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Bringing Agile Concepts into the Physical Product Development World

Industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing are now making it possible to apply agile development concepts to product development, opening up new opportunities, including revenue streams, for manufacturers. By Vicki Holt

Agile development, invented by the software industry to put organized and collaborative development processes and parameters around rapid coding, has been refined over more than 30 years. It is best known for its collaborative, iterative nature and software sprints leading to quicker rounds of QA testing, more potential code variations, and faster time to market.

At first glance, agile may not seem like a concept that is applicable to physical product development. After all, designing and manufacturing a three-dimensional product is very different from software coding, right? Maybe not.

When we look closer, the various stages of software development are actually quite similar to product development. Each requires an initial vision or strategy, a working design, robust testing, and iterative refinements before an end product is reached.

When we consider the impact of Industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing on physical product development, the steps seem to be even more aligned.

Think about it this way: Industry 4.0 and digital manufacturing enable an entirely new structure where physical product development is digitally organized, iterative, and highly collaborative. Industry 4.0 is designed to reveal greater efficiencies and speed within physical manufacturing, but is also intrinsically tied to a highly responsive, customer-driven approach to product development.

It allows for faster time to market, while leaving the door open for continuous improvement. In addition, digital manufacturing and supply-chain initiatives have greatly compressed production time for companies working with design and manufacturing partners implementing Industry 4.0 strategies. In a word, Industry 4.0 is a new structure that is highly agile. When we view it from this perspective, we can clearly outline steps that apply to both agile software development as well as agile physical product development. They are not so different after all.

Concept & and Scope: Projects are envisioned and prioritized; goals and timelines are set. Delivery: Team creates a high-level diagram or flow of the team structure, design, delivery, and distribution model.

1. Iteration/Construction: A working model is developed based on plan, allowing for iterative internal feedback. Quick scrum-style iterations of product design or coding may be used to work quickly through changes, refine, and improve.
2. Testing: Digital QA or usability testing is performed, design for manufacturability is performed, design iterations are completed until specs are satisfied.
3. Release & Production: Final iteration is released into production; end user feedback commences. Feedback can be used to make ongoing, continuous iterations for future releases. Tools such as SaaS platforms and digital manufacturing enable fast turn-around time of future iterations, allowing the supplier to stay ahead of the competition.

Adopting an agile approach to physical product development relies on a concerted transition to digital processes along the entire supply chain.

Identifying new Revenue Streams 

Adopting an agile approach to physical product development relies on a concerted transition to digital processes along your entire supply chain from design to delivery. This is not an overnight change, by any means, but it allows organizations to start taking advantage of the Industry 4.0 landscape.

Reducing the limitations of traditional design and manufacturing processes can certainly give an organization a competitive advantage with its new or existing offerings but, beyond this, it can create entirely new revenue streams based on Industry 4.0 tech such as big data, automation, IoT, and connectivity.

We already know that an Industry 4.0 organization can iterate based on end-user feedback—using agile methods—but how does this translate into creating new revenue streams?

Use this as an example: an HVAC manufacturer builds sensors into its system hardware allowing it to understand customer HVAC usage, temperature settings, and machine maintenance requirements. By gathering data from the machine (automation, connectivity and IoT), the manufacturer can determine if the machine is running at peak performance based on customer usage. The manufacturer can also proactively alert the customer when the machine needs to be serviced, potentially saving the customer thousands of dollars in lost productivity or repairs. Because of Industry 4.0 technology, the manufacturer can offer the proactive maintenance alert service as an add-on offering, creating an entirely new revenue stream not possible before Industry 4.0.

The best way to move forward with agile is to connect with other like-minded organizations, particularly ones in different stages of transition.

Using aggregated continuous feedback from all the HVAC systems sold, the manufacturer can also iterate future designs of the system, to customize or optimize the product based on usage. Without implementing the tenants of Industry 4.0, this level of agility and efficiency cannot be achieved. But organizations must have a vision and plan in place in order to follow this path.

The Need to Embrace Change 

Adopting an agile approach to physical product development also requires teams to accept and embrace change. This is especially true if an organization is moving from traditional manufacturing processes to digital manufacturing. In many cases, retraining staff to adopt digital tools and new process flows may be required. Or, supplementing staff with new roles, such as agile strategists, data scientists, analytics, or 3D designers may be necessary. Things to consider along this journey include:

  • Creating a culture of change and collaboration. Embracing a team mindset and broadening teams to be inclusive of design, testing, manufacturing, and marketing. To be truly agile, put aside titles and work collectively across departments and roles.
  • Adopting 3D design tools. Moving away from older 2D design software into 3D tools allows designers to take drawings straight through to manufacturing to leverage rapid prototyping and processes like additive manufacturing.
  • Partnering with the right suppliers. Finding partners with an end-to-end digital supply chain allows organizations to maintain speed through the design-to-production process.
  • Allowing for feedback. Gathering input from internal teams, we well as end users, to feed back into the design and test process is critical. Teams need to learn how to quickly iterate based on feedback/data to remain agile and competitive and improve the customer experience

The path to Industry 4.0 will be different for every organization. But stepping stones to reach this new model exist. If we think of Industry 4.0 as the new landscape we must exist within in order to compete, then agile is the new way of thinking and acting that will help us achieve the promise of Industry 4.0.

Ultimately, an agile mindset requires the fundamental belief that the journey is a critical part of the process. Testing and iterations are not actions that slow down the process. They add value when they’re based on ideal customer goals. The implication for product developers is to start quickly, but plan to iterate and refine many times during the process based on incoming data and feedback. In the past that wasn’t practical for physical products, but now it is with digital manufacturing.

For companies just starting out on this journey, the best way to move forward is to connect with other like-minded organizations—ones in all different stages of transition. Learn from the success and missteps of others before you try to go it alone. Iterate and refine as you go, knowing that each step will both challenge and reward you. Before you know it, a new agile mindset will exist helping your organization reach new heights.   M

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