People will often say, “Why reinvent the wheel?” when questioning the point of duplicating or changing a task or invention that’s already been perfected. The saying comes from the idea that a wheel represents the epitome of human ingenuity; and that any attempt to reinvent it would consume time, money and effort better spent on a worthier endeavor.
The concept makes a lot of sense to manufacturers that build “smart” complex systems from multiple sub-systems and software components. A supplier of electronic dashboards for different automotive companies is a good example.
Although some dashboard features will vary based on make and model of the car, there are many common processes and components that can be reused or shared across all. Recreating every element to modify the dashboard design for every car brand would be inefficient and a waste of time and resources.
Does a strategy to avoid reinventing the wheel run counter to the value of innovating or thinking out of the box? No, of course not.
Manufacturers have and always will need to differentiate to achieve a competitive advantage. This is especially vital in an environment where the pervasiveness of smart, connected products requires manufacturers to shift their focus from the functionality of a single product to the performance of a broader product system.
In the manufacturing world, this is what we call a “system of systems.” Like the electronic dashboard of a car, which is built by plugging together a multitude of smart, connected devices such as a sound system, temperature and fuel gauges, speedometer and various other features.
To the automobile companies installing the dashboard in their car models, quality is measured by the performance of the complete, interconnected product—not any one component in isolation. This is the standard by which suppliers are judged.
An article from the Harvard Business Review, “How Smart, Connected Products are Transforming Competition,” explores in detail how the changing nature of products as systems of systems is pushing companies to rethink and retool internal processes. The authors call for a redefinition of the concept of operational effectiveness (OE). The cornerstone of competitive advantage, OE is all about doing things well. In other words, operating at a lower cost than rivals.
The authors, Michael E. Porter and James E. Heppelmann, warn that companies that fail to be operationally effective and constantly embrace new best practices will fall behind competitors in cost and quality. But when you assume that competitors eventually implement the same best practices and catch up, companies also need to consider strategic positioning.
In contrast to OE, which emphasizes doing things well, strategic positioning is about doing things differently. It’s a strategy that requires trade-offs in the context of deciding not only what to do, but also what not to do. The implications on product design are many. In their article, Porter and Heppelmann list several.
These include designs that support ongoing product upgrades, and product development processes that can quickly and efficiently enable late-stage and post-purchase design changes. Another is synchronizing different hardware and software development rates, which is crucial when you consider that a software development team may create 10 times as many iterations of an application in the time it takes to generate one new version of the hardware on which it runs.
Building these capabilities into product designs is where the practice of reusing and sharing software components and processes can add value. The faster the rate of change and the higher the demand to innovate, the more there is to gain from reusing public assets that satisfy specific design requirements—whether it’s the flexibility to replace parts easily mid-product-lifecycle, or use an anti-lock braking system designed for one car model in another.
Product engineering teams that identify places for reuse early in the product development lifecycle stand to achieve the biggest advantages. These include improvements in cost savings and time to market, which tie directly into OE, as well as product performance, reliability and safety, which define a manufacturer’s strategic position.
PTC recently enhanced its application lifecycle management solution with a repository and web browser for storing, finding and leveraging reusable system assets in model-based development. Called the PTC Integrity Asset Library, it gives product engineering teams common, widely-understood ways to manage and reuse public assets.
Public assets in this context can be any number of things; including specifications for future product concepts or fully executable components, defined as a “black boxes,” complete with code, hardware and user interfaces. Black boxes are especially useful to manufacturers that use component-based development to design systems of systems for two main reasons:
1) They can be easily plugged together with other sub-systems to create a design for a higher level system.
2) They can be changed to allow for variations in product design and improvements in functionality.
I call it “designing the way you build,” using a palette of reusable, interchangeable components to create a whole. By changing the focus from the product to the system level, the PTC approach helps manufacturers optimize OE and strategic position by allowing them to make the most of existing resources. And make smart choices about where and how to differentiate. It’s like “seeing the forest for the trees,” which is important to manufacturers that need to focus their time and talent on innovations that generate the highest returns.
Click here to learn more about the PTC Integrity Asset Library and how it saves product engineering teams the time and cost of reinventing the wheel on every component of every design.
To learn more about how the changing nature of products is impacting manufacturing, read the Harvard Business Review article, “How Smart, Connected Products are Transforming Competition.”