Design for X: Improving Product Profitability

Bruce Zignego

Bruce Zignego

To ensure a product’s profitability, we can during the design phase reduce a product’s costs by taking the systems-thinking approach of “Design for X.” That’s what I learned when I spoke with Bruce Zignego, adjunct faculty in Montana State University’s College of Engineering and president of ZigCo,  a product development firm focused on medical and consumer products.

For founders of companies selling tangible products, achieving the functionality, aesthetics, and ease of use is only part of the story. To be profitable, products must be manufactured economically, shipped in ways that don’t damage the goods, and then offer useful lives in the hands of the consumers they’re meant for.

New product creators may not know that attention during design can preemptively address many problems on a product’s lifetime journey. The most advantageous time to ensure economic viability is before we ship the first unit, even before we initiate the first production run.

Having heard about Design for Manufacturing, I first asked Bruce about that. Design for Manufacturability considers the economics of making a product repeatably and reliably, at the same time it advances the functional performance of the product. But Design for X takes a system view of a product over its entire lifecycle.


Bruce explained that it all started with Design for Assembly, in the late 1970s and early 80s, with engineers Geoff Boothroyd and Peter Dewhurst, who realized that a product designed with fewer parts can be assembled faster. Moreover, parts with features indicating how they should be oriented or attached can be assembled with fewer mistakes and less rework.

From assembly, the notion extended upstream to manufacturing, and downstream to shipping—and then further into designing for cleaning, maintenance, and general serviceability by the product user. The mindset is based in Japanese practice of poka-yoke (“mistake-proofing), a term used in the 1960s by Shigeo Shingo to refer to industrial processes designed to prevent or correct human errors. It’s also consistent with engineering FMEA (Failure Mode Effects Analysis), a step-by-step approach to asking, not “how can this work?” but “how can this break?” and “what could be the consequences of its breaking?”

Thoughtful design can also afford “late-point differentiation,” or adding the special features of a product as late as possible in manufacturing and assembly. Using the example of accommodating the uneven global demand for an electrical product, Bruce described how one team changed its design from one with separate power supplies for the respective markets (110V for U.S. versus 220V for Europe) to one with an auto-ranging power supply that can function from 110V to 220V. The team further “late-point differentiated” by inserting in the product box the appropriate country power cord only right before the product shipped, for example, to a German customer or to an Italian customer. Bruce underscored the financial benefits of late-point differentiation: Founders who have large investments in inventories can more economically support multiple SKUs—with lower working capital needs—using such an approach.

Being aware of the concept—and its potential for improving product profitability—is half the battle. A wealth of information, for people at every stage of expertise, is easily found on the internet. Becoming familiar with the possibilities and then iteratively prototyping and experimenting can yield dramatic differences in profits over a product’s life.