Thursday, March 1, 2007

Systems engineering helps Whirlpool increase customer loyalty

By Timothy Aykroyd, systems engineer at Whirlpool Corporation and first-year SDM student

Developing new products requires a heavy investment of both time and money. At Whirlpool Corporation, systems engineering helps assure the best return on this investment by opening up new ways for the company to achieve a major competitive advantage—customer loyalty.

Systems engineering enables product developers to view a seemingly standalone appliance as part of an entire home system; they therefore design attributes that make each unit function in an expanded role as part of the whole. With a systems engineering approach, the architecture of this larger system becomes the central focus for understanding overall functionality, connectivity, interface definition and requirements of the subsystems, also known as appliances. This opens up vast global opportunities—and helps differentiate Whirlpool from its competitors.

Prototype testing in this environment has benefited Whirlpool in two ways. First, customers who tested prototypes within a home system discovered unexpected ways to tap overall system functionality. In addition, feedback from these "inventive users," as we call them, helps the company to develop a lasting bond with its customers, since people appreciate having direct input into the development of the products they use.

Whirlpool is also using systems engineering to devise methodologies to understand the genesis of the ideas that emerged through prototype testing so that we can incorporate them into our product development cycles. These findings could bring our company a fundamental competitive advantage in our design process. The better we understand our customers’ motivations, the better we can design the linkages among our products.

New opportunities bring new challenges, in this case tying a new feature or product to the overall Whirlpool brand. Systems engineering helps unlock a product’s performance potential while optimizing benefits and incorporating the flexibility to design for multiple product lines. Delivering a flexible system for implementing future technologies prevents legacy customers, critical to the continued growth of any business, from getting blindsided by a dramatic switch in technology (as happened in the computer industry). Properly constructed systems allow for a technology evolution that will keep Whirlpool innovative, while maintaining and hopefully increasing its customer base.

Whirlpool’s future embraces a systems engineering–based approach because solid engineering must be combined with a holistic understanding of the full range of "systems within the system." Building on its history of innovation and success and grounded in systems engineering, Whirlpool is creating innovative products that will remain the industry benchmark, help it maintain and strengthen its global lead, and increase customer loyalty over the short and long term.

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