Penn State professor touts platform strategy, readies MIT course

A platform strategy can be an effective way to deploy and manage a family of products. The idea, said Timothy Simpson, a professor of mechanical engineering and industrial engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, is to develop a common-core architecture that supports reuse across an entire line of products. The goal is to develop common elements—components, modules, and subsystems as well as interfaces—to realize a line of products.

Under the auspices of MIT Professional Education, Simpson and Olivier L. de Weck, who currently leads the MIT Strategic Engineering Research Group, will present a course on the topic July 25 through July 29 at the MIT campus in Cambridge.

In a recent phone interview, Simpson said this year represents the tenth year the course has been offered, although, “The idea of platforming has been in the literature probably a good 20 years now.” Originally the concept focused on a marketing, management and business perspective, but more recently the focus has shifted to tools and methods for engineers.

The course, he said, addresses the question, “How do you make decisions on what should be common vs. what should be unique within your family of products?” And as companies compete globally they can find that “…the variety of products they are producing can skyrocket out of control unless they have a good strategy for what they are going to make in the U.S. and Europe and Japan and Asia and wherever else they have their factories and are  trying to sell goods.”

When asked about standards vs. proprietary specifications, Simpson said, “I think it’s a combination of both. You certainly want to adhere to the industry standards.” USB is good example, he said, enabling manufacturers to add auxiliary devices to extend their product lines. At the same time, he said, “Companies will inherently create best practices internally for how different modules and components and platform elements are assembled.”

So where should platform initiatives originate? “You need a mix of perspectives,” he said. “A technical or engineering definition alone may often overlook some of the important manufacturing implications or supply-chain implications or customer needs”—making it important to avoid platform decisions that adversely affect performance in other domains. Two approaches can help to avoid problems, he said: “…a multidisciplinary team where you got the marketing, management, engineering, manufacturing, and the supply chain represented, or you’ve got an individual who is been around in the company and rotated through these different positions and has a nice broad systems perspective on what is needed and can get the right information and make the right decisions.”

Of course, there can be pushback to adopting a platform approach. “Most companies and most teams are still organized around getting a single product out the door,” Simpson said. “With a platform you are really thinking about a line of products, and again most companies have not been organized for that either functionally or within their product-development practices.”

Platforms, he said, may be shared across different business units, and what might significantly benefit one product line and business unit may adversely affect the P&L for other business units. “They end up taking a hit on their financials that quarter,” he said. “That’s not good for them, and they may vote against the platform. You oftentimes have this disconnect between how the finances are organized relative to what you are trying to do with the platform, and when there’s a mismatch you certainly run into issues.”

The course by Simpson and de Weck will help address these issues, with various case studies and examples involvineg companies and organizations such as Black & Decker, Sony, Lutron, Boeing, GM, BP, and NASA. If you can’t attend the July course you could put next year’s edition or consult references such as Product Platform and Product Family Design: Methods and Applications.

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