What problem does this product solve?

The most powerful tool in research and development isn’t a computer or a machine or a tool. It’s the ear. “We talk to customers all the time,” said Alistair Hamilton, vice-president of industrial design for Symbol Technologies. “They are our most reliable source of information.

By Bob Vavra November 1, 2006

The most powerful tool in research and development isn’t a computer or a machine or a tool. It’s the ear.

“We talk to customers all the time,” said Alistair Hamilton, vice-president of industrial design for Symbol Technologies. “They are our most reliable source of information. It’s harder to find a problem than to actually solve it.”

Before new products and solutions show up on the plant floor, they receive all manner of pomp and circumstance. Their arrival is hailed in product demonstrations on trade show floors and breathless press releases to trade magazines. The genesis for these products, though, comes from a more fundamental place.

Research and development leaders in manufacturing agree end users drive the majority of product innovation.

“The best source of ideas is the guy with the screwdriver on the machine,” said Bill Bardsley, product manager for Square D, Palatine, IL. “They know what they want; they just don’t know how to get it to the right people.”

“I have the easy part. I get to hear the voice of the customer, where their industries are taking them. I talk to our engineers to see what ideas they have to take to the customers, asking them, ‘What if this were available?’ ”

The hard part is creating a business case that takes those ideas from creation to fruition. That’s a serious issue for anyone in manufacturing. Developing those ideas is a driving force for manufacturing as a whole.

A recent study released by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and the National Science Foundation found that investment in research and development accounted for 6.5% of gross domestic product growth from 1995 to 2002. “If R&D were included in the GDP as investment instead of as an expense,” the study concluded, “business investment would be $178 billion higher.

“R&D is a prime example of an intangible asset,” the study added. “Such assets contribute to economic growth, but they are difficult to measure.”

Research’s tangible impact may be hard to measure, but the force end users have on the process of R&D is deeply felt by everyone in manufacturing. “I bring back information and share it with the other divisions. We take their input, and we identify the things that come in,” Bardsley said. “We get a lot of requests through the customer service line, and that data gets captured.

“We’ll literally bring it in pieces at a time. We write on the white boards all the time, ‘What problem does it solve? Which market segment, which customers?’ ” he added. “We can develop the most unique product, but if the customer doesn’t perceive a problem, it doesn’t do any good. So then we say, ‘Let’s go find out.’ That’s where I get to knock on a lot of doors.”

“Our research teams go deep with our customers. At that point, we’re not talking about business problems; we’re talking about user problems,” Hamilton said. “The ones who work closely with us know we will work closely with them. They know that being proactive shapes their business more than just waiting for whatever comes along.”

“At Invensys, our R&D combines a very good mix of ‘Gee, I wish I could do this for our customers’ and ‘Eureka, I’ve just discovered something’,” said Dave Shepard, vice president of product marketing for Foxboro, MA-based Invensys. “We use a continual market input process that collects inputs from our sales channel and customer base on a daily basis. We have what we call a ‘docketing priority’ process where we collect input from internal contributors in product marketing, development, or the field. We than periodically go through a prioritization process where the key constituents within the business get a chance to vote on what they feel are the most critical new features or products that should be considered.”

Both the business and product side get equal time in this process, Shepard said. “This prioritization is done with a view toward ROI — how much will it cost in time and money and what is the estimate on revenue generation?” he said. “On the other side of the equation, we very much encourage our development team and other technical staff members to push the envelope on what technology can offer our customers.”

Shaping products

“The new PowerPact electronic MCPs provide the optimum solution for motor-branch short-circuit protection,” said Leland Walker, Square D product specialist. “The unique design simplifies both product selection and necessary adjustments to ensure the MCP is set to the correct in-rush characteristics of the motor in compliance with National Electrical Code requirements.”

What seems at first blush to be the beginning of a product’s life — the press release — is really the middle of a long lifecycle that began on someone’s computer screen or workbench. PowerPact is just one example of such a process.

Formally announced in October 2006, it began as an idea 18 months earlier. It survived all of the internal business examinations from Schneider Electric, Square D’s parent company. It also made it through all the beta testing and revisions common to such product launches. It had to be engineered, manufactured and developed over time, testing both the practical functionality and the business logic of such a device.

“None of the projects are just engineering projects; they require industrialization. Purchasing people need to be involved from a supplier perspective,” said Aaron Underwood, senior engineering manager of Square D. “We work with product managers and find out the idea is not developed nearly well enough. We’re a global organization. We need to make sure all segments of the business are on board.

“The key thing to understand is the scope of what we’re trying to accomplish. We bring a cross-functional team together and we build estimates of what it would take to do the projects. There is a competition for resources — people, skills, funding,” said Underwood. “We continue to hone the opportunity, finding out what needs to