Sponsored By
Bill Tobin

July 15, 2016

9 Min Read
Reducing time to market is really simple

Products are made to solve a problem or create a new application. Somebody toddles in and starts off with, "I have this idea . . . ." The problem is they usually have a drawing. Sometimes they even have a description. Actually bringing that idea to market is a team process. This means everyone starts off in the same direction. When you don't do that early on, there will be a mountain of changes before you get a viable product. 

Image courtesy Kromkrathog/

So, you fire up your CAD system and spend a few days designing. You might even dump it into your 3D printer to have something for your show-and-tell presentation. When you finish your presentation, the marketing guys or the folks with the original idea give you the dreaded kiss of death: "Well, that's not really what we had in mind." You've just tossed a few thousand dollars into the trash. Back to your computer. You come up with a second generation. "Pretty good," they say, "but . . ." and then you get showered with “enhancements,” “options” and the like. By the third time, you find out that they have already established a market introduction date and pre-sold huge orders to the big-box stores, and you still don't have a design. Somebody read the study that said doubling the cost of R&D (design-tooling-qualification) and bringing the product to market on time erodes the lifetime profits by only a small fraction when compared to delivering to the market late; therefore, a flood of running engineering changes in the middle of the tooling program and paying expedited premiums during construction is completely acceptable. Marketing and upper management don't care if the tooling guys and production are getting twitchy, hoping not to endure another “whatever-it-takes” project again like the last half dozen. 

So, what are the problems

Logic: Somebody didn't ask the right questions in the first place.  

Technology: If you're an injection molding house, you'll design it for injection molding even if a better application might exist in a different technology. Maybe you could rotocast it cheaper, but that would mean a subcontract. 

Consequences: Decades ago there was an obscure paper that looked at the true cost of engineering changes. It stated if a project went from design to tooling to production with “minimal” changes, the project's length would be 30% shorter and, in many cases, would cost 50% less before actual production began. It also found that more than 60% of engineering changes were corrections back to “best practice standards” you could read in any product design manual having to do with filling characteristics, draft, boss sizes, sharp corners and so forth. Wow! But because R&D is really a small fraction of the lifetime cost of a product, very few people care about the time and expense to "get-'r-done" once your company has committed to it. What they've missed is they've thrown money away that could be invested in other profitable projects! 

What is the solution

While the human mind can think in concepts, we'd rather do things visually first and worry about the practical concepts later. In simple terms, this means the minute you draw something on a bar napkin, you have committed to a physical shape and shortly thereafter committed to a technology to manufacture it. Rhetorical question: Why are cell phones rectangular? Think about it. 

The solution (dare we even think it?) to fast time-to-market products with minimal changes is to turn off your CAD system and turn on your word processor:. 

Start with the first of two meetings that will usually take all day. Get everyone involved in a room with the following rules: 

  • No stand-ins or representatives. If you're not there, you don't get a say in the matter. Ever.

  • Paper and pen only, or the electronic counterpart.

  • You can't name the product. If I tell you something is a hammer, you'll start thinking in a very narrow mode. But if we describe it as a “manually operated, inertial transfer device,” you're no longer limited to thinking hammer.

  • No drawings or sketches. You can only do this in words. You can't even say that “it looks like a hammer” as you write out your answers.

  • Have all the participants write out the answers to the questions below individually. Then have a lively discussion until you all agree on a common answer to each of these questions.  

1. What does it do? This is more important than asking, "What is it?" Usually this will end up with all the options, enhancements and improvements brought out before you design anything. In many cases, you discover it should be a family of products. 

2. How long will it live? Some products have an expectation of infinite life, such as the steering wheel on your car or a Rolex watch. Cell phones are more than capable of lasting for decades, but the people who manufacture them know that you'll upgrade well before they wear out. Most medical devices are designed for one-time use. But even the lowly single-use hypodermic syringe is required to accurately deliver its dosages without fail for dozens of uses. Now is the time to discuss what your customers might do with the product that it was not designed for. Do you only use a screwdriver to insert or remove screws? Really? 

3. Where does it live? When choosing a material for a product, a friend of mine used the "Why not Nylon?" approach. If nothing else, it forces you into thinking about the heat, chemical and mechanical environment, the dimensional and cosmetic requirements and how durable it needs to be throughout its life cycle. 

