Don't reinvent the wheel: Increase productivity with strategic reuse

Worldwide IoT and Industrial Digital Strategist, IBM

Product design and manufacturing have come a long way since the days when there were two basic choices: affordable, mass-produced items that were all alike, and customized, handcrafted items that satisfied specialized needs but were too expensive for many potential customers. The most frequent solution, now widely adopted across industries from aviation to software, has been to create different versions of a product that share some common elements, and then add unique elements that meet particular requirements. 

The practices for creating products in this way can save an organization time and money in development, procurement, manufacturing and field servicing. Most often, they are implemented by copying engineering artifacts, adapting them and reusing them. But this kind of reuse has its pitfalls, not the least of which are the resulting complexity of the design process and the difficulty of managing change when elements are reused by copying them over and over again.

More effective is “strategic reuse,” in which an organization realizes a business strategy by implementing improved engineering practices, organizational support and effective engineering tools. Strategic reuse enables a more mature and controlled way to work with growing numbers of features and dozens, hundreds or even thousands of product variants. 

In recent decades, the variation and differentiated value in products are increasingly found in the software they contain rather than in their physical attributes. As a consequence, engineering groups that once were focused on mechanical and electrical engineering have discovered that they are now significantly in the software business—a profound shift not only in the workforce but also in development practices. 

The result? As products become more complex, organizations are constantly on the search for new ways to make design, development and manufacturing more efficient. They need to cut development and maintenance costs, shorten development cycles and time to market, and reduce waste and duplication. They must extend the lessons they have learned in specific engineering areas to create efficiencies across the larger engineering effort. 

In an evolving development environment, organizations need to find ways to make more use of prior investments by reusing the commonalities of proven designs and applying them to future products. By doing so in a strategic manner, they will be able to create rapid and efficient development processes, and better manage component versions and their combinations—thereby engineering hundreds or thousands of variants at reasonable cost, schedule and quality.