Designing for Competitiveness - Malta Business School
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Designing for Competitiveness

This article discusses how effective product design can be employed in organisations to improve their competitiveness. One major focus of our discussion is on how standardisation can be used as a strategy to enhance competitiveness.

Product design is the initial stage of the product life-cycle. Success of the product in the other stages of the life-cycle mainly depends on the decisions taken at this stage.  Standardisation can be used in product design to satisfy the various types of standards to meet the needs of the market, regulations, etc. Management (in particular those involved in new product development) must be aware of standards in the target market. In addition to the market standards and regulations, standards required for other phases of the product life-cycle should be given due consideration in the design process.

In this way standardisation can be used as a strategy to enhance the efficiency of production and other operations. The operational efficiencies are achieved by reducing complexity through standardizing the product and components. The designer has to understand the opportunities in standardisation in the early design stage. Therefore, the designer should be aware of different approaches to corporate standardisation (see Figure below) and related costs and benefits at each stage of the product life cycle.


Stages in development process

Because of the complex nature of technology and the requirements of the market, it is best to handle the development and design of a product through a project management approach. Often a team whose members have different fields of expertise is required to handle the overall process. The design process can be divided into the following phases:

Product planning

The basis and starting point of product planning is marketing as the voice of the customer should influence product planning. The success of the product is mainly decided by the level of customer focus – listen to the customer, understand the customer and respond to the customer. The stimuli for product plans come from many sources: the market, new technologies, new functions of a company, economic and political changes, new environmental regulations, etc.

A promising product idea will ideally lead to a technically and economically viable product. The product planning department should follow the development of a product idea through the design and manufacturing departments and then evaluate its market behaviour, which includes the financial position and market success of the product.

Conceptual design

The next stage is the conceptual design phase that determines the principle behind a solution. Developing conceptual design consists of several steps that lead in specification of the principle. The designer can develop several concept variants and the most suitable concepts should be selected on the basis of both technical criteria and economic criteria. This includes selecting preliminary materials, producing a rough dimensional layout and considering the technological possibilities.

Embodiment design

In the embodiment design phase, the designer determines the product architecture of the product starting from the concept. Embodiment design results in the specification of product layout. Producing several layouts to scale may yield more information on the advantages and disadvantages of the different variants. After

sufficient elaboration of the product layouts, the embodiment design phase ends with an evaluation in terms of technical and economic criteria. The embodiment design can be further improved by incorporating knowledge from other sources and the most promising design should be selected for further development.

Embodiment design provides a check of function, strength, spatial compatibility, etc. At this stage the financial viability of the product under development should be assessed.

Detail design

In this phase all the specifications required for production are determined. These include dimensions, tolerances, surface properties, materials, etc. All the product drawings and assembly drawings are developed. Embodiment design is optimized and final details are decided in this stage.

Relationship between design and other phases of product life

The decisions taken in the product design phase affect all the phases of the product’s life-cycle, mainly the design, manufacturing, distribution, usage and disposal.

Design starts from the information of user requirements which are identified by marketing. The main objective of the design is to satisfy the user needs through the products to be designed. However, in addition to user requirements the designer has to look at the requirements of all the other phases in designing the product.

Product design should satisfy the requirements of manufacturing and assembly. Products and parts should be designed avoiding the features that are difficult to manufacture so that manufacturing is economical. Parts should be capable of being easily assembled to configure the final product.

In designing the product, the requirements of distribution – inventory control, transportation, storage – should be considered. Strategies such as modularity can be employed to reduce the inventory levels. The product should be designed so that it can be easily handled and should consume little space so as to facilitate easy handling and storage.

In the usage phase, the design should incorporate the requirements for maintenance and services in addition to user requirements.

As the importance of conserving natural resources and protecting the environment increases, the recycling or disposal of products is becoming a major life-cycle issue. Many companies are now interested in product design that allows easy recovery and reprocessing of metal and plastic products.

The above aspects should be considered in the embodiment design phase.

Using the tools of standardisation

Standardisation can provide a solution for a repetitive technical or organizational problem with the best technical means available at the time. It ensures quality in business, technology, science and administration and serves the safety of the people.

The use of national and international standards in the design process helps to find effective solutions to the individual elements, sub-solutions, materials, computations, testing procedures, documentation, etc. Standardisation also deals with limiting variety and providing definitive products. Standards are time-dependent and are continually updated to reflect technological changes. Standards contain established knowledge as well as agreement on wider applications.

Variety and standardisation

Globalization of the market, rapid technological change and diverse customer requirements lead manufacturing companies to produce a variety of products. They can no longer follow the strategy employed by Henry Ford in his model T to capturing market share and high profit by manufacturing large volumes of a standardized product.

Diverse customer requirements, increased globalization and rapid technological change are common phenomena experienced by today’s manufacturing enterprises. Increased product proliferation is an inevitable consequence in such an environment. Shorter product life, shorter runs, and more customer specials have become common characteristics of the present manufacturing world.  Product proliferation is unavoidable in a global market. Different markets may have different requirements for products, due to differences in taste, language, geographical, environment or government regulation.

Popular marketing guru Philip Kotler points out that the product attributes vary with customer requirements. He identifies four reasons for variations of customer requirements:

I.          Geographic reasons: region, country, size, city, climate

II.         Demographic reasons: age, sex, family size, income, occupation, education, religion

III.        Psychographic reasons: social class, lifestyle, personality

IV.        Behaviouristic reasons: purchase occasion, user status, usage rate, benefits

Need to balance standardisation and variety

Variety creates additional complexities and costs in manufacturing, and hence manufacturers have to find the proper balance between variety and standardisation.  One problem faced by manufacturers is how to offer the variety demanded by the customer and a high level of performance. Among the various strategies, standardisation can be used as a proactive strategy which aims to reduce the variety explosion in product and/or component level while meeting customer needs. Common standardisation strategies used in product design include size range, component commonality, modularity, platform concept, and delayed differentiation (postponement).

The challenge faced by management is when and how to use these different standardisation strategies.  Standardisation opportunities can be analysed using two approaches: a top-down approach and a bottom-up approach.

In the top-down approach standardisation opportunities are identified by analyzing the product. The designer can decide the size range at the product level. Once the product variants have been decided, possibilities for modular architecture can be analysed together with component commonality. Concurrent product and process designs should be prepared in order to implement postponement since postponement needs commonality in both components and process during the early stages.

In the bottom-up approach components serving for different product variants can be studied to identify the standardisation opportunities. Here the components which do not affect the spatial requirements and changes of other components can be analysed to implement commonality isolation with the product. Such opportunities are available for standardizing the components such as interfaces, attachments, etc.

Finally, it is recommended that the hybrid approach should be adopted to identify standardisation opportunities.  Product designers should select the correct standardisation strategy according to the market and their operational environment.  For this purpose, designers should have a sound knowledge of the marketing and operational aspects of the business other than product design.


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Perera, H.S.C., Nagarur, N.N. and Tabucanon, M.T., 2000. A Cost Model for Evaluating Component Standardisation: A Case Study, Engineering Valuation and Cost Analysis, Vol. 3, pp. 9-25.