Why effective R&D management is challenging

10 Feb 2012 Sandeep Mehta

A recent article in Tech-On (Mitsubishi Unveils Ultra-high-speed Elevator for Skyscraper) highlights the challenges involved in managing R&D. First one being the number of technologies that need to come together:

To realize the world’s fastest speed of 1,080m per minute, Mitsubishi Electric used new technologies for higher safety, lifting height and comfort as well as for the motor for the winch.

Specifically, the 40+ mph elevator needed new ceramic brakes, new low weight elevator rope, a roller guide with anti-phase vibration, and a new aerodynamics shape to reduce drag.  R&D managers have to ensure all required subsystems mature simultaneously for the final product to be delivered. This is an R&D management challenge because most subsystems take years to develop and most organizations have many different products in the R&D pipeline at various stages of maturity. Maintaining visibility across such disparate projects is quite difficult.  However, guiding development (through resource investment) so that the technologies mature when needed requires a rare combination of technical and financial knowledge.  (See Prof. Teece’s research for some interesting perspectives)

A second major challenge is the number of engineering disciplines that need to be working together to realize the final product.  The ceramic brakes alone needed material scientists, thermal engineers, structural engineers and manufacturing engineers.  The aerodynamic shape required computational fluid dynamics in addition to overall design among other disciplines.  Coordinating all of these skillsets and disciplines, extremely challenging in itself, becomes even more difficult when we consider multiple companies and organizations involved in development.

Another key challenge results from integration required to build a product from subsystems.  Most physical systems have complex interactions and interdependencies.  For example, the new rollers not only impact the rails/guides, but also brakes, ropes, control systems etc. Hence any changes to the brake design will cascade into changes in all other subsystems.  R&D managers need to effectively coordinate and synchronize progress across these development projects.

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