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« What It Was Once Like | Main | Putting a Stop to Car Talk »

June 26, 2008

Product Evolution Sweet-Spots

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

When I was young -- between 15 and 25 or thereabouts -- and read biographies, I tended to be bored when plowing through the formative years parts. I wanted to get to the interesting bits, when the famous person was doing the stuff that made him famous.

As I got older I became more interested in the formative parts. But by then it was too late for the information to do me much good.

When it comes to product types, my interest has always tended to focus on one phase of their evolution. Not an exclusive focus, mind you, but a preponderant one.

Here's one way of looking at product evolution:

  • Pioneering stage. This is when something gets invented and other pioneers get into the act. The challenge is getting the things to work at all. There is likely to be a good deal of experimenting with alternative concepts. For the automobile, alternatives included steering wheels versus tillers, engine placement (front, middle, rear), and power plant (steam, electric, internal combustion). Automobiles and airplanes were in this stage up to about 1915.

  • Awkward stage. Concepts that didn't pan out well are discarded, though experimentation continues. In this stage, the emphasis is on improving reliability. Planes and cars were here roughly 1915-33.

  • Refinement stage. Things work and are reasonably reliable. Now engineers and designers focus on bringing the product to its potential. Actually this process is never-ending, but in many cases there is a period when refinement is both obvious and rapid. For automobile styling, this was from 1934 to around 1950. It was different for airplanes because the introduction of jet propulsion in the mid-1940s introduced a secondary evolutionary cycle.

  • Mature stage. Refinement continues, but mostly at the detail or "invisible" engineering level. Outward appearance can be essentially unchanged (commercial airliners) or edges into fashion cycles. Car appearance swings from purist to baroque and back again. There is increasing use of Retro themes because functional requirements are so thoroughly explored that true innovation becomes nearly impossible; previous solutions have to be recycled (think door shapes, windows, etc.).

Each of the stages I listed has its interesting aspects, but the stage that attracts me the most is the Refinement stage. Here are examples of product types with my own (approximate) date ranges for that stage:

  • Automobiles 1929-55
  • Airliners 1932-70
  • Ocean liners 1895-1935
  • Battleships 1910-40

Even though I'm usually most interested in the Refinement stage, I can understand the appeal of other stages. Do you look at product types from an evolutionary point of view? If so, have you a different set of stages? And which stages interest you the most?



posted by Donald at June 26, 2008


Computers, the home variety at least, seem to be in either the awkward stage (pessimistic view) or the refinement stage (optimistic view).

Posted by: Peter on June 26, 2008 11:21 PM

Buildings. Interiors; comfort for inhabitants, in particular. (I'm one of those boring people whose work coincides with the life interests).

Art Deco - unquestionably a Refinement stage. 1927-1939.

Posted by: Tatyana on June 27, 2008 7:57 AM

Were cars toward the end of the refinement stage, say a '53 Buick, as mechanically sound, as reliable, as low maintenance (frequency of repair record) as an '08 Buick?

Put another way: if a '53 Buick could be found today with zero mileage on it would it perform mechanically (for the sake of argument assuming '53 parts were available for maintenance) in a comparable manner to an '08 Buick?

I understand that the computer has made cars more sophisticated but are they significantly sounder, more mechanically reliable, than they were in the '50s?

Posted by: ricpic on June 27, 2008 8:59 AM

I am a connoisseur of paper clips in their refinement stage (1925 through April 1937). You should see my collection sometime, although I will need 48 hours advance notice to get it from the bank vault. These new extreme expressionist paper clip designs are a symptom of the decadence of our times.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 27, 2008 12:42 PM

Do you think its cool to get this on your car : HID Conversion Kits or Car DVD
HID Kits

Posted by: Staiveftosefs on July 15, 2008 4:42 AM

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