Product life cycles


This is the first section of several dealing with the development of discrete, manufactured products.  Some of what I have to say will apply to processes and process products as well, but my experience has been primarily with manufactured products.  Later on I will have some comments which relate these sections to the world of software, but, for now, please think discrete products.


The full life cycle of a product is much larger than the development time.  The product is born as an idea or proposal and, eventually, dies when the last one is removed from service in the field -- and sometimes not even then.  This is a true "womb to tomb" cycle.  The product is developed, manufactured, marketed and supported in the field for as long as the manufacturer has responsibility.  The actual time involved for this entire cycle can vary enormously.  I imagine that fashion goods have a very short life cycle.  In the computer business in the 1960's we used to talk about an eleven year life cycle for our products, but with all the technology and market changes, I suspect it can be very different today.  Recently, I unplugged a food freezer in my basement that had given me untroubled service for 55 years!  In fact, it is still in working order, except that the door gasket has deteriorated and I failed to replace it satisfactorily with a custom gasket I located on the internet.  Needless to say, the freezer's manufacturer no longer maintained spare parts for it after such a length of time.  But there are even longer life cycles: think of the life of the Boeing B-52, which was originally specified in 1945 and some models of which are expected to remain in service into the 2040's!  Or nuclear power plants, which have operating lives that may reach 60 years, but whose fuel will need attention, in one form or another, for thousands of years.


Of course, besides time, there is consideration of a product's investment cycle.  This will vary widely enormously depending on the product involved.  Clearly, different decisions will be made depending on whether the development investment is a large or small part of the overall investment in the product.  Additional development effort in making the product easier to support in the field may or may not be justified.  Unfortunately, my experience has been that customers will rarely pay extra for a product with lower ongoing costs -- first cost is too often the main criterion.  But, again, these decisions depend not only on marketing experience but also on the balance of time and investment between development and later costs and time in manufacturing and maintenance.


While these considerations of marketing, maintenance and support are important, my experience has been primarily in product development, so the next sections will deal with the areas of exploration, product development and product launch into manufacturing.