Koenraad Debackere



This contribution is about the ways in which companies develop both the technical and the functional innovations that become embedded into their products. More specifically, I want to discuss the ways in which design technologies such as virtual product design and prototyping, known as parametric design technologies, in combination with design methodologies and appropriate organizational approaches, are shaping and reconfiguring the organisation of the product development process. As a consequence, this contribution is concerned with innovation operations rather than innovation strategy. Only an in-depth understanding of these operations allows to gradually open the black box of the new product development process. However, this does not mean that these operations are devoid of strategic significance. I therefore will conclude the discussion by arguing that the integration of these operations into an ‘Integrated Design Capability’ can sustain a firm’s competitive position, and hence, turn innovation into a formidable strategic weapon for the company.


At the roots of each new product development lies a design hierarchy, breaking the product’s architecture and respective functionalities down into technical specifications and components (e.g. Clark, 1985; Iansiti, 1997; Ulrich and Eppinger, 1995). This design hierarchy does not come about at random. It is the result of two related processes. The first process reflects the logic of problem solving in product design (e.g. Allen and Frischmuth, 1969; Petroski, 1996; Weber and Perkins, 1992). The second process is the creation of product concepts that underpin and fullfil customer needs (e.g. Cooper, 1993; Cooper and Kleinschmidt, 1996; ReVelle, Moran & Cox, 1998; Souder, 1987; Thomas, 1993; von Hippel, 1988). As suggested by Petroski in his 1996 book ‘Invention by Design’, design is a process of understanding what the product’s form is and how it might ‘fit’ the context in which it is to function and to be used. The outcome of the design process is the result of iterative cycles of experimentation and analysis that gradually define and refine the form of the product. Components and design rules are identified, major systems and sub-systems are conceptualised and selected, and their interrelationships are examined. Physical, chemical, mechanical, electrical and other engineering ‘laws’ impose specific technical constraints on the design hierarchy (Gevirtz, 1994; ReVelle, Moran and Cox, 1998).

However, form is not sufficient. As mentioned, the primary task is to choose design concepts that result in a form that ‘fits’ the context of use well. Goodness of fit between form and context therefore is at the heart of the second process shaping a design hierarchy. The ‘fit’ of the product form with its context is most often conceptualised as a set of functional specifications or requirements (Gevirtz, 1994; ReVelle, Moran and Cox, 1998). Methodologies like Quality Function Deployment aim at aligning form and context precisely by linking technical and functional parameters (Bossert, 1991; Hauser and Clausing, 1988; Debackere, Van Looy and Vliegen, 1997). Thus, the cycles of experimentation and analysis referred to previously are necessary to develop a ‘form’ that is aligned to its ‘context of use.’


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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

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