One could argue that Conceptual Design (CD) is the most important phase of product development as it determines 90% of the market success of the product (see).
What is the process for conducting a Conceptual Design:
Assemble a large and diverse team: It’s no secret that the more diverse the team is, the more innovative it will be. In this case, diversity means people from different backgrounds — education/specialization, industry, work history, etc. And it is not all about technology and engineering. Consider including people from marketing, sales, production and even customer service.
Conceptual design is about making choices for your target market. Understanding what the choices are, technology/engineering, and what is the right choice, marketing/sales, is enhanced with more voices in the room.
Reach out to different service providers to enhance the team if your team is not very large.
Brainstorming: Brainstorming is a collaborative group effort. Plenty of research shows that groups will be more innovative than individuals working in isolation — but only if they follow a certain process. There are plenty of blogs and whitepapers on how to do it right. Just google “how to hold a brainstorming meeting”.
Rank and Score: Rank each defining requirement. A defining requirement is a requirement where exceeding the minimum requirement would give the product a competitive advantage. COGS is a defining requirement — all other things being equal, a lower COGS makes for a more competitive product. FCC compliance is not a defining requirement as it does not matter how much better the product exceeds the FCC minimums.
Score each concept developed against each defining requirement. Then multiply the rank by the score and add them up (see our CD template for a visual on what this looks like).
It is not so much about the largest score winning as it is in seeing how the different concepts play out against all the requirements and getting to a consensus on how important each requirement is. Otherwise, it is very hard to talk about which one is the “best”.
Vet with Ideal Customer: It is always a good idea to review the CD with a customer(s) or surrogate customer. Sometimes this brings out requirements that just were not visible in the initial requirements generation. If a customer likes the CD, ask why, and if they do not, try to understand what requirement it does not satisfy.
Requirements Analysis: Before moving on to the Detail Design phase, do not forget the important step of doing a requirements analysis.
A Requirements Analysis (RA) is a method of determining if the conceptual design will meet the product requirements. This analysis is the final vetting before the big money is spent, so it is wise to complete this phase of product development with some TLC.
The best RA processes use an independent team to do the RA and they use different types of analysis for each category of requirement.
Although every product is different and therefore every product requirements are different, most have the following types/categories of requirements:
Each category has its own set of RA methodology.
Functional: It is easy to gloss over the functional requirements. However, this is exactly the reason you should not skip over Functional RA. Everyone is assuming they got the basics correct.
For each functional requirement, write a description of how the system, and its elements, accomplish this function. You may be surprised how often a key part is left out of the Conceptual Design (CD).
Performance: How do we know that the system components will meet the performance requirements? A good rule is that if you can not point to those components in a released product performing to the requirement performance level then a Proof of Concept (PoC) test must be performed.
Compliance: The best practice for RA of compliance requirements is to meet with third party testing/certification companies and review the CD with them. Although they will never tell you it will pass, they will get you 90% of the way there as they are the experts on the standard.
Cost and Schedule: Cost breaks down into two parts — unit cost, or COGS and development cost.
Doing RA on cost is simple enough. Develop a spreadsheet with the BOM and labor cost. Don’t forget to review this spreadsheet with your vendors. They are the experts on manufacturing cost.
For development cost, create a drawing tree of the product based on the CD and get each engineer responsible for estimating the labor, testing and material cost for developing each assembly. Add management and overhead, and you will have a good estimate of the investment needed for the detailed design phase.
The same drawing tree method can be used to determine schedule.
Note: many engineers will balk at estimating man hours, especially if they have never done it before, as they will almost certainly be wrong. However, point out that they can not get better at estimating cost unless they practice. This is why it is really important to review these projections after the detailed design phase so the team can improve.