Today, when even a simple door lock can consist of mechanical parts, software, electronics, and supplementary websites and apps, we have entered an era of unprecedented product complexity. This has wide-ranging implications for product design and development. It even begins to challenge our notion of what a product is—or can be.
Consider the mundane electric coffee maker. Coffee had been brewed on a stove top until the advent of electricity made possible the first percolator, patented in 1865, that used an onboard heating element. This design remained largely unchanged until the 1970s when electric drip coffee makers were first introduced. Drip makers soon became more popular than percolators, but they weren’t appreciably more complex. Additional features such as timers were added, but the basic elements—a case with a water reservoir, a heating element, and tubing—remained the same.
Fast forward to the present day and the Spinn coffee maker. First, this coffee maker features a patented centrifugal brewing system, an entirely new approach to brewing. But the innovation doesn’t stop there.
Spinn is voice-enabled, so its owner can tell the coffee maker what to do.
It even comes with an app allowing the user to interact with the machine remotely. What’s more, Spinn has built a community of boutique coffee roasters so that users can order premium coffee via a subscription service. And when they receive their coffee beans, the package comes with a QR code that the machine can read to understand specifically how this particular roast should be brewed.
In other words, the “product” that Spinn has brought to market has far more capabilities—and complexity—than the traditional coffee maker. It combines a sophisticated machine featuring software-based intelligence, a controller app, and a broad community of roasters organized into a kind of personal supply chain for the coffee aficionado. The result is a high degree of simplicity for the user and an improved customer experience. Customers can control the Spinn appliance remotely, receive fresh coffee beans regularly without having to go to the store, and brew the beans to perfection without having to touch the coffee maker itself.
The complexity of the manufacturing process, which can often involve a host of geographically distributed partners, mirrors the complexity of the product itself. Indeed, many of the companies we discuss consider themselves “virtual” manufacturers because they don’t directly manufacture the products they create and sell. Instead, a myriad of suppliers manufacture individual components, while the company assembles and tests the final product, even, in some cases, outsourcing these functions as well.