The Power of Product Platforms


The Power of Product Platforms by Marc H. Meyer and Alvin P. Lehnerd

The advantage of product platforms

Meyer and Lehnerd argue that product success is built largely on creating product platforms rather than attempting to release single products in succession. When products are designed, evaluated, and implemented independently, there is a cost associated with budgeting, cost/benefit analysis, and stage/gate processes. The platform option uses common materials, shared components, and product teams working towards a common goal. Ideally, derivative products can be effectively planned and built from a common platform design and architecture.

What is a product platform

A product platform is “a set of common components, modules, or parts from which a stream of derivative products can be efficiently created and launched.” Included in the product platform definition are the subsystems and the interfaces between them.

The end result of this single-product focus is a failure to embrace commonality, compatibility, standardization, or modularization among different products and product lines.

The book describes an effort by Black & Decker in 1971 to overhaul their entire product line in response to a new mandate related to insulation within power tools. In a “bet the company” move, Black & Deck set about redesigning all consumer power tools and their manufacturing processes simultaneously with a goal of offering the new tools without a price increase. Additionally, the company had a goal of creating a modular design for components like engines.

In other words, [the product designer’s] job was one of understanding customer needs, integrating modular subsystems, and perfecting the incremental attachments.

After completing the insulation program, Black & Decker was able to introduce new products to market at a highly accelerated pace (the book cites weekly new product introductions). The need to scrap manufacturing equipment was greatly reduced because there were far fewer special purpose machines and production tools. Motor manufacturing labor cost was reduced from nearly 600 people to 171. Moreover, the company was able to keep its consumer costs flat, driving many competitors out of business.

Black & Decker used three key strategies to successfully implement their product platform initiative:

  • avoiding a piecemeal, single-product focus
  • redesigning both the products and the process of creating them (manufacturing)
  • taking a long-term view of product development

These strategies are based on three principles of successful product line renewal based on a platform:

  • Planning and managing products based on the concept of a product family (“a set of products that share common technology and address a related set of market applications”). Examples of successful product families are Intel chips, Honda’s Accord and Civic lines, and the DC-3.
  • Simultaneously designing the product itself and the production of the product. Manufacturing companies face the problem of investment in specialized machines which may not be suitable for producing other products in the future.
  • Global focus in product design and market development. Black & Decker standardized on metric measurements for all consumer power tools to enable global sourcing of parts.
  • Identification of unperceived customer needs. Although not specific to platform products, latent needs can be served in a more scalable manner with a product family concept.
  • Simplicity in design. Platforms can enable simplicity in design and rich feature sets by providing a common architecture.

The authors point out that Black & Decker eventually lost its way when, in the interests of cost reduction, it abandoned its product platform and eventually reverted to its previous piecemeal practices. A practice of “continuous renewal” is critical to maintain the advantages provided by a product platform.

In the video below, Tim Simpson, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and engineering design at Penn State, gives a talk titled “Product Platform and Product Family Design” at the Segal Design Institute. He covers a lot of concepts from the book and gives many examples of product families. Simpson edited the textbook Product Platform and Product Family Design: Methods and Applications which contains a collection of articles on product platform strategy.

The challenge when designing a product family lies in resolving the inherent tradeoff between commonality in the platform and distinctiveness of the individual products.


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