Steinbeis experts help mechatronics specialist take a user-focused approach to developing product variants
2E mechatronic has specialized for over 15 years in developing innovative mechatronic products in the fields of sensors, precision injection, and microsystems technology. The company has continued to grow throughout this time and has made a name for itself in the automotive and medical technology industries. 2E mechatronic came to Steinbeis for assistance in pinpointing new application areas for a specialized capacitive tilt sensor. Together with the Frankfurt-based design agency iconstorm, the Steinbeis Transfer Center Management – Innovation – Technology (MIT) helped to develop a user-focused product architecture that would allow for appropriate product variants, also adapting the company’s in-house innovation process.
Many companies, especially SMEs, complain of insufficient market success despite their products and solutions being highly innovative. As they see it, they did everything correctly: They established a systematic innovation process within their company, and chose to pursue the innovation in question based on the lead user approach, meaning that the product was developed and built to solve a specific customer problem while taking the needs of other customers and target groups into consideration as much as possible. But the product still fails to sell enough units to cover the costs of the innovation process. This is because new customers demand individual adjustments to existing solutions so they can tailor them to their own application. These adjustments create additional costs – a vicious circle that in many companies leads to (too) many different variants of a product, with correspondingly low returns.
Uwe Remer, CEO of 2E mechatronic, is also more than familiar with this tough scenario: “If we want to keep bringing innovative products to market, we have to make changes to our technology-oriented innovation process.” It was this realization that led him to turn to Management – Innovation – Technology (MIT), the Steinbeis Transfer Center. The challenge the Steinbeis experts were tasked with solving: How can 2E mechatronic find more customers for its innovative products without having to develop a new product every time to cater to customer requirements?
An analysis of 2E mechatronic’s innovation process showed that its design was typical for technology-oriented companies. A linear process based on the stage-gate process was used to highlight weaknesses, usually at a point where developments had to be based closely on the customers in order to reflect their requirements. This is typically in the creative concept stage or early on in prototyping. Expanding the stage-gate process to include methods and tools based on design thinking and human-centered design – an approach used in software development that allows users to be closely involved early on in the innovation process – makes the innovation process more attuned to customer needs. Relevant information on users and their requirements – in terms of how they would use the new product for their specific application – is collected, sorted and evaluated, before testing using prototypes early in the development process. These user-focused considerations complement the standard technology-focused approach and enable targeted development of tailored product variants, dramatically reducing the risk of focusing too strongly on only a small number of potential customers.
This approach, known as human-centered innovation, was pursued at 2E mechatronic and applied to the pilot project of a capacitive tilt sensor. The project team began by systematically identifying new groups of applications, associated market segments, and any conceivable use cases based on the tilt sensor’s known applications. For instance, since the tilt sensor is already used to determine the position of excavator shovels, a use case of “measurement of wind rotor blades” can be extrapolated from this. Based on this systematic approach, new criteria can then be derived: measuring rotor blades places additional demands on the sensor’s casing in terms of the choice of material, design, and several other considerations. In this early concept development phase, simple prototypes were developed to try to meet these requirements. At this stage, a few use cases that originally looked promising were ultimately rejected, since developing these variants turned out to be too costly or technically complex. Contacting potential future users at an early stage is an important step: Not only does it greatly reduce the risk of developing a product that will not be wanted by enough people, it also helps define user requirements so they can be met in the final product. With the modified innovation process, these important steps were not only carried out in linear succession, they were applied repeatedly in an iterative process until everyone involved was satisfied with the solution in question and the next phase was approved.
“Making our technology-heavy innovation process more strongly focused on users has made it a lot easier pinpointing suitable target customers,” says Remer of this process. “But we also want to have a tool that will let us apply the process to other products in the future,” adds Stephan Huttenlocher, project manager at 2E mechatronic. To make this possible, the Steinbeis team and iconstorm developed a tailored toolbox of methods spanning four components: a user matrix, use cases, a user description, and a benchmark. “Now we’re in a much better position to hit a home run with our products,” believes Remer.
The project team was less surprised by one particularly finding: The new application areas that were determined for the tilt sensor, and the resulting add-on product functions, required skills not everyone at 2E mechatronic could offer. “We’re not data experts,” concedes project manager Nico Philipp. “So we have to rely on external partners to offer customers a comprehensive solution.” Remer sees this as a positive: As a true believer in networking, he has no problem cooperating with other companies – quite the opposite, even if this partner structure affects 2E mechatronic’s current business model. “If our customers want a smart sensor from us and we need to find important new partners to deliver its functionality, then we’ll find them and adjust our business model accordingly,” states Dr. Andreas Pojtinger, 2E mechatronic’s technical director, with a sense of calm. “Our aim is to add value, as uncompromisingly and efficiently as possible.”
“The continuing trend toward individualization requires a company to have ever-more flexible and diverse products and processes – and the possibilities opened up by digitalization are exacerbating this,” comments Prof. Dr.-Ing. Günther Würtz from the MIT Steinbeis Transfer Center. “That’s why we’re certain that for companies to stay successful in the market, the innovation process – which is the most important process in the company – must also employ a user-focused approach such as human-centered innovation.” 2E mechatronic has now successfully adopted this approach and has the tools it needs. There’s only one more thing that’s important for the company now: “just do it!”
2E mechatronic GmbH & Co. KG (Kirchheim/Teck)
iconstorm GmbH & Co. KG (Frankfurt/Main)