For years, companies have been challenged to develop new products with broad yet highly personalized appeal. Back in 2015, Forrester predicted that “the level and quality of personalized experiences will be a key determinant in who wins mindshare and share of wallet.” Looking at the market today, they seem to have been correct.
Custom-engineered products (also known as engineer to order or ETO products) take the concept of personalization further back in the manufacturing process, since they’re new products designed and built for a single customer. ETO product companies develop products differently from companies that create products for mass production. This is because the steps used in the development of mass-customized products are unnecessary when there’s only one customer factoring into the product design process with defined requirements.
Here's an example of custom-engineered product personalization in action. Pioneer Circuits designs and manufactures printed circuit boards (PCB) for aerospace and military users. Each of Pioneer’s customers have their own set of requirements for the type of PCB they need produced. What’s critical in Pioneer's industrial design and new product development process is to figure out which requirements and features they can realistically deliver within the customer’s lead times and cost objectives.
In order to deliver successful new products to happy customers, Pioneer Circuits and other companies that do custom product development need to:
- Create low-cost products by helping customers, engineers and others find and edit similar products
- Streamline product design and development by collaborating externally and internally
- Eliminate errors and improve product quality by managing changes to products and files
- Reduce product lifecycle delays by tracking time-consuming tasks and timelines
The thought of building an ecosystem where all of this happens seamlessly may be overwhelming. In reality, any company can develop new product ideas and deliver great custom-engineered products by starting with these four key steps.
Step 1: Streamline a simple customer experience
The first step in delivering ETO products is making the entire customer experience as simple as possible. Companies should make finding a potential product fit really easy, but this is often overlooked. A potential customer should be able to browse a company’s product portfolio and see if they make products that will fit their needs. When addressing the matter of easy access, it’s important to ask the following questions.
- Can prospective customers easily search for products on your website?
- Can they see testimonials from other customers with final products that match similar needs?
- Once customers find a potential product match, how easy is it for them to submit a custom development request or contact a company representative for early, rapid prototyping?
Making the process easy for the customer doesn’t end with capturing their request for a custom product. It should extend throughout every stage of the manufacturing process.
Step 2: Align all teams involved in prototyping and product development
ETO product development requires collaboration from the very beginning of the process. Most companies have done well in improving how hardware engineers, software developers, quality control and manufacturing work together, but sales teams and customers have generally been left out.
Sales reps are the beginning of the product development process. They explain what’s possible and feasible based on the needs described by the customer. Because of this, sales and engineering teams must be aligned in order for the custom engineering process to work smoothly. Alignment is easier to maintain when all stakeholders can collaborate on product development quickly and easily.
Customers are stakeholders too, and it’s important to keep them involved in real-time if possible. This makes development faster, results in products that better meet their needs, and leaves customers happier in general.
Some considerations for customer involvement include:
- Product updates: Systems like Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) have been used to keep engineering groups in sync, and those same capabilities should extend to customers. It’s their product and they should be allowed to do product redlines, create revisions, update files, etc.
- Tasks and timelines: Project Portfolio Management (PPM) systems are typically used with customers to keep everyone aligned with respect to timelines and tasks. However, separating PPM from PLM typically causes lower productivity, and has higher potential for errors and communication issues. For successful custom development, project tasks, timelines, new product updates, and deliverables should be tied together and visible in one place.
- Collaboration, approvals and notifications: It’s critical to ensure customers and other stakeholders get prompt notifications about changes and their requests to approve changes. It’s also helpful to provide customers with a way to discuss things in a rapid and informal fashion that can be logged and easily accessed by your whole team.
Step 3: Set up the right infrastructure to deliver great products
Sometimes making custom product development easier for the customer is difficult. Technology limitations hinder legacy on-premises tools and some cloud technologies. The following technical infrastructure allows customers to truly be involved throughout the custom development process:
- Easy external access: It’s important that customers and partners are able to easily access the system. Effortless configuration of roles and privileges is essential for collaboration and ensuring the right information stays secure.
- Single platform with easy integration: Technologies should share a common platform or integrate easily with other platforms when managing customer, product and partner information in one place.
- Flexibility: Customers, products and business change frequently. The technical infrastructure should be able to keep up with those changes and work on a variety of devices.
- Reliability: Customer-accessible systems need to be highly reliable which means that technology infrastructure should be as well.
Step 4: Smooth out new product rollouts
Keeping all partners up to date on the latest product specs, timelines and procedures is critical for success. If product rollouts break down in the field, nothing else matters. Most companies focus on supply chain and distribution, but they forget other stakeholders like installers and field service partners. Both should be trained and ready to deal with potential product issues during every phase of a rollout.
Developing and delivering great custom-engineered products is a multifaceted process, but that doesn’t mean it has to be difficult. Read more about creating great custom-engineered products in The Ultimate Guide to Making Custom-Engineered Products.