Measuring Progress of Product Development Projects: What You Measure is What You Get – Part 1 of 2

Every product development project has a specific objective:  a new product that satisfies a desire or need in the marketplace and that can be manufactured for a cost far enough below the price for which it can be sold that a satisfactory profit can be made.  Typical development projects require large investments of capital and months or even years of effort.  Naturally, the shareholders who invest this capital and the executive management who are responsible to see that it is being used wisely will be very keen to see signs of progress along the way.

There are many different ways that “progress” is measured.  Often these are based on gut feel, impressions or emotions.  For example, it may be taken as an indication of progress that budgets are being allocated, people are being hired and facilities are being upgraded.  Engineers may be creating complex 3D CAD models or generating sophisticated analysis with impressive color plots of results.  Machine shops and 3D printers may be running around the clock turning out prototype parts.  In other words, people are busy and doing stuff.  All of these things may be necessary, but are they a sufficient demonstration of progress?  If we’re burning gas and the wheels are turning we’re obviously driving somewhere, but are we getting any closer to Disney World?

One of the most common ways that progress is demonstrated is by the construction of functional prototypes.  Often this is the first tangible indication that shareholders and executives get that, at long last, something practical is resulting from all of the resources, time and energy that are being expended on the development of a new product. Virtually every development team is racing against the clock and is under pressure to “show something” to their management.  Investors and executives may be wizards of finance and business, but they may not be engineers and they may not even be particularly technical.  As humans we all have a deep psychological tendency to believe that things that we can see and hold in our hands are real in a way that ideas or data are not.  CAD models and engineering analysis are well and good, but nothing indicates real progress like a realistic looking, functional prototype ,right?  Maybe.

There are a couple of things to keep in mind about prototypes.  First, “prototype” can mean different things to different people.  A true prototype should be along the path to production in the sense that the design is close to being manufacturable or at least there is a clear vision for how the design can be made so.   The whole purpose of the project is to develop a product that can both meet a need in the market and be manufactured at an acceptable cost.  An early prototype may have some design shortcuts for the sake of expediency or it may be made using parts that are not of production quality; however, there should be a clear vision for how the design can be made production worthy.  If the “prototype” is designed or assembled in a way that there is no realistic chance of reproducing it in a factory at a practical cost then it is not really a true prototype but rather would be called a “functional mockup”.  Sometimes it is necessary to design and build functional mockups of a new product concept despite the fact that they do not represent a manufacturable design.  These may be necessary for market studies or similar purposes.  However, functional mockups are not really prototypes and should not be mistaken as an indication of progress toward the development of a manufacturable product.  It may quack, swim and look like a duck, but if a “prototype” isn’t close to being manufacturable then it doesn’t really represent a very good measure of progress toward that goal.