SDM course employs industry processes to nurture product development

Members of the winning Star-Cam Tracker team pose with their prototype

By Shawn Quinn, SDM ’06
September 18, 2007In Product Design and Development (PDD), a required foundation course in SDM, students create new products using actual processes common in industry today.

Members of the winning Star-Cam Tracker team pose with their prototype (attached to a tripod and camera) at the Product Design and Development Trade Show held in the Tang Center at MIT last spring. The are, from left, Rehan Asad, Paul Gomez, Shawn Quinn, Andrew Gillespy, and Kamran Shahroudi. Matthew Aquaro is not pictured.

Within the first weeks, students form teams and propose a concept for a new product. About midway through the course, these teams present their concepts and compete for the opportunity to continue development. A $1,000 budget is provided to each selected team to design, fabricate, and demonstrate a working prototype. The course culminates in the PDD “trade show” where teams compete for cash prizes by presenting business cases and demonstrating products.

My teammates and I won the 2007 PDD design competition and $1,000 with a product that allows a standard 35 mm camera to take long-exposure wide-field images of stars. The product, which we called Star-Cam-Tracker (SCT), compensates for the rotation of the Earth so that a star field can be photographed without blurring. Our target market is amateur astronomers and adventure travelers.

Initially, the team considered creating an advanced toothbrush or a tire chain system for winter driving. We chose the SCT because we liked the idea and our preliminary research indicated a clear market and a lack of competitive products.

As is often the case in industry, we began by developing a vision statement and identifying customers’ needs. We had one lead user on our team and interviewed 19 potential users via email, telephone, newsgroups, and in person. Our questionnaire solicited opinions on demand, price, potential use, and technical requirements. We eventually identified 12 needs, including portability, accuracy, power, ease of setup, and price.

We categorized potential customers using the customer classifications in Geoffrey A. Moore’s book Crossing the Chasm: early adopter, early majority, late majority, and laggards. Based on our discussions with customers, we determined that there was a clear need in the amateur astronomy market for 1,000+ units per year, and we assumed most of these sales would fall into the early adopter category. We believed that if the product could also reach the adventure traveler market, sales could reach 10,000 units annually.

A customer needs analysis led us to 16 technical specifications. We evaluated 13 designs using Pugh concept selection processes. We synthesized two more designs based on the best features of the original set and ultimately chose the tangential rocker with curved gear (electric) and wedge.

We presented our design concept and preliminary need assessment, and course faculty members selected our team to proceed to development. With the welcome addition of new team members culled from teams not selected to progress to the PDD trade show, we spent the next several weeks developing engineering drawings, reviewing the design with a metal fabricator, ordering parts, developing an SCT web page, and producing a business plan.

Each of these tasks was allocated to one or more members of the team: Matthew Aquaro, SDM ’06; Rehan Asad, SDM ’07; Andrew Gillespy, SDM ’06; Paul Gomez, SDM ’06; Shawn Quinn, SDM ’06; and Kamran Shahroudi, SDM ’06. Since our team members were geographically dispersed in Colorado, Michigan, Florida, and Massachusetts, we conducted meetings via telecon and made heavy use of Webex. Initially, we met weekly. As the deadline neared, we met two to three times a week.

Our winning business plan included our marketing approach, estimates for return on investment, competitor profiles, SCT competitive advantages, development strategies, and a financial model with sensitivities analysis. We examined various business strategies and recommended self-financing the initial manufacture of up to 500 units.

We worked closely with a fabricator in New Jersey to produce and assemble the prototype. This was very much an iterative process and required several updates to the original engineering drawings. The SCT team benefited greatly from the real-world fabrication expertise provided by the vendor.

In our busy final week, we completed the controller software, packaged the electronics, and field-tested the SCT. Finally, we were ready for the trade show, which consisted of a product demonstration and a presentation to mock investors.

SCT’s tough competition included iPod earphone holders, a high-tech ironing board, a removable tractor snow plow, and a new temperature sensing coffee mug. In the end, the judges named the SCT team the winner of this year’s PDD design competition.

A critical component of the entire effort was teamwork. We established roles and responsibilities early and met often to ensure everyone was in sync. We also inserted schedule slack in the product development cycle as a risk mitigation strategy. We spent several late nights getting everything to work, but having a great team helped, and the excellent results of field tests made the effort worthwhile.

Perhaps more than any other single required SDM course, PDD captures all phases of real-world product development. As in industry, teams are linked into the voice of the customer, concept definition, initial product development work, business case considerations, prototype development, and testing. A successful launch in industry depends on all these activities, and this course places team members squarely in the driver seat.

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