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Specification for success

Gary Gustafson Blog 8-13I am convinced that a solid specification is the basis for a commercially successful design program. A good specification is written and maintained as a living file within an organization. It incorporates the collective wisdom of marketing, industrial design, design engineering, field testing, compliance, service, assembly, quality and logistics. Specifications are so important that they should be a factor in the acquisition value of a manufacturer. I taught myself how to write a real specification on an instrument cluster program I led for an OEM in the 1990s. The cluster controlled some non-traditional systems and had warning lights and service interval notifications. It was anticipated to be used on completely different types of vehicles that were ridden through water, on snow and after being dropped from a helicopter. In other words, it had to do it all, in high volumes, in all kinds of environments and on all kinds of vehicles. I developed a thorough attention to detail that has benefitted me on many programs since.

The looser the specifications are when components start getting developed, the higher the likelihood of failure later on. Development programs follow a pattern. Early designs seem to drift away from their target, changes are made, and (hopefully) performance and cost is brought closer to ideal with the next iteration. The drift/correction curve is shaped like a sawtooth waveform. The desired centerline for the waveform is program equilibrium where sales and quality targets are being exceeded — let’s call it the success line. Worst-case program management ends up in the sawtooth, not even centered about the success line at all. A well-managed development program keeps the sawtooth within a fairly narrow band near the line, and a really well-managed program will guide the drift/correction sawtooth narrower and narrower about the success line until it is virtually flat with very low PPM while meeting financial targets.

When this happens, the information that contributed toward that program success can be institutionalized in a specification so it can be used and re-used. That specification creates leverage for the company. It’s designer DNA for a vehicle. Think of the signature Harley sound, Honda’s engine durability and Polaris’ long-travel suspensions. Those things are world-class examples of great specifications in our industry. They are so powerful that they have given these companies leverage against their competition. When something is captured and mastered at an organizational level it frees up company resources to learn and innovate in other areas as opposed to literally re-inventing the wheel on every new program. Duplication of effort happens FAR too often in the powersports industry. An unprofessional development approach wastes resources and reinforces negative customer and dealer stereotypes about brands. A great specification maintained within an organization can fix this. What follows is a small sampling of specification considerations.

Marketing/industrial design requirements: Form is at least equal to function in today’s world. Consider the smallest elements that contribute to showroom floor appeal — things like colors, finishes and curves. Is there a logo protocol to follow? A styling theme? Engineers should not scoff at these considerations. Adding a bell or whistle as a sales-pitch bullet point can help the company make money. Does it match or beat the competition in functionality? Is an entry-level price-point approach required or should it be dripping with premium appeal?

Electrical requirements: What are the extremes seen on the bus voltage? Is an input going to have a pull-up or pull-down resistor? What kind of electromagnetic compatibility issues are there? Is a signal digital, analog or analog-used-as-digital? Will a sensor output be shared by multiple control modules? Does the device need to be protected against potential reverse polarity i.e. someone hooking up the battery backwards?

Assembly requirements: How will the system be assembled? Must a certain robotic tool be able to reach an area? Does there need to be clearance around a fastener head for a socket on an assembly-line air tool? Do corners need to be radiused to accommodate a press-fit? Details make all the difference here. Something that is easy to assemble will have better quality statistically than something that is complex.

Future considerations: Does an area on the tool need to be space-protected to add an opening or to change the wire harness connector? Are there things that will be different for a future diesel engine vs. today’s gas version? Does space need to be saved for a longer-travel suspension? Should mounting bosses be included for a new sensor? Some of these considerations will be free to incorporate and future programs will benefit. Again, this creates leverage.

Regulations and standards: Any number of regulations including SAE or ECE standards, NHTSA, CARB or a sprinkling of others may need to be met. Will third-party certification be required, or is self-certification permitted?

Service requirements: Service after the sale counts! Is there a way to access the part for service? Can it be diagnosed remotely via the OBD-II port or some other means? Can standard tools be used on it? Should tool access be planned for? Should it have a planned failure mode like a fuse? Can it throw a code? Can the customer still limp home when it breaks? Can a clear pass/fail test be defined for diagnosing it?

Attention to detail in the specification will save money, time and reputation. That instrument cluster I mentioned? It’s still in 100,000+ annual unit production on multiple vehicle types 16 years later. And the 50+ page specification I painstakingly developed for it became a part of something called the PDP. The DP stands for development process. The “P” stands for the manufacturer’s name. The proof is in the pudding — a great specification drives long-term success.

Gary Gustafson is president of G-Force Consulting. Gary helps suppliers land ATV and Motorcycle OEM accounts and helps OEMs and suppliers develop great new headlights, taillights, starter motors and other products. Visit to learn more.


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