Wisdom from the workroom: David Robinson shares lessons in product development

Why do some products succeed and others fail? Dr. David Robinson, a product developer for Segway and the da Vinci surgical robot, said that success or failure often comes down to four main points: understanding value, repeatedly integrating and learning, realizing that the risk is never zero and “putting your shoulder to the wheel.”

1. Understand your value

Robinson’s first job out of graduate school was with Segway. The company was facing a very specific challenge. Although the product was well-known and well-liked, very few people were buying Segways.

“Everyone knew what Segways were, and most people thought they were cool,” Robinson said,  “but we had to ask ourselves, ‘Why were people not buying the Segway?’”

The company realized that they needed to find the group for whom the Segway had value. This eventually led them to marketing the Segway toward EMTs, police officers and security guards. The product had value for these people, who could move quickly, carry heavy loads without strain and be instantly more visible.

“The Segway had value for them.”

This led to Robinson’s first point: the importance of understanding value.

“In product development, you have to understand the relative worth or importance of something. Something that is cool to me does not necessarily have value to someone else.”

His second example involved his current position at Intuitive Surgical, where he works on surgical robots. The da Vinci surgical robot represented an enormous breakthrough in the medical field. It’s success, however, is attributed to the fact that the product holds value for patients and doctors.

 “Most surgery is done open, with an incision large enough for the surgeon’s hands. This is very hard on the patient.”

With the da Vinci robot, however, that is changing. The surgical robots allow for smaller incisions, less invasive surgery, faster recovery time and less scarring. Additionally, as Dr. Robinson demonstrated in a video clip, the robot’s fine tools are dexterous enough to fold a paper crane smaller than a dime.

2. Integrate, learn, integrate, learn…

Robinson’s second lesson was to integrate products early, rather than waiting for the final draft.

“Integrate the whole product early on. Integration drives learning and discovery. You sort of have a spiral of making, integrating, testing and learning. The faster you do this, the faster you learn and the better your product will be.”

The first Segway, Ginger, was put together almost as a joke. It ran on printer motors. However, because someone thought to assemble it, the company was able to learn from it and see what changes needed to be made. Several versions later, the Segway PT was ready to be sold.

For John Boone, a pre-mechanical engineering major at the lecture, this was a profound concept. “I like his spiral of integrating, learning, integrating, learning… it’s like the Edison quote he shared. Edison didn’t fail, he just found 10,000 ways that didn’t work.”

3. The risk is never zero

Another lesson Robinson has learned over the years is that it’s better to make the wrong decision than to make no decision at all.

“Don’t wait too long to act,” Robinson said. “You can drive your risk down, but the risk will never be zero. In priority order, your first priority is to make the right decision, but the next best thing is making the wrong decision. Making no decision at all is worst thing you can do.”

“That was my favorite part,” said mechanical engineering student Kevin Francis. “Teaching us how to make sound decisions in our lives.”

4. Put your shoulder to the wheel

Normally, Robinson said, his last point is to “be happy and work hard.”

“But in this audience, you know what I mean when I say ‘put your shoulder to the wheel.’”

He explained that engineering follows the law of the harvest. For spectacular results, engineers need to work hard. In addition to hard work, however, Robinson advised students to enjoy the journey.

“Be happy. The journey in engineering is a lot of fun. It can feel burdensome at times, but really it is so much fun.”

Dr. Robinson grew up in Provo and attended BYU for his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. Afterward, he received his master's degree and Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from MIT. He is currently the director of systems engineering for new product development at Intuitive Surgical.

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