A product’s definition is its actual incarnation: its ‘engineered design’ as manufactured
This is the hardware that’s made and that you’re seeking to monetise, for which tooling has been invested in and a whole distribution and product management system set up. With a lot riding on it, you want to make sure that it is right, and has the highest likelihood of generating the anticipated return on investment. This is the case for all products, in all markets, but agriculture offers unique challenges in defining commercially successful products which help feed the world.
Contributing to its carbon management, the sector also faces a reduction in skilled labour, variable growing conditions, and ever-increasing pressures on inputs. Advances in technology have the potential to greatly benefit all farming systems but tailoring their hardware embodiment to meet the actual demands of farmers is crucial to enable their uptake and realise their benefits.
Regardless of its location or produce – flora or fauna – a farm is managed and operated by people. Whether in traditional fields, in glasshouses or in vertical farm ‘factories,’ it is the farmers who best understand how to cultivate their systems to optimise yield of their crop. As farming systems have often been developed over generations, and many farm outputs only yield an annual financial reward, any technology-enabled proposed changes to farming practices are understandably met with extreme caution.
Farmers also have a myriad of other demands on their time, and already use an increasing number of systems to provide farm management information. Most farming environmental conditions are extremely challenging, and any hardware needs to be suitably designed and engineered to withstand exposure to the elements (and chemicals), harsh and remote locations, and the industrial nature of farms in general. Such qualities are rarely low cost, and with valuable implications at stake, there is a strong imperative to develop robust hardware. While any new technology benefits from being delivered in a way which enables ready adoption, agriculture in particular demands that it is fit-for-purpose and very easily integrated into existing practices. While such high-level requirements are easy to list, homing in on the detailed requirements specification to ultimately arrive at a definition for a new agritech product is considerably more difficult.
All aspects that relate to the product lifecycle should be encompassed in capturing user and product requirements. These include specifications and requirements for deployment, for example. Does the product need to fit in the bed of a pick-up truck, or be towed behind a quad-bike? Will it need access to power, or have a battery life requirement? Does it need to be resistant to being trampled by cattle? Or sheep? While it may not be possible to meet all the requirements during the development phase, understanding a realistic wishlist enables necessary trade-offs to be considered. In this way, it should be expected that the requirements specifications will evolve as they are refined to a definitive set.
One of the benefits of documenting the requirements is that it helps ‘tie down’ the specifications to enable refinement and avoids last customer bias where a whole new idea is formed every time a new customer is questioned. It is always temping to believe that the last person spoken to is right! Having a written list of requirements allows you to refer back and build a holistic picture of all your prospective customer requests.
One useful model for developing User Requirements Specifications (URS) and Product Requirements Specifications (PRS) is the Double Diamond. Moving through this model from left to right, the specifications are determined in the first diamond. Within the second diamond the product is designed, engineered, and developed to meet the specifications. Each is a divergent and convergent process, exploring as wide a space as possible to home-in on the most effective solution; whether as specifications to meet the market (left hand diamond) or innovative engineering to make the product real (right hand diamond).
While this process is often depicted as being a linear process, like many aspects of product development it is best put into practice as a circular, looping model, both within each diamond and between them. As product development experts, at eg we operate largely in the right-hand diamond. Within that, we often loop back, refining designs based on simulation, prototyping and testing, sometimes requiring new concepts to be explored for sub-systems or component designs.
While that focuses the sharp-end of the product definition wedge, the earlier part of the process is also supported through us delivering concept design sketches, prototypes and mock-ups which are used by our clients to test their markets, gain customer feedback and further inform the requirements. Here the concept of a Maximum Feasible Prototype can play in important role. This is a prototype that contains numerous competing forms of functionality – through testing it with customers, confidence can be gained as to which features provide value, and only these can be taken forward to the final product requirements specification.
The Maximum Feasible Prototype is not to be confused with the Maximum Feasible Product, which is rarely successful in the market relative to targeted offerings or cost-effective Minimum Viable Products.
The process of checking the product development against the specifications is verification and validation; verification is testing that the product meets the PRS – that the hardware has been appropriately engineered – and validation is testing that the product meets the URS – that the right hardware has been designed. With the engineering development being the central point, this check-back model is often known as the V-model of product development. With this again being an iterative process throughout the development, the final iteration of the loop is the manufacturing intent product definition. As this is the design which will be taken to market, for which investment in tooling, assembly, marketing and distribution will likely be made, the outcome is also the ultimate test of the robustness of the earlier processes to set the specifications appropriately.
While this process is no different in AgriTech than in any other industry, defining product specifications which meet diverse farmers’ needs is critical to enabling the commercialisation of technology into the field.