Consulting engineering firms are a rich source of new product ideas
This is the conclusion of a 2003 paper by SUNY Geneseo professor Ian Alam (citation below).
In the paper, Prof Alam studied the efforts of a manufacturer of iron and steel components and materials. This company, given the fictitious name BILTI sold its products to the construction, manufacturing and packaging industries. BILTI found that they were able to source new product ideas from consulting engineering firms (CEFs) far faster that they could have developed them on their own.
The results suggest that CEFs are a rich source of new product ideas of potential commercial value. However, industry is making little use of CEFs, which underscores the need for industrial firms to collaborate and to establish an effective idea transfer relationship with them.
What is striking about the paper is that it puts BILTI, the industrial company, in the role of initiator of the new product development (NPD) by the CEFs. This implies an exciting opportunity for CEFs to promote and market their NPD abilities.
The origin of the SwitchPod
NPD can happen at almost any scale, from the massive conglomerate to the individual. Many individuals and small companies have found success launching new products, often harnessing crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.
An excellent example is the SwitchPod by Pat Flynn. This is a tripod that quickly converts to a selfie stick and is targeted to vloggers: Youtubers and the like. In blog posts and videos, Pat has described the NPD process he followed, all the way from concluding that “there has to be a better way” through design and prototyping, marketing and production.
Although Pat had a clear idea on who would use his product and what their needs were, he needed to source engineering expertise.
We’re not engineers and couldn’t even wrap our heads around the mechanism that would allow for this to happen.Pat Flynn
The CEF advantage
Many CEFs are NPD playgrounds. They have the skills and resources to produce the sketches and CAD drawings needed to do the intense brainstorming activities that gather feedback and validation from customers.
In-house rapid prototyping is a critical competitive advantage that CEFs have over individual entrepreneur inventors. Progressive CEFs will have the 3D printers, augmented reality and virtual reality gear to give life to CAD drawings. The more “real” the product the more effective the user feedback.
In a recent post I talked about what it takes for an incumbent company to stay nimble. The first, and most important, way to keep your company nimble is to identify its purpose. A new product is not the only reward of the NPD process – the skills and reputation the effort develops are also worthwhile. Focus on NPD that fits your mission.
The next step is to give your teams the skills, resources and mandate to begin their NPD efforts.
There are an infinite variety of approaches to this, many I’ve described in these pages. To get immediate feedback, I recommend a brief Design Thinking exercise to whet the team’s creative appetite in less than two hours. If you can set aside a week, the Design Sprint is a proven method for identifying and validating new product ideas.
Alam I. (2003) Commercial Innovations from Consulting Engineering Firms: An Empirical Exploration of a Novel Source of New Product Ideas, Journal of Product Innovation Management, 20 (4): 300-313.