Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Product design and development at SDM - SDM Pulse, Spring 2007

By Sorin Grama, SDM ’07
Sorin Grama

I was attracted to MIT’s SDM program because its curriculum focuses on product design and systems engineering. One course that features prominently in this curriculum is Product Design and Development (PDD), ESD-40, which I enrolled in because I was eager to augment the knowledge I had acquired during my 13-year professional career as a project manager and consultant in the test and measurement industry.

While I expected a theoretical approach to product design, I was pleasantly surprised by the additional focus on practical applications. The PDD class was one of the most fun classes I took at MIT because we not only learned how to structure a product design process, but we also executed it by designing and building a new product of our own choosing.

That’s right! During this course, students come up with a product idea and then, throughout the rest of the semester, work together to turn their ideas into reality.

The semester begins with an introduction to several successful products that have come out of this class, including ones that have been commercialized. Among them are the new and improved paint-pouring can, the ultra-quiet bird-watching tripod and the sugar dispenser that dispenses the right amount of sugar into your coffee every time. We then got to work on our own projects by first forming teams of four to five people, then brainstorming product ideas that we felt were relevant to our team members’ knowledge and expertise. Each team received a $1,000 budget to reach its goal: a working prototype.

We conducted user surveys, prioritized the customer needs and translated them into product features. Concurrently, the class lectures introduced concepts that could be immediately applied to our projects, such as demographic survey methods, Pugh concept selection and industrial design.

We used the classic textbook by Professors Karl Ulrich and Stephen Eppinger, Product Design and Development, the bible of product design and development at MIT. Classes were a mix of traditional lectures and guest lecture presentations from industry experts. Last year, Design Continuum, a product design firm in Boston, provided an excellent introduction to customer survey methodologies, and Professor Michael Cusumano from MIT’s Sloan School of Management introduced us to the secrets of software product development at Microsoft.

The course also includes lectures on intellectual property rights, business planning and project financing, and, of course, many hours of good old-fashioned elbow grease trying to get the prototype ready for the final presentation. Instructors, TAs and invited guests review and grade the project from engineering, business and academic perspectives.

I enjoyed the class very much because it was much more than just an engineering course. I enjoyed the teamwork, especially learning how to navigate the team dynamics through moments of despair (when we realized that our drawings would take much longer to finish) followed by moments of joy (when our prototype worked for the first time). Overall, we had a lot of fun in this class and we learned a great deal in the process.

I enjoyed the class so much that I’m taking it again. I am a teaching assistant in the class for the spring 2007 term, along with one of my SDM colleagues. I am looking forward to seeing what the new SDM cohort devises. Maybe one idea will make it big, and I’ll be able to say I helped them with it!

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