As head of Gerber Coburn’s R&D team, Alex Incera focuses not just on creating new products, but on improving the development process itself. An MIT-trained mechanical engineer, Incera draws upon a background in developing high-tech materials for various industries ranging from automotive to aerospace.
Since joining Gerber in 1995, Incera has been closely involved in bringing innovative products such as the Step One and Eclipse blocking systems and the Gemini surfacing system to optical labs. L&T asked Incera to discuss the behind-the-scenes process that leads from concept to commercialization.
How does Gerber Coburn approach new product development?
We use a widely recognized process called ‘the voice of the customer.’ In its purest form, the process involves asking a predetermined set of questions and a preformatted way of thinking about problems. We walk into a lab and ask a series of open-ended questions. You want to come to a fundamental understanding of the root issues that the lab is dealing with, such as breakage of different materials or swarf removal. Then we address the fundamental root benefits of what our customers need.
What steps are involved in this process?
Our process is a fairly traditional ‘phase-gate process,’ in which there are six discrete phases, separated by five gates. To get from one phase to the next, the development team must produce a number of ‘deliverables’ that demonstrate that they understand market needs as well as the business opportunity both for our customers and ourselves. At each phase, the deliverable will be different.
Phase one is concept development. The feasibility phase and the prototype phase follow that. Phase four is alpha development. That’s when we complete for the first time a piece of equipment that looks just like what the customer’s going to see. Then the product needs to undergo design validation testing. Phase five is the pilot production stage. We take all the learning from the alpha phase and incorporate it into the design. In this phase, we’re not only testing product itself, but the manufacturing process, service organization, installation, order fulfillment process and sales. Once that’s complete and we’re satisfied with our ability to procure the materials, assemble the components, build the product, ship and install it and see that it performs properly once it arrives at the customer’s site, we go to production, the final phase.
How long does the process typically take?
The timeframe varies tremendously depending upon the type of product we’re developing. There are four fundamental types of product development, ranging from the lowest risk to the highest risk and the highest investment.
The simplest is a line extension, where we’re starting out with a known product but making it cover a broader range or process a new material. Then there’s the derivative product; you have a machine, but want to make an incremental change like making it go faster or putting it into a new package to give it a different look and feel.
Next is a new platform product, where we’re starting from scratch on a new aspect of a product, or even a new category. The most ambitious is a breakthrough product, when you’re truly doing something that hasn’t been done before.
What are some of the risks that you encounter when trying to develop a breakthrough product?
Breakthrough products are by far the most difficult to develop, because they may involve a substantial amount of behavioral change from the end user. You hope that the customer can make the change, but it requires a leap of faith. The breakthrough products require close collaboration with the lead user group. They understand that while the product may offer lots of benefits, it may not be totally perfect when delivered. Some benefits or problems are unforeseen and only make themselves visible to lead users through intensive use.
How important is it that end users understand and appreciate what goes into the products they use?
At the end of the day, the market isn’t going to care what type of development it is, whether it’s a line extension or a breakthrough. Customers’ expectations are going to be that the product is going to work right out of the box. The challenge for anyone who’s bringing products to market is to offer value and deliver products that will enable the market to grow.