4. Is it sexy? Most products are purchased on looks first and function second. Designers tend to specify “no visible manufacturing defects” as a catch-all or “a high-polished shiny” surface. SPI: The plastics industry trade association has published cosmetic specifications for molded parts, and nowhere in the specifications does it require a magnifying glass, a high-intensity light source or an inspection time longer than a few seconds with the practiced eye of an inspector. It is always from the customer's point of view. This is also the time to pick your manufacturing technology: Injection molding, blowmolding, rotational casting all have advantages and disadvantages. Be open to all of them before you commit to one. Example: How long do you look at a toothpaste tube before you buy it? If your toothpaste is in a box, how picky do you need to be about the product itself? 

5. What's a good part? All too often the designer specifies his tolerances for plastic parts with whatever the stack tolerances leave him, because he doesn't know plastic tolerances. Only because some manager read an article, they add in CpKs, control charts and so forth and in many cases make a “parts to print/zero defect” mentality impossible to achieve. Close tolerances might make beautiful designs on your computer, but they are a nightmare for manufacturing. 

Alexander Kalashnikov was the designer of the iconic AK-47 rifle. His genius in design was loose tolerances, allowing his rifle to always function in any environment with or without periodic maintenance. It could be buried in the frozen tundra for months, dug up, rinsed out in a stream and shaken dry and it would work flawlessly at the first pull of the trigger. His design hasn't been fundamentally improved upon in 80 years. How many other products can say that? 

Fact #1: Good parts accomplish what they were designed for and as many other secondary uses as can be reasonably anticipated. 

Fact #2: Very few parts are truly parts to print. Designers and engineers rarely try to evaluate all the different conditions that affect dimensions and revise the design to reflect the widest possible tolerances that will work. Why? This is the last part of the D in R&D, and since you're already in production it seems like extra busy work when you should be making new products. 

Fact #3: Good parts are easily repaired, or if the customer perceives that a product has gone beyond its intended life, he or she will replace it with another one. For example, if your 50,000-mile tires have lasted 75,000 miles, you generally won't demand a warranty replacement. 

Fact #4: Meeting your own specifications becomes a major disaster you bring on yourself by stating them in your ISO, PPAP or FDA certifications: You swore you would produce parts to specification. Do you? Really? 

Fact #5: Who regulates it? Once something has been certified by FDA, UL or even your customer, you're stuck with it. Engineering revisions post-certification require a mountain of explaining. If you've accomplished steps one through five before drawing a single line, your designs will start out robust and not be made robust as an afterthought. Think about the air-bag inflator disaster currently plaguing the automotive industry. 

Fact #6: What's it worth? In order to stay in business, we have to make a profit. Marketing will usually tell you the anticipated retail price. Subtract your expected profit and what's left is the maximum cost of dropping a master-packed carton on your customer's freight dock. This will seriously affect your tooling budget, technology choice, material choice, anticipated yield rate, packaging costs and part weight decisions. Many products die at this stage. They are a good idea but not profitable. 

Here's where you seriously need to question (or even change your policy) on how you pay your marketing people. Everything is based on volume. Why do the suits in sales and marketing get paid six-figure salaries for making sales estimates (guesses) and not be held accountable when sales don't properly line up with projections? A few companies have solved this problem: The suits get paid a small base salary, but they get huge bonuses based on how accurate their estimates are. There are horror stories everywhere of over-tooling, when the market didn't meet the projections, as well as under-tooling, when you watch your me-too competitors eat profits you should have had because you couldn't deliver! 

Set up a second meeting a week after the first. In the meantime, you'll note a lot of water-cooler discussions still refining the original definitions. At the second meeting, having e-mailed out a copy of your semifinal product definition ahead of time to all participants, you can now ask, What does it look like? This is the time for sketches and giving it a name. The design is frozen because more than 90% of the engineering changes are already incorporated before a single line was drawn. 

By following this technique you'll be surprised how smoothly the project goes through the design, tooling and production phases. You might even hear whispers that the project came in faster than expected and below budget! 

While careers are made and lost by the folks who declare themselves “crisis killers,” bringing a product to market with a minimum of crisis behaviors is very profitable and a lot more fun. 

Your choice. 

Bill Tobin is a consultant and owner of WJT Associates. He has authored several books and articles and teaches courses on plastics processing. Books, additional articles and the current public training seminar schedule are available at www.wjtassociates.com, or contact the author directly at [email protected]

Sign up for the PlasticsToday NewsFeed newsletter.

You May Also Like