by Thomas J. Vaughan Jr., P.E.
I believe in the Marketing/Engineering Investment Ratio™; in putting significant resources into the Front End Marketing process to validate real customer needs.
Companies are often shortchanging engineering. But frequently, engineers bring this problem upon themselves because they don't consider the business and user impact of their designs. Just because something can be done doesn't mean it should be done.
Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge, spent much of his time determining that there would be sufficient traffic that the tolls would repay the bonds for the bridge construction.
Often technical products are rushed through production under the battle cry of "market window." I can understand why certain consumer products might sell briefly and then be consigned to eBay or Filene's Basement. I also have a box of shop rags that once were T-shirts for a candidate who lost a primary election. But "narrow market window" also means, "won't sell for long." For technical products, perhaps resources should be spent designing something that might keep generating revenue over a long period of time.
There is a certain technical beauty in building an elegant product. The DC-3/C-47 is a beautiful looking airplane. It is very practical within a certain performance envelope (sufficiently so that many are still used today). It was very adaptable to many uses. It was thus produced in huge quantities, generating much revenue and profit.
Real engineers need to be aware of the costs, financial and otherwise, of changes. Changing something just to make it different is not engineering; it is fashion merchandising.
There are training costs associated with changes. An 'improved' version may have lower direct costs, but if extensive retraining is required, the cost of ownership may be higher, or even worse there may be costs or liability associated with mistakes.
If the product being 'improved' is a component of somebody else's product, even small changes can be a problem. This is especially true with software where there are fewer obvious tooling costs to rein in unbounded creativity. Much engineering of end products is devoted to adapting to changes in supplied components or underlying software instead of improving the end product. In these cases the value of the improved component is negative.
There may be valid technical reasons why something needs to be changed, or there may be valid marketing reasons (a change may open up a vast new untapped market), or the demand for a particular item becomes so small it is no longer viable to manufacture. All too often the reason is to justify a new marketing campaign or the belief that more money can be made by forcing all the customers to switch to the new version. But if the costs, or negative value, of forcing the customer to change are not considered don't be too surprised if the customer changes to a new supplier.
In general, if a product becomes obsolete before it is amortized or depreciated, then financially it is a poor product. There may be occasional strategic reasons for absorbing such a write-off, but in general it is bad business.
Real engineers are not techno-nerds working in isolation.
Real engineers have an understanding of both the company's technical capabilities and the company's financial and strategic goals, and how these can mesh to lead a product or company to where it needs to be in future years. They are neglecting their responsibilities if they ignore this role.