Interdisciplinary integration in complex product development : managerial implications of embedding software in manufactured goods

Abstract: Incorporating electronics and software systems into manufactured goods is becoming very common in manufacturing companies. New technical functions, increased flexibility, and compensation for mechanical design weaknesses are some key drivers of this technological change in our everyday products. The automotive industry exemplifies this trend, since approximately 80–90% of new functions in cars are based on electronics and software, and it is expected that at least a third of the total cost of a car will eventually be accounted for by electronics and software. However, one of the main downsides of this technological trend is the increasing number of quality issues related to these new technologies, something usually claimed to be a result of the increased product development complexity. Previous research into product development management has mainly concentrated on either physical products or software systems, but not concurrently on both. Additionally, much of the research has concentrated on issues of integrating marketing, R&D, and manufacturing in these companies, and has treated the engineering disciplines in R&D as a homogenous group. Motivated by this change in technology content and the lack of research into complex product development and especially into integration between engineering disciplines, the present work investigates how to increase operational performance in multidisciplinary engineering organizations. This work has especially focused on interdisciplinary integration and the feasibility of various so-called integration mechanisms, such as building common physical facilities, job rotation programs, the implementation and use of information and communications technology, and computer-aided engineering tools. Both qualitative and quantitative research has been performed, involving 11 different companies and over 300 respondents. Supported by the present findings, it is demonstrated that interdisciplinary integration is a crucial factor to consider, and it is concluded that certain integration mechanisms stand out as more important than others. Organizational structure, work procedures and methods, training, social systems, and computer-aided engineering were the five types of mechanisms that displayed the greatest potential for improvement. It is further concluded that the ability to successfully match the body of practices to current products is essential, since there is a high risk of current practices becoming out-dated with respect to the technology content. Furthermore, inadequate identification of or managerial ability to establish the currently most important interfaces complicate the choice of trade-offs between various technologies that are found to be essential to cope with the inherent dynamic complexity. The organizational powerbase is often re-positioned in the studied organizations, and the loss of decisive power can result in a demoralizing ignorance of newly established disciplines and their design practices. Additionally, rigid structures and counterproductive traditions can reduce the potential gains accruing from new boundary-spanning innovations, so organizational responsibilities and mandates must be declared unambiguously, in many cases differently from how they have been in the past. Based on these conclusions, it is suggested that managers in organizations like those studied must be able to do the following: cultivate software knowledge in all parts and levels of the product development organization; reassess their recruitment strategies; organize for interdisciplinary collaboration; articulate and communicate the technology fusion strategy to all disciplines; and realize and disseminate the fact that product launches do not only concern manufacturability.