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Concept Design: Successfully Sourcing and Generating Ideas

Essential Product Development for Engineers

 

The Concept Design stage encompasses a number of phases. These include generating ideas, and then screening them to identify the best ones. Following this, the remaining ideas may be developed and tested. Below we’ll take a look in more detail at these steps.


Generating Ideas

A fundamental stage in product development is concept generation – the ability to come up with new ideas for products. Typically, a business will create a range of ideas and options, before selecting the best one, which is then taken forward and developed. Ideas are normally evaluated and the top one selected against the specification. They are rated by reviewing which idea best meets the specification criteria. Idea generation may also involve identifying a range of advantageous new features, functions or assemblies, which may then be developed-up to enhance an existing product.

 

Where Do I Get Ideas From?

New product development ideas can come from a wide variety of sources. The key thing is to be aware of these potential situations, as well as having some method of capturing ideas, so they can be reviewed in due course.



Ideas from Inside the Business 

  • Research and development programmes
  • Continuous improvement programmes and idea suggestion schemes
  • New technology and the results of horizon scanning activities
  • Cross-functional teams where employees with different disciplines, from different departments use their expertise to come up with new ideas and improvements. 
  • Employees from the following teams are recommended:

o    designers and engineers of different disciplines

o    production and manufacturing

o    sales and marketing

o    finance and accounting

o    purchasing

o    service and maintenance

o    installation and commissioning

o    middle and senior management



Ideas from Outside the Business

  • Customer problems, complaints and suggestions
  • Customer research, surveys and focus groups
  • Suppliers
  • Distributors and dealerships
  • Competitor products (physical, literature and online research)
  • Your website, requesting ideas from the user community and stakeholders
  • Industry trends and horizon scanning
  • Ideas from different industry sectors
  • Opportunities through new technology and digital media


Where Do Good Ideas Come From? - Sources of Concepts 



Considerations for Concept Generation

Preparation

Solid preparation can increase your chances of concept generation success. Attempt to fully understand the problem and more fundamentally, what is driving the need for new product development. Ultimately what is the purpose? What are you aiming to achieve and why? SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and PESTLE (political, economic, society, technological, legal and environmental) analysis may help define and clarify the reasons for product development, and so steer concept generation activities.

An example may be the decision to develop an entry-level machine and add it to your existing product range, in response to lower cost overseas entrants in the market. However, in an attempt to offset inherently high labour costs, ideas may include concepts which focus on low cost materials, finishes, standard stock parts and quick production and assembly methods.

In short, smart ideas that best utilise value engineering methods may be favourable. An alternative example may include introducing a high-end product at the top of your product range, which can be sold for a premium into expanding buoyant markets where there is an appetite for more expensive goods.



Brainstorming

  • Consider techniques like brainstorming and brain-writing to list different ideas from a cross-functional team. Use a facilitator to guide and lead the process. They can also stimulate activity if ideas start drying up. A scribe can record ideas or alternatively use post-it notes to rapidly get ideas up on the wall so they are visible to all. After the initial round of new ideas have been exhausted, let employees review and discuss the first round of concepts, with a view to contributing more.



  • Importantly, use a cross-functional team, drawing on a variety of technical backgrounds and job roles related to various parts of the product lifecycle.

  • Do not make judgements, be negative or knock any ideas at this stage from anybody. This is important. All ideas are valid and may help inspire concepts from others.

  • Get participants to come up with ideas as soon as they arrive at the meeting by briefing them in advance, perhaps by email.

  • Obtain ideas from everybody, moving round the table until initial ideas are exhausted.

  • In subsequent rounds let people feed off others’ ideas to come up with new concepts.

  • Initially aim to get as many ideas listed as possible. Some will be more developed than others, but at this stage the emphasis is on quantity, rather than quality.

  • Encourage sketching of ideas as well as written text.

  • Group ideas together when all have been listed.



Advanced Brainstorming for Better Quality Ideas 



TRIZ

Think about using powerful problem solving and creativity tools such as TRIZ. TRIZ – the theory of problem solving highlights how different problems and their respective solutions are repeated across different industries. As such, it is possible to methodically consider a range of solutions to a given problem in a structured manner, and let this drive your concept generation.  

TRIZ Further Explained 



Props for Inspiring and Stimulating Ideas

Consider gathering information and items to inspire concept generation. This may include: 

  • your past products
  • competitor products
  • products from history
  • products or technology from allied industries
  • results of R&D
  • CAD concepts
  • mock-ups
  • prototypes
  • product literature 

Include anything that may inspire.

Use the specification to guide and support the idea generation process. Distribute copies of the specification to all involved, to spark ideas that meet the requirements laid out in the document.

Use the examples above to get over mental blocks, or stalled ‘round robin’ brainstorming sessions



Creative Thinking Tools and Techniques

Investigate and discover other creativity tools to assist concept generation. Examples include, De Bono’s 6 Thinking Hats, synectics and SCAMPER (substitute, combine, adapt, modify/minify/magnify, put to other use, eliminate, reverse/rearrange). A little research into some of the tools can really enhance idea generation activities, in particular by providing structure and breadth.

Concept Design


Next... Idea Screening: Best Fit Against the Specification


Back to Product Development Essentials 


When was the last time your business developed a NEW product? ...Or is 'Product Development' too far removed from your core Production Engineering activities?

Does your firm have a clear product development process, with a number of new products released to date? ...Or alternatively, do you think bread and butter production engineering is really what matters? Tell us about your product development experiences...

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