What Brings Customers Closer to Your Product Development?

  • Written By: Yu Chen
  • Published: July 9 2009

Bringing all product stakeholders in a tighter loop within the entire product life cycle is one of the main strategies of the product lifecycle management (PLM) methodology. Following this idea, letting the customers (those who pay for and/or use the product) get involved as early as possible in the product design and development phases provides many benefits, including: more ideas for innovation, less design rework, higher customer satisfaction, shorter time-to-market, and more.

Today, including customer inputs in the design process is not only a theory, but also an increasing requirement from PLM users. Based on statistics from the TEC PLM Evaluation Center, among 50 possible business objectives for implementing a PLM system, the option of “including customer input in the design process” changed its ranking from 28th (in the year 2007) to 20th (in the year 2008) (see figure 1).


Figure 1. Ranking of “including customer input in the design process.”

In general, PLM provides a management framework that brings customers closer to product development due to the collaborative perspective of PLM systems. However, the traditional PLM way of including customer input is usually as an inbound task, which means customer input is manually collected and then entered, or recorded by another system and then imported, into the PLM system as “customer requirements.” This approach does help to a certain extent, but it also has some drawbacks in terms of the timeliness and accuracy of the information—due to the indirectness of customers’ involvement.

Another challenge is that customers may not be able to understand your design ideas accurately or express their feedback clearly if they don’t see the “exact” product. A customer may point to a certain spot on your clay model and tell you what he/she feels should be improved, but he/she may not be able to do the same thing using text descriptions, sketches, and two-dimensional (2-D) drawings. Good communication has to be bidirectional and based on comprehensive but explicit information.

In addition, when you move from direct customers to finer granularity (e.g., product users and consumers), the complexity of customer involvement will increase. For example, if you are a passenger aircraft manufacturer, you may have tens of airlines as direct customers who can contribute to the development of your products. But, you also have hundreds of pilots, hundreds of maintenance engineers, thousands of flight attendants, and millions of passengers who may provide valuable input for either the operability, maintainability, or comfort of your products.

So, it seems that there is more work to be done in the PLM arena in order to provide better capability of including customer input in design. In my understanding, the following two technologies address the above challenges very promisingly.

3-D Visibility Down to Earth

As mentioned earlier, text, sketches, and even 2-D drawings are not perfect vehicles for exchanging product definition information. Compared with these formats, three-dimensional (3-D) models have the benefit of containing both the explicitness and richness of product information. However, 3-D has had its own disadvantages in the past; it’s expensive and resource-consuming.

3-D viewers (for example, Oracle AutoVue, PTC ProductView, SESCOI WorkXPlore 3D, to name a few) created the first wave of bringing 3-D models to a wider range of audience by displaying and operating (in a certain way) 3-D models without authoring applications. More recently, technologies such as the 3-D portable document format (PDF) (click here for an example of a 3-D PDF from Adobe) and the 3-D spreadsheet (e.g. Lattice3D Reporter) have added more convenience in 3-D visibility. Meanwhile, some 3-D computer-aided design (CAD) vendors now also provide lightweight 3-D applications (e.g., Dassault Systèmes 3DVIA Live) for online collaboration purposes. In addition, there are free 3-D modeling applications available for the consumer market (e.g., 3DVIA Shape, also from Dassault Systèmes).

Even better, 3-D can now go mobile. When I was at Dassault Systèmes DEVCON 2009 two weeks ago, the development team showed the 3-D capabilities (displaying 3-D models) of an iPhone. If you want to know more detail, this blog post gives an interesting example showing how convenient mobile 3-D can be for consumers.

Web 2.0

While 3-D visibility enriches the content exchanged between manufacturers and customers (as well as consumers), Web 2.0 provides a better way of communicating. MyStarbucksIdea.com gives a good example of how companies can use Web 2.0 technologies to allow consumers to submit, vote for, and track new product development ideas in a more dynamic way (for more detail, please take a look at the BusinessWeek article "Hey, Starbucks, How About Coffee Cubes?").

Now, what I’m expecting between Web 2.0 and PLM is that those Web 2.0 efforts on customer input should be connecting more tightly with the PLM platform so as to streamline the whole product innovation cycle.

When approachable 3-D visibility meets Web 2.0 in a PLM environment, high-quality collaboration between you and your customer/user communities will lead to a more efficient and sustainable product development than ever before.
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