48 - Product-developer_EN

Product Development Engineer

My first position in industry was working as a product development engineer. I liked doing this so much I did it for 9 years, half of my career so far. Let me be your tour guide on this adventure to see if it is the right career for you…

Why I Did It

In academia or government research, my “job” as physicist is to get government grants to do research. Research enables me to publish papers. The publications enable me to get more grants, and I repeat the cycle. The biggest part of my grant money goes to the institution I work for, and if I pull in enough grant money, I might be offered a permanent position.

Personally I had ethical problems with this model. Given the growing national debt, I saw recipients of government funding to be a part of the problem, and that the private sector was part of the solution. I also figured that the level of government spending was unsustainable, and with shrinking opportunities I needed to develop tangible, hirable skills to have a secure career in the future. Lastly, I didn’t think my area of research was particularly important to society (not worth the money spent), and I didn’t find it to be as exciting as it used to be to me.

My main goal was to transition from academia (post-doc at a military lab) to the private sector.

Getting the Job

I had a number of skills that enabled this transition. I was a spectroscopist and understood the design of spectral instrumentation and imagers. I was an extrovert, and had a knack for public speaking. I had learned salesmanship skills from door to door sales from extra-curricular activites (sports, band, etc.).

This skill set seemed to fit in best with marketing, so I looked for work in this area. I approached companies that sold spectrographs. Whenever possible I used my professional network to identify the person in the best position to hire me, and called that person directly.

I had a few companies give me interviews followed by offers, and I accepted one. After working for a few days in this company, I felt a position in product development would be a better for both me and the company at the time, so I transferred departments.

Joining a design engineering team “cold” can be a little harder than the route I took. A team of design engineers usually comprises specialized engineers such as electrical, mechanical, software/firmware, optical, systems, etc. Notice that the term “physicist” does not appear here. The challenge is to be able to fill one of these roles so the company will know you can “hit the ground running” and not slow the team down.

Most schools have standard curricula for electrical, mechanical, chemical, and civil engineers, but fewer have this for optical, systems, applications, etc., engineers. For this reason, people filling the latter roles are not necessarily expected to have a formal education in this area – which will give you a better opportunity with a background in physics.

Nature of the Business

The most noticeable part of the transition from academia to the private sector was the notion of time. My academic research field involved the space program, so there were many design reviews and meetings before a launch, making things progress slowly. You thought in a timeframe of years, and had a time horizon (the distance you can see into the future) of about 4 years.

In the private sector, product development is costly and “windows of opportunity” in the marketplace only exist for a limited time, so development projects must progress quickly. I once joked to one of my former CEO’s that “My dream is to design a product someday BEFORE it was actually sold to a Customer …“ Time frames here are on the order of months, with a typical time horizon of 6 months.

Teamwork and Customer Service is very important in the private sector. In product development, your team comprises design engineers, but requires direction and support from people representing a number of roles. A marketing person defines product specifications and is the “Voice of the Customer”. marketing is usually your internal Customer – so you need to keep this person happy. A quality person usually has data on historical product performance, and can identify likely failure modes. A manufacturing or (new product introduction) engineer will sometimes work with you on how to put the product together, and how to make this able to be done by operators. Operators (unskilled and skilled technicians) have a lot of practical experience on what works and what doesn’t. I found the input of operators to often be the most useful.

Even excluding the cost of materials, equipment, and marketing costs you can see why product development is so expensive by multiplying the number of people involved in product development by their salary.

What the Work Was Like

A good product development engineer hast to have both excellent time management and technical skills.

Time management is critical to the success of the business. Business consultant McKinsey and Company states ”a 6 month late product will reduce profits by 33% over 5 years, but one 50% over budget cuts profits by only 4%”. Time management means being able to break a development project into a number of tiny tasks, planning when they will happen, and keeping the project on track. The importance of time management is highlighted when you consider the lead time for purchasing components is often on the order of 6-8 weeks, and this may have to be done multiple times in a project spanning only 6 months. Unlike academic research, it is often preferable to be able to get a fast solution to a problem that is functional (the 90% solution), over a more deliberate solution to a problem that is optimal (the 99.9% solution).

Technical skills are critical to product quality and manufacturability. On the macro scale, it is important that the product development engineer be able to understand and convey “big-picture” ideas back to the team. During interviews I often give a product development candidate a very simple technical task or ask a very simple technical question to see if they truly understand what is going on, and if they can effectively communicate this to me.

On the micro scale it is important that they be able to follow through with a problem on a quantitative level. Follow through means to follow a task to its completion – not just when it is interesting. In terms of quantitative performance a good product development engineer can not only provide a design, but a detailed tolerance analysis of that design that incorporates real world error analysis so the team can be sure that variability in parameters during manufacture will not cause the product to deviate from specification. To me, the ability to express a problem in a quantitative manner separates a good from a mediocre product development engineer.

Work on a product development team can be a lot more isolated than working in academia. External collaboration and publication is often not permitted due to the proprietary nature of the work done.

Pros

  • Provides an opportunity for personal growth in the technical areas
  • The demands of the work remain fairly steady due to the fact it is within a fixed project
  • A development engineer often has flexibility in terms of hours worked, etc.
  • Risk present in each project can be a stressor.
  • It can be difficult for a physicist to break into product development due to non-specific training.
  • Often there is significant pressure to get projects done on time, sometimes at the cost of going over budget or sacrificing product quality.
  • Due to the proprietary nature of the work, product development engineers have few opportunities to collaborate – expect to work more or less in “vacuum”

Cons

  • Risk present in each project can be a stressor.
  • It can be difficult for a physicist to break into product development due to non-specific training.
  • Often there is significant pressure to get projects done on time, sometimes at the cost of going over budget or sacrificing product quality.
  • Due to the proprietary nature of the work, product development engineers have few opportunities to collaborate – expect to work more or less in “vacuum”

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