How can technology improve your NPI process?

New product introduction, or NPI, is one of the fundamentals of manufacturing. In a survey of manufacturing operations management, LNS Research found that getting new products to market faster was one of their top issues.

Henry Ford wasn’t the first person to build a car. He was, however, a pioneer in creating the Model T, a car that was affordable for the average consumer. It took years to develop and prototype this model—and, at the same time, to revolutionize the manufacturing process that led to the moving assembly line.

This combination of understanding the addressable market and improving process resulted in Fordtaking a huge chunk of the automobile market share and advancing itself into the iconic brand it is today. It also set a standard for how manufacturers would introduce and produce products going forward.

Many people think NPI is relegated to marketing, but it usually has its roots in engineering and product management teams. Those groups are taking inputs from customers, watching the trends, and then using that information in the ideation process. The idea can be an entirely new product or an improvement on a current design.

The ideation process is where creativity and innovation begin. It typically occurs via collaboration among multiple teams. Usually engineering or a product manager will come up with the ideas and then look at the feasibility of the product, asking questions like:

  • What does the current market look like?
  • What is our competitive advantage?
  • Can we manufacture it, and if so, what do we need for production?
  • Are the right supplies (i.e. components, parts, equipment) available to develop this?

Building from these questions, documentation is created to support the business case for the new product or enhancement—and will often include multiple inputs from sales, marketing, engineering, accounting, and supply chain. A draft of these business case inputs will be circulated and pressure-tested across the company. Once this initial ideation is completed and the business case is approved, the product moves into the gated process of design, budgeting, prototype development, and production.

A typical NPI gating process

Every company is different, but with multiple teams working on creating a product, there’s almost always a gating process with milestones, deliverables, and defined responsibilities. This  balances the engineering side of the product with the sales and marketing side. A simple gating process would look like the following:

  • Ideation of product
  • Approval of business case
  • Production engineering and material acquisition
  • Prototyping and verification
  • Marketing plan development
  • Full production run
  • Product launch

Now, this was a simple example of what happens in the gating process, but during these gates there’s a lot of back-and-forth communication, especially during the transition from design to production. There are the weekly meetings, updates, reviews of prototypes and production runs, development of marketing materials in time for launch, and sales and partner training. Engineering and product management are usually working on one track while sales and marketing are working on a separate track that meets at the launch gate of the product into the field.

NPI and Collaboration Challenges

Henry Ford’s revolutionary process and product worked for the early 1900’s, but a lot has changed since then:

Multiple locations: Manufacturing is much more global now, and in many cases engineering might be in one location, while the actual manufacturing might be in another. Talent is often dispersed as well. Remote teams may not even see each other face to face more than a couple of times a year, but are tasked with developing and resourcing products together. Engineering teams often have to help troubleshoot an issue from the floor with operators while supply chain teams need to ensure they’re balancing the right investment with suppliers and materials.

Cross-team documentation: Documentation trails must be kept, with the ability to edit, view, and access across the teams as the product goes through the gating process. This ensures that any changes or updates correspond to the original business case that got the product green-lighted in the first place. Accessible documentation also ensures regular compliance and helps executive teams understand the current product road map as well as the vitality of their product portfolio.

3 ways to integrate technology into your NPI process

While many manufacturers have worked to improve and fine-tune their NPI processes, they haven’t always aligned the process with the technology to drive better collaboration and speed time to market. Some use cases to consider:

  1. Videoconferencing and real-time whiteboarding: Multiple teams can now come together and talk through design and development. This often involves complex details that can’t be articulated on paper alone early in the gating stages. Collaborating via email or phone isn’t efficient and can lose nuance. Having the ability to share technical drawings while annotating them in real time can help teams creatively while speeding the ideation and production processes. Integration of videoconferencing with messaging platforms also ensures that documentation and discussions during meetings can be saved in a central location.
  2. Real time messaging: Email has often been the de facto way for teams to communicate. The problem with email is that it’s how lots of other communication comes in, beyond NPI projects. This means emails can be missed, or lost among threads that are hard to navigate and keep up with.The average company will likely lose a quarter of its productivity due to inefficient processes and internal bureaucracy. A messaging platform offers a better alternative and can support real-time threads. All files and messages are located in the same space for better project management. Meetings and calls can also be integrated to ensure a consistent thread throughout the project gates. A messaging platform can help ensure that product management and marketing are aligned through the various gates towards a product launch.
  3. Visibility into prototyping and production: As small production runs begin within a factory cell, it’s inevitable that operators and engineering will have to fine-tune outputs that will drive smooth production runs. It’s not realistic to have engineering teams and production teams flying back and forth across locations during this ramp up. Having the ability to conference in with teams and view the outputs in real time can ensure quicker resolution of issues, improved prototypes, and quicker transition to full-scale production runs.

Aligning your existing gating process and your technology can address many aspects within the product can help drive an improved NPI process and team communication, while helping boost creativity, lower costs, and reduce the risk associated with new products.

To learn more about how Cisco is helping manufacturing teams improve collaboration, I invite you to check out some of the case studies around manufacturing and collaboration here.