Today, the role that designers play in helping firms define and support successful market strategies is undergoing a profound transformation. Succeeding in today’s competitive product markets requires firms to respond more quickly to changing market demands, to differentiate more product variations for rapidly segmenting markets, and to bring new and upgraded products to market faster—all while meeting increasingly stringent product and supply chain cost targets. Growing numbers of firms today are recognizing that the creation of platforms is the key to defining and executing new kinds of strategies for meeting today’s escalating market demands.
The need for firms to create platforms capable of supporting aggressive new market strategies challenges design professionals to understand clearly what an effective platform consists of—and how creating a platform changes the nature of the design process and the role of designers in that process. In this article, I briefly explain what a platform is and summarize some important ways in which creating a platform may change some of the traditional objectives of product designers. I also explain how platform creation calls for more extensive integration of product design and supply chain design, leading to more intensive interactions of designers with all aspects of the supply chain that will execute a platform-driven market strategy.
What is a platform?
The term platform has recently become a prominent part of management vocabulary globally. Yet like most new terms in management, its precise meaning is often unclear. A perusal of business publications today soon reveals that the term platform is being used in many different ways, leading to confusion about what a platform really is—and thus what a platform might possibly do.
Based on both my research into modular product and process architectures and my work with a number of global companies in implementing platform strategies based on modular architectures, I propose that the following definition captures the essential conceptual and practical characteristics of a platform:
A platform consists of strategically motivated and operationally coordinated modular product and process architectures created for the purpose of carrying out a well-defined market strategy for achieving a clear set of business goals.
The key elements in this definition
First, a platform consists of a product architecture designed to enable the leveraging of a family of products or successive generations of products. A product architecture defines the essential technical structure of a product: (i) the decomposition of the overall functionalities of a product into functional components, and (ii) the interface specifications that define how the functional components will interact within the product as a technical system. However, a platform is not just a product design. A platform also includes a supporting process architecture for realizing the product variations to be leveraged from the product architecture. A process architecture is analogous to a product architecture, consisting of (i) the decomposition of all the supply chain and production processes needed to make, distribute, and support a product into a set of functional activity components, and (ii) the specification of the interfaces between activity components that define how the activity components will interact as the production and supply chain functions as a product realization system.
To effectively support the leveraging of product variations and future generations of products, the architectures in platforms must be modular. The term “modular,” however, is also often used with many different meanings in management discourse. I have tried to clarify the meaning of modularity by distinguishing two types of modularity. The first form of modularity in an architecture is what I refer to as technical modularity, and it is created when designers specify an interface between components to allow the free substitution of some range of component variations on one or both sides of the interface. A common example of technical modularity would be the standard wheel-bolt pattern on an automobile that allows a nearly endless variety of wheel designs to be mounted to the wheel hub.
Effective platforms require a “higher form” of modularity, however—a form that I refer to as strategic modularity. Creating strategically modular architectures requires that an architecture first be strategically partitioned so that the technical decomposition of an architecture follows the design principle of one-to-one mapping. Under this principle, each functionality that is perceived by targeted customers as an important source of differentiation in a product or service activity is “contained” within a single component (or sometimes a subsystem of components). Interfaces between strategically partitioned components are then made technically modular, so that intended variations and evolutions in a product or service activity can be configured by substituting a range of component variations into the architecture without having to make compensating design changes in other components.
Creating strategically modular product and process architectures can “design in” a number of important forms of strategic flexibility. Product and service variations can be quickly configured by combining different physical or activity component variations. Higher performing products can be leveraged by substituting higher performing components into an architecture. At the same time, disciplined reuse of standard common components to provide functions that are not sources of perceived differentiation (for example, power supplies or transformers) can lead to lower product and supply chain costs while meeting market demands for product variety and upgrading.
Thus, strategically motivated modular product and process architectures are architectures in which the component variations that can be substituted technically into the architectures are determined by the range of component variations that will be needed to leverage the product and service variations and upgraded products required to support a desired market strategy. In other words, the strategic flexibility of a modular architecture to configure a range of product and service variations and upgrades in support of a market strategy should happen by design, not by luck.
Operationally coordinated modular product and process architectures result when each activity component in a process architecture has been designed to the full range of product variations and upgrades to be leveraged from a product architecture, while at the same time achieving its own strategic goals for supply chain composition (insourcing versus outsourcing) and performance (order lead times, order fulfillment rates, reduced inventory levels, etc.). Achieving operationally coordinated product and process architectures effectively requires simultaneous co-design and co-development of the architectures.
Finally, no designer can help to create an effective platform if the business goals to be pursued through the platform are unclear. Thus, the process of creating a truly effective platform will usually challenge product line managers and corporate strategic managers to be more precise in defining their business vision, their specific strategic goals, and the market strategy for achieving those goals that the platform is intended to support.