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Why Agile Engineering is the Future of Product Design

Agile engineering - Product design - 3d printers

Agile engineering is a popular process in software development, but few hardware teams apply these practices to develop physical products. For many hardware teams, implementing agile product development and engineering practices save time and money and improves the end product.

What is Agile Engineering?

In Agile engineering, teams quickly iterate, test, and gather feedback on product design. It divides big challenges into measurable chunks of work and promises more accurate and rapid product development cycles. Teams are self-managed and work in short two-week sprints driven by user feedback. This feedback guides teams to build a product that meets user needs.

Rather than start with a lengthy requirements phase that covers the entire span of the project, requirements are created as the team works. Requirements are specific and tied to user value. By testing features and new builds, teams verify if they are solving user problems and developing the right product.


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The Benefits of Agile Engineering

With digital fabrication tools such as mills, laser cutters, and 3D printers, hardware engineers can now develop ideas while concurrently testing them with users. Key benefits of this method include:

  • Continuous collection of feedback from customers means that designs are tracking with customer needs.
  • The interplay between design, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing allows teams to understand each other's needs and challenges better.
  • Each iteration gives you a physical prototype to hold and discuss. Kinesthetic learners, experiential learners, non-technical people in a technical meeting, people new to the subject matter—they will all learn from holding and discussing an actual prototype.
  • Testing the physical prototype helps you identify and solve problems.
  • More, quicker, and cheaper iterations mean that a higher number of possible solution paths can be explored.
  • Continuous testing means that engineering risks are exposed throughout the process.

Agile engineering unites teams across the organization and creates a better end product. By responding to user feedback with prototypes, teams develop products that users want.

Resin tank test prototype Form 2
We tested variations on cartridge placement — in the build volume and the final “backpack” concept. Note the mini printer in between the big prototypes.

The Old Way vs. Agile Engineering

In the “Old Way,” teams predicted demand months in advance. They turned a single prototype into mass manufactured goods. This method was risky: teams had a hard time predicting future demand. As a result, companies often had either product shortage or unsold inventory.

Agile product development and engineering tests prototypes, and it improves them with consumer feedback. This method develops products quicker and reduces risk.

Proto 1 of the Form 2.
WeekThe Old WayAgile Engineering
1Marketing, Engineering, and Design meet to discuss an iPhone case prototype.Marketing wants a new iPhone case to be developed.
1.5Meetings at marketing department on new case ideas.The prototype is printed on adesktop 3D printerand shown to each department.
2Marketing and Engineering meet to discuss the new case.Marketing, Engineering, and Design meet to discuss the prototype.
2.5Five versions of the prototype are printed, tested and shown to focus groups and business partners.
3Parts are redesigned and shown to more focus groups and customers.
3.5Engineering meets to brainstorm the design.Based on feedback, the organization chooses one design.
4The design is redesigned five times and 3D printed in 5 different colors per design.
5Engineering designs a new iPhone case in CAD.A focus group sees the 25 different designs.
6A designer is called in to perfect the visual design in CAD.The organization chooses 3 designs and prints them through a service bureau.
7Product ships.*
8Marketing makes suggestions to improve the CAD design.
9The designer revises the case.
10The case files are sent to a manufacturer.
11-18Tooling and mold making.
19Product ships from China.
21Product ready to ship.

*After week 7, the agile team receives feedback on sales numbers. If the product is successful, and if it can be produced more cheaply using mass manufacturing, then they may decide to design the case for injection molding.

In the Old Way, the company has to predict market demand and consumer tastes months in advance. If Company A makes a decision once a season, and Company B makes informed decisions every day, then Company B will get ahead. Agile engineering saves companies not only time, but also money in the long run. The agile method in product development has a higher startup time and initial cost, but the cost per final product is low. Plus, the end product is shaped by market demands, ultimately yielding greater profit.

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Cost Comparison

Cost FactorThe Old WayAgile Engineering
Manufacturing and shipping cost per case$0.10$3
Time from idea to final product21 weeks7 weeks
Inventory100,000 cases5 cases
Startup costs$150,000 (Molding and tooling + cases + shipping)$150 (Prototypes)
Number of redesigns155
Number of different products13

Another benefit of agile engineering is that it encourages teams to fail quickly. By failing faster, teams learn and improve at a faster pace than those that do not. Learning from failure through prototypes helps companies quickly build better products. By validating assumptions and collecting data, these products are made in a more accurate, evidential way.

With traditional methods, teams painstakingly make world maps and then spend months planning a possible route through this imagined world. Only then do they have a product and really know where they stand. With agile engineering, products emerge in the first week of product development. Teams set off and check their compass often.

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