One of the most exciting steps in the product development process is concept development. Like all phases of product design, we follow a process that has proven successful in our organization. This process includes creation of a design history file, review of the product specification, generating, evaluating, and presenting the concepts as well as preparing for the next development steps.
- Review the Product Development Specification
The first step is to review the product development specification that was created in the product definition, or first phase. The reason for this is to ground the team in what needs to be generated and any nuances that need to be addressed. If no product development specification exists, the team can create one at this point to give proper definition ensuring the concept generation effort is pointed at the right target. If you are unfamiliar with what a product development specification is and its significance in the design process, check out the top 5 things you need to know about phase 1 design & development.
- Create a Design History File
If not already created in Phase 1, a Design History File is created at this time and becomes the most important file for the entire project. Eventually it will show how the design moved from a white sheet of paper, the the new product introduction area, and to a fully validated manufactured product. In this early stage it simply records what ideas were generated, how they were evaluated, and what risk mitigation was applied to ensure a robust design. Eventually, it will house everything from complicated CAD design models and risk analyses, to weekly meeting notes and quality documentation.
- Begin Generating Concepts
The actual generation of concepts is done utilizing several methods. The order in which these methods are used may change throughout the project as concept development is a fluid process. Here we present the three most common methods we use.
Brainstorming is a process where multiple people are brought together in a free and open meeting to generate ideas. Typically, the project leader sets the meeting and describes the goal of the concept generation and defines the context. For example, a brainstorming meeting could generate a few ideas in deeper detail versus creating a high number of very different ideas. Generally, the idea is to create a large volume of ideas at this stage, as some ideas do not make the cut during the assessment stage.
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There are two keys to a good brainstorming. The first is to think about the problem broadly. As an example, the goal of a drug delivery device is to inject a drug through the skin. In the brainstorming meeting we intentionally left the object broader and stated the goal as “to move liquid from a reservoir through a membrane” (the skin). How else can that be done? This lead to many more ideas than just a hypodermic needle.
The second key to a good brainstorming is that it brings together experience from many perspectives. In our offices we have experience from almost all engineering areas including: molding, industrial design, architecture, automotive, materials, mechanical, electronics, aerospace, mining, high speed automation, power generation, and toy design. Generally, the outcome of these sessions are very rough sketches that act as graphic meeting notes. If you are new to brainstorming, don't forget to read up on the 4 common brainstorming pitfalls you should avoid.
Research is another method for generating concepts. How have others solved this or similar challenges? The typical places to investigate are patents, competitors, or look for solutions in nature or other industries. For example, if we need a rotary drive coupling that was sealed to liquids in a handheld medical device, in researching a magnetic coupling used in oil well drilling technology we may discover a coupling that solved the same problem we had, albeit at a much larger scale. The insight of a magnetic coupling even at such a large scale leads us to a solution that was not being considered. Learn more about patents and how to research them in our beginner's guide to patents.
Benchmarking is a process where we look more directly at competitors and we ask ourselves what part or parts of their solution can be applied to our project? Was the concept executed successfully? How have others solved the same problem? It may mean obtaining that device or idea and taking it apart to discover “what makes it tick”.
- Review the Design Concepts
Following all this assessment, we look back at the objective and consider if we are meeting the goals set out at the beginning. Perhaps more or different concepts are needed? Did too many ideas get knocked out? Do the intellectual property issues look too daunting? Sometimes we feel the concepts are too derivative from each other and a different approach is needed. We also consider, at this point, if this is a good interpretation of the client’s needs. They want to see more depth in the concepts versus just more ideas or super unique ideas. Naturally following this would be an assessment of newly generated concepts.
- Rank the Designs Using a Concept Matrix
From this point viable concepts have been generated and evaluated. The last step is sorting the ideas using a force ranking concept matrix to give a clear picture of how the concepts fulfill the criteria outlined at the beginning of the phase. A good method is, as a team, to agree on the ranking criteria and the importance or weight of each ranking category. These might be categories like design complexity, manufacturing cost, safety, etc. Then the concepts are compared against each other and the ranking criteria, creating a matrix that generates a numerical result. The result is a direct and unbiased comparison. Much of this ranking depends on an experienced team discussing why a certain concept should score better or worse in a certain category.
- Finish With a Design Concept Presentation
Generally, the last step is to present the concepts to the client. Traditionally, this happens in a power point format. The presentation includes sketches, analysis, breadboards, models, any preliminary testing, other examples or similar technologies. The result of this is properly generated, vetted and down selected concepts. The follow-on steps would be making a team decision on which concept or hybrid of concepts to go forward with to further development.
At the end of the concept development phase, the client should have two to three solid design concepts to choose from along with a weighted scale with which to rate them. From there, the client can pick which concept they want to move forward with prototyping and design refinement in phase 3.