What does front-end mean in plastic product design?
I’ve been involved in some rather catastrophic design projects during my working history, and more often than not I have had myself to blame. The most memorable cases have sprung from a desperate attempt to develop something completely new within a scheduled and budgeted NPD project. Indeed, solving fundamental questions on new materials, tooling principles or mechanisms as part of the implementation commonly leads to panic, confusion and an outcome that everyone finds disappointing, not least the customer.
Why and when is front-end needed?
Many new products are simply modifications of existing products. The projects in which they are created usually run smoothly without major issues. This is because materials, tooling and mechanics are based on something that has already proven to work – an existing concept.
An existing concept would, in other words, be an ideal starting point for every NPD project. For that to be possible, any fundamental issues should be solved beforehand and only details and their execution left to the scheduled implementation phase. That is the purpose of front-end design to me.
The outcome of front-end
The front-end phase should thus first identify the customer’s needs and then present a solution in a rough but functional prototype. It should also include the principle on the basis of which the item should be produced. This information should be enough to evaluate the need of separate technological development, as well as to estimate the risk, unit cost and total investment. If there seems to be no serious risks ahead, the concept is ready for implementation when the time is right. For each completed new product there should multiple front-end projects, the majority of which should be terminated as early as possible.
Sometimes the front-end phase is seen as an open-minded innovation arena that generates wild business and product ideas. While this is beneficial in itself, the outcome is usually far from executable – perhaps it should therefore rather be called front-front-end. Regardless of the terminology, the front-end should be there to solve the fundamental issues before the implementation phase.
Having an additional phase on R&D process may sound like time and resource consuming extra work. In the long run, however, it saves both, as the work has to be done anyway.