It’s over, folks. Samsung Galaxy Note 7, the marquee product designed to beat rival Apple’s iPhone 7 has been axed entirely by the company. The worst-ever product recall in the industry, the Galaxy Note 7 fiasco has depleted over USD 26 billion from the valuation of world’s leading smartphone maker. The global recall has put a dent in its margins amounting to USD 6 billion!

As the smartphone industry reels under the aftermath of the Note 7 debacle, we wonder what could have gone wrong with a product that was feature rich, boasted of the best display in the industry, and was touted as one of the best performers. Is it a case of function trumping form? Messed up supply chain quality check or manufacturing process? Or rushing the product through development cycles to beat competition? Let’s deep dive in to today’s product engineering landscape.

The Note 7 debacle is not just hitting Samsung

Well, it is not just about increasing sales for rival companies such as Apple or Xiaomi, as Samsung’s sales figures go south. It is about the customer trust in smartphone manufacturers that has taken a hit. Samsung might have over accelerated the product development cycle in order to compress the time to market. The resulting consequences might surface for years to come, not just for Samsung but for other smartphone companies as well.

Do companies overlook consumer safety?

The Galaxy Note 7 episode presents a case for deep introspection for all technology providers. If the world’s most successful electronics giant could fail so badly, there ought to be something that the technology ecosystem stakeholders are overlooking. Consider this, Samsung is not just an OEM. It is a chip maker, battery maker, display maker, camera sensor maker, and much more. Ironically Samsung’s high technology experience and expertise goes in to even rival Apple’s products. Too complex is today’s technology ecosystem.

It is easy to look back and critique possible failure causes. However, it is quite overwhelming to understand the complexities of product development today, especially in the hyper competitive consumer electronics industry. Demand for shorter release cycles and growing consumer expectations for innovation are all publicly discussed online. OEMs are under more pressure than ever to retain their relevance in the market. Young companies are jumpstarting with new products at cheaper price points with bundled business models. Are all of them serious about consumer benefits and safety while competing against each other in proclaiming design marvels?

Product Engineering Challenges Today

Product Development: The great forces of engineering challenges
Product Development: The great forces of engineering challenges

Product development is no longer just a sequence of processes to create a product under one roof. Today’s OEM factories are assembly houses for hundreds of parts sourced from supply chain partners across the world. Adding to the complexity is the software piece, which is again sourced from third party vendors. Remember, the software and hardware are ’deeply blended’ so that even a software failure can lead to heating electronics! Do all partners get the spirit of their OEM?

Growing online retail is bringing all products to the global market and make them compete each other. This is also making consumer expectations of features and innovations sky rocket, while the price expectations turn south. Eying the global market, companies are trying to be different and ahead of each other hunting for volumes.

The Evolving Product Engineering Landscape

Many in the tech world believe that Apple taught Chinese manufacturers about manufacturing innovation. While that may be true, the Chinese have excelled in the domain by now – several new generation consumer product companies bear testimony to the fact. Moreover, the gap from design to manufacturing is shrinking as production methodologies evolve. A product can now be easily brought to the market if you have funds and you figured a revenue model around it. While some big OEMs may be doing it all by themselves, the new generation consumer electronics companies are all relying on Chinese manufacturers (ODMs) for hardware. They focus solely on software and services – a necessity in today’s time. Companies must exercise caution to ensure consumer respect and safety at all times.

What Comes First: Consumer or Technology?

Not all innovations today in the tech world put consumer in the first place. In the race to win against competition, several companies place technology first and later fit consumer in to it. For instance, take the battery technology. Many flagship smartphones today are powerful than a laptop computer, yet fitting in the pocket is a primary requirement. While smartphone manufacturers revamp everything from design to features and functionality, the battery technology ironically is unchanged. Instead of innovating to create better suited battery technology, the smartphone industry has given birth to a new market of battery packs (power banks)!. As a result, the very same battery technology gets pushed to the limits with quick charging technologies causing the batteries to heat up excessively. Does this mean smartphone batteries are in the danger of thermal runaway? While we do not have a conclusive answer to that, it is certainly not what the consumers deserve.

