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The “Valley of Death” between concepts and viable products

The official page of the Breakthrough Energy Coalition (led by the most famous high-tech leaders) is quoted as saying

“Experience indicates that even the most promising ideas face daunting commercialization challenges and a nearly impassable Valley of Death between promising concept and viable product. Neither government funding nor conventional private investment can bridge this gap.”

Well, commercialization principles can bridge that gap. Read on:



 Commercialization is the process that converts ideas, research, or prototypes into viable products and production systems that retain the desired functionality, while designing them to be readily manufacturable at low cost and launched or implemented quickly with high quality designed in
        Commercialization also involves formulating effective manufacturing and supply chain strategies early, devising implementation strategies, and implementing those strategies.   Commercialization may be a necessary step for commercial success for innovations coming from startup ventures, research efforts, acquired technology, patents, and so forth..


Here are common causes that include their false assumptions (see more fallacies below) and counterproductive practices::

“Get something working fast, regardless of manufacturability and cost. They can all be fixed later.”

“Get it working quickly with whatever parts you can find now, built with whatever process you have access now.
They can easily be changed later.”

“Make sure the prototype will work now, at any cost, by specifying tight tolerances and using highly skilled labor.”


The ideal way to commercialize products and production systems would be to design them "right the first time" for the optimal manufacturability, cost, quality, time, and functionality. Commercialization of research should include with following:

• View research results generically so that research does not specify, limit, or imply product architecture or production strategy or any aspect of the design, when everyone is looking at a physical proof-of-principle or experiment that “works.” Be sure to use generic words like “means to accomplish ___________.” 

An important exercise for a Commercialization Workshop would be to create a generic description of the innovation. The team would identify the "crown jewels" and express them in the most generic terms, such as “means to do ___________” As Patent Attorneys will tell you, the words “means to. . . . .” are the most powerful words in patent law and if an invention has a Claim starting with “means to,” that would a very broad claim, thus resulting in a very broad and powerful patent. The generic words should be documented in real time in the workshop on a word processor that is projected onto a screen. If done right, the generic description will contain only the crown jewels, and may even surprise the team with its brevity and conciseness. And the points are that:

• valuable resources and time should be focused on the identified crown jewels

• everything else can then be optimized for manufacturability, quality, reliability, part availability, and fast ramps to stable production.

• and much of that can be procured off-the-shelf, thus freeing more resources to focus on the crown jewels.

As discussed more below, the development team should identify, isolate, and preserve the “crown jewels” -- the actual basis of the innovation and then optimize the designs around that. Similarly, make sure that the product requirements express the “voice of the customer” generically.

• It is important to incorporate manufacturability from the very beginning, as outlined in the seminal book on the subject, “Design for Manufacturability; How to Use Concurrent Engineering to Rapidly Develop Low-Cost, High-Quality Products for Lean Production. "  If the whole venture needs to learn this or needs a culture shift (and is receptive to it), arrange training on the same principles through DFM training and product-specific workshops.  For products or services that need to built on-demand or mass customized, implement the principles of  "Build-to-Order & Mass Customization; the Ultimate Supply Chain Management and Lean Manufacturing Strategy for Low-Cost On-Demand Production without Forecasts or Inventory."

• Management must understand and support these principles by reading these books and attending this training  attending a product development strategy class for executives and managers.

Quantify Total Cost. The more important cost is, the more important it is to measure it properly. For ambitious cost goals, cost measurements absolutely must quantify all costs that contribute to the selling price. Until company-wide total cost measurements are implemented, the design team needs to make cost decisions on the basis of total cost thinking, or for important decisions, manually gather all the costs. Since a large portion of cost savings will be in overhead, the costing must ensure that new products are not burdened with the averaged overhead charges of other products, but only the specific overhead charges that are appropriate for the innovative product.


    The strategy to commercialize prototypes, breadboards, or applied research in any form should start with identified and preserving the “crown jewels” -- the technology that is the basic premise of the innovation or the essence of what has been proven. Without changing the proven functionality, everything surrounding the core technology and supporting systems would be designed or redesigned for the best manufacturability, cost, quality, and time-to-market while being integrated into an optimal product architecture and production strategy.
     The science would be the same, but the hardware, software, materials, controls, and production systems would be commercialized to be more manufacturable. Similarly, the physics would be the same; the chemistry would be the same; the biology would be the same; the thermodynamics would be the same; the basis technology would be the same. One way to think of this is that whatever is being affected by the product or service “doesn’t know the difference.” Here are several examples: the light rays don’t know the difference; the flow of electronics don't know the difference; the fluid doesn’t know the difference; the cells don't know the difference; the sample doesn’t know the difference; the sound doesn’t know the difference; or fill in your own blank: the ____________ doesn’t know the difference.

Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla Motors and Space-X, said: "(Physics is) a good framework for thinking . . . Boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there."  - from the Tony Rohn book: "Elon Musk; 100 Success  Lessons"

   This analysis will quickly reveal what is not the crown jewels, including cabinetry and power supplies, which can be bought off-the-shelf quickly at lower cost and higher quality, provided this is considered before arbitrary decisions preclude there use.  For instance, if an electronics module is designed to be 20" wide, it will not fit into a standard 19" rack system. 
    If early architecture decisions ensure that  routine electronic functions can be performed by off-the-shelf circuit boards, then they can be done well at low-cost with the best availability, leaving you to focus on the crown jewels.   If not, then custom circuitry may need to be designed, which can take a lot of resources and may complicate other parts of the design.      For instance. if custom circuit designs arbitrarily select whatever voltages everybody  wants, then a custom power supply may be needed, instead of picking a proven power supply and designing around the voltages that are readily available off-the-shelf.  This approach will free the design team to focus on the crown-jewels instead of wasting precious time and resources on boilerplate.

     The format and size of the product or production system should not be based on an arbitrary size, output, capacity, that corresponds to some arbitrary value or round number. Rather the format and size of the product should be optimized to correspond to the best cost/performance ratio for the system, which may be determined by the lowest cost/performance ratio for key purchased parts and subassemblies, as shown in the section titled “Optimizing Architecture/System Design” in the book, “Design for Manufacturability.” This optimization may result in multiple units being used together for certain markets, but this may still be the lowest cost per function while possibly opening up new markets at the low end of the market.


Without Commercialization, there is usually the temptation to simply take research that “works” and then “draw it up and get it into production.” And that might appear to be "early progress"  and may temporarily please managers and investors, or satisfy arbitrary deadlines that may be counterproductive.   However, this will bring about several vulnerabilities, some potentially severe in the following areas:

THE REAL TIME TO MARKET. One of the biggest vulnerability of not commercializing research may be that the product or process will not be ready to produce in production quantities in production environments and this will result in delays, during which many resources will be wasted fighting fires and implementing change orders, which Toyota says, “always compromise both product and process integrity” (this is a warning to scientists and managers who are only concerned only about functionality, which itself can be compromised by poor manufacturability).
    The real time-to-market would be delayed, or the chances of product success may be compromised, if commercialization is not attempted  until all testing is done or clinical trials are completed. Then, the company has the dilemma of choosing between two unpleasant alternatives: (a) try to go into production without adequate commercialization or (b) delay the product launch to do the commercialization, and then have to re-introduce the product and maybe re-qualify the product/process or even repeat clinical trials.

COST. As shown in the DFM article,  60% of a product’s cost is determined by the concept/architecture, but the opportunity to achieve the lowest possible cost is missed when the product architecture is based on the research prototype, or worse, the breadboard. Further, after the parts are designed around that, cost is not easily reduced, but trying by change-order wastes valuable resources, doesn’t really reduce cost, and, again, compromises product and process integrity.
       A big opportunity missed by research scientists is Off-the-Shelf parts. Usually, scientists design only to “optimize” functionality and then make the parts fit into “the” architecture, which precludes standard Off-the-Shelf parts and usually requires very unusual parts, sometimes with cost and availability problems (which in turn delays the real time-to-market). By contrast, commercialization should start early with thorough searches and selections of off-the-shelf parts and sub-systems and then the product would be literally designed around the off-the-shelf parts. This is enough of a paradox for engineer, but quite a foreign concept to research scientists. However, off-the-shelf part strategy is a key element of commercialization to focus efforts on the crown jewels. 

QUALITY. Research that is not commercialized may very likely have quality and reliability problems because the research that “works” is often done by highly skilled technicians, scientists, and engineers who know how to make things work (despite manufacturability shortcomings) with sample sizes probably not statistically significant (what does it mean when one prototype or experiment works?). However, the design must be robust enough to be consistently repeated in production environments and perform well in all anticipated user environments.


A common cause of commercialization challenges is the following 7 fallacies of commercialization,
which are all based on the author's observations or quotes in the press.

