Future-proofing Your Product Design

How do we future-proof our product design? Product design is a time-consuming and non-trivial process. You may have spent significant amounts of time and money to design your product (or hired a design house to do it for you). It fulfils all functional requirements, the users like it because it has a very intuitive user interface. All seems to be good so far.

However, for all the positive impact it has, the product design may be subject to changes in the future. Revisiting the product design and making changes or improvements translates into additional time and money for the business, and even great inconvenience sometimes. Some reasons for change are inevitable, but if we can take note of these reasons during the initial stages of product design, then there is a good chance we can minimize this product ‘redesign’ cost in the future.

Modular Design

This is a very well known design concept, many of us probably would already have an idea what it is about, but I think it is very important to revisit this point. A product which has modular parts will have several advantages:

  1. In the event of a faulty part, it can be replaced easily (and this can be a really useful thing on the field!). The customer can continue using the product without much delay.
  2. The modular design also makes it easier for maintenance personnel to learn how to service the product.
  3. Modular parts can be designed to be interchangeable among different lines of products, which can be a a huge plus for inventory management later on.
  4. If a particular part becomes obsolete, a new part can be designed to replace it directly (with the same interface and/or mount), without affecting the rest of the parts. This means the rest of the parts do not need to be redesigned.

 

Modularity design from ground up - This is Phonebloks, the conceptual modular mobile phone, where Dutch designer Dave Hakkens had originally envisaged to be one where you can change or upgrade any module you like as a means to reduce electronic waste. It eventually became Motorola's (and now Google ATAP's) Project Ara. (Photo from Google ATAP)

Modularity design from ground up – This is Phonebloks, the conceptual modular mobile phone, where Dutch designer Dave Hakkens had originally envisaged to be one where you can change or upgrade any module you like as a means to reduce electronic waste. It eventually became Motorola’s (and now Google ATAP’s) Project Ara. (Photo from Google ATAP)

Cater for Future Upgrades

One way of extending the life of a product is to introduce upgrades, which is common in aerospace and military applications. These upgrades introduce new or improved features into the product – which allow the end-user to get more value without replacing the entire product. Such upgrades can be in hardware or software. For example, designing a software architecture framework to cater for add-on modules, or a hardware system which is designed to accommodate 10 electronics modules, but which currently houses only 5 electronic modules for the current model. In both scenarios, the systems are easily expandable with minimal effort.

One thing to note is that, despite the advantages, modular design and catering for future upgrades may incur additional design and production costs upfront. Business owners will have to look at several considerations, such as the business model, nature of application, industrial practice etc. before making a decision.

 

Using Off The Shelf Components

Very often, products incorporate Commercial-Off-The-Shelf (COTS) parts in their design. It is therefore important to ensure that these parts remain in ready supply for production and repair/replacement situations during the lifetime of the product. If you intend to use consumer level COTS parts in your product design (such as consumer electronics systems like cameras), it is crucial to note that such parts will typically become obsolete within 1 to 3 years. When that happens, you may be forced to select a new part. In some situations, a redesign may even be necessary to accommodate the new part, for example, if the obsolete part and new part use different electrical and communications interfacing systems. This may not be a very feasible thing to do every 1 to 3 years! Industrial COTS parts will typically stay on the market for 5 years or more, so if you are designing products that will remain on the market for 5 years or more, do consider industrial COTS parts.

 

Proper Documentation

This may not sound obvious – but good, proper documentation for both hardware and software design are essential for future-proofing your product design too. The staff or vendor responsible for the initial product design may not be around in a few years time – thus it is important that there is good documentation to hand over to the next party should you need to make modifications to the design then. If not, this may result in significant amount of time being spent on deciphering or reconstructing whatever information left on hand. You may have to approach the previous staff or vendor – and pay additional money – to get the information. In severe cases where all options have been exercised and the information is still unable to be obtained, a rewrite or redesign may be necessary.

(Comic from Dilbert by Scott Adams. One of my favourites as an engineering student, and subsequently engineer.)

(Comic from Dilbert by Scott Adams. One of my favourites as an engineering student, and subsequently engineer.)

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