Industrial companies are sometimes perceived as lumbering giants that have difficulty responding to competitive pressures and capitalizing on market trends. Product design cycles can last years, even for incremental changes and upgrades to existing products. Targeted redesign efforts—such as design-to-cost (DTC) initiatives, which set financial objectives as the primary design constraint—suffer from the same long cycle times. Meanwhile customer and market demands evolve much more quickly. Have design processes always taken so long? What tools can companies apply when they need to make rapid changes in product cost or design, to better respond to customer demands or competitive threats?
A quick look to the past confirms that industrial companies did not always have such long design cycles. In fact, industrial and defense companies of yesteryear pulled off some incredible design feats, without many of today’s supposedly accelerative technologies. Consider the following examples:
• The Supermarine Spitfire was the main Royal Air Force fighter aircraft during World War II. Between 1936 and 1945, the aircraft changed engines, its loaded weight doubled, and its maximum speed increased by 90 miles per hour. This rapid design evolution was only possible due to an iterative design and testing approach.
• In the United States, the Saturn V rocket program started in 1961 with a seemingly impossible goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. To meet the timeline, its three stages and instrument unit were developed in parallel by four companies, each of which further compressed schedules by using parallel testing and development. Saturn V rockets were ready for use as part of the Apollo lunar missions just eight years later.
• Andrei Sakharov began designing the first Soviet thermonuclear device in 1949. After failing early performance tests, Sakharov and his team made two quick design iterations resulting in “Sakharaov’s Third Idea, ” which led to a successful detonation in November 1955. The entire design cycle with three iterations was completed in only six years.