the overall process is increased by the new system. In fact, it might decrease. The interfaces between the new CAD system and other parts of the process might not exist - with the result that new tasks are needed in other parts of the process.
In another part of the process, another person may decide to improve productivity by transferring a task currently carried out on a mainframe computer to a PC. They may get a much better response time from the PC, but unless it is on a network they may be creating a break in the information flow that will lead to transcription errors and a longer development cycle. An apparent improvement in local productivity may lead to a decrease in overall productivity.
The process is very closely linked to the other components of the engineering environment such as people, information, and computer systems. People carry out the tasks that make up the process. Information plays a key role in the product development process. It is used and communicated throughout the process. Information is used by people and tasks. Information flows through the process. Computer systems support the tasks and information flows in the process. Engineers are trained in the techniques and practices that correspond to tasks in the process.
Any changes to the process are likely to affect the other components of the engineering environment. For example, if some tasks are to be removed and others carried out in parallel, some people may lose their jobs and others may have to learn new skills. Many tasks in the process exist to produce information that will define the product and the manufacturing and support activities. Many tasks involve creating, accessing, using, recalling and modifying information. Changes to the process and to tasks will lead to changes in the use of information. Information flows will change and computer systems may have to be replaced. The effect of process change on the other components means that it has to be carried out with great care.
Processes that are not properly defined and organized, but are the result of past activities and uncoordinated improvements, may, by chance, be effective. It is more likely that they will not be. With fast-changing products, systems, and practices, it's unlikely that a process that has grown without being planned is going to be the most effective. It's unlikely that it's going to be the quickest, cheapest and highest quality way of combining the necessary tasks to meet the development objective.
A company should aim for use of the best process. Unless the overall process has been analyzed in detail it's unlikely to be the best. More likely it's going to be uncompetitive. It's going to be lengthy, costly, error-ridden, and full of non-value-adding, uncoordinated and time-wasting tasks.
To make improvements, the process has to be analyzed and understood in detail. A new, fast, waste-free, low-cost process has to be defined and then implemented. Probably many existing tasks will have to be removed, some new ones added, and the overall organization of the process will change significantly.