"An unmet need is something that delights the customer, but it's not something they are aware that they want"
How do we begin the process of designing and introducing a new mower to the marketplace? The first step in the process is to discover what is lacking and what the marketplace is looking for. We do this in several ways, and then distil the information to provide a basic concept for the new machine.
We are always listening to the end-user, be it through feedback from our dealers and distributors across the UK, Europe and Asia; our regional sales managers, through discussion forums with our customers and our competitors' customers; and our product management team here in Ipswich, who have their 'fingers on the pulse' of the industry and are always looking to new product development or enhancing new products.
Voice of Customer (VOC)
As mentioned earlier, discussion forums are a major source of input for new product development. At this point, it is relevant to note that, as a manufacturer, we have to produce a machine that is capable of being marketed around the globe, not just here in the UK and Europe. Equipment has to meet the needs and operating conditions across continents - from the arctic conditions in Iceland and Scandinavia, to the temperate climates of northern Europe, the hotter regions of southern Europe, the sub-equatorial countries of the African continent and all the climate extremes of the Asia Pacific region.
Therefore, we stage voice of the customer events across the world where our product management teams will get a group of end-users together - not just our customers, but also users of competitor products - to determine what they would like to see in the next generation of mowing equipment.
This might sound a relatively easy process but, in reality, it takes a lot of time and effort to determine the nature of the potential customers' needs and, more importantly, their unmet needs.
An unmet need is something that delights the customer, but it's not something they are aware that they want.
As an analogy, look at the evolution of the door mirror on a car. Initially, it was a simple mirror often requiring a tool to adjust it from the outside of the car; functional, but inconvenient. It then evolved so that mirrors could be manually adjusted from inside the car without tools. Better, but hard to reach the mirror furthest from the driver.
Electrically adjusted mirrors made it easy for the driver to move the kerb side mirror. More recent 'delighters' will have been discovered by watching users adapt electric mirrors to their needs; for instance, auto dipping near side mirrors to allow drivers to see the kerb when parking (preventing damage to expensive alloy wheels) and auto-folding mirrors to prevent damage in car parks from passing pedestrians.
Each step of the door mirror evolution has further delighted the customer, but was doubtless identified by careful in-depth understanding of the unmet need by product managers.
In our case, the swing-out centre unit, when first introduced, was an unmet need. We designed it for greens mowers in the golf sector to make it easier to access for routine maintenance, and later transferred the technology to our municipal triplex mowers.
All of the information we gather is distilled into a design brief with a detailed set of objectives and parameters that the new machine must meet. It is then presented to our senior management team as a business case, which has, as its bottom line, the overarching principle that there's a need for the machine and, most importantly, it is commercially viable. On receiving the approval from senior management, it's handed over to our team of design engineers.
Initial design stage
The engineers create the initial design brief containing the outline design parameters and critical elements of the new product; this will relate to such items as footprint, dimensions, number and type of cutting units, position of operator, operator controls, fuel tanks, wheels etc.
The next stage is CAD (computer-aided design) modelling which employs very schematic imagery of all the elements mentioned above. The initial CAD designs will be block representations, totally lacking in any refined elements, showing the basic positioning of most of the major components.
Following general agreement with product management, who are the prime drivers of the project, the CAD images will be refined to produce a more detailed view of the machine. There will be a continuous process of refinement and review until an agreed design is confirmed.
We are now at the stage where we can begin bending metal. Our specialist Prototype Shop, situated on-site in Ipswich, will begin to fabricate the parts and components for what we call our Alpha build. We may use an existing mower as a 'mule', fabricating parts and seeing how they function, before going on to the next stage. In the interest of communality, consideration is given to using existing components and modular design elements.
Alpha prototypes are really used for feasibility purposes, to validate the functionality of the machine, to ensure that it does what it should do, and that it can be manufactured easily when it eventually goes into production. We have some components made by suppliers, and we also constantly review our VOC and the design brief to ensure that it meets and satisfies customer needs and wants. At this stage, we produce these early machines using only prototype tooling.
Returning to the swing-out centre unit on the Highway 3; this was developed at Alpha stage using its larger predecessor, the Highway 2130 as a mule. The design brief for the Highway 3 was to produce a municipal triplex with all the benefits of the Highway 2130, but in a smaller, lightweight package, allowing it to be transported on a 3.5 tonne truck. The main issue was that we wanted to build something lighter, but had to begin by adding more weight to accommodate the swing-out arm mechanism. Using the Alpha mule, our design engineers devised some ingenious patented design solutions to overcome the problem.
Having tested the feasibility and functionality at Alpha stage, we can now progress to build the Beta versions.
Beta prototypes are now nearing something approximating to the finished product. They incorporate all the changes agreed during Alpha build with input from suppliers, trusted end users, selected dealers and distributors and our sales team.
They are built on a production line in our manufacturing plant to determine that they can be fabricated successfully in this environment. At this stage, our assembly team will report any manufacturing issues to product management and these will be resolved with the director of manufacturing. Using a mix of prototype and production tooling we build up to six Beta units, which are then used for extensive testing.
Some of these Beta units will go onto our circular test track, where they will be run 24/7 over obstacles to test durability; others will be put onto test rigs for repetitive lift and lower tests, vibration tests and load tests, all to simulate five years of use.
Some will be sent out for field testing with trusted end-users. These end-users will be asked to sign confidentiality agreements and will test the machines under typical working conditions.
From this testing, we will determine if we have any major issues; if we do, then we will have to re-work some of the engineering and re-test but, assuming we have only minor amendments, we can proceed to the final Gamma stage.
Gamma Pre-production models
At this stage, we will incorporate all the minor refinements resulting from our test programme and build multiple units. This will normally be 6-8 weeks ahead of the launch date and four months before production begins in earnest.
The Bill of Materials (BOM) - every item that is needed to build the machine - will be confirmed and, from this point in, we are committed to production.
Parts manuals will be prepared, training manuals for technical and sales staff will be produced and marketing activity will begin, but more of this process will be the subject of our final article in this series.