Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


On the origin of products

Huub Ehlhardt, Arthur O. Eger

Can product development be considered as an evolutionary process? Until the late 1980s, product development was generally considered as a “linear” process. The common idea is that the development of products is entirely controlled by inventors and engineers. ‘On the Origin of Products’ by Arthur O. Eger and Huub Ehlhardt aims to show that products are not simply invented from scratch. The authors, both with a background in product development, explain in the book why the emergence of new types of products can be regarded as an evolutionary process. For people who are interested in the subject, they have written a series of short articles about the origins and evolutionary development of four products. Without going into detailed theory, these articles provide the reader with an overview of the origins of the word-processor, the e-bike, the smartphone and the LED lamp.

Although everybody will agree that each individual product is intentionally developed, these articles will show that once we consider the evolution of these products over the course of many decades, it is clear that they do not follow a predetermined long-term plan. This article is an introduction to the series of five and explains briefly why the authors consider the development of products an evolutionary process.

Traditional view on innovation and product development

Innovation has become a buzzword and seems to be regarded as the elixir of the economy. It is generally associated with the invention, development and exploration of products or services that provide new or improved versions of existing things.

Development is always one of the processes required to bring innovation to the market.

Until the late eighties, product development was generally considered as a “linear” process. Successful new (versions of) products were considered to be the “next logic step” in the continuous improvement of the product, with regard to the price and performance. The basic thought behind this idea was based on the – in practice non-existing – principle of a perfect competition, a term derived from the economic theory. According to this theory, a product can only survive in a market if it has an improved performance and/or a better price, compared to its predecessors.

Evolutionary Models

In the last quarter of the 20th century this principle was widely criticised: development processes (e.g. product development) seemed to be much less predictable and unambiguous than the linear progress model suggested. In different fields of interest where innovation processes are studied, such as economics and technology studies, research was initiated to find new explanatory models that are concerned with the complicated way that innovation progresses. It is striking that this research, which has very different points of view due to the many research backgrounds, ended with the same kind of explanations: evolutionary models. But the practical consequences of this point of view remained unnoticed for decades. The linear model remained the general accepted theory in studies of product development and innovation management. Despite this, the practical implications are far reaching: a number of economic phenomena, such as ‘path dependency’, ‘technological lock-in’ and ‘dominant design’ cannot be explained by the linear model and are therefore considered to be ‘anomalies’. But they can be explained when an evolutionary product development model is used as a framework. This formed an important reason to further investigate the possibilities of an evolutionary vision on product development and innovation.

History matters

Most of the products that are developed and brought to the market are nothing more than slight adaptations or improvements on earlier versions of the same product. And even when once in a while a completely new type of product appears, it adds some novelty but always builds on existing knowledge. The wheel is not reinvented, but refined and used for new purposes. Besides the freedom to design newer versions is narrowed down by earlier technologies, standards or products. The development path travelled so far cannot, as it were, be completely redone. This significantly limits the amount of freedom to design newer versions. In short, history matters.

Read the full blog article here.

Read ‘On the Origin of Products‘ here.

About The Authors

Huub Ehlhardt

Huub Ehlhardt has studied Industrial Design Engineering at Technische Universiteit Delft and worked on a Ph.D. project at Universiteit Twente. He has worked over twenty years in di...

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Arthur O. Eger

Arthur. O. Eger is a Professor of Product Design. He has a broad experience in industrial design engineering, wrote and edited over fifteen books, and published over 100 articles a...

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