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Production Line [Part Two]

Production Line [Part Two]

Optimizing the design and production process to enable faster and more profitable product development

"In today's world, making things look good is a growth industry. Whether it's sleek leather pants, a shiny new Apple computer, a modern suburban house, or a designer toaster, we make important decisions as consumers every day based on our sensory experience. The dawn of the 21st century is the age of aesthetics, and its impact is now being felt not only in the marketplace, but in the realms of politics, business and culture, touching nearly every aspect of our lives."

So argues Virginia Postrel in her recent book The Substance of Style: How the Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remaking Commerce, Culture, and Consciousness, which shows the allure of "look and feel" remains strong, with design so much a part of the consumer experience that even lowbrow discounters are now wrapping as much style as possible around their goods.

However, as management consultant and futurist William Dunk of GlobalProvince counters in a recent newsletter, while design - whether aesthetic or engineered - may have become more pervasive, that does not mean design quality has risen. Indeed, Dunk says, it has probably declined in a thousand different ways.

"We suspect that the computer is the principal handmaiden of mediocrity," Dunk writes. "Anyone with a PC or an Apple can now devise cookie cutter designs for almost anything at low cost, and everybody is doing just that. While the cost of almost everything else rises, the cost of computer power and design has sunk."

Worse, Dunk believes, computers provide an almost irresistible compulsion towards over-design, "covering every square inch with doodads, eliminating white space, inventing whorls of unreadable manuscript, and decking the pages with blurbs and small pictures that bespeak severe overload. Graphic design has become very, very 'cluttered', and woe to the designer who bucks this messy trend. The same 'clutter' . . . has crept into the design and engineering of products."

However, things are not utterly bleak. Dunk, at least, is encouraged by the movement towards Concurrent Engineering, which has gained ground over the past decade in its potential at least to reduce the costs of engineering and design, and which he holds out hope of even eventually leading to better design.

"Companies are bringing to the table, right at the conceptual stage, all the people who will be associated with the total life cycle of the product - from concept to disposal," Dunk writes. "Chrysler, at least in its pre-Mercedes days, had been a leader in this respect, and has been able to bring new models into production faster and more cheaply than the competition. With manufacturing engineers in the room, the designers are less likely to come up with something that simply is too tough to build on a mass basis."

New technologies have made such global collaboration possible at a time when product life cycle management (PLM) software is coming of age as a very legitimate component within the entire frame of ERP across a system.

Yet promised for the past 10 years that revolutionary tools in product development are coming - tools that are highly integrated and that offer teams better ways to collaborate - organizations have found these PLM products are arriving in a piecemeal manner, automating or facilitating single processes at a time. Combined with the trend to outsourcing, the slow progress can bring severe complications.

"One hindrance to PLM tools is that organizations are no longer completely captive," says John Edson, president of Lunar Design. "So many parts of the product development and supply chain are outsourced or partnered that a single tool is unlikely to gain market share. Open platform component solutions are being plugged in to optimize individual development functions, but integrated solutions remain the Holy Grail."

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