The Importance of Integration in Product Design

Integration is important in the product development world. Nearly every manmade object we come into contact with was likely the result of a team effort. As products continue to grow more complex and more integral to our lives, so do the required interactions and values amongst the development team involved. Companies now are under ever increasing pressures to differentiate through features, functions, manufacturing or materials. Products can no longer be simply passed down an assembly line of firms, receiving strategic insight, research, industrial, mechanical, electrical and other development work separately. Development programs must now allow transparency across the team, enabling each member to become highly involved with each step. Only then can we integrate goals, expertise and methodologies successfully.

In the past, integration across product development teams was limited at best. The researchers, designers and production team were often all separate entities, taking over the product management only when it was their turn. For example, an electrical engineer could simply design the PCB to fit into an enclosure without having to understand the rest of the product requirements. Each discipline only needed to understand their portion of the process as technology was simpler and approaches became standard.

Now requirements are far too complex for products to be passed along isolated disciplines or teams. Each discipline should have the ability to provide intelligent input on how each element makes up the final product. This enables opportunities for innovation while helping to carry the vision all the way through to production while curtailing late compromises. That electrical engineer, for example, may be able to see that the antenna won’t function with a proposed material or assembly method. Because the electrical expert was involved early and across disciplines, he can identify an opportunity before it impacts the design, integrating a compromise free solution.

In our own experience, integration proved essential in the redevelopment of the Perkins Brailler. Our entire team was on hand during the design verification phase, which allowed them to directly experience how subjects used the product from multiple perspectives. Everything was working well until one of the test users actually broke off a part of the prototype. With the entire design team on hand, they immediately got to work on a solution, putting together a quick fix with nearby Popsicle sticks. The Popsicle sticks’ function was integrated into the Brailler prototype over the next few days, facilitating improvements in the experience; this turned what could have been a major hurdle down the line into a minor speed bump that enhanced the design long term.

With today’s technologies, there are certainly more complicated products than the Brailler. In the consumer electronics field, the desire for miniaturization is among the leading drivers of this need for integration. While designing a radio 20 years ago might have seemed complex enough, today that technology is squeezed into a device smaller than a business card. As these everyday products become smaller and smaller, designers must be involved with every aspect of the development process to ensure the hardware, software and internal components work in concert and blend into one seamless experience. Smart design teams are now integrating expertise throughout the process to design these products from the inside-out, as we did with a recent program to develop a dual screen tablet that folds up to fit into your shirt pocket. By breaking into new design, engineering and manufacturing methods we were able to attain a goal of miniaturization that eases integration into the consumer’s lifestyles.

The result of this trend for product designers is the essential need to retain a wider range of knowledge. For one team to oversee a project from start to finish, they must have a wide breadth of expertise and insights. The same people who spend hours on research and design must also be able to contribute to the prototyping, engineering and manufacturing.

This has led to an increase in full-service product development firms. This option gives companies access to a broader range of knowledge. Experts in each field can work together to get the product completed under one roof and the clients have one contact they can consult through the development process. When research, design implementation and production are integrated and transparent across the team, the outcome is a more successful proposition and a much more efficient development process.

This article was written by Tim J. Morton of Product Development Technologies (PDT).