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1.1 Background

The starting point and to some degree the overall objectives and scope of this research work originate in the interest in exploring the applicability and appropriateness of adapting well proven flow-based control methods from the manufacturing discipline and applying these adapted methods to control a development process of complex products.

Product development in general is a very large topic. The scope of this work can not possibly cover all kinds of product developments. In this case the automotive industry provides the context for the kind of product development focused. The primary reason for this is due to the fact that I have been employed by Saab Automobile since 1987. The research presented in this thesis is therefore conducted in the organizational setting of Saab Automobile. This kind of product development can be characterized as the development of high variety, modular, and platform-based products. The topic of product platform and product family design is covered in a recent book by Simpson et al. (2006) providing a comprehensive overview of the area. A special kind of product variety is reflected through the brand of a product. Under the name of a specific brand, several products may be made available to customers and the market. Several product brands may be derived from one platform. The brand is therefore an important aspect to consider during the development of product platforms and the derivative product variants to be based on the platforms. An overview of issues and importance of brands and branding is provided by Clifton & Simmons (2004).

Furthermore, this kind of product development in focus is geared more towards refinement design of rather mature product concepts in contrast with more innovation oriented new product introduction (NPI) development. The NPI kind of development involves a broader range of uncertainties as well as opportunities. In the case of product development mainly based on refinement design of rather mature products, there is a substantial knowledge and experience base available to be effectively and efficiently exploited. Effective in this context refers to the understanding and ability to create the right products (i.e. products appreciated by the customers). Efficient refers to the ability to minimize the resources and time required to create these products. However, even though the main theme of product development in the automotive industry is refinement design of mature products, some of the systems and technologies used are changing at a rather fast pace and sometimes through breakthroughs.

A product development process in general is primarily centered on and based upon information and decision-making. As a consequence, interest in exploring the applicability of adapting flow control methods from the manufacturing domain must include a perspective on the information and decisions that are necessary to deal with throughout the product development from early phases until at least the start of regular production when the resulting products are made available to the customers.

1.2 Problem definition

In the context of the automotive industry, product development is primarily based on refinement design of rather mature and well-known product architectures and design solutions. However, as with many other things, this is only true to a certain extent. The continued globalization within the automotive industry drives changes to the product development approaches, even though the products, as mentioned, are rather mature. Product development is based more and more on shared product platforms where utilization of common design solutions and economies of scale is a key driver, but where products based on the platforms need to be customer oriented and true to their brands.

Furthermore, technological development drives a number of new opportunities and challenges within the well-known design concepts and architectures. The rate of change in information technology also influences automotive product development on several levels. Mechatronic systems are in rapid development and provide more and more functionality in the vehicle to the customers. For the product development process the scenario described implies that new kinds of information defining and describing the emerging design solutions and products must be dealt with and managed. Another aspect of this is that design solutions based on these technologies also carry an inherently different set of timing aspects for the necessary decision-making during the product development compared to the traditional technologies well-known to the automotive industry.

The project management paradigm is commonly used to guide and drive product development. However, in the context of the automotive industry, a more process oriented view on product development has been emerging for some time. With a process oriented view and framework for product development comes a question regarding the application of a project management oriented approach for development execution. Is the project management paradigm the best approach to guide and control the product development? This question is further emphasized in the view of a more platform oriented approach, where platform development and development of product derivatives are two different aspects of the development work to be performed. Associated with a project management oriented approach is the start-up and formation of the project. In a sense this can be compared with a set-up in a manufacturing context. With a more repetitive and process oriented approach to the platform-based product development any such additional set-up effort should if possible be avoided. Another aspect of a project oriented approach is that decision-making is often conducted within the scope of the project. In a platform-based approach to product development this may lead to sub-optimization where project objectives are in some conflict with the full range of products to be based on the platform.

Based on the scenario described the reasons for exploring a manufacturing oriented approach to a flow based control approach of product development at least for the kind of product development within the automotive industry are motivated. Furthermore, a product development process is based on information refinement and decision-making. Therefore, information refinement is assumed to be able to constitute the flow to be controlled within the product development. This is compared to the physical refinement flow of a product within a manufacturing context. As a consequence, it is motivated to focus attention on what may constitute a core information model that is capable of supporting both the kind of product development concerned as well as lending itself to provide the foundation for the flow-based control approach.

In the problem definition as described above the questions regarding the information to be refined by the product development process may seem to be only a small issue. However, this is not really the case. The kind of changes to product development driven by the combined drivers of globalization, platform based development, and technological development (e.g., mechatronics) in combination with a more and more customer and niche oriented market development makes the currently available information models and paradigms less appropriate for providing effective and efficient support in this context. Furthermore, providing a high variety of products based on product platforms takes a step beyond traditionally well-established development methods and tools.

1.3 Research goals

1.3.1 Research questions

During the start up of this research three specific research questions were initially formulated. The research questions focus on two major issues: (1) a manufacturing process inspired flow-based control approach to product development and (2) the information and model required in order to enable the application of a flow-based control approach.

