Investigating Product Failure: Understanding the Development of a New Product


Unlike Athena, a new product does not spring, fully formed, from the brow of the Vice President of Marketing. Most likely it arrives prematurely and requires heroic efforts just to survive.  Usually, but not always, its problems and weaknesses will have been resolved by the time it's released for sale:  The operative phrase being "Usually, but not always."

When attorneys research a case involving a product failure, determining the answers to these questions is critical:

  • How many changes and iterations did it go through?
  • Were changes made to the design or to the manufacturing process?
  • When were they made?
  • Were they substantive?
  • Why were they made?
  • What testing was done to verify the products viability and label claims?

Most, if not all, of this information is readily available if you know where to look.

 Almost all companies today follow steps similar to these when developing a new product:   

  • A Product Definition is written (usually by the Marketing Department) and submitted to upper management for approval.
  • Once approved, it is forwarded to the New Product Development Group for action.
  • After the product has been designed, prototyped, reviewed and approved, it is released to manufacturing.
  • Once production parts have been approved, the product is released for sale.
  • If it's a complex product, the Field Service or Customer Service Department might be brought in to help write the operating manuals.
  • If necessary, regulatory approvals - F.D.A., E.P.A., U.L., etc. - will be sought and received.

Each of these steps leaves behind a trail of both of successes and failures.  It is in here that the answers to most of the questions about the product can be found.

Generally the Marketing Department writes the Product Definition.  They might want to expand their existing product line or feel a need to match a competitor's newly introduced product.  In any event, in the definition they will list items such as target cost and sales price, critical features, target market segment, competitive products, anticipated sales volume, desired introduction date and a profit projection.  This document will become the touchstone for the development of the product.  All future decisions will be measured against it to assure compatibility.

Once Management has approved the request for the new product, the Product Definition will be submitted to the Product Development Department for action.  A development team will be formed to review the definition and then create the product.   The team might request changes to the Product Definition and, provided they can support their requests - an inability to meet cost or introduction targets, that it can't be bigger on the inside than on the outside, etc. - they might be approved.   However, once Product Development agrees to, and accepts, the Product Definition, they will be committed to create a product that meets it.  

Depending upon the size and complexity of the product, the development team will generally consist of Product Designers, Development Engineers, Industrial Designers, representatives from Quality Control, one or more representatives from Manufacturing and/or Manufacturing Engineering and at least one member of the marketing group that originally requested the product.

Unfortunately, it is at this early stage of the process that most of the crucial product decisions are made - how and where will it be manufactured, what materials will be used, what kind of testing will be needed, will it be separate pieces or consist of several subassemblies.  How will the pieces or subassemblies be joined - glue, screws, welds, snap fits?  Where will the inspection points be and what features will be tested? 

This is also when the first project schedule and cost estimate are created.  Based on what is, at this early stage of development, essentially no knowledge whatsoever about the new product, the team must commit to the date that the finished part designs will be available and tooling, assembly, testing and packaging cost estimates. 

Note that these decisions are made before anything has been designed, tested or evaluated.  Despite that, making any changes to the product later on will be very difficult because part, assembly and tooling designs will have been created using the properties of the materials and manufacturing methods that were chosen at this early point.  For example:  If the housing of a product was initially conceived to be a zinc die casting, changing it to a plastic injection molding would entail not just a the redesign of the housing but the acquisition of new production tools, new assembly procedures, testing protocols and a delay in the introduction of the product.  

It is also during the Product Development phase that most of the information about the product, its size, shape, weight, cost, method of use, etc., is generated.  Any variations from the initial concepts will be discussed, documented and detailed.  

The majority of the design, the drawings and testing protocols will also be created during this stage of development.  Any changes from what was essentially guesswork will be documented, along with the reasons for them.  Changes at this point in the process are not necessarily bad or indicative of some hidden agenda to slash cost, meet a deadline, or match the capabilities of a preselected manufacturing site.  They might just as well be improvements to the product's function, its lifetime or its safety.  The point to be aware of is that all of this information is available.  You just have to know where to look, what to ask and how to interpret the answer.

There are three main sources of insight and information about a product:

  • The product drawings,
  • The project meeting minutes
  • The Quality Control testing protocols.

