Engineering Serendipity: Getting the most from your Product Development

It’s the aim of many businesses – taking what you developed and sold from one customer to another. But it doesn’t happen easily. After all, what you developed for one customer or application wasn’t created with the new customer’s needs in mind. Heck, that new customer may be in a whole different kind of business. But when it does happen, it’s like you and the customer struck gold. And it’s the epitome of out-of-box thinking – stepping outside of your situation and habits and trying to solve a problem in a whole new way.

But how might you get the attention of technical decision-makers in an industry who may not know you? And how might you get your team to think about new applications for your inventions without slowing them down or distracting them?

Here are some tips to incorporate into your daily business practices that are helpful for technical teams, commercial teams, and everyone in between.

Tip 1: Analyze a problem from a variety of perspectives

This is just logic. Before acting, ensure you have the root cause of your problem identified. If it’s less a problem than an opportunity, make sure you imagine your needs from a variety of perspectives. Invite new voices to your conversation. Engineers solve problems, but so do product managers, application engineers, sellers, marketers, accountants, attorneys, field technicians, customer care agents, and more. With their input, your situation could turn itself into a much larger opportunity. And don’t discount the importance of your customer’s feedback. If they’re the ones with their hands on it, using your product, they may be the ones most likely to suggest how it might be improved.

Tip 2: Have a network of problem solvers outside of your industry

Sometimes discoveries are made in normal conversation. So, create or keep a network of professionals outside of your industry that you can turn to when you need to “pick someone’s brain” for a truly out-of-the-box reaction or advice.

Have trouble knowing who to reach out to? Find someone from your network who you once worked with but is now in another industry. Or find a classmate from school you respected who works in another industry.

Tip 3: Know what industries have common concerns or needs to find your adjacencies

If you’re in the food processing industry, you likely have robust health and safety regulations as it relates to contaminants. You will find similar requirements and practices in high-tech manufacturing clean room environments.

If you’re in healthcare, you must be concerned with data privacy. Similarly, the finance industry and government are also very concerned with data privacy. And both healthcare and defense share the priority of high network reliability (compared to others – it’s mission-critical for them with strict compliance requirements to match) and both industries may need fewer solutions, but they must last a lifetime. Look to them to see what trends and solutions are being deployed that could be a differentiator for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself to find a non-competitive adjacent market to look towards for inspiration.

· What are the unique requirements of my industry?

· What other industries have these concerns?

· Are any of these industries ahead of my own in terms of investment, technology, etc.?

· Do we have any staff with experience in these industries?

Tip 4: Stay current on technical trends

Industry trade publications can be fantastic sources of inspiration. Subscribe to credentialed academic publications and well-regarded publications for specific vocations such as engineering or operations, business, and entrepreneurial journals. And follow the thought leader authors on social media. These short posts or articles may be just one step away from connecting you to your next big idea.

And beyond reading, don’t overlook the power of interactive connections at conferences, tradeshows, user forums, and webinars. Here, you benefit from the dialogue and posing “what if” questions.

There are boundless sources of insight available. It’s not so much finding things that will help you, it’s figuring out which things will help you the most and always trying different things that lead you in new directions.

Tip 5: Innovate for innovation’s sake

Whether your company does hack-a-thons or invests in tools to share and build on ideas, the pure act of dedicating time to imagine and propose is the first step to creating more value for your products and services. Encourage your team to get together regularly to do two things. First, list new challenges in the market your current customers will be facing and ask yourself what you have that might help them address those challenges. Second, look at your portfolio of products and services and list the benefits your solutions have. Then find other applications for the benefits. This may seem common sensical, but often the pure act of asking yourself the same questions about the market and your portfolio at different moments in time will help uncover new ideas. The time elapsed since you last thought about these questions may have given your mind its needed time to rest. You may have learned something new since you last thought about this problem. Things in the marketplace may have changed. Either way, keep track of your ideas and questions and revisit them at regular intervals.

Tip 6: Find new functions for your features

You’ve seen the image of a waffle maker and running shoe sole. Well… what are the coolest features in your product portfolio? Could they be applied to other products in your portfolio or another industry? Whether or not the new application is in your market or not, it creates a great technology licensing opportunity and value.

Example: How a flight simulation company found a 4K video solution in the healthcare world

Finally, here’s an example of a video-over-fiber solution that suited both flight and healthcare applications.

High-resolution video is used by doctors for quality imaging of organs and systems. Oftentimes they’re accessing the images in operating rooms or locations that may be several hundred feet away from the HD equipment. 4K video signals may have to travel over cables through ceilings and walls. The data rate and the distance are too much for copper cables to handle. Our transmission solution was optical and met EMI, security requirements, and was light and easy to handle, and featured compact MPO connectors. Ultimately, the solution met all medical compliance requirements.

Fast forward to a client we worked with in the flight simulation industry. Hereto, high-resolution video images are a key part of their solution. Simulators recreate real lifelike images across multiple screens

enabled by video graphics cards in the background and fiber optics. They were having issues with an existing supplier being unable to resolve intermittent video quality issues. They recognized we had a new DisplayPort solution and needed a stable product that could last 7-10 years reliably (as proved by the robust healthcare industry testing). While our off-the-shelf solution did not readily have the specific industry certifications, the specs surpassed them, and nearly fit all of their needs. We provided our client samples for testing and ultimately turned the needed certifications quickly.

Different from the healthcare application, however, simulators are commonly used in military applications in harsh environments. This new use introduced a new challenge – an unstable power source. So, we designed a voltage protection circuit to ensure the solution performed reliably. In the end, we looked at the end-to-end system and provided the client with a stable, high-performing solution. But most importantly, we built a trusting, consultative relationship by truly working to understand their needs and ensuring it met their expectations.

Adapting technology and innovation for one highly regulated industry to use in another is one example of how you might achieve more. Think about how you can apply this intentionality and rigor to your processes and open the doors for your products to new markets. More will be possible when you marry big-picture thinking, careful design and engineering, and a willingness and openness to new ideas.

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