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issue: April 2008 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Line
Embracing Agility

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Tim Somheil, Editor

Can OEMs accelerate time to market using software development strategies?

Tim Somheil, Editor

In this issue of APPLIANCE magazine we report on the new products coming out of the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and look at some of the fresh technologies that will almost certainly translate into marketable products by CES next year.

The CE industry is synonymous with rapid product development, even to the extent it can turn off its customers. It has continued to leverage its microprocessor-driven technology to launch new products so rapidly that some customers are reluctant to make a purchase. Why buy a gizmo today when it will be obsolete in six months?

Still, 80% of people in the United States buy a consumer technology device each year. As Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) lead economist Shawn G. DuBravac, CFA, writes in the recent CEA publication, 5 Technology Trends To Watch, this strong trend spells continued success for the industry—but not necessarily for the companies in the industry if they don’t see where the business is headed.

Quick product development capability has always been key to success in consumer products, and particularly in a technology-driven sector like consumer electronics. Beating a competitor to market with features consumers love can result in market dominance, for at least as long as it takes for competitors to come out with a matching product. In the past, that could take years.

In his article, The Business Of Consumer Technologies, DuBravac points out that this long-term product development cycle has become a luxury that most consumer technology OEMs can no longer afford. “The marketplace is becoming more agile, and changes increasingly are unannounced,” he points out.

DuBravac points to the product development approach of Preston G. Smith. Smith, with a PhD in engineering from Stanford University, was well known as the coauthor of Developing Products in Half the Time in the early 1990s. His new book is Flexible Product Development: Building Agility for Changing Markets. Smith writes, “We used to measure time from when you began a project, but in an environment of change, the starting time that really matters is the time from when you can make the last change in the design, and flexibility shortens this cycle time.”

DuBravac sees producers creating more flexibility in their product development by adopting agile software development strategies. One of the key development points, according to the “Principles of Agile Software” from agilemanifesto.org, is to “Welcome changing requirements, even late in development.”

Accepting change, embracing change, welcoming change late in the development of software sounds unlikely enough; implementing such a culture in a consumer product development process sounds improbable. Change makes people nervous, not cheerful—particularly when you’re talking about changing products that have been engineered and design-tested.

Smith describes the use of tools and a process that allow change to happen, when used in an “innovative domain where change is the norm.”

These tools include technology solutions, and DuBravac’s examples include using 3-D model printers that can easily and inexpensively
create a prototype of the form factor; allowing easy functionality changes by using software instead of hardwired logic; and using the same electronics throughout product families.

“Increased flexibility in the production cycle will allow companies to deliver popular features into the market more quickly,” DuBravac says. “But this also means new and innovative features will be commoditized faster than ever before.”

In fact, a new CEA survey of executives from consumer technology companies says 94% of new features or products are being duplicated on the market in less than one year; 65% in half that time.

The adoption time of consumer technology products is accelerating as well. New technology is spending less time with early adopters before moving into the mass market. DuBravac sees this coming largely from technology firms in developing countries, where the producers are turning more to their increasingly viable home markets. They must do so at prices these consumers can pay, motivating these OEMs to put in large-scale manufacturing. This means the products are available earlier in mass-market quantities for all markets. “Second,” DuBravac says, “it provides a price point and profit structure appealing to mass-market merchants in the developed world.”

While still focused on software development, agilemanifesto.org has more good points that are relevant to agile consumer product development as well. My favorite: “Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.”

This approach also addresses the tendency to create a product development environment that is high intensity, and destined for burnout. “Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.”

One has to wonder how effectively these processes can actually work for products with more-mature designs, such as traditional home appliances. However, even white goods are among the long list of consumer products now driven by microprocessor technology. This industry may see more features adopted quickly and commoditized early.


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