By Jeff Leagon
Product managers rely on their sales force to point out the deficiencies of a product line. They constantly hear things like, “I could sell a lot more of this if it was 4 inches wider” and “Why don’t we offer a version of this material that’s compatible with that new print process?” The good product managers realize when there is a need for something new.
The first step of product development is to qualify the need. In other words, you need to be as sure as possible that if a product is developed, someone will buy it. This qualification process includes estimating the size of the market, what the market is willing to pay, what the cost of the product is likely to be, and whether the product can be produced with your existing capabilities. Answering all of those qualifiers will tell you whether the development is worth pursuing and, if so, what level of priority to give it. The sales force is then responsible for gathering this information.
Defining the product
Once an opportunity is qualified from a business standpoint, it needs to be clearly defined technically and answer the question: “What’s this new product supposed to do?” In our world of fabric graphics, we’re usually trying to create a material that’s compatible with a specific printing technology, or we’re focused on the appearance or physical characteristics of the fabric itself. In either case, all of the requirements must be understood from the start so they can be engineered into the new product. For example, direct digital printing onto fabrics almost always requires a coating or pre-treatment of some type, but that coating can be different depending on the print technology (direct dye sub, solvent, latex, etc.). Similarly, dye-sub transfer printing dictates that the fabric be made of polyester fiber and that it be heat set to prevent excessive shrinkage. A given product will have multiple requirements related to performance and aesthetics, and unless they are clearly defined from the start it’s not possible to know when the development process is complete or whether it has been successful. During this phase, as well as in the testing phase, it’s helpful to have R&D technicians and product engineers communicating directly with potential end users. This helps ensure that the technical concerns are being addressed.
In most cases, development of printable fabrics involves taking an existing or commercially available base material and processing it by some combination of scouring, bleaching, heat setting, coating or saturation. These processes can be done on a small scale in the lab. Once lab scale samples are produced, the challenge becomes printing or field testing. Since print technology is so diverse and evolves so quickly, it’s not feasible for media producers to have all types of printing capability in house. We must rely on customers and OEMs to do the testing. It’s necessary to do print testing at more than one location in order to validate the results. If the image quality of the test prints isn’t acceptable, the finishing process must be adjusted and new lab samples made. If the image quality level and all other requirements are met, the next step is a production scale run of the product. Samples are tested against the original lab samples to make sure the results are the same.
Getting the word out
Once all of the requirements have been met, the product can be commercialized and launched. In order to get maximum exposure for the new product, large quantities of printed and unprinted samples are distributed to the sales force and prospective customers. The new product is incorporated into collateral materials, such as price lists, sample books and website listings, and press releases, print ads and e-mail blasts are distributed to get the news about the product in front of prospective customers.
This process is expensive and time consuming—it can take so long that performance requirements change during development. But, in a relatively young and dynamic market like ours, we shouldn’t expect technology to slow down or wait. We have to be aware of and understand emerging print technology and make sure that compatible media options are available.
So, the next time you see a press release, like “Aurora launches Act II SP for digital solvent and latex printing,” think about everything that had to happen before that could be written. And, if you have a need for a printable fabric that just isn’t available, make sure you tell your supplier’s sales person. You can be sure the product manager will know about it very soon.