Flexible Product Development

Flexible product development can be said to describe the application of Agile software development principles to the development of hardware.

In particular it is designed to deal with situations where change in the requirements is highly likely to occur during the course of a project. The ideal is to be able to accommodate change as late as possible in the project, with the minimum of cost and disruption, which is effectively the definition of flexibility.

This approach is often more appropriate for the development of innovative products, especially in fast-paced markets, where the market and customer customer requirements are changing quickly over time. In such cases a typical phase-gate process can be too rigid or too slow to process change.

However for more mature product categories, flexibility techniques may be less appropriate. For this reason it is recommended the flexibility techniques are used with discretion, for instance, only for products (or the parts of a product) likely to undergo change during the project.

Flexible development uses several techniques to keep the cost of change low and to make decisions at the last responsible moment, just as in Set-based engineering. One of the keys to this is modular architecture, so that part of the design can be changed without affecting other parts.

According to Preston Smith, who invented the term (see below)

Flexible Product Development uses various approaches to:

  • Select product areas where change is most likely
  • Expand and maintain alternatives
  • Isolate and encapsulate change
  • Delay decisions until their last responsible moment
  • Reduce the cost of change
  • Develop the capacity to respond quickly
  • Align organisational values with the needs of flexibility

And some of the tools enabling these are

  • Modular product architectures
  • Front-loaded prototyping and testing techniques
  • Set-based design to preserve options
  • Frequent feedback from customers
  • Close-knit project teams
  • Collaborative decision making
  • Framing decisions and anticipating the information needed to make them
  • Rolling-wave project planning
  • Development processes that maintain both quality and flexibility

For more information see the book ‘Flexible product development: building agility for changing markets’ by Preston Smith (who was a co-author of ‘Developing Products in Half the Time’, or contact us to discuss how to apply these methods in your company.