Here's my two cents on product design: It's not a standalone function, but rather an integral part of a product-centric approach to the four major phases of a product's lifecycle, which include create, build, support/sustain, and dispose.
This product-centric approach is embodied in the concept of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), and, in my view, is a critical discipline for engineers to embrace if they want to keep their jobs. As defined in my seminal book, Product Lifecycle Management: Driving the Next Generation of Lean Thinking
(McGraw-Hill, 2006), and slightly modified in my next, soon-to-be released book, Virtually Perfect
), PLM is:
An integrated information-driven approach comprised of people, processes/practices, and technology to all aspects of the product life to also aspects of the product life and its environment, from its design to manufacture, deployment and maintenance -- culminating in products removal from service and final disposal.
To put it in less academic terms, my premise is that we need to move from a siloed, functional perspective, where designers and engineers create a product design and throw it over the wall to manufacturing, which then tries to figure out how to build it. Manufacturing then tosses it over the wall to the product user. The product user has to hope that the product will actually perform the functions that he or she needs, and the product user has to sustain the product in a functional state throughout its life. While this siloed, fragmented approach has produced products with the required functionality, in today’s resource-constrained environment, this approach is too inefficient, too costly, and far too time-consuming.
My premise behind PLM is that by taking a product-centric, information-driven approach to the product lifecycle, we can produce better and more innovative products using fewer resources in less time. My ideal perspective of PLM is that we can virtually design the product, simulate its manufacture, and simulate and analyze the product's performance in the environment in which it is to operate. It is only when we work out all the issues virtually in product design, engineering, manufacturing, and performance and sustainment that then we go and build the physical version of the product. Granted, this is the ideal state, but we have been making amazing progress toward this ideal over the last decade.
The PLM approach generally resonates well. However, there is the occasional skeptic. A few years back, I addressed the senior leadership group of a major organization. After I finished my presentation on PLM, a hand shot up from the audience and a senior engineer said, “Dr. Grieves, I hear what you’re saying, but I’m the kind of person who feels more comfortable with blueprints. I need to go out and build prototypes so that I can see what my designs are going to do. I also really don’t have time to deal with the manufacturing guys. Manufacturing my designs is really their problem.”
My response: “Clearly, we have successfully created products that way in the past. However, there are going to be other senior engineers who are going to design products as good if not better using models, simulate the product’s performance, and work with manufacturing to simulate its production. Their products will be created with less resources, take less time to bring to market, be more efficient to manufacture, and be easier to support.”
“Guess which one of you will have a job?”