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R&D: Where concepts become reality

September 19, 2010
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It all starts with an idea — an overall concept that fits into a manufacturer’s corporate mission: To create a product that would meet and exceed the needs of its customers.

For some manufacturers, it is a product or line of products that fits the company’s mission as an industry leader.

As the creator of products, manufacturers have the ability to develop products that people can depend on to increase productivity and work efficiently and safely.

These are thoughts that go through any product manager’s head.

But, just because you build it, doesn’t mean end users will buy it or find it useful.

For that kind of market share in any industry, there are two things you can’t overlook: The power of research and being a good listener.

What makes the product work? What doesn’t?

How is it being used, is it being used correctly?

What could be improved upon, what could it go without?

These are all questions that need to be asked and answered before a product is put on a shelf.

What goes behind the R&D of a product?
It’s important first and foremost to research the end users and gain knowledge into the marketplace you’re trying to penetrate.

It’s about listening to your customer.

“We go directly to our end users and get their take on what would work for them and what wouldn’t. We listen, watch, ask and listen some more,” says Rubbermaid’s Sean Imlay, director of product management — Cleaning. “Once you know your marketplace, that’s when you’re in the position to identify any unmet needs that may affect productivity, efficiency and ease-of-use.”

Once those needs are established, then begins the process of brainstorming constructive ideas for problem-solving.

It’s a more creative process than most realize.

Sketches are generated, models and renderings are made of possible product solutions and prototypes are built to verify performance.

“We take our sketches and models and compare them against the identified, unmet needs of the end user,” notes Carl Schulz, engineering systems and support manager for Rubbermaid Commercial Products. “And, that’s when we may need to continue with additional research using field research, focus groups or both.”

Ethnographic research, which is observational research, is seeing how people use the product and then identifying where opportunities for improvement present themselves.

It provides researchers the opportunity to see first-hand how product features are used or if there is room for improvement.

It’s also an opportunity to discover if there are any unmet needs that should go into the design of a product.

The final decision is: Start all over or move forward.

Tweak, drive, direct and listen
It’s all about understanding the needs of the end user — product ideas versus what the end user finds useful and/or needs to do his/her job.

“When we ask our customers what it is they’re looking for in a product, time and again, they tell us about what’s important to them: They want to work effectively, keep within their budget, protect the well-being of workers and building occupants,” adds Imlay. “By listening to our customers, the ideas start to flow.”

In short, manufacturers that research their customer base develop products that are safer, easier and more efficient to use, which leads to increased productivity and worker well-being.

True cost
When it comes to measuring cost effectiveness, it’s about both hard and soft savings.

The hard savings are the quantifiable economic cost savings.

Does the product perform the same function for a cheaper purchase price?

Will the product improve the productivity of the employees?

Is it more durable?

The equation is durability equals lifespan — a product with a longer life-cycle provides more value to the consumer.

These areas of savings have a measurable impact on the bottom line.

As for soft savings, this is more qualitative in nature.

These savings may not be immediately apparent to the end buyer, but depending on the specific needs/concerns of the customer, it can come to be valued as much or more than the hard savings.

Can it help prevent injury for the employees through ergonomic enhancements?

Are there additional features that address worker well-being that could enhance working conditions and increase morale?

Will it prevent injuries for the business’s customers and limit possible liability risks?

These are also areas of “savings” that are the result of well-designed products. They may not be immediately measurable, but do influence buying decisions.

“What drives research and development isn’t just the ability to improve a product. It’s the idea of developing from scratch, a whole new product that’s destined to become an industry standard that meets the needs of the customer,” concludes Schulz. “It is to create products in the field for the customer’s delight.”

Jenn Schneider and Sean Imlay are members of the marketing team at Rubbermaid Commercial Products, LLC. Sean Imlay is the director of product management — Cleaning, and has been instrumental in the development and marketing of innovative cleaning products.
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