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UK as a hub for design and innovation

UK as a hub for design and innovation

When Control Techniques set out to develop a new concept in variable speed drives, it put the UK at the centre of a global development effort.

When it comes to developing new products, many companies assume that they are meeting the requirements of their customers. All too often this is an illusion that is shattered when new offerings fail to capture the imaginations of their target audiences. Things can go wrong when product development is focused internally, on how a company's core competencies and technologies can be applied to create innovative designs. In reality, design innovation is only one half of the development process: market research is equally important.

For Control Techniques, the decision to develop the next generation of variable speed drives, Unidrive M, started with drawing up a development programme making the fullest possible use of the expertise of its global network of Strategic Marketing and Engineering and Design hubs, with the UK at the centre. Unidrive M is focused predominantly on Control Techniques' largest market sector: manufacturing automation. This is a novel approach for a drives manufacturer and it has allowed the company to tailor its new drives to the exact specifications required by a whole range of customers in the manufacturing sector.

To lead the market research programme for its new range, Control Techniques brought in an experienced strategic marketer from Emerson's Climate Technologies business in the United States, Jay Wirts. Jay drew up a new market research programme from scratch, expanding and restructuring the Strategic Marketing department. This enabled Control Techniques to take its market research to a whole new level.

"It is vitally important that research and development is guided by customer needs," says Wirts.  "We have to work out what the customer wants, and then work out how to design and build it. There really is no substitute for a properly executed programme of market research." Control Techniques initially undertook qualitative research designed to uncover underlying trends amongst customers. The qualitative research programme consisted of 100 in-depth interviews with key end users, including both prospective and current customers. The results of the qualitative research allowed Control Techniques' engineers to begin to address requirements that they had never even considered before.

The initial interviews were followed up with an extensive programme of quantitative research, which was designed to confirm and expand upon the findings of the qualitative research. Wirts says: "We did over 800 surveys around the world and we discovered that, within the manufacturing sector, customers and potential customers cluster into seven main groups with different needs. This was definitely the biggest and most important insight for us."  

Engineering resource
To reflect this, Control Techniques decided to develop a range of seven drives, covering each significant cluster. This would allow customers to buy an optimised product which has been tailored to their specific needs. Wirts says: "The research meant that when working out what features should be in each product we had a lot of highly relevant data to base our decisions on. This data was vital when deciding what engineering resource should go in to developing a new product feature."

Once the market research was complete, the next step was to design the drives themselves. One of the biggest challenges was that developing a range of seven drives all at once required a larger-than-usual group of engineers with very diverse skills (mechanical, thermal, control and electrical engineers) to work closely together. This called for Control Techniques to develop new working practices in its Engineering and Design department.

Tom Alexander, Vice President of Technology at Control Techniques, says: "One of our early insights was that, in previous product development pro-grammes, individual engineers or teams of engineers had quite often been designing in isolation. We decided that the best way to avoid this was to get our design tools more connected, so that each design team could see what the other teams were up to at all times."

Control Techniques' global head-quarters is in Newtown, Mid Wales, but it has Engineering and Design facilities all around the world too, including in France, the USA, India and China. Alexander says: "When we decided to develop our new range of drives, we were determined to ensure that our engineering resources across the world worked really closely together in a way that they had never done before. We called this 'globalising' the development process. One reason to globalise the development process was to avoid accidentally duplicating our research and development efforts in different parts of the world. Another reason was that it gave us access to the largest possible pool of incredibly talented people".

Control Techniques recognised that for the development process to work it needed to bring people together to work as friends with personal relationships. The solution was a three-week planning meeting in the UK with the management teams from each global site involved. Alexander says: "We hired a house in the countryside where they could stay. We had a few working events and social events and a lot of good friendships came out of it. That has worked well for the project all the way through. It built that fundamental trust between the team.

"It is impossible to imagine that a design team based in one country alone could have engineered such an exciting and innovative product. Proof of this is in the 30 new patent applications Control Techniques has submitted during the development process, demonstrating the true unique value the range will bring to machinery customers."

Wirts says: "The key benefit of our new range of drives is that they provide the customer base with more relevant value. Each Unidrive M drive is targeted at a very specific customer need." But, as with all innovative processes, there is a cycle of continuous development in the market research strategy. Much has been learned that will enable the market research process to be further enhanced for upcoming future product launches.

Wirts concludes: "We expect our new approach to market research to lead to a significant increase in sales. In the future, we want to invest even more to ensure that we maximise the amount of useful information that we get from our customers."

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