Entrepreneurship is about exploiting market opportunities for technology and linking the demand of (potential) customers to the opportunities that the technology has to offer. While this is still manageable in small companies, entrepreneurs will soon face the need to give market and technology their own voices within their organizations. As the worlds of sales and engineering are growing apart, product managers are stepping in to bridge the gap. They come in different shapes and sizes, as Link Magazine observed while visiting an SME, two medium-sized OEMs and a multinational concern. One of the product managers involved was our own Frank Engelen.
MECHATRONIC BUILDING BLOCKS
At VanRiet Material Handling Systems in Houten (350 employees), modularization forms the basis for product management. VanRiet is a global specialist in automated transport and sorting solutions in the Courier Express Parcel (CEP) and Warehouse & Distribution (W&D) markets. Its portfolio is modular, using mechatronic building blocks that link the mechanical, electronic and software functionalities. The advantage of this, says Product Manager Frank Engelen, is that, once the layout of a system has been specified mechanically, its components can also work together electronically and through software. ‘The design rules for this have been laid down in the modules’, says Engelen. VanRiet works with the Demo3D program. Sales uses it to configure the layout and make calculations. It can also be used to perform simulations to test the functioning – e.g. the speed – of a configuration. Engineering uses Demo3D to enrich designs with customer-specific modifications and to generate the electrical schematics and the plc codes.
The standard modules are relatively expensive to build, according to Engelen: ‘We have to create the mechanical and electrical designs, write the software in advance, prepare the ERP and build stock’. His duty as product manager is to carefully determine which modules should be developed. ‘I specify those modules by setting out the requirements. This limits the design freedom of R&D, but Sales doesn’t always get its way with me either. I then pass that set of requirements on to R&D, after which I am responsible for commercializing the product, together with marketing. These sets of requirements must always be customer-oriented, so whenever I find an interesting new technology, I commission a feasibility study and present the results to our customers, asking them: ‘how would you like this?’. Sales & Marketing carry out their own market research, and I accompany them on their visits to customers. I’m also a trendwatcher. I sometimes joke that I am the most avid watcher of YouTube videos in the company. The current growth of e-commerce, for example, affects both our CEP and our W&D businesses. Another trend is that more and more products, such as clothing, are being bagged. Bags are more difficult to transport on a conveyor than boxes, and we want to respond to this. Also, since an increasing number of small parcels are being shipped, we have developed a new module for our sorting system: the Smalls Sorter. Where the minimum space between the outlets used to be 1.5 metres, we have managed to bring it back to 650 millimetres, reducing the space required at our customers’.
Engelen has no complaints about internal support for modularization: ‘Naturally, engineering wants to design as much as possible as well as possible, but thankfully our R&D colleagues understand the need to standardize, after which they can move on to new things.’ Nor does Sales insist on selling customer-specific systems only. ‘In Demo3D, they immediately notice that the use of standardized modules in customer-specific solutions leads to lower prices and shorter lead times. This is also important for our customers. With Demo3D, they can quickly configure a layout. However, they do have a strong opinion about which new modules should be built: whereas they prefer to create the modules that they should have had to win yesterday’s tender, I focus on how new standard modules can serve us in the next three to ten years. I scan the current tenders for specials, things to keep or shed. After all, past performance offers no guarantees for the future. It’s the eternal dilemma between achieving short-term results and creating future prospects.’