Ford cars. Boeing planes. Lexmark printers. Minolta cameras. Very different products, very different industries. But the companies that make each of these products face two very similar challenges. First, they all sell to demanding customers. Each generation of their products has to perform substantially better, and must be developed significantly faster, than the previous generation. Second, in the race to get better faster, they all work with the same business partner: Structural Dynamics Research Corp. (SDRC), a fast-growing provider of design software based in suburban Cincinnati.
SDRC (1998 revenues: $400 million) is not a glamorous outfit. It makes CAD/CAM/CAE (computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, computer-aided engineering) systems that are used by factory managers and engineers - not the sort of people who appear regularly on Moneyline. But SDRC's systems are at the heart of the processes that some of the world's biggest companies are using to create their products. And its ideas about how product-development should work are changing how some of the world's best-known products get built and improved.
"Of course we are a technology company, but we are not really about technology," explains Alan Solomon, 45, a 20-year SDRC veteran who runs new business for the Americas. "We have about 300 engineers. These engineers go into client companies and help them change the way they develop products."
Ford is a classic case in point. Five years ago, the giant automaker embarked on an ambitious project to redesign the Ford Product Development System. Before the project, the company's six-level design process for a new car required 200 custom-made prototypes (that's 200 "bucks" in Detroit-speak). Building those prototypes cost lots of money (each one represented an investment of as much as $50,000) and created lots of frustration - especially when parts didn't fit together in the right way. It also took lots of time.
Enter SDRC. "We're trying to eliminate the prototype stage and to do all the testing on the computer," explains Jay Hay, 54, vice president of SDRC's Ford Program Office. "If you can make all your changes to the design when it's a 'virtual' car, then the process is much cheaper and faster."
Today, Ford has more than 4,000 users of I-DEAS (SDRC's flagship software), and SDRC has 150 full-time employees working at Ford to help keep the pedal to the metal. Ford has cut the average cycle time from 55 months to 32 months. Now it's pushing to get that time down to 24 months.
What has SDRC come to understand about how to develop great products fast? To begin with, the opportunities for acceleration are immense. Forget incremental change: SDRC tries to slash development times in half. But the faster a company goes, the deeper into its organization it has to reach.
"If a company really wants to do things differently," Solomon argues, "then it needs to think about its process for developing products from the moment a new idea gets sketched on a napkin to the day a new product gets shipped to customers. You need to take an end-to-end view."
And this end-to-end view of product development requires a major shift: Making a product different - whether it's a car or a camera - involves more than just a few minor tweaks. Say that an engineer wants to change a simple feature on one part. That small change affects how the part interacts with other parts - which in turn affects the whole manufacturing process. You can't resist such changes - because that's precisely where innovation comes from. But you can track them (and their impact on the entire design process) in real time. That way, you can minimize delays as well as mistakes. Put simply: Decentralized creativity requires a dose of discipline.
That's where the "master model" comes in. In SDRC's software system, the master model is a digital database that contains all of the information about a product. Anybody on a product-development team can access the model and use it to experiment with the product's design. But only one person at a time can make permanent changes.
The master model gives you the best of both worlds: free-spirited tinkering across the organization, and carefully thought-out changes that will actually become part of the product. "When things are already running fast," says Solomon, "and you're trying to double the speed of product development, you have to give the right people the right information at the right time."
Visit SDRC on the Web (www.sdrc.com).
Sidebar: Ford Goes Faster
One of Ford's cars can go from zero to 60 MPH in five seconds, but when Ford wants to get a new model from design studio to showroom in record time, it asks SDRC for a tune-up.
Today, Ford uses SDRC's software to create virtual prototypes ("digital bucks") that are so close to the real thing that engineers no longer need physical models to see how parts fit together. That saves money, time, and lots of headaches. Engineers still build models, but they do so mainly to confirm their computer-simulation tests. "They're not using the physical vehicle to learn about the design," says Jay Hay, vice president of the Ford Program Office. "That's all done by computer."
Ford also makes sure that all of its design engineers are on the same page - a virtual page, that is. At each stage of the design process for a new car, engineers hold what are called "gateway reviews" to determine whether they're ready to move to the next stage. Those meetings used to mean delay. Members of each design team would invariably show up with conflicting drawings or incomplete test data. So they'd end up spending precious meeting time either identifying problems or gathering more information, rather than dealing with real issues.
Today, the reviews are organized around a "master model" (the digital buck) that incorporates the latest changes and the most recent test data. As a result, moving through gateways now takes days instead of weeks. "Everyone is on the same page at the same time," says Hay. "And that's the key to moving faster."
A version of this article appeared in the October 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.