Making a global product: Gone are the days of releasing products for a specific market. OEMs now have to address the demands of global audience. However, the end user environments are far too varied across the world. The mains A/C voltage, carrier networks, regulatory standards, environment conditions, and consumer habits are all different. Mass producing a single product for satisfying such widely varied specifications involves science, engineering, process, and business challenges. If not, a little bit of learned art too. Does the volume game takes away engineering focus?

The foregoing ‘ilities’ of yesterday: Serviceability and maintainability are the norms of yesterday. Consumers have learnt to throw away malfunctioning devices to get new ones. Even the limited cycle chemical based batteries are not easily replaceable. Companies have taught consumers that protecting devices from accidental water spill is more important than replacing a heating battery!. Companies offer easy instalments and trade-ins to bring affordability as an alternative. Considering the known fact of limited battery life, could this be a planned obsolescence strategy? Environmental impact due to growing e-waste is another conveniently forgotten concern.

Design for Manufacturability: Product engineers designing parts focusing on ease of manufacturing is no longer a must have. Proactive approaches in the design for manufacturability (DFM) is not only critical to ensure flawless production, but also has the potential to uncover design defects. However, making a product ‘manufacturing friendly’ has its shortcuts now. In the race of creating slimmer and lighter design marvels, companies are bridging manufacturability gaps by introducing far more complex robotic manufacturing automation systems. Are design defects jump shorted in this process? Identifying design defects while the product is in mass production can be as disastrous as the Galaxy Note 7 failure episode.

Fault Tolerance and Stress Testing: High availability is a crucial requirement that makes fault tolerance i.e. the system’s ability to continue uninterrupted operations in the event of one or more faults an imperative. Well, nowadays fault tolerance is mostly about services. While today’s electronics technology is certainly more reliable, that cannot discount the need for high attention to fault tolerant design.

Delivering a superior product involves developers and testers working in unison. They must collaborate with each other to fix defects keeping the end user in mind. Torture testing a product beyond its normal operational capacity helps ascertain its reliability even if used under breaking point conditions. Do companies rush these development cycles?

Reportedly, the first batch of Note 7 smartphones issued to technology experts and influencers had failed in the stress tests. Why didn’t Samsung take a note of it?

Product Engineering Ecosystem: All Have to Learn It Right

It is not just about OEMs. A lot more stakeholders are involved in the process of product development. Product Engineering Service (PES) providers are an integral part of the ecosystem. The Indian outsourcing industry has a major stake in product engineering. They provide critical engineering services to OEMs across product development cycles. As a fact, several portions of the development cycles are managed by partners. However, do they all understand the OEM’s challenges? Do they factor end user environments well?

OEMs place a lot of trust on partners. But PES providers often get obsessed over the requirements specifications. In their endeavour to fulfil the ’listed needs’, many PES providers fail to visualize product development beyond building a working product. To many of them, product engineering ends when functional and performance requirements are met. Actually, that is just about 70% of the story. The remaining effort has to go in to the development processes that are aimed at ensuring product reliability, consumer safety, and trust. In the wake of today’s competitive markets, PES providers also need to learn those extra miles to consumer safety and satisfaction.

Turn the Lens of Focus on End Users

Buried inside the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 disaster are hard realities of many ‘not to do’ lessons. While the intensely packaged, power hungry electronic devices promise comfort and convenience, it can be lethal breaking fumes in to a bedroom or a flight. Fulfilling the last miles of every stage in the product development cycle focusing on end user safety is of utmost importance. Your company’s expertise level, processes, and practices should continuously evolve, learning from new market realities, operating environments, and also from mistakes of other players. Never settle, nor look for a shortcut to success. Make end users and their safety your top priority.

Author

Jayachandran R

jayachandran.r@quest-global.com

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