As Americans continue to demand more individualized products, companies are looking for ways to fulfill those needs without starting from scratch. The answer may be found in a new software tool, says one researcher at the University of Missouri-Rolla.
For the past year, Dr. Rob Stone, associate professor of basic engineering at UMR, and four researchers from other institutions have been working to develop software that will allow companies to design different products off of a core platform or base. The team’s work is supported by a three-year, $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
While companies that make everything from disposable cameras to automobiles use common platforms for differentiated products, Stone and his colleagues hope to help companies incorporate platforms earlier in the product development.
"What’s new is we’re trying to take this holistic view and be smart about that," Stone explains. "We’re trying to allow companies to think about that a lot earlier on, back in the stage where designers are just thinking about needs and looking at sketches. That way they could plan for it and reap the financial rewards."
Disposable cameras are a good example of a platform product because at the base, they have a shutter and film advance. Yet by building off of that platform, companies are able to offer new products and new functionality, such as a disposable camera made for action shots or one that has a flash.
Automobiles are another example of product portfolios because car manufacturers often hang different body moldings and engines off a single platform to give vehicles different looks and performance characteristics. In particular, Volkswagen’s platform strategy has been very successful, Stone says.
"They put different models on a common automotive chassis and even use it across different brands, such as Volkswagen and Audi," Stone says. "They claim savings of greater than $1 billion after taking the platform strategy to heart."
Companies are able to save money with the platform strategy because it allows them to target where they spend their time, Stone explains.
"If you get that core platform, do it well, and have good interfaces around it, then it’s less expensive to design the variant portions and add that onto it," Stone says. "For every additional product or every additional variant, your profit margin goes up because you’re relying on a previous design effort. You don’t have to do as much work to get a new product out the door."
Stone and the research team are currently documenting how a variety of consumer products are designed and what platforms they use. The team is building off of Stone’s previous research work, where he cataloged this type of information, and is on track to have very detailed analysis on 100 different products.
Working with Stone on the product platform research are Dr. Timothy Simpson, associate professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, and Dr. Soundar Kumara, distinguished professor of industrial and manufacturing engineering, at Pennsylvania State University in University Park; Steven Shooter, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.; and Janis Terpenny, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
"This summer, all four institutions have students working on this project in the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates program," Stone says. "At the end of this project, we hope to have in this prototype software tool a fairly diverse set of information so we can begin to see the similarities in what seem to be disparate types of products."