New Product Industrialization and the Zone of Proximal Development


My wife is a special education teacher for primary school kids, and her job is extraordinarily more difficult than anything you or I do. We were recently at one of her work social events and I overheard something about The Zone of Proximal Development. I learned that this is Lev Vygotsky’s theory of learning and development. The Zone of Proximal Development is summarized as the space between what a learner can do without assistance and what a learner can do with adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers. 

This got me thinking about our work and how we add value to the NPI process. We provide industrialization and manufacturing guidance in collaboration with clients that are learning how to build and launch new hardware designs.

Early in the process, during product conceptualization and definition (Phase Zero), almost everything and every manufacturing process is in play. Everyone is still using pencils and erasers, so it’s low risk to test many concepts. The design will iterate many times, there are product feature and user experience “gives and takes” influenced by technical feasibility (more on this below), estimated annual volume and cost. Everyone is still working in foam board and 3D printed parts, so the expenditure of time, money and labor is modest.

Once the design has moved past this stage, committing to the product concept becomes more consequential. Every change to the design becomes more difficult, lengthy and expensive.

That commitment is a major pivot point in the project trajectory and timeline. We’ve learned that there are three key points where we need to firmly collaborate with and guide our learners. They are:

  1. Just because someone thinks that they’ve discovered a better way of doing something (“we’ll just do this using robots and machine vision in a zero gravity environment”) doesn’t mean that it’s easy or possible to do it.
  2. The adage of “What’s this made of? It’s made of CAD” doesn’t fly in our world. The building blocks of components, materials and manufacturing processes need to be defined and honored before fabricating tooling and factory prototypes.
  3. Trying to create a perfect product often occurs at the expense of a pretty good one. 

Manufacturing in a factory setting isn’t like drawing on an Etch A Sketch. If you don’t like the design, we can’t give the supplier a shake and start over. Let’s work together to stay in the Zone of Product Development.

Jack Daniels

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