Monday, June 7, 2010

PDD team sharpens skills designing chef’s tool - SDM Pulse Summer 2010

By Hank Roark, SDM ’10

Hank Roark, SDM ’10, demonstrates the chef’s
tool he and his team created in SDM’s course in
product design and development.
I was attracted to MIT’s System Design and Management Program (SDM) because of its focus on product design, systems engineering, and entrepreneurship. To augment my professional experience in software and new product development, I enrolled in Product Design and Development this past spring.

The course centers on a semester-long project in which small teams identify potential markets, select a target market, identify user needs, and design a product that satisfies those needs. The class has both a strong emphasis on the practical application of market research methods and systems engineering. Furthermore, each student works in a small team with others whose experiences run the gamut, mirroring a commercial environment.

The goal of the course is to build a business case and prototype product within a set budget and time frame. The course concludes with team presentations to a panel of judges. Each team’s work is judged for understanding of the user needs and the market opportunity, the product concept, the quality of the prototype, viability of the business case, and quality of the final presentation.

My team (Candice Johnson, SDM ’09, Michael Schlichtman, SDM ’09, Jared Bernstrom, SDM ’09, Yujie Zhang, SDM ’09, and I) considered three markets, including health conscious but sedentary professionals and avid bike riders, before settling on the needs of the home cook. This first step was challenging in that it required five people with different interests and experiences to decide on a target market. We used several market research methods taught in class to help us make this decision. These research methods included interviewing potential users from each potential market segment, observing them using existing products, interviewing lead users, and quantifying the potential market size. The home cook won out as the market size was appealing and there were clearly articulated needs that interested the team.

Our next step was to conduct additional user research to define the needs of these users. This included additional interviews and additional observations of users while cooking. From there we had to select the top needs we were going to address. Because almost everyone on our team works in electrical engineering or software development, we intentionally looked for needs that could be addressed without electronics or computers. The safe environment of the classroom allowed us to experiment and to build skills and knowledge in areas with which we were unfamiliar.

After selecting the top needs we looked at the competitive landscape, researched existing intellectual property, preformed various exercises to develop concepts, and developed the product attributes that would meet the user needs. Along the way we did various user surveys and interviews to guide our development.

In the end we developed a product that would make it easier for users to cut items with a kitchen knife when two-handed knife operation is required. It was important to users that the product was easy to clean and store, suitable for the dishwasher, safe and comfortable to operate, and did not damage knives. Each of these criteria required design trade-offs that led to the development of multiple concepts.

To aid in determining the ultimate design we developed various prototypes that allowed us to test both the look and function of the product. Some of the prototypes were "looks like" prototypes (made from Play-Doh, in our case) and some were "works like" prototypes (in our case, made from scraps of lumber and plastics). These quick iterations proved valuable as we honed the functional interface of our product. We were also able to use these prototypes as a way to get feedback from potential users and the faculty as we progressed toward a final prototype.

Our team benefited from a wide range of experiences and backgrounds. Geographically dispersed across the United States, our team was well-placed to consider regional differences in our product design. Also, as a team we were able to leverage the skills each team member brought to the table, including experience in business case development, materials and plastics, manufacturing engineering, marketing, website development, modern computer-aided engineering and 3D modeling, and prototype development. I personally learned about injection molding, computer-aided engineering, and the material properties of plastics. Further, I honed skills in how to leverage other team members’ strengths on the project.

The course also included lectures on industrial design, sustainability, manufacturability, sourcing strategies, venture capital, entrepreneurship, and large-scale product development. The class is also augmented with Product Design and Development by Ulrich and Eppinger and outside readings.

This year, to extend the cross-disciplinary theme, the Product Design and Development class teams were paired up with others in Real-Options in Systems Design and Management. This pairing helped us deal with uncertainties both related to the product and to the business case. For example, we had decided to use a contract manufacturer in the business plan for our product. The real-options teams developed plans that would enable us to best develop the contract based on expected uncertainties in product demand. This helped improve our overall business case and decreased the potential financial downsides of introducing the product to the market. For both teams this proved a safe environment and exercise in how to consult and how to accept consulting.

I enjoyed the class: it brought me an integrated view of the multiple disciplines required for product design and development, presented a healthy environment for experimentation, and developed a renewed interested in entrepreneurship.

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