The design and development of new products is a time-consuming activity, particularly if you want to do it well. How much time you need will depend on several factors, not least how complicated your product is, how many parts it has, how new your technology is and the efficiency of your design team. However, we need to be clear about one important issue.
You will have noticed that we talk about design and development. Creating a design may take quite a short time. Developing it into a finished product that is ready to sell will often take far longer. It is the developed product that will eventually make you money, not the design…
The project stages
The design process is covered in detail elsewhere on this website, but in summary, it consists of:
- The design brief or specification, to make sure you’re considering all the issues.
- Research into technical or market issues that will affect your product, if required.
- Concept design to look at all your technical and creative options.
- Technical design to work up the chosen concept into a realistic, practical product.
- Prototyping and testing to iron out the bugs and refine the design as much as possible, and
- Manufacturing data to allow you to put your new design into production.
Looking at each of these stages in turn, we can estimate some approximate timescales for a ‘typical’ project. For this exercise, let’s assume that we are working on the design of a digital door lock for commercial use.
The design brief will take a couple of days as it will be based on a detailed discussion with the client and the preparation of a specification document, usually combined with a quote or cost estimate.
Design or technical research will again often only take a day or two, particularly in a well understood and technically straightforward market like door security.
Concept design often involves several ideas and options and can take up to three or four weeks to complete for a project of this type.
Technical design is often the longest stage of the design process, as it involves all the detailed CAD work, ‘what if’ experiments and occasionally visits to specialist suppliers and producers. It would be realistic to allow for six weeks to cover this stage of the work.
The prototyping and testing phase of any project is always difficult (and usually impossible) to estimate a time scale for. This is simply because no-one knows at the outset if it will take one, two, three or – as in the case of the first Dyson vacuum cleaner – five thousand prototypes to finalise the design! Clearly, simple products are both easier to estimate a timescale for and quicker to test, but in the case of our digital door lock it is reasonable to expect three to four prototypes, several weeks of testing and approvals and some unexpected problems. Consequently, we would estimate a minimum of twelve weeks for this phase of the work. You could probably do it quicker, but the final result would be unlikely to be as good as it will be if you take your time and do it properly.
Manufacturing data is another stage that is hard to estimate timescales for. Digital door locks will probably involve injection moulding and/or die casting, both of which will involve lead times of at least six weeks, including minor tool mods and improvements. Given the number of parts that a product like this involves, it is probably sensible to allow at least ten weeks to get everything tooled, modified, improved and ready for manufacture.
Identifying the time that each stage is supposed to take is one challenging factor, but humans involve a whole other level of unpredictability and time wastage.
As product development is a sequential process, decision making at each stage (and phase within each stage) is a critical factor when estimating timescales for any project. Most project plans assume instant decision making, but this rarely happens in practice. Committees need to be formed, meeting rooms booked, discussions held, reports written, and comments received before most decisions are made, and these deliberations can take weeks.
In practice, it makes sense to allow at least one week for decision making points in the project plan, and possibly two weeks if the decisions – and/or the group that have to make them – are large. If this seems too negative, just imagine how pleased you’ll be if you get an instant decision and your project goes ahead of schedule.
Product development is a notoriously risky and problem-strewn business, and you will, without any doubt at all, encounter things that blow your plans off track. It is often reasonably easy to see where these events might take place. Concept design, for example, rarely throws up any bear traps, but technical development and particularly prototyping are highly likely to blow you off course. Prototyping really is the most dangerous stage in any project in terms of timescale, and you can only do so much to prepare for it. The best approach is to allow a sensible amount of time (see above) and use every technique you can (3D printing, accelerated testing, etc) to shorten the process as much as possible.
It also won’t do any harm to have a Plan B if something goes horribly wrong and you have to go back to the drawing board. We’ve all been there.
Teamwork – the secret weapon
If there is one thing that can help you shorten your lead times and minimise wasted time on any project, it is effective teamwork.
A good team will not hold things up for weeks while they deliberate about critical decisions – they’ll do it in one day. They will also work on related issues simultaneously, reducing development times and solving problems before they affect timescales.
In product development, the most important teamwork takes place between technical and marketing departments. We have seen this have a dramatic effect on project outcomes and its importance cannot be overstated. If you would like to know more, have a look at our guide about BS7000/2.
Adding up the numbers
So, if we take everything above into account, how long will it take to design, develop and manufacture our digital door lock? Let’s look at the numbers:
Design brief/specification and potential research: 1 week
Scheduling the project once it is approved: 3 weeks
Design concepts: 4 weeks
Concept decision making: 1 week
Technical design and development: 6 weeks
Technical design decision making: 2 weeks
Prototyping and testing: 12 weeks
Prototyping and testing decision making: 2 weeks
Manufacturing data and tooling: 10 weeks
Allowance for unexpected issues: 6 weeks
Total: 47 weeks
This all adds up to a few weeks short of one year. As we mention above, it is possible to develop products in a shorter time, but one year is a reasonable timescale to use as a planning yardstick for product of mid-range complexity like a digital door lock. We hope you find these estimates and advice useful. If you would like to know more or talk it over, please get in touch.