Make Your Case – Why a Business Case is a Critical Component for Transforming an Idea into a Successful Product
Co-Founder, Berlin KraftWorks Inc.
There’s nothing more exciting than that aha moment – when the light bulb goes off for a great new product. It’s very tempting to dive in right away and start building. But it’s all too easy to get carried away creating, and forget to consider what a new product must do to be successful.
At the end of the day, a product is going to have to be sellable, someone is going to have to want to buy it. It will also have to make the company a profit and it cannot expose the company to any undue risks. That sounds simple enough, but there’s a lot there to consider and it can drastically affect how a product is designed and built.
That first inspiration needs to be weighed against a few very important business decisions to understand if the product is viable, and if so, what are the conditions it will have to meet to be successful. Initially, those decisions will likely be based around market size, time to market and a predicted sales price (potential profit). Those 3 basic criteria are already more than enough to shape the conceptual design.
Building a business case to define the expectations for a new product helps to direct the development and avoid costly unusable labour and purchases. It also lets everyone in the company understand what the goals are for the new concept. A new product that doesn’t meet the business goals is not going to be successful.
The new product idea may come from anyone in the company. It may be from sales filling a customer need, engineering implementing some new tech, or really anyone in the company. A good idea can come from anywhere, but it’s very likely that no one person will fully understand everything that goes into making a successful product. The more input you get from throughout your company will allow you to build a more comprehensive business case.
Typically, when you start to look at the new concept with respect to selling, the idea will change. External input may prove some ideas incorrect or point out missing features. Looking at the end sales volumes and pricing may dictate the eventual manufacturing methods and change the materials, interface, feature set etc. That doesn’t mean the idea wasn’t a good one to start with, it’s just going to help that idea be successful.
As the product ideas are developed, the business case will be refined as well. Like every other design document, it will be a living document. There will be more detail around use cases, regional differences, shipping, manufacturing, industrial design, etc. that affect the company goals for the product.
Take the time to build a business case for every new product idea. They don’t need to be complicated, start with the basics. With a business case in hand, you can begin to develop the new idea in a direction that has much a higher chance of success.
Peter Heuss, P. Eng.
Co-Founder, Berlin KraftWorks Inc.
To be successful and profitable (to meet the needs of the business) every product is a collaboration of multiple groups. As an engineer, in the past I’ve been as guilty as most at jumping into a new design assuming I understand all the requirements. After all, I’m smart, I can design it. But then later I’ve had to rework designs because I’ve missed a critical feature, misunderstood a requirement, picked a component that wasn’t supportable, etc.
I believe that one of the most important elements of a successful product is typically ignored or overlooked. Good design cannot happen if the designers don’t understand everything the product must deliver, how it must deliver it, how it affects other groups, the target cost, and timelines. But the design isn’t the only critical element in bringing a product to market. Parts must be sourced, purchased and delivered, other parts need to be fabricated, then assembled, tested, packaged, stored, delivered to the customer, and often serviced. Everyone involved, in all of those steps needs to understand what the intent is, what the limits are, and what to do if something doesn’t meet those intents.
The design specification is the one document that should capture all of that information.
If you Google product specification you will find lots of examples discussing a product design specification (PDS) or product requirements document (PRD) as it applies to a software product. These same documents are even more important for a multi-disciplinary product. There are more teams involved in the successful implementation; hence more need for clear and thorough sharing of all the requirements.
I have always combined the PDS and PRD, but regardless if there’s one document or many, they should be referenced and organized in one place where all the required information can be clearly documented and accessed.
The product spec starts with the business case. After all, we’re trying to make something someone wants to buy and we want to sell it at a profit so that the company can continue and grow. The business case should outline what functions the product must have, who it will be sold to, where it will be sold, in what volumes, and at what cost.
Obviously, if one document is going to include everything required by all parties, it can’t be created and completed day one. It will continue to evolve as the details are developed. Industrial design will take marketing data and develop form and function, engineering will take the functional requirements and the industrial design and develop the detailed designs, supply chain will work with engineering to source materials and help plan production, manufacturing will take the designs and bills of material and plan assembly etc.
A typical comment is that there’s not enough time to write a spec or that we already know what we want and there’s no need for a spec. At a recent manufacturing peer to peer group meeting we were discussing a design specification for a relatively simple automotive part. The spec had multiple revisions and had grown to approximately 60 pages. Someone in the group piped up and said every one of those revisions was a lesson learned.
A thorough specification that is used, maintained and reviewed by all stakeholders will help plan more efficiently, avoid problems, achieve business objectives, and almost always reduce the overall time and cost of product development.
In future blogs I will explore how to use the design spec to plan efficient and effective conceptual and detailed design, custom part fabrication, assembly, testing and quality control.
An important hint – knowing how the spec will be used will make writing one much simpler and quicker.