A series of major fairs is about to start, and new ideas abound everywhere from the IAA to IT or technology fairs. In the past, design-to-cost was the main issue. Under given framework conditions, engineers had to develop and construct new products while keeping costs as low as possible. They had to adhere to the maxim: “Construct your product in such a way that, while respecting the existing conditions, you do not exceed the target costs.”
Looking for the latest trend
Now, everyone is looking for a new trend, a new “key driver” for the next product revolution. What might that be? Perhaps an answer to the question of how to efficiently get relevant information from the available mass of data? Of how to use fewer resources by making smaller products which offer (at least) a comparable range of functions? Or of how to keep carbon emissions as low as possible during the production or use of certain products (for example electric cars)?
Mobile phones are a good example of how things may develop. Initially, mobiles had one primary use, namely to make and receive telephone calls. Over time, new functions were added, for example texting. Simultaneously, the phones became smaller and lighter. And now, we have smartphones, and placing and receiving calls has become only one function of many. Now, producers are hoping to create a new hype by offering a “smartwatch”. Flexible displays will help to make the smartphone a smart accessory. A Samsung manager even expects the computerised watch to become a fashion icon. In that case, the smartwatch would be in for a similar development as traditional watches. When Swatch watches made their appearance, watches became a fashion accessory, which, as a side effect, showed the time.
The continued search for the next trend and the latest hype has another effect, too. Whole categories of products may vanish from the market as new products fulfil their functions. Take computers, for example. First, laptops and notebooks gradually replaced traditional desktops, and now, smartphones and tablets take the place of laptops and notebooks, as they offer roughly the same range of functions. With more and more people watching films on their smartphones and tablets, producers of traditional TV sets will be in for a rough ride, too. Still, as TV sets will likely be linked to the internet in the future, the traditional TV set will survive for now.
Besides the “crowding-out effect”, computer technology and the replacement of desktop PCs by laptops/notebooks and (later on) tablets/smartphones illustrates a second general trend in technology: that towards miniaturisation. There are two simple reasons for it:
- Smaller gadgets which offer the same range of functions are lighter.
- If fewer complex components are needed to offer the same functions, producers need less material and can reduce their processing and assembly efforts. That, in turn, is in line with the sustainability trend.
This trend has spread from electronics and related sectors to other products of daily life. The German business newspaper Handelsblatt writes that household appliance producers are starting to wonder whether a washing machine necessarily has to be a 60x60x85 cm cuboid (see Handelsblatt, 5 September 2013).
Whether we are speaking of household appliances, computer technology or cars – the question is whether it is possible to produce a given product (and obtain a given benefit) with less material and fewer processing steps. Doing so will help to reduce energy consumption and, in turn, carbon emissions.
In fact, people have been so busy looking for the new trend that they have overlooked that it has already started. Design-to-resources appears to have replaced design-to-cost. The new maxim is: “Construct your product in such a way that, while respecting the existing conditions, you do not exceed the target resource consumption.” This will lead to new procedures and requirements in terms of material components and surface processing. Companies in these sectors should benefit significantly from the trend.
Overall, we have seen how technological change (for example touchscreens), market changes/changing customer requirements (for example miniaturisation) or social trends (such as sustainability, resource protection) drive the development of new products and production procedures. That is good for innovation – and a clear alarm signal for all those who believe that their product is the best and will not need to change over time.