Embrace Conflict for Product Cost Reduction, Part 1

We may argue a bit about the exact numbers, but most experienced product designers will agree that at least 80% of a product’s ultimate cost is determined during the products design phase and 60% of it is defined solely by the concept chosen.

So it goes without saying that any meaningful attempt at product cost reduction  must address design issues.

Conflict in Design

Product design is really a process of information translation. Translating customer wants into functional requirements then into physical characteristics and finally into process parameters. Within each of these phases there are conflicts between elements. In the customer want domain, it may be the customer’s requirement – that the product be light but strong. In the functional domain there are conflicting requirements to “fix location” and “allow movement”.

Optimization

The traditional approach to dealing with these conflicts is to optimize or find the best trade-off. This may be as simple as an engineer’s best guess or as sophisticated as a designed experiment using response surface methods (RSM) to find a robust optimum. The problem with optimization is that it tends to drive up cost.

Optimization is about finding a balance point between two conflicted elements and that balance has to be maintained by some type of control. It might be tightened manufacturing tolerances or feedback mechanisms or maybe complex product architecture. In any case it’s likely to be expensive.

But what if we could side step the need for optimization altogether.

TRIZ Methodology

TRIZ, which is the Russian acronym for “Theory of Inventive Problem Solving” is a body of knowledge that resolves conflicts via innovation rather than optimization. TRIZ founder, Genrich Altshuller, started developing  the TRIZ methodology in 1946 while working in the “Inventions Inspection” department of the Caspian Sea flotilla of the Soviet Navy. In reviewing hundreds of proposed inventions, Altshuller realized that at the heart of every truly inventive solution there is an unresolved conflict.

Conflicts – Physical & Technical

Altshuller identified two types of conflict: physical and technical. Physical conflicts result when opposite properties are required of a product. For example a nail is required to move in wood (when installed) and not move in wood (when in place). Technical conflicts result when one characteristic of a product gets better while another gets worse. A motor vehicle may get lighter but it also get less crashworthy.

Product Cost Reduction

So wrapping up…

Product cost is largely determined by the design of the product and design is an exercise in dealing with conflicts. The traditional approach to these conflicts is to find an acceptable optimum or trade-off, but trade-offs tend to introduce the need for costly controls. There may be a better way, check back with us as we dig a little deeper into how TRIZ can help us reduce product cost.

 Regards – Matthew Scot Schultz

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