Last Word - Giving 'em the Business

Engineering graduates need product development skills to thrive in the high-tech workplace.

By Maurice Holmes

Today, a large portion of U.S. industry has come to the realization that companies will gain strategic advantage through their product development system. Although 80 percent of U.S. engineers go to work in product development, no one ever takes a course in the subject. That seems strange. There is something wrong with an educational system that is heavily steeped in the engineering disciplines but silent on how ideas and information flow through a process to create products.Illustration by David Clark

Although engineering design programs have sprung up around the country, they do not address such issues as:

  • Where do design requirements come from?
  • How do you manage technology and portfolios?
  • How do you create the business case?
  • What do you do to get products from the conceptual stage, to launch, and then out to customers?
  • How does design relate to customer satisfaction?

Design programs alone cannot address the complexities inherent in advanced technology product development. For example, today's automobiles have more than 10,000 parts. Development of just one new model requires three or more years of effort from 750 to 1,000 people within an automotive company, and many others in hundreds of supporting companies.

A group of companies-including Ford, General Motors, IBM, ITT Industries, Polaroid, the U.S. Navy, and Xerox-started sharing their thoughts on this subject a few years ago, and realized it was also a strategic advantage for the United States to have strength in this area. It is a mistake to continue to allow all of the product development practices that will make a difference in the future to come from Japan. Every major innovation in the past couple of decades-from quality function deployment, to just-in-time manufacturing, concurrent engineering, and robust design principles-is Japanese in origin. These innovations do eventually filter into American business culture, but by then, Japanese firms often have a 10-year lead.

Xerox approached the National Science Foundation through MIT, which had an interest in product development in both its business school and its engineering school. Equally important was a willingness between the two schools to collaborate, because the broad topic of product development cannot be adequately addressed from just one discipline's point of view.
In January 1997, the Center for Innovation in Product Development at MIT accepted its first 100 students. It is the first center in the world to offer  undergraduate and graduate degree programs in product development, drawing on business and engineering expertise simultaneously.

The Center and its partners have set as their challenge the creation of the new knowledge, processes, and tools; the deployment capability; and the educational programs needed to double in a decade the effectiveness of U.S. industry's annual investment in product development. As the Council on Competitiveness recently noted: "In this age of churn and rapidly decreasing product life cycles, we can only obtain a long-term competitive advantage by learning faster than the rest of the world."

In the future, it will be difficult to find a university that does not have a program in product development. The Center will soon name two outreach universities that will also offer product development degrees. We hope that many new CEOs, chief operating officers, and chief technology officers will come from this environment. The more traditional path of graduating from an engineering program, getting an MBA, going into finance or marketing, and then trying to figure out how to run a high-tech company can only be improved upon by having people trained in business and engineering simultaneously.

Maurice Holmes is a vice-president and chief engineer of Xerox Corporation.

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