Once people like something that "works", they throw it over the wall to production,
in the naive hopes that the following fallacies will solve all the enivitable problems that will arise:


Fallacy #1: Prototypes can be easily "cost reduced" later.  For reasons cited in the article “How Not to Lower Cost,” cost is very hard to remove after a product is designed because 80% of cumulative lifetime cost is committed by design and so much is cast in concrete that systematic cost reduction will be difficult.  In addition, the changes will cost money, which may not be paid back within the life of the product.  And the changes will also cost time, especially if requalificaitons are required, which may delay the time-to-market, sometimes seriously.  Further, the changes may induce more problems, thus needing yet more changes, thus expending more hours, calendar time, and money to do the subsequent changes, which, in turn, could possibly compromise functionality, quality, and reliability.  See the article: Seven  Reasons Why "Cost Reduction" after Design Doesn't Work.
       And the worst consequence of cost reduction is that committing valuable resources to try retroactive DFM or cost reduction after design takes them away from other more-effective efforts developing low-cost products by design and improving manufacturing and quality.

Fallacy # 2: Launch the prototype or experiment into production . Typically, as soon as a prototype or experiment "works," there is pressure to “draw it up and get it into production.”  Unrefined products that are not designed for manufacturability will inevitably have problems with production launches, quality assurance, consistent functionality, and actual production will cost more than targets.  Another variation of the same problem is when management or investors insist on “proven technology” and then   won’t allow any changes in the “proven” prototype, which then goes into production without commercialization.

Fallacy # 3: Commercialization can be bypassed by  Risk Management.  Some may think an un-commercialized design can be “de-risked” by “proving success” which may just be “proving” varying aspects of functionality. However good that makes people feel, such a product may still not be manufacturable enough to ramp up quickly to stable production.

Fallacy #4: All that "young technologies" need is maturity.  Some people say what they are working on is "still a young technology, so the costs are still high," which implies that costs will naturally come down as it "matures," for instance, with the following very common fallacies..

Fallacy #5: Mass Production alone will lower the cost. The venture may think it can depend on “Mass Production” to provide “economies of scale.” In fact, many people believe the industrial myth that the only way to get cost down is to get volume up, which may be applicable to very high-volume commodity products that have little variation or few changes in markets or designs.  However, it requires a large capital investment to build such capability. If this capability is greater than firm orders, then the venture is gambling that the economies-of-scale will lower the cost low enough to generate enough demand to fill such a large factory.  However, if the product has not been commercialized, then this bet-the-company factory will be trying to mass produce prototypes or unrefined products/services and have to deal with many problems, like those cited above.  And, since it is so hard to make an inherently expensive product or service cheap, the actual cost reduction will result in a very small return for the amount of money expended to set up a mass production factory.   Worse, the venture could be in trouble if the anticipated cost savings don't materialize.  Finally, mass production factories are so inflexible that it will be hard to convert them to make a more manufacturable product later or any other products for that matter.  For this and many other reasons, mass production is an obsolete paradigm for fast moving industries for reasons cited in the mass production article/ . Mass Production is being superseded by the low-cost on-demand production in any quantity by Build-to-Order (for standard products) and Mass Customization (for custom products).
    Ironically, a product designed with Half-Cost principles will not depend on economies-of-scale to get the cost down, thus minimizing the investment and the risk.  Then ventures can focus resources to commercializing products by design rather than all the effort it takes to set up a mass production factory.
    Thus, if the product was not commercialized, the venture will be vulnerable to competitors who did commercialize their products, especially if a lot of money and effort was invested to manufacture an un-commercialized product
Fallacy # 6: Throw Automation at it.  Automation is often viewed as a magic elixir that can bring down the cost of anything. However, just like Mass Production, automation is expensive and, if not done right, may be too inflexible to be useful for next-generation products or other product variations. The most inflexible automation is fixed or hard automation and tooling that only works for a particular product or part.  Unfortunately, attempting automation will cost a lot of money now and may result in little, if any, gain, unless there is a large demand for the chosen product...
    Ironically, if products are designed very well for manufacturability, they may not even need any automation for assembly.  Similarly, part fabrication could be easily "automated" by inexpensive flexible automation that is available inn thousands of  factories or job shops. The most common example is programmable CNC machine tools, which can automatically fabricate a wide range of parts at low cost, while being flexible enough to quickly change over to build many different parts or improved variations.

