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Product Development Trends In The Nonwovens Industry



various techniques for developing products are emerging



Published August 30, 2005
Related Searches: Product Improvement / Innovation Vision nonwovens nonwoven
Product Development Trends In The Nonwovens Industry
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various techniques for developing products are emerging
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By Earle Sherrod - Product Development
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Not a day goes by when we don’t hear or read about downsizing, budget cuts, cost reduction or the need for process optimization. The nonwovens industry is not immune to these business trends. So how do we keep our new product development efforts productive as well as cost effective? I will be discussing new and well documented trends in the new product development process that can help your company remain competitive while continuing to create and market new and improved products.

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Traditionally companies in the nonwovens industry are technology driven. That is, they are good at creating a new nonwoven material, raw material or process and then asking marketing to find it a home. This technique has worked for many years and many companies have found it a profitable way to do business. More recently, companies have begun to realize that a better and more efficient way to create new materials and raw materials is to start with an unmet consumer (customer) need. This prevents large expenditures for the development of nonwovens and raw materials that customers don’t want or need. Having said that, there is always a place for breakthrough new products and materials which customers don’t know they need. How many of us 10 years ago knew we needed a laptop computer, cell phone or DVD player? Breakthrough technologies and materials require a unique set of product development and marketing techniques.

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No New Product Development (NPD) effort will be successful or profitable unless the company starts with a formal and well communicated NPD vision and business plan. I like to call the NPD vision of a company its way of defining the sandbox in which we are allowed to play. Setting the parameters of what products and materials fit into the corporate vision and which do not limits the use of our scarce and valuable resources for research to areas the company will commercialize. Parameters of the sandbox include core competencies, distribution channels, support networks, products supported by strong corporate image, etc. Working outside the sandbox, we risk developing ideas that we won’t or don’t know how to produce and/or market effectively.

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Once we have our vision and our sandbox defined, we can begin the process of developing new and improved products for our customers. There are various techniques—some new, some well established—that are emerging as the way world class organizations do product development.

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Stages and Gates or variations of this process have become the mainstay of world class NPD. The major advantages of the Stages and Gates process are the standardization of the NPD process throughout the company and instilling discipline into the NPD process and the organization. Stages and Gates is a formal procedure that is understood and followed by the entire organization during the product development process. It calls for step-by-step (Stages) product development with frequent checkpoints with management (Gates) to keep the project and its budget on track. Details on the Stages and Gates process can be found throughout NPD literature.

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Another highly successful new technique is the use of Multifunctional Teams. Previously most companies used the “over-the-wall” technique. Research developed a product and threw it over the wall to engineering, who threw it over the wall to manufacturing, who threw it over the wall to marketing. Using this technique, products made it all the way to commercialization before manufacturing or marketing said “we can’t produce this” or “we can’t sell this.” The beauty of the multifunctional team approach is that all of the key functions (research, market research, manufacturing, engineering, marketing, packaging, etc.) are represented in the process from the very beginning. They participate at various levels as the project progresses but can provide vital input along the way. Changes made early in the NPD process are significantly less expensive and normally will not effect the schedule. I remember one project where having a manufacturing representative on the team resulted in a 24-hour reduction in retooling time with a less than 5% change in product dimensions to make it more machine compatible.

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Along with multifunctional teams, companies are opting for co-location of teams. All members of the project teams are located within 50 feet of each other. Co-location significantly increases communication, teamwork and creativity. When you don’t have to call or e-mail someone to get a question answered, the answer is not only faster but more efficient, complete and collaborative. I don’t advocate the building of new facilities to create co-location; although some companies are doing that, others are just moving folks together for their project. Visitors’ offices in the project team area can also be used for team members not needed daily such as the legal team representative.

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Great strides have been made in the area of computer-assisted NPD. New software becomes available weekly. Although software can be a great help in the process, we need to guard against becoming overly reliant on it. Software programs like Accolade from Sopheon provide structure, control, record keeping and management access to the process. Using an intranet system within your company allows multiple team members to input the process and project documents from remote locations regardless of the time zone in which they work. These computer programs are especially useful where research, marketing and engineering are located in different cities or countries from manufacturing.

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A growing trend is the use and involvement of vendors and consultants in the NPD process. There are several obvious advantages to this approach. Vendors are specialized and have significantly more resources to apply to a narrow area of technology. They want to be your supplier so they will work closely with you to identify or develop exactly what you need. Preferred vendors work more closely with their customers and are willing to expend more resources supporting them. Caution is advised in working with vendors. Concerns about confidentiality need to be addressed as well as becoming too dependent on one vendor. Consultants bring the advantage of broad industry exposure and experience. Companies and their technologies and consumer knowledge can become stagnated and out of touch. Just remember Ford and the Edsel. Consultants can bring a fresh look at technologies and costumer needs. The major advantage of using consultants is they are not full time employees and you don’t have to pay them benefits, which can provide major cost savings.

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In order to stay ahead of your competition and remain competitive, your new product development effort should grow and evolve the same way other business management techniques do. First and foremost, have a formal and well communicated NPD vision and business plan. In order to stay current, you can attend the many good seminars, conferences and training courses presented monthly and subscribe to industry publications such as this one. In short, just keep an open mind.