Are you Developing a Technology or Product? (Part 1)


Ken Haven

September 19, 2016

As a product development firm, we see a broad range of situations - clients come to us with ideas, sketches, prototypes, products that need “tweaking” and everything in between. Many of them come to us with what they call a “prototype” (more on that later) and want to know what it will take to take it into production. They then are often surprised to learn that what they really have is a technology, or a proof of concept vs. a prototype that is ready to be transferred into product. There are key differences we thought would be important to share with you in order to help you determine where you may be in the process and what are the key elements of getting into production.

Let’s start with what you have - is it a technology or something closer to a product? You can begin to think of this in the context of cooking a meal that you will sell pre-packaged to consumers - if you know what the meal will consist of(the end goal or product and it’s specifications/requirements), have all the ingredients(the various parts or subsystems that make up the product, mostly off the shelf), the recipe(a manufacturing process that can manufacture your product according to your requirements/specifications), then you’re well on your way to having something that will be a product. You can then develop a plan that includes a timeline and fairly accurate costs for what it will take to design this product to be manufacturable, and at what cost.

Now suppose you want to create the same meal (which includes chicken), but have the calories from fat associated with the meal reduced by 50%, and since the chicken’s fat calories make up 90% of the total fat calories for the meal, you need to reduce it’s calories by at least 40% (the math doesn’t really matter here). Clearly, if you haven’t produced a chicken with fewer calories, you don’t know if it can be done and this may not be feasible. But, let’s suppose after many attempts you’re able to produce a single piece of chicken that has the fewer calories you need. You’ve now proven it can be done, correct?

Well, yes and no - yes, it can be done, so you could argue you have a technology. But in order to create that chicken, you had to create a new breeding process, and you haven’t proven that the new process can scale. Moreover, the new process will likely require new equipment to breed those chickens at scale, and the new equipment doesn’t exist. Finally, you haven’t determined if the new breeding process produces chickens that are as resistant to disease as your current chickens, nor have you proven that the new breed of chickens will breed at the same rate as the older ones, produce as much usable meat, can be cooked in the same way across various recipes, etc., etc. - you get the idea.

All of what I’ve just described would be called technology development, and it’s typically difficult to define both if the technology will be ultimately manufacturable, and if so, how long it will take. So while you have what could be called a technology for lower fat calorie chickens, it’s not clear you have a path to producing that low calorie meal that is your product.

Product development/engineering is a more deterministic process that assumes all of the underlying components/technology work has been done and is characterized. Motors, plastics, electronics, fans, etc. all have operating and physical specifications that can be analyzed to determine if when assembled together, can meet the operating and performance requirements of the product in production. The engineer’s role is to select and/or design these components in a way that when assembled (in a way that is consistent with known manufacturing techniques or capabilities, or with a path to manufacturability), meets those requirements.

The next blog post will focus on ways you can determine where you are on the technology vs. product curve, and provide you with a checklist to assist in that process.

About the author

Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.