You never hear engineers say, “I want to develop a real loser product for the marketplace.” However, when engineers begin the product design process without benchmarking competitive products, that’s exactly what their actions are saying. 

The allure of the creative design process is enticing, but the threat of failure should be a much greater impetuous. It should stop engineers in their tracks for some introspective examination of the competitive marketplace. Engineers sometimes forget that they control at least 70 percent of the success or failure of a product once it hits the factory floor.

Illustration #1 Shadow Chart

Often times, engineers want to move quickly to the “fun” creative stage, where they can leave their mark. There’s more than one type of mark to make. Taking the more exciting, but dangerous and unencumbered approach could leave lots of mistakes.

Those looking to make a positive improvement must get in front of the competition. This means breaking standard practices and adopting innovative ways of doing business. It means looking to industries that have similar processes for different products. It means delivering the precise financial and technical data needed to make accurate decisions.

A typical benchmarking activity should investigate the competition’s product for best practices. Unfortunately, while you’re benchmarking your competitors’ current product for new best practices, they’re continuing to innovate. Therefore, by the time you launch your new and improved product, the competition is launching their next big thing and again you will be in the “catch-up” mode.

So what’s an engineer to do?

Competitive benchmarking and reverse engineering are necessary process steps in the pursuit of continuous product improvement and sustainability, but you must also benchmark the greater industrial base in order to achieve a “leapfrog condition” and surpass your competition.

There are three keys to successful benchmarking and leapfrogging:

  1. Picking the right products and industries to benchmark;
  2. Having a non-advocate  process to objectively and analytically measure the competitive gap and subsequent improvement opportunities; and
  3. Having executive approval to review products completely outside your industry.

Key 1: Picking the right products and industries

Let’s start with your best product. Ask yourself these critical questions: Just how good is it? Do you really know how much it will cost or are you depending on purchasing tricks? Is it manufactureable or have the guys on the floor figured out a series of workarounds to the process sheets? What are your quality levels and how much “hidden” factory is associated with your inability to hit factory efficiencies?

Once you’ve taken an honest look at these questions, compare your data against your products latest product. Side-by-side comparisons are the best method for dispelling the myths about what design is better, but only if the data is equalized and graded in a fair way.

Key 2: Employing a non-advocate process to analytically measure the competitive gap and improvement opportunities

The Munro benchmarking process involves product disassembly, visual display and analysis. In the Munro process, disassembly is not a rote step preformed by disinterested techs, but instead it’s a learning experience and a revealing event for engineers.

During the process, the product is disassembled, photographed, scanned, analytically scrutinized for manufacturability, costed and mounted for visual display. This snapshot in time showcases material choices and manufacturing process selection, while evaluating the level of design complexity and assembly difficulty.

Illustration #2 Munro Benchmarking Process

Illustration #3 Munro Benchmarking Process

Munro employs the rigor to objectively and quantitatively analyze the product design. To accurately evaluate products, Munro employs its MAP3 (Manufacturing, Affordability, Producibility, Product and Process) methodology and software as a tool, which provides a detailed, repeatable and accurate value stream map of the product. MAP3 lays bare the products essence in every area, not just manufacturing and assembly. Scores of objective metrics are available for output from the software, and even more importantly, the software has the capability to account for derivatives in the product to an infinite degree.

Coupled with the addition of the new Department of Defense required MRL (Manufacturing Readiness Levels) and math tabs, which allow any equation or formula to be customized for every user, there is no product or process that the software hasn’t been able to accurately handle, from a chocolate bar factory to X-BOX from the space station to the car you likely drive.

Employing a process that scrutinizes quality is also vital, as a cheaper process or material could result in a costly recall. Good benchmarking will identify hidden factory costs, the sigma value, total defects per unit, percent right first time capability and the projected cost of poor quality for every component and operation in the product. During Munro’s benchmarking efforts, the PI (Producibility Index) – which provides manufacturing producible indices percentage for the likely hood of success with your existing or proposed equipment – and the CI (Confidence Index) – which develops an indices for the likely hood of customer acceptance based against your product specifications, marketing expectations and the PI – are key elements in the evaluation process.

Illustration #4 MAP3 Results

Employing a non-advocate process helps to quantify designs and design changes. Once opportunities for improvement are determined, reverse engineering can use these opportunities to develop innovative engineered solutions. To employ these solutions, look to successful products and processes outside of your industry.

Key 3: Get Executive approval and review products completely outside your industry

If you only know what you know, you will be left behind. To succeed you need to explore, find the next big thing and gain an understanding of what you don’t know.

Start by looking at unrelated, but similar industries. For example, aircraft carriers and coffin manufactures have a common practice: welding. Have a look at a coffin and if you know welding get ready for an eye candy treat that you will never see in a shipyard. As another example, automobiles and LEGOs share a common challenge: consistency of product in various factories in different parts of the world. LEGO makes billions of components and millions of variant parts that all fit together no matter if they are made in Thailand or Brazil, North America or Europe. Given this shared situation, both companies may be able to share key best practices to foster additional success.

However, breakthrough ideas for creative new products will never come from product improvement. The “leapfrog” product will only come from what the Japanese call Kaikaku, which translates to radical innovation. As Dr. Deming often said, “Great change can only come from the outside.” And if we look at history, we see that he was proven right over and over again. One of the greatest benchmarkers of all time, Henry Ford, got his greatest invention of all time – the assembly line – by touring a slaughter house. Great ideas are everywhere if you just open yourself up to them. Look for potential, not absolutes.

Integrating and evaluating these new technologies presents other hurtles. Having gained access to these technologies it is important to be able to apply them and to measure the improvement gained. Often new ideas and innovative concepts get thrown out based on opinions formed with incomplete data. Sometimes they end up on the back burner for an implementation at a later date that never comes. In the meantime, product designs progress with mediocrity; satisfied with only “safe” incremental improvements.

Munro determined that an objective mechanism that quickly evaluates design iterations, tallying instant and accurate financial data and confidence indices were key to successful idea implementation is critical to success. As a result, we developed MAP3 to develop the critical data needed for the efficient decision making required to reveal, in objective terms, if and when new product targets and goals will be met.

One of the main reasons that innovation is difficult is because all industries have boundaries that they live in; rules and regulations that have been around for eons to protect and serve the industry. The problem is that time marches on and these traditional rules are left behind by newcomers, the upstarts that have nothing invested in the old way of doing business. The companies that win come in first with the new way of doing business. As Bonnie Sudik, vice president of McDonnell Douglas said, “If we argue hard for our limitations, we will get to keep them.”

“Know yourself, know your enemy and win consistently!” - General Sun Tzu (circa 500BC)

Munro & Associates has benchmarked and reverse engineered thousands of products from industries around the world, including large refrigeration units, medical devices, cars, heavy industry, airplanes, defense weapons, appliances, large and small engines, transmissions, consumer products, hamburgers and office procedures. The company has two benchmarking operations: a 26,000 square-foot facility known as the BIC (Benchmarking Innovation Center), which analyzes anything from clothing looms to commercial HVAC systems and smart bombs to diaper recycling systems. The company also has a second 80,000 square-foot facility called the MKC (Munro Knowledge Center), which is dedicated to automotive.

This extensive expertise has shown not only the benefits of benchmarking, but reveled three key aspects of successful practices: starting with the right product and industry; employing an objective process to analytically measure the competitive gap and potential opportunities; and gaining executive support and approval to look outside your industry.