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Review: Prototype to Product

Steve BranamOctober 16, 2021

Prototype to Product: A Practical Guide for Getting to Market, by Alan Cohen, is a must-read for anyone involved in product development, whether in a technical, management, or executive role.

I was reminded of it by Cohen's recent episode on Embedded.fm, 388: Brains Generate EMF, which is worth listening to a couple times through, especially if you're interested in medical device development. And in fact his first episode there, 269: Ultra-Precise Death Ray, is about the book material.

I read through it by skimming, and will definitely do a detailed second pass through it. It covers a lot of ground, comprising multiple skillsets. While few people will be interested in every chapter, most people will be interested in multiple chapters.

This article is available in PDF format for easy printing

Two quotes capture the essence:

  • His Fundamental Principal of Product Development: "Surprises only get more expensive if discovered later. Putting it another way: product development is largely an exercise in uncovering surprises as soon as possible."
  • "General Dwight Eisenhower got it right: "Plans are worthless, but planning is everything." While specific plans are inevitably broken by the end of the first week of work, spending substantial time and effort in the planning process is indispensable... While I absolutely know that much of the plan will turn out to be wrong, having a detailed plan at least gives me a prayer of being in the right ballpark for estimates of time and effort, and tracking progress."

At a high level, it's a systems engineering book. Then it breaks down the specific engineering domains involved in taking a concept through development and out to the market. This covers electrical, mechanical, industrial, user experience, software, and manufacturing engineering, and getting those various groups communicating and collaborating.

A single book can't possibly cover all the details of those disciplines. What this book does is provide a taste of each one so that the other participants have some awareness and understanding of what's involved. That's very timely given current supply chain disruptions, causing re-engineering and manufacturing reconfiguration.

It's this total end-to-end system view that's particularly valuable, and hard to find elsewhere. This is gold. It's far too easy for groups to operate disconnected from the concerns of the others. One of the basic tenets here is avoiding nasty surprises that can kill or at least seriously set back a project or company.

Some of the topics I thought helpful:

  • It starts right off with "The 11 Deadly Sins of Product Development."
  • The value (and risks) of requirements, and how to write them.
  • Various aspects of testing:
    • Design Verification Testing (DVT).
    • Design validation testing.
    • Certification testing.
    • Manufacturing testing.
    • Test Driven Development (TDD), with a mention of James Grenning's book (see my review of it).
    • Prototyping (testing concepts).
    • Pilot production (testing the manufacturing setup).
  • Design For Manufacture/Assembly (DFM/DFA).
  • How electronic products are manufactured.
  • Development vs. factory considerations.
  • Power supply and batteries.
  • Regulatory requirements.

Each chapter includes resources for further study. That finally got me to buy John Gall's Systemantics, affordable as an e-book (I'm reminded of the “six phases of a project”: Enthusiasm; Disillusionment; Panic; Search for the guilty; Punishment of the innocent; and Praise and honor for the nonparticipants).



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