  1. How can the experiences gained in the manufacturing area regarding effective constraints-based flow control be applied to improve the speed and effectiveness of product development?
  2. How should a product model be designed that provides the foundation for application of a flow-based control of the product development process?
  3. How should a control method be designed that effectively drives a product development process based on a flow control paradigm and that exploits the product model as a key enabler?

These three research questions formulate a rather large and comprehensive set of research issues to be explored. Each of the three research questions involve a rather large number of subsequent second level questions and issues to be worked on. It is therefore not reasonable address all three research questions in the scope of this research. In the beginning of this research the focus was therefore delimited to the second question above. Combined with the delimitation in scope to focus on the second question it was also considered that the kind of product development in the automotive industry deals with high variety, modular, and platform-based products. The research question addressed by the research presented in this thesis was therefore given the following formulation:

  1. How can high variety, modular, and platform-based products be represented during product development that can provide cross-functional support through-out the entire product lifecycle in the industrial setting of the automotive industry?

The research done and presented in this thesis addresses the fourth delimited research question above. The research questions has been addressed in this research using an abductive approach and due to the situation with the researcher employed by the company under study an action oriented approach has been used. The available industrial setting provides a relevant context for the fourth research question to be focused. It is however important to recognize that all of the three initially formulated questions provide a contextual background and has an influence on choices made during the research and evaluation of the qualities of chosen concepts. Therefore, the three initially formulated research issues have influenced the research and the results.

1.3.2 Industry goal

From an industry perspective this research work is expected to contribute to an enhanced understanding of how a product model can be defined that improves the potential to represent high variety and platform-based products in all phases of development. This industry objective is based on the premise that such a product model will improve the capability and efficiency in the development of platform-based products. It will improve the ability to leverage common components in a product platform with an appropriate level and implementation of product variety required to meet customer expectations. Furthermore, the research work is expected to provide some insights into how such product model can participate in the control and management of a product development process. The anchorage of the product model with established design theories and methodologies is an important aspect to ensure the potential of a systematic approach to product development that is founded upon proven and well-founded concepts and theories. This is important in order to build confidence in the proposed approach as well as tap in and connect to existing knowledge and competence to execute development work utilizing the proposed approach.

1.3.3 Scientific goal

From a scientific point of view this project is expected to contribute to an enhanced understanding of how to apply and extend established design theory and design methodology in order to improve product development capabilities in the platform-based context described above (i.e. development of high variety, modular, and platform-based products). An important element in achieving this will be an information framework or integrated product model based on a theoretical foundation that can support this kind of product development process both in early phases where we deal with incomplete and inconsistent information and in later phases when the information is expected to be complete and consistent. Other important aspects are the need to be able to define the product independent of the technology domain of the design solutions and the recognition of development collaboration with development partners and the actors in the supply chain.

1.4 Delimitation and scope

The importance of having an appropriate view and model of the information refinement flow that is taking place during product development made the second research question in section 1.3.1 a natural starting point for the research work. This was further motivated by the industrial setting within which this research work has primarily been performed. The complexity of the product development in the automotive industry motivated to further delimitations narrowing the focus. The fourth research question in section 1.3.1 was therefore selected to be addressed by this research.

The point of departure for the research work was, as a consequence, to define a core product definition that is able to manage platform-based products with high variety. Furthermore, it must be able to provide support through-out the full lifecycle of the product and especially so in early phases of product definition. Additionally, it must be able to provide representations that can support all technology domains present in the products (i.e. extend the current rather physically and mechanically oriented approach to embracing mechatronics and software). An early outcome of the research work was the definition of the configurable component concept as a core enabler for the above mentioned objectives. The focus of the research has therefore been directed towards the definition and exploration of this proposed concept. However, the full set of research questions and the scenario and problem definitions described above exercise a substantial influence on how the proposed concept is conceptualized as well as on how its benefits and potential shortcomings are identified and evaluated.

Even though the configurable component concept has been clearly in the focus of the research efforts, there are three additional themes that extend the research work towards the larger set of issues indicated by the three research questions in section 1.3.1. These themes are: (1) the proposed extension to include manufacturing system modeling; (2) the exploration of design bandwidth and the co-optimization of variety and commonality; and (3) the proposed integrated framework including the product, manufacturing, and sales domains. These themes are described together with the main results in chapter 5.

1.5 Disposition of the thesis

This thesis is structured in the following way. First a contextual background is presented that provides an overview of the background and the issues that are dealt with in the research. Following this background and introduction is a presentation of the applied scientific approach describing the scientific methods and approaches used in the presented research in order to provide the scientific value of the presented results. The scientific approach is followed by a rather extensive description of the frame of reference that in essence is selected pre-knowledge in different areas that are related to this research work. The sections in the frame of reference are included in the thesis to provide both a kind of state-of-the-art literature review and a knowledge base that can be used to enhance the understanding of the research results presented as well as in some cases to provide additional details in related areas that have not been the focus of this research. The main results of this research work are then presented in the research results chapter, which is followed by a discussion of the results and the research work carried out. The conclusion chapter summarizes the thesis and the research work performed. The conclusion chapter also provides a discussion of the verification and validity of the research results and work reported in the thesis. Finally, the reflections chapter comments on related research and future research possibilities.

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