What Not to Do in Product Development: The Case of a Swedish Warship

When I hear the words “product development,” I think about the latest consumer gadgets, manufacturing, time-to-market, global supply chains. Product development is not a modern concept, but rather, old processes and strategies which have been evolving for many years as a result of age-old challenges.

I recently took my children to the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden, where the big attraction is (surprise!) Vasa, a 17th century Swedish warship.

Vasa was spectacular in her day, with 500 sculptures built into the structure and over 60 canons (588 pounds worth of artillery), the largest concentration of gun power aboard any warship of its time. She was built to hold 450 people, and was all set for her maiden voyage in 1628.

Vasa sank in front of thousands of spectators after sailing less than a nautical mile. It took only a couple of minutes for her to go down.

Why? Because the ship was built top-heavy and unstable. A small gust of wind was all it took for her to flounder. Roughly 30 of approximately 150 people aboard died that day.

Vasa was plagued by all too familiar product development issues from the very beginning.

She was one of a small fleet of navy ships ordered by the Swedish king in the 1620s. Back then, ships were not built from drawings. The shipwright was given the overall dimensions and engineers used proportions and rules of thumb. It was the king himself who gave engineers the requirements for his fleet.

Originally, there were two sizes of ship ordered—a large model with a keel of 135 ft, and a smaller model of 108 feet—and the lumber was cut accordingly. Problems started directly after, when the king sent different measurements for Vasa and engineers were left with wrong-sized materials for the hull.

The king also ordered over 60 24-pound cannons for the ship, too many for the originally planned single deck. More delays ensued when sailcloth had to be imported from France and Germany.

Finally, the ship’s stability was tested by men ordered to run back and forth across the deck to simulate rolling. Evidently the test did not go well, because it was cut short after only a few sprint laps for fear the ship might capsize and cause embarrassment.

Meanwhile the king was sending a steady stream of letters insisting that the ship be put to sea as soon as possible.

Last-minute design changes. Supply-chain woes. Impatient customers. Does any of this sound familiar?

Inquires after the sinking of Vasa found that the ship was not proportioned correctly and was too narrow. Indeed, some attempts were made to widen the ship later in the build, but the construction was so heavily underway by the time the problem was identified that attempts to rectify it fully were near impossible.

Vasa was salvaged 333 years after sinking. For nearly half a century the ship has been slowly restored to a state approaching its original glory.

The biggest challenge today is the preservation of the ship. Timber is very sensitive to humidity, and the temperature in the exhibition hall is kept low. It’s also pretty dark around the hall and the cleaning of the museum is done very carefully.

For more information about preservation of shipwrecks, visit the Vasa Museum website.

Photo: Samuel Mann on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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