Finding Product Opportunity
Which concepts should we develop into products? And, more importantly, which
product opportunities can be ignored or deferred? Why must the character of the
company dictate the R&D organization’s structure and choice of projects?
You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to
them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.
In the early 1970s, Philips Electronics led the race to create the digital storage
of music and video. Laser technology allowed rapid access to vast amounts of
digital data on rotating surfaces, compared to the incumbent analog methods.
Commercialization of a consumer product was initially inhibited by the size,
power requirements, and cost of the laser equipment. As their size and price
dropped, digital audio systems became commercially feasible for consumers.
The Philips researchers worked with 300mm diameter glass disks, to store
enough data for full-length movies. In the music arena, stores were cong-
ured to display analog 300mm LP record albums. Marketers were accus-
tomed to the ample graphics display space on the cardboard sleeve. Stereo
system cabinets were designed to accommodate a top-loading turntable and
to store the large albums. In short, the entire music industry infrastructure
was geared around large disk media.
Due to the dense storage capacity of the digital format, a 300mm disk could
hold hundreds of songs, rather than the 10 to 20 songs on a typical record album.
From a technical perspective, this was quite an impressive achievement. The
music industry was less enthusiastic about that approach. They could not imag-
ine a business model to sell prerecorded music in such large units.
When Sony and Philips collaborated on a standard format in 1980, the
compact disk (CD) that we know today became a reality. The 300mm proto-
type shrank to 115mm (later adjusted to 120mm). The music recording com-
panies could sell albums with the traditional number of songs. Seventy-four
minutes of capacity was the benchmark, based on the length of Beethoven’s
9th Symphony. Retail stores were compelled to redesign their display space
and nd new ways to prevent shoplifting. The designers of album cover art
downsized their work to accommodate the new packaging. Stereo systems
shrank in size and no longer required special furniture.
The pioneers of revolutionary new concepts cannot allow paradigms to dic-
tate all of the product features. Carefully consider which product attributes
90 Process Techniques for Engineering High-Performance Materials
exist because they have value and which are artifacts of incumbent technol-
ogy. Never ignore valuable new approaches just because there are compati-
bility objections. This is especially true when those issues are internal to
your organization. Competitors are not constrained.
Radical change within a market segment is often blocked by technical
barriers, such as the early laser equipment. As these limits are removed, a
stagnant concept suddenly becomes viable, allowing the entire industry to
change quickly. It pays to keep track of these constraints so that advances
RULE #49 PREDICTING THE OPTIMAL
NEW PRODUCT IS IMPOSSIBLE