The key word here is ‘connecting’. If we don’t connect the whole process then we risk having to repeat steps, or worse still, missing key steps completely. Every part of an agile manufacturing strategy contributes to the success of any product lifecycle. We know it all starts with that lightbulb moment, that eureka in the bath, that sketch on the back of a napkin at a restaurant; but how does it reach the final consumer as a robust, volume produced product that serves the market and makes money for the innovator?
There are a whole lot of steps from ideation to fruition, from research to realization, but let’s focus here on that grey area between prototype and mass production. The area of low volume build, one of the most underestimated areas in terms of importance.
Clearly everything needs to be connected and when it isn’t, risk factors multiply very quickly. Passing ideas, designs, and manufacturing data from place to place can be like playing the telephone game. Things can go very wrong because of simple errors in data. What’s more, passing all of this data from person to person can be a slow process, as each party evaluates the data to ensure they get the best from their own systems and processes. Slow is not what is needed in new product introduction. Fast is the order of the day if you don’t want to risk losing your first-to-market advantage, or disappointing your crowdfunding customers.
The connection between each part of the process is the digital thread, a thread of data that connects every element with data that can be utilized up and down the value chain as well as throughout the supply chain. Digitization is disrupting every industry with design and manufacturing being no different. In fact, the whole process of bringing an idea to market is impacted by the digital revolution. Smarter design techniques that use Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are playing an increasingly important role. Additive Manufacturing (AM), and automation/robotics are finding their way into prototyping and manufacturing. And Smart Factory, or Industry 4.0 solutions, are bringing terms like digital twin into the everyday vocabulary of production engineers, all contributing to a more agile manufacturing ecosystem that provides the flexibility brands need.
As the process of bringing a product to market accelerates, so do we find cracks appearing in the old model of using one company to ideate and design, another to prototype and manufacture the first few batches, and a third to take the product to economic volume. The connection is no longer sufficiently robust or agile to deal with the complexity of the products or of the sophistication and demands of the consumer. What is needed is a low volume build solution that lives seamlessly between the design and volume manufacturing.
Low volume build should be connected seamlessly via the digital thread with every part of the product lifecycle. Once that eureka moment is taken from the paper napkin to the design company, it needs to be seamlessly connecting with development, prototyping, low volume build, supply chain, and mass production. All of these elements are part of a complex ecosystem that thrives on data and exists to benefit the final product. Every element is codependent. Designers must understand the impact of device selection on the supply chain, of material selection on the manufacturing process, of styling on the final packaging, and a whole lot more.
Beyond the connection of data, and equally important, is the connection of people. As well as many moving parts, this ecosystem is full of people and they need to be able to communicate with each other and share their domain expertise quickly and easily, looking back and forth through different iterations, sharing ideas to create the perfect solution. Having optics engineers, RF designers, additive manufacturing experts, automation gurus, packaging innovators, all working together is a powerful tool to ensure that the consumer gets the right solution.
All of this needs to occur concurrently. If we look at ideation, design, prototype, low volume build, and mass production as independent steps we are doing our idea and our consumers a disservice. A concurrent approach ensures that mass production and the supply chain are ready to ramp when needed and that none of the earlier steps get in the way of a smooth and successful product launch and high volume market adoption. A great idea, no matter how well marketed, can fail if the product lifecycle is not well managed and the manufacturing process is not sufficiently agile.
Yes, a great idea and product design is essential. And yes, the right volume production solution will deliver that to your eager user. But never underestimate the value of exceptional low volume build, connecting every part of the product lifecycle with a strong digital thread.