Dancing around the pitfalls of product development

   Remembering a scrawled doodle on a notebook page in 1994, I realize how huge the process of product development really is.
   Looking objectively at our slow- sand filter systems as they are now, the observer is likely to comment on how simple they seem. I’m here to tell you that an enormous amount of design, redesign, trial and error, and a few unexpected consequences are what led to that perceived simplicity.
   The doodle was a simple sketch showing how we could get consistent flow through a slow-sand filter during the entire period of its operation. This is an important concept for us, because it means the difference between someone having to check the flow on the filter every day or so, versus setting the flow and not worrying about it anymore.
   My coworkers at the time and I built a prototype filter using my sketch as a model, and low and behold, it worked beautifully.
   We thought we had it made, all we had to do was put it into production, sell lots and lots of filters, and then retire in the Bahamas. Well, predictably, that’s not what happened.
   We did get the filters into production. We worked with a tank manufacturer to come up with a wonderful looking product employing the new features.
   It was a slick looking unit, with two green tanks joined at the middle by two smaller tanks employing fancy Swiss-made metering valves. The center tanks were covered by vacuum formed shrouds with access doors and protruding clear-plastic pressure monitoring tubes. The overall appearance was something like the space shuttle. I was so proud of the thing.
   We started selling the units and almost immediately found unexpected problems in our “perfect” design.
   Some problems were of a manufacturing nature. More than a few times, filters would arrive on site with fittings not properly glued. Some fittings were molded into the tanks which meant if there was a problem, they could not be replaced.
   Some problems were design shortcomings. We didn’t foresee the clear monitoring tubes yellowing from the sun, for example, nor did we anticipate air blocks disabling the fancy Swiss valves.
   A couple of years into the process, the manufacturer went down the tubes, so we had no choice but to begin manufacturing ourselves. While this could have been a set-back, we used this as an opportunity to address issues with the previous design. We made the tanks bigger to allow easier access. We reduced by half the number of parts and fittings – less to go wrong. We covered the clear tubes with insulation to prevent sunlight degradation.
   Over time we have continued to make small changes, much of which stems from customer feedback. But even with all of these changes, I’ve also discovered it’s also important to harmonize design and production. We have, at times, chosen not to incorporate some changes or improvements. Sometimes while making a change to correct one problem you create another.
   Sometimes a design is dictated by shipping considerations. One of our sizes of iron-removing filters is based primarily on dimensions that make it able to be shipped UPS rather than common carrier. This adds to convenience and reduces cost to the consumer. Some of our overseas slow-sand filters are designed using tanks that nest together like Dixie cups. This hugely reduces shipping cost, which can make or break a sale.
   After 10 years of trial and error, we’ve finally settled on designs that seem to balance effective design with a workable price. We still make changes now and then, as new markets are discovered, better parts are invented or new manufacturers come online. But we are careful to make changes because of the long history and experience we’ve established as to what works.
   The bottom line here is that product design is a complex equation for the manager. This equation must balance all the various elements. The obvious issues are functionality and price.
   The thing has to work and it has to be affordable. We can’t make a living making slow-sand filters out of titanium. And we can’t make a living if we have to be spending half our time on warranty calls.
   But additionally, there are more subtle design elements such as professional appearance, ease of use, ease of understanding, ease of installation, production complexity, sizing for standard shipping methods, labeling, and even color.
   The manager has to decide amongst these issues and find the best balance. Sometimes this means overriding other viewpoints. The engineers often want one thing, the accountants something else, the sales people a third thing. The manager has to think holistically and rule on the best design with the greatest value of features.

Humphrey Blackburn is president of Blue Future Filters, Inc., in Bellingham.



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