Ceramic and Glass Product Development Considerations
What are some important first steps for product development in the ceramic and glass industry?
Product development is a process that has applications beyond just the production of goods. While we traditionally think of product development in association with something tangible, the process can equally be applied to software, service industries, and even to government.
Modern product development in the ceramic and glass industry involves a holistic approach. This means that we must take into account all aspects of the product’s lifecycle, from conceptualization, manufacturing, service, and decommissioning, to end-of-life recycling or disposal.
One of the most important questions to ask in the earliest stages of product development is, “Do we have a specification?” The specification states what is desired to be created and what attributes the final product should possess. The specification could be supplied by your customer, a government agency (e.g., a performance or commercial-off-the-shelf specification for the military), or one you have generated internally based on your own market research. Beware vague requests. Without the level of detail a specification provides, the product’s desired attributes will not be clear, and the chances of hitting the mark with your product development efforts are greatly diminished. Often, initial requests for a product are nebulous. It is your task to draw out the actual requirements in the form of a specification.
Does your specification include references to applicable standards, such as those promulgated by ASTM, ANSI, European, Japanese, or other bodies? Recognize that even if a standard does not exist for your new product in your home market, one may exist in another country where you hope to sell your product. Reviewing these standards and incorporating them into your product specification can prove useful, even if you don’t intend to export it. The very existence of such a standard indicates that a group of people has already thought carefully through the necessary attributes of a product similar to the one you are proposing.
Does your product’s intended use involve exposure to a demanding environment? One of the key attributes of ceramic and glass materials is their stability: the ability to resist high temperatures, corrosion, and other types of degradation in service. For example, refractories are used in applications where resistance to high heat and chemical attack are required. Medical prosthetics, such as hip replacement components, must withstand years of cyclic loading without fatigue. Dental materials must withstand an environment that swings from acidic to basic and is in constant threat of thermal shock. Consider the challenges imposed on a dental crown when it is simultaneously exposed to hot coffee and ice cream! Have you accounted for these special requirements? They must be stated in the specification.
Will the product contain toxic substances? It may seem odd that anyone today would knowingly develop a product that contains a toxic substance, yet there are occasions when toxic chemistries can be necessary and advantageous. For example, hazardous chemistries are used in the deposition of thin-film electronics. Despite the fact that they may contain hazardous substances, we have come to depend on these products in our everyday lives. As the manufacturer, have you considered how to minimize or eliminate the use of these materials, the exposure of your employees and the public to these substances, and the product’s end-of-life disposal?
You are probably aware of the intended uses for your product, but have you considered unintended uses? End users can be creative in finding new and perhaps inappropriate applications for your product. Brainstorm these potential uses and take them into account during the design phase. This will allow modifications to be made so that your product is robust enough to withstand these alternative uses.
What was the impetus for developing this product? Was the request generated internally by your team, externally by a customer, or in response to an open innovation request? If your team generated the idea, do they have the experience and tools necessary to bring this project to completion? Do you have sufficient staff, both in terms of number of people and their capabilities, to successfully develop this product on time and within budget? Hiring more staff is always an option, but many organizations are finding that bringing in specific expertise on a short-term, contract basis enhances their team’s capabilities without the investment in time, effort, and expense involved with bringing new employees onboard.
With limited staff and budget, organizations are increasingly looking to alternative means of meeting design needs. Many are involved in open innovation, where inventors outside the company are asked to propose their best solutions to a stated need. This can also be advantageous since it results in a greater variety of proposals than would be generated by in-house staff alone.
Protecting Intellectual Property
Whether the idea for your new product was generated internally, externally, or through open innovation, have you documented the intellectual property that will allow you to successfully apply for patents, copyrights, and trademarks? Do you have a plan and budget for submitting these applications? Be sure to take into account the processing time (often as many as three years) for the patent office to conduct its initial review of your application. Will this align with your product development/introduction timeline?
Once you have received a patent for your product (or certain aspects thereof), you still have more to do. Be sure to have a patent attorney conduct a “freedom to operate” review. This will ensure that while practicing your patent by producing and selling your product, you are not simultaneously infringing someone else’s intellectual property. Likewise, if you intend to produce the product under license from another company, make certain that those agreements are in place well in advance of putting the product into the stream of commerce.
Quality and Safety
If you decide to make the product in-house, do you have the necessary quality control systems in place? Do you have specifications for incoming raw materials or sub-components? Is your manufacturing process well documented? Have you successfully completed an ISO certification? At what point in your process will you conduct quality checks, and how are these documented? Will you implement a statistics-based process such as Six-Sigma? Do these systems form part of an integrated feedback loop that helps you continuously improve the process and product, or do they stand alone?
Can producing the product in-house be done safely, without undue risks of injury or disease to employees, given your existing environmental, health and safety (EHS) staff, equipment, and training? If your operation is deficient in any of these areas, what is needed to bring them up to an acceptable level? This is another area where the use of outside expertise to identify workplace hazards, prepare safety plans and train employees can provide a needed boost.
Vendors and Other Relationships
Perhaps you already have the equipment and staff needed to manufacture your product internally. More often, however, a network of vendors, licensees, or even joint ventures will be required to bring a product to market. These arrangements may allow companies to access:
- Better pricing than could be obtained internally
- Better quality than could be obtained internally
- Capacity for greater production volume
- Complementary resources that fill capability gaps (e.g., Corning Inc. has a history of successful joint ventures that has resulted in household names such as Owens-Corning and Dow Corning)
While outsourcing may be attractive for the reasons given above, pitfalls are possible. First, do you have a process for qualifying external vendors? Has the vendor you are considering successfully completed your qualification process? If not, does this vendor have other credentials (e.g., ISO certification) that increase the probability that their process is documented and that they will be able to provide a product of consistent quality?
If your proposed vendor is in another country, additional factors need to be considered. Are there language, cultural, distance, legal, or trade barriers (tariff and non-tariff) that would inhibit the success of this endeavor? Too often, an attractive price will initially outweigh these factors; only later does their importance become apparent.
Turn the scenario around: If your firm is one of the production partners and your product will be exported, be sure that there are neither export restrictions from your country nor import restrictions from the destination country. For example, if you are a U.S.-based firm, International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and Export Administration Regulations (EAR) will have to be observed if you are making a product that has potential military applications. In addition, some countries attempt to protect their domestic industries by erecting import tariffs or other requirements that make importation of what would otherwise be competitive goods impractical.
If you have successfully navigated all the challenges previously discussed, congratulations—now is the time for a reality check from your sponsors. If this product was internally funded, have you determined whether it can be manufactured and sold in sufficient volumes and profit margins that will allow you to sustain and reinvest in the business? If your product was funded by venture capital, will you be able to meet the growth rates, rates of return, project milestones and off-ramps found in the business model? If you are an entrepreneur and your product was crowdfunded, will you have sufficient cash reserves to produce first articles for your investors by the promised dates?
These are but a few of the considerations to consider when developing a new product. If observed carefully from the start, they can help to avoid issues that may arise later in the product’s lifecycle.