It’s not just about adding a touch screen: Product design, supply chain, and manufacturing concerns for CP firms.

Read Part 1 in the series on CP firms pursuing smart tech here

Earlier this year, Google ceased production of its smart glasses, Google Glass, launched in 2013 as a breakthrough product that allowed users to access and navigate wireless functions via a frame and clear lens designed to augment the user’s frame of sight. Critics at the time noted issues with the design and cost.

Ten years later, Meta Connect has taken a different approach, engineering smart functionality into the frame and lenses of sunglass mainstay Ray-Ban, owned by EssilorLuxottica. The sunglasses look as good as they did in 1952 when the Wayfarer was first sold but include a camera, voice-activated commands, and audio functions. As of October, consumers will be able to buy a smart version of their favorite styles in matte and shiny black as well as some transparent colors. They are, according to Meta Connect, a “building block toward true AR (augmented reality) glasses."

At best, the addition of smart features to a product enhances the experience and potentially adds new capabilities, but poorly thought-out smart tech undermines the functionality and appeal of the product it’s tacked onto. Consumer product (CP) companies who want to reinvent their offerings as smart products must dig deep to address challenges in the supply chain, product design, and manufacturing.

Smart Home and internet of things concept. Smart House controls devices like security cam, lighting, air conditioning, radiator and music center flat icons. Isolated vector illustration

When done well, you wind up with products like the Apple Watch, which started out as a distant competitor to Fitbit. The Apple Watch was billed at launch as a luxury item but, by engineering an impressive amount of functionality into a tiny screen and improving its market positioning, became a fitness must-have. To reach 43% market share (in the fourth quarter of 2022), Apple had to think about how the watch would interact with users’ lives on a daily basis and rigorously test, improve, and update the software to deliver progressively better usefulness and performance in the users’ eyes.

Here, we outline the key product design, manufacturing, and supply-chain considerations for CP companies developing smart offerings. 

1. If it looks cool, but has poor connectivity, software, and power management, it's worthless.

Smart devices are “smart” in large part because they bring us lots of information and capabilities as we move throughout our day. To function properly, they rely heavily on connectivity.  Frequent disconnections, intermittent functionality, bugs, and power issues can leave the user down a lonely road with no map. 

To avoid undermining performance, companies need to:

  • Conduct thorough testing of connectivity features, like antennae, in various environments to identify and resolve potential issues.
  • Implement robust software development practices including code reviews, bug tracking, unit testing, and integration testing to drive high-quality releases.
  • Provide regular software updates to address bugs, introduce stability improvements, and enhance overall performance.
  • Optimize power management algorithms to minimize power consumption and explore energy-efficient hardware components and technologies.

2. Users simply want usability and compatibility, not the worry of opening themselves up to privacy risks.

Glancing back at the early digital dashboard in automobiles, drivers found they could no longer turn a volume dial or adjust the air conditioning without glancing away from the road. At the same time, user data such as contact, address book, and social media information was being exposed, potentially leading to privacy issues. What were the benefits? drivers wanted to know.

Designing user-friendly interfaces and privacy-secured software for smart products is crucial. Complicated or confusing interfaces can compromise the usability of the product and frustrate users. 

Committing to the development of smart products requires companies to:

  • Conduct usability testing and gather user feedback to identify and address usability issues and simplify navigation and controls.
  • Adopt widely accepted standards and protocols to maximize interoperability and test performance across various devices and platforms.
  • Implement industry-standard security measures, such as encryption, secure authentication, and data anonymization.
  • Communicate transparently with users about related data collection, usage, and privacy practices to ensure users know they are protected. 
  • Commit to firmware updates and comply with best-in-industry testing and certification to drive high-quality performance and high customer satisfaction.

3. Quality control needs solid relationships with suppliers to be effective.

The above considerations depend on a CP company establishing clear and open lines of communication with suppliers, through which the company provides detailed product specifications and documentation and collaborates quickly with suppliers to address issues. With shortages of electronic components persisting even three years from the pandemic, companies need to strongly manage these macro-risks by instituting a robust risk mitigation strategy and diversifying their supplier base.  At a minimum, CP companies must:

  • Foster effective communication through regular supplier meetings and clear product specifications, conversing in the supplier’s language with interpreters or technology such as translation software used as needed.
  • Establish rigorous quality control protocols incorporating manufacturing inspections, supplier audits, and a clear process for non-conforming product management with corrective actions and continuous improvement.
  • Protect vital company information through supplier NDAs to safeguard sensitive information, legal counsel to secure intellectual property rights, and routine supplier audits to mitigate IP infringement risks.
  • Enforce ethical supplier practices through due diligence, clear codes of conduct (e.g., for fair treatment, labor conditions, environmental sustainability), and regular compliance audits.

4. Be prepared to rethink the product architecture.

When product architecture is driven by analog technology— mechanical components, motors, drive systems—companies must rethink the entire construct of the product if they’re to successfully build in smart technology. Take the Ray-Ban Wayfarer: consumers are used to the weight of the frame on the bridge of their nose, and the behavior of storing it in its Luxottica case. A good decision, then, to turn the glasses case into a charging station.

Digital technologies often create new design opportunities that can only be fully leveraged if companies critically re-examine the fundamentals of the product architecture and answer the questions:

  • What are the fundamental characteristics of the existing product that make it successful?
  • What should be the core value of the smart-enhanced product to build on those characteristics?
  • What design principles drive that core value offering?

Companies that are serious about smart products will have to invest in ongoing market research and strategize around emerging technological trends. If they want a customer for life, they’ll need software and hardware that can last.

In the final piece in this series, we will look at customer care in smart CP.