Maximizing Value Across a Product Family

Design approaches to maximize product value while minimizing capital and unit costs.

What can be done to improve a family of products while reducing both unit costs and the cost of tooling (non-recurring engineering & capital investment)?  Here we discuss critical steps, planning options and design approaches needed to make the most of developing a family of products. 

Whether you are planning to create a completely new family of products in your market, or you want to refresh an existing product line, here are a few things to remember to make it a successful development effort.  

First, define your product requirements and include the full development effort, tooling and component manufacturing costs for the entire product line as part of your plan.  The key is to do this for the entire planned family up front, even if you expect to roll out models over an extended period of time. 

Second, start the conceptual design process with all potential variations (models) until an overall design approach, coupled with a manufacturing plan for major components, has been defined.  The challenge here is to spend enough time and effort in the beginning of the process to insure the success of the plan without completely developing each product within the family.

Third, during the product requirements, conceptual development and refinement phases, continually ask your team these questions:

  • What components can be common for all models?  This might be as simple as the same power switch for all, or it may be a complete core sub-assembly that provides a common basic functionality for all models.
  • What can be common for a subset of the models?  Even if you find that it is too difficult to use one component across all models, you may find that sub-groups can share elements.
  • What do we need to keep as unique to clearly separate one model from another?  This could be as dramatic as completely unique exterior enclosures (while internal sub-assemblies are common), or as minimal as differences in the physical branding (colors, finishes, logo and model names).

Once the plan is defined for the entire family, push to maintain the commonality through creative/clever design and engineering efforts.  When the last details are being completed, maintaining the commonality theme can be challenging as it often appears easier to just ignore the plan. 

Follow the plan to realize the overall cost savings that will be achieved! 

This is the challenge, and as noted previously, the trick is to know just how far you need to develop each product to insure that you retain the benefits of common parts.

Here are three examples of this practice in action: 

  1. A redesigned family of temperature control systems (about 14 different models). 
  2. A redesigned set of viscometers (5 models). 
  3. A new product family of time and attendance devices, with a variety of options (over 36 different models).

In the first two examples, the previous family of devices were developed gradually over decades.

First Example:  Chiller Family

Thermo-Electron, Temperature Control Division (now Thermo-Fisher Scientific) wanted to redesign a family of dozens of versions of their temperature control circulators.  Many of the existing products were developed for a specific customer and application, then added to the catalog.  Over time, it become obvious that several very similar devices were offered and it was time consolidate all the variants to cost effectively address current market needs.

Their first step was for the marketing team to define a “short list” of possible product requirements.  This became the baseline set of 14 different models (down from over 50). Next, their engineering and procurement team needed to determine what core components (pumps, control electronics, valves, fill tanks, etc.) could be applied to the 14 models, with as many overlapping applications as possible. 

Carroll Design took the marketing requirements, combined with the core component set definitions, and developed an array of 14 different mechanical system layouts for the company to review and confirm that this set met the requirements.

One of 14 mechanical system layouts for the family of chillers

One of 14 mechanical system layouts for the family of chillers

Once the set of 14 mechanical layouts were approved, Carroll Design developed a series of industrial design concepts to address corporate branding and ergonomics requirements. Each of the industrial design concepts applied a different approach to commonizing components across the full product line or subset products within the line.  The final concept, depicted below, used a common filler port sub-assembly and a common user interface (UI) sub-assembly for the majority of the models. Only the largest of the devices needed to have unique or modified filler ports and user interfaces.  The majority of the different model structures and overall enclosures were fabricated sheet metal, keeping the tooling investment for the overall family relatively low.  A modular vent panel was also created to be applied in sections or modified to fit interim sizes.

Concept sketch showing filler port and UI panel and production example of a mid-size system.

Concept sketch showing filler port and UI panel and production example of a mid-size system.

Second Example: Viscometer Family

Brookfield Engineering Laboratories (now AMETEK Brookfield), had previously developed a series of viscometers each with varying complexity and capability over several decades. The market, component end-of-life and emerging technologies warranted a full redesign of the Brookfield viscometer product family. The existing family was a series of evolutionary devices, each with different interfaces, technology features, manufacturing processes and branding schemes.  Carroll Design was tasked with the redesign of the set with the intent to roll out all of the new versions over a few years, capitalizing on the efficient use of common components for cost savings and branding consistency.

Carroll Design developed initial concepts with varied approaches to the common component theme.  Brookfield settled on a family theme that used a few common parts across the full line and also included common parts across subsets of the family. This approach struck a good balance between cost efficiency and model differentiation.

Three of the five models of the re-designed Brookfield Viscometer family

Three of the five models of the re-designed Brookfield Viscometer family

Of the five models in the family:

  • 4 shared the same internal die-cast base plate.
  • 4 shared the same bench-stand base with varied height posts.
  • 2 (Models DV1/DV2) shared a common back enclosure injection molded plastic part.
  • 2 (Models DVE/DVC) also shared a common back enclosure part.

A high-end version of the viscometer (Model DV3) will only share a common branding appearance as the overall head assembly and bench-stand base needed to be unique for size, mechanical, and electronics requirements.

Each of the five models have a unique front panel allowing for different sizes and types of user interfaces which gives each model a unique appearance.

Third Example:  Time & Attendance Family

Attendance on Demand contracted Carroll Design to develop a family of touch-screen time and attendance devices with a stated goal to invest enough in the development and tooling in order to minimize unit costs for a total of roughly 36 different configurations.  This was certainly a challenging project, but one that we are very comfortable attacking in a creative and methodical manner.

A series of initial industrial design concepts were proposed.  Each concept addressing the challenge in a slightly different manner with a unique appearance.  From a set of 15 to 20 preliminary concepts, a refined set of 6 unique solutions were proposed.  These refined concepts showed the overall appearance, but also addressed the methods of commonizing components across the family.  A final concept was refined further and developed into a top level assembly that allowed for 6 different touch screen versions and 6 different user biometric versions all with a common base, electronics and power supply sub-assembly.

Final design showing 1 model and front cover sub-assembly drawing with 6 displays & 6 access versions.

Final design showing 1 model and front cover sub-assembly drawing with 6 displays & 6 access versions.


All three examples were unique situations combining market requirements, company investment goals and product branding needs.  Each project was addressed to give our clients the best balance of investments, unit costs, and branding among other typical product development requirements. Addressing the entire product line for the development effort is critical in maximizing the success and product life cycle of the overall product family.