The best source of information about the evolution of a new product is the product drawing.  The initial drawing of a product will be released as "Revision A."  Each time a change is made, the revision level is raised - B, C, D...  For each revision, a document, variously known as an Engineering Change Notice (ECN), an Engineering Change Request (ECR) or something similar, must be completed, approved and filed.  On it are listed the person who requested the change, the date of the request, the change requested, the reason for the change, the impact the change will have on the product and, occasionally, the cost implications of the change.  These changes must be approved by the Engineering, Product Development, Marketing, Manufacturing and Quality Control departments before they can be incorporated into the product and the drawing.  Reference is made to them in a special section of the product drawing known as the Revision List.  This list includes the date of the change, a brief description of the reason for the change, who requested it and why it was requested.  Although not as detailed as the ECN document itself, it usually contains enough information to give someone a good idea about why a particular change was made.

During the evolution of a new product, discussions are held about how something should be done, why it should be done, what the impact will be on the product and, most importantly, why the decision was made.  This information can be found in the "Project Meeting Minutes."  It is at these meetings that an Engineer might voice his safety concerns and that Quality Control will discuss their testing protocols - what features they will or will not test and why they made that decision.  It is also at these meetings that decisions might be made to skip additional changes or improvements because of time, budgetary, or deadline constraints. 

Note that not all changes are suspicious or were made for some nefarious purpose.  Many times changes are simply corrections of errors - the holes on two pieces don't line up properly for assembly, dimensions might have been recast in order to simplify inspection, decorative features such as surface texture, color or curvature might be changed strictly for reasons of appearance. 

The final pieces of information about the evolution of the product are located in the Quality Control department.  How the product was tested, which properties and features were tested and, perhaps even more importantly, which weren't, will give you a good insight into the strengths and weaknesses of the design.  The questions that should be asked are:

  • How is the part being tested to support its label claims?
  • Is this test representative of real life use?
  • Is there a nationally recognized test procedure for a product like this?
  • If there is, is it being used? If not, why not?
  • Was the testing protocol changed to increase acceptance levels?
  • What label or marketing claims are not being tested?

For example, consider a two-foot square step stool with a label claim that it will support 250 pounds.  Placing a 250-pound block on the stool can easily validate that claim.  If the stool doesn't collapse, the claim is valid.  In actual use, though, the weight of the person standing on the stool is probably concentrated in the area of the soles of his feet - an area considerably smaller than the four square feet surface of the stool.  Also, a 250-pound person standing on the stool generates a very different stress pattern than does a four-foot square foot dead weight.  Does the testing incorporate these concerns?

Standardized tests, developed by O.S.H.A., A.S.T.M., U.L. and others are designed to validate a product's functionality, not just to clear it for sale.  If a standardized test protocol is available but not being used by the manufacturer, you should find out why.  Most likely the answer will be either the test is too expensive to use in production or the product can't pass such a rigorous test.

Another area that should be thoroughly reviewed involves what tests should be, but aren't being run.  If a product claims to be waterproof, you would expect some sort of ongoing testing to assure that production parts really are waterproof.  If no such testing were being done, you would want to know why, and how the manufacturer can assure the product is actually waterproof.

By taking the time to acquire and review this information, the strengths and weaknesses of the product, and of the manufacturer, will become apparent.  Depending upon your assignment, you will be better able to prepare your defense, focus your prosecution or improve the current development system. 

One final note:  This procedure is directly applicable to relatively simple products - appliances, toys, hand tools, etc.  Larger, more complex products - automobiles, airplanes, machine tools and the like require additional steps.  All large, complex products are made up of smaller, simpler subassemblies.  In an automobile, some of the subsystems are the instrument panel, the tail light assembly, wiring harnesses, the braking system, etc.  Rather than ask for all of the development information on a new car model - probably tens of thousands of pages of drawings and test data - you can focus on the design and development of the subsystem of interest to you.  If the brakes in the car failed, neither the air conditioning nor the window subsystem would have any bearing on that failure and could probably be ignored.

Whether you are defending, prosecuting or merely investigating the failure of a product, it is important to know what information is on the record, how to access it and how to interpret it.  In this case, knowledge truly is power!

Previous Article Soft Contained Play Equipment, The New Frontier for Playground Accidents!
Next Article How Safe is Locally Grown Food?
Tasa ID79

Theme picker


  • Let Us Find Your Expert

  • Note: This form is to be completed by legal and insurance professionals ONLY. If you are a party in a case that requires an expert witness, please have your attorney contact TASA at 800-523-2319.

Search Experts

TASA provides a variety of quality, independent experts who meet your case criteria. Search our extensive list of experts now.

Search Experts