Is Your Technology Ready for Product Development?

Photo by milindri/iStock / Getty Images

How to Choose the Best Product Development Strategy for Your Product

You have a great new product idea. Whether your concept depends on a unique invention or a new twist on existing technology, it’s important to consider the product development strategy.

In the race to bring innovative technology to market in order to capitalize on business opportunity, it’s tempting to jump straight into product development with your new idea.

However, attempting to force a technology-based concept into product development too early can increase time and costs, as well as delay product launch. 

While each company’s priorities and circumstances are different, there are often substantial advantages to focusing on technology development before starting product development.

What’s the difference between technology development and product development?

In simplest terms, technology development is more inventive than product development. Technology development is used to engineer a new functional subsystem for a product, not the product itself.

Product development is the commercialization of the invention. In product development, designers and engineers use well-understood principles and technologies in a creative way to produce a new product design that is ready to manufacture.

Here’s an example to illustrate the difference:

6s-touch-id.jpg

Remember when the only way to unlock a password-protected iPhone was to type in the password? Now a user can simply push the home button and the phone will “magically” unlock.

How does it do that?

When the home button is pressed, a sensor inside the button captures an image of the fingerprint that is touching it. The phone's software analyzes the image and compares it to the user’s fingerprint stored on the phone. If the fingerprint is a match, the phone is unlocked.

The fingerprint reading technology is a functional subsystem of the iPhone. The subsystem is composed of the home button's mechanical components, the sensor, the electrical circuit and microprocessor, and software used to control the sensor and analyze the fingerprint.

The fingerprint reader was fully engineered in a technology development effort before it was incorporated into the iPhone in a product development effort.

Pitfalls of Entering Product Development Too Early

There are significant pitfalls to entering product development too early for a technology-based product.

Conversely, there are substantial benefits to conducting a focused technology development effort before starting product development.

The timeframe needed to develop a new technology can be unpredictable, depending on its complexity.

Imagine if Apple had attempted to develop the fingerprint reader technology as part of a phone development effort. The fingerprint reader is complex. Numerous engineering challenges were solved to produce a fast, reliable method to scan and compare fingerprints.

It’s safe to assume there were technical setbacks along the way. It’s a near certainty that fingerprint reader development could not keep pace with the phone development schedule, and product launch would have been delayed by months.

In contrast, integrating a fully-engineered technology into a product design is a normal part of the product development process and can be accomplished within the product development timeline.

A full, cross-functional product development team is typically much larger than a technology development team. A larger team has a higher financial burn rate, which can lead to considerable monetary losses if the proposed technology doesn’t pan out. Keeping the team small until the technology is fully proven minimizes burn rate and investment risk.

When an attempt is made to develop a new technology within the product development project and timeline, it’s common that any prototype produced in the project won’t function correctly despite the best efforts of the team.

Costly investigations are often needed to determine why the prototype units don’t work, and expensive prototype components are frequently found to be unusable and must be scrapped.

In comparison, the prototypes produced in a technology development project are often breadboards (i.e. non-form factor prototypes) of the product subsystem being developed. Breadboard construction methods are less refined than those used for full product prototypes.

This approach substantially reduces prototype costs and waste.

Is your technology ready for product development?

Here are a few questions to help you determine if your technology is ready for product development:

  • Are functional requirements for the new technology well-defined and measurable?
  • Have the design parameters that are essential for the technology to function been correctly identified (e.g., important mechanical component materials and dimensions, and electrical component specifications)?
  • Have optimal tolerance ranges for those design parameters been determined?
  • Have functional prototypes of the technology been built and tested to confirm they meet performance requirements?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then technology development is likely the recommended path.

On the other hand, if your engineering team can envision a technical solution that uses well-understood scientific and engineering principles, materials, and manufacturing methods, and the team is confident it will meet performance requirements, then your idea is ready for product development.

Choosing the Best Development Strategy

Bringing a new technology-based product to market is exciting and full of challenges. Although there’s no perfect formula to determine when your technology is ready for product development, you can set yourself up for success by being thoughtful about your development strategy.

While it may be counterintuitive, the decision to conduct a focused technology development effort before starting product development can minimize total development costs, risks, and time-to-market.

That decision just might be the key to bringing your innovation to market before the competition.