Can 'lean startup' approach help fragile economy?

Signs of economic recovery may be stimulating your thoughts of new product development, as it’s essential to future growth. Yet, in a business environment that’s still fragile, this creates considerable risk and drain on constrained resources. An approach called Lean Startup is becoming popular as a way out of this dilemma. This month we look at why Lean Startup is such a powerful technique for reducing project waste and risk, and how you can use Rapid Prototyping as a tool for its practical implementation.

The new challenges

Fast Prototyping

Most businesses are seeing some evidence of a recovery, and confidence is starting to grow. Although encouraging, these conditions create challenges of their own. Many of our customers, having weathered the storm, have emerged with severely reduced resources.

With prospects both for their sales and the economy remaining fragile, the need to balance precious resources optimally between current projects and future developments becomes paramount. Not only does new product development draw heavily on these resources, it also involves significant risk - yet it remains essential to the future growth of the company.

In fact development risk appears in two ways. Firstly, there is the question of whether a profitable market actually exists for the planned product – will purchasers in sufficient numbers come forward and pay a price sufficient to justify the project costs? Secondly, even if full confidence in a viable market is established, can the product actually be produced to the expected specifications within the budget and timeframe allowed?

These dilemmas are particularly highlighted in the context of startup enterprises, so an increasing number are now responding with a new approach known as Lean Startup.

The Lean Startup approach

Its philosophy is based on Lean Manufacturing, a strategy for streamlined production developed in the 80s by Japanese auto manufacturers. In spite of its name, the approach is equally valid for new projects within established companies. It allows developers to obtain early understanding of what their customers really want, and then develop their vision continuously and incrementally through constant testing, adjustment and feedback.

Developers follow a rigorous process, known as validated learning, against a background of extreme uncertainty. Project managers can start on their campaign, enlist early adopters, add employees to each further experiment or iteration, and eventually start to build a product. By the time this is ready for distribution, it will already have established customers. As the steps used to achieve this are incremental, any deviation from expectations can be quickly spotted and corrected. This minimises or eliminates the waste of time, resources and money – and even the risk of total failure – associated with undertaking a major development project without the benefits of these frequent checks and corrections.

However project managers will need the right tools to implement this iterative process in practice. For example, being able to quickly and cheaply demonstrate the look and feel of a proposed new product to stakeholders and potential customers is essential. In the case of electronic products, this means putting together a set of viable components that typically include a Graphical User Interface (GUI), driving computer and suitable enclosure. A degree of integration becomes inevitable as the components have to operate smoothly with one another, and integrate with the rest of the product.

This can call for multidisciplinary expertise and effort. Imagine for example a new OEM product being developed from scratch which includes a computer, power supply, display panel, touch screen, enclosure and internal cabling - and then needs integration of other devices such as a card reader essential to the product’s application. Integration of these components calls for expertise areas covering electronics and power supply design, embedded computer and software development, and an understanding of the electrical, graphics, optical and software properties of display panels and touch screens. Mechanical engineering and aesthetic design is also necessary to develop an enclosure that looks right while successfully housing the computer and display hardware.

If, like so many of our customers, your resources have been depleted by years of economic downturn then drawing together a multidisciplinary team to fulfil this integration task can be a real challenge – especially if the solution is needed urgently for a proof of concept presentation.

Rapid Prototyping as a tool

An alternative is to work with an experienced systems integrator such as Anders. Firstly, we have the depth of stock and the knowledge to demonstrate a wide range of possibilities and combinations.
Then, depending on your choice, we can offer solutions that are either pre-integrated, or integrated to requirement if no pre-integrated solution currently exists. An important aspect of Anders’ approach is that we’ll support you to the depth of integration that best suits your particular project.

In one situation, you may decide that the most expedient approach is to focus on the display or GUI for the first prototype. Other projects and other circumstances may dictate a more extensively integrated solution, with programmable intelligence built into the GUI module. Whatever the case, the cost of the module will be more than compensated by the reduction in time and risk involved in delivering a prototype for critical scrutiny.

These prototyping solutions can often be carried forward into the final product. Equally, though, further prototyping iterations will be required, or refinements will sometimes be considered necessary to equip it for its target market; Aesthetic improvement to the production enclosure or anti-glare filtering for the display are just two such examples. As with the initial prototypes, Anders’s product knowledge and integration skillsets remain available as a continued development resource. Ultimately our expertise concerns progressing your project path through to market launch with minimal learning curve, waste or delay for your organisation.

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