Fallacy # 7: Robotics will lower the cost of anything. Although robots are great for creating buzz and look very impressive in action, they are an expensive way to try to lower cost, except for high-volume tasks where the work is dangerous, ultra clean, or has very many difficult steps.  Although the robots themselves are flexible and can be reprogrammed for other jobs, the robot itself is only half the cost of its whole system.  The rest is the installation, programming, tooling, and end-effectors (grippers), which are usually not very applicable to different parts or the next job. 
    Good design for manufacturability can eliminate most of their need, for instance, making assembly so easy that robotics can’t even be justified, thus saving much effort and cost. 



Commercialization that can scale it rapidly will require innovation.  But, in the opinion of the author of the leading book and web site on Design for Manufacturability, most companies are surprising inadequate at innovation.  F prbes  says that "95% of patents are never licensed or commercialized"  and Silicon Silicon Valley venture capitalists  liken commercialization to "crossing the valley of death."

 Here is the web article that tells why: Why Companies Can't Innovate, and. and how to unleash innovation. which contains18 common counter-productive practices that prevent companies from innovating, each  with web links to solutions. 

Before any urgent needs require meaningful innovation, everyone doing research needs to apply all the principles of Manufacturable Research which are available now to all research groups  at  who can apply all these principles immediately.

And research should never be thrown over the wall "to industry" who just "launches it" into their factories  without concurrently engineering products and scalable process, as described in the white paper:


Dr. David M. Anderson (who authored this site) can show new ventures and existing companies how to commercialize research and prototypes into viable products that will be manufacturable enough for rapid ramps that can quickly reach even best-case-scenario demand volumes. He can help in the following ways:

Seminars and webinars to train companies how to concurrently engineer products for manufacturability. This could be applied at the beginning of a venture or to the commercialization of an existing prototype or research.  These classes and workshops would give startup ventures an advantage over established companies because their venture could start out using these principles and wouldn't be inhibited by inertia, counterproductive policies, or resistance to changing entrenched ways of developing products.

Workshops to focus on the commercialization of a specific product to brainstorm on how to best commercialize the product and insure these methodologies are applied.

Consulting with product development teams to help them with on-going consulting advice to apply the most effective product development principles and make the best decisions throughout their projects.

Design studies. Dr. Anderson applies all the principles he teaches and writes about, coupled with his Doctorate in Mechanical Engineering, thesis research on bio-mechanics mechanisms, four patents, and 35 years of design and manufacturing experience, to offer leading-edge development work ranging from concept studies to innovative product architecture development studies. The deliverables from this work will allow client companies to easily complete the inherently manufacturable design work.

Dr. Anderson’s bio-sketch is presented on the "Credentials" page. He can be reached at or

Commercialization Clients of Dr. Andersn: who were taught commercialization principles and had workshops

BioNTech, in collaboration with Genentech  (division of Roche). Dr. Anderson was brought in to provide manufacturing strategies and flexible processing equipment to commercialize their pioneering the mRNA-based cancer cure that will be personalized to every patient

Atricure called in Dr. Anderson to help commercialize pioneering medical devices for minimally invasive heart surgery for atrial fibrillation known as "A-Fib.."

Hyradix, a division of Koch Industries which had a DFM seminar to help commercialize hydrogen reformers to convert natural gas to hydrogen for fuel-cell buses.

Idatech needed DFM seminar and cost/steel reduction workshop to help commercialize fuels-cell powered generators.

GE Transportation in Erie, PA; scheduled DFM seminar and a commercialize workshop for their Tier-4 Diesel Locomotive Engine. After that they sold 1,000 Tier 4 locomotives and drove a competitor out of the business.

Silicon Light Machines, subsidiary of Lucas Films had a DFM seminar to help commercialize digital film projection.

PRI Automation brought Dr. Anderson in for 6 years consulting and training, which included commercializing his own concepts of an ultra-low-cost and ultra-clean robot for semiconductor fab clean rooms, which was based on clever linkages that had no motors or rolling/sliding bearings near the wafer.

Siemens where Dr. Anderson’s concepts relieved serious tolerance overconstraints, thus helping to commercialize very large structures for postal sorting facilities.


The author of this site, Dr. David M. Anderson, has extensive experience designing robotics and implementing automation, including seven years at his own company, Anderson Automation, Inc. . . ..

. . . . but then he shifted to Design for Manufacturability (DFM) because that can reduce cost more.   

Call Dr. Anderson at 1-805-924-0100 to discuss implementing these techniques or e-mail him at with your name, title, company, phone, types of products, and needs/opportunities.

Copyright © 2018 by Dr. David M. Anderson

Dr. David M. Anderson, P.E., fASME, CMC
phone: 1-805-924-0100
fax: 1-805-924-0200

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