(Jacques Spillmann with JBL senior mechanical engineer, Larry Romestant)
Welcome to our latest “Tech Talk,” where we meet with industry experts to discuss issues and ideas surrounding audio, visual and lighting (AVL) technology. In this installment, we’re speaking with Jacques Spillmann, a senior manager in mechanical engineering at JBL Professional. In the five years Jacques has been at HARMAN Professional Solutions, he has authored numerous patents and been a key contributor to the design and development of a number of loudspeaker products, including the JBL VTX V20 line array element and JBL VTX M Series stage monitors.
In recent months, while working on an enhancement for JBL’s Tour Sound line, Jacques has given much thought to the overall process of thinking, collaboration and designing that leads him from concept to manufacturing. We thought it would be interesting to explore his methodology and understand how new products are birthed before finding their way into the marketplace.
[MM] Where do ideas for new JBL products originate?
[JS] When I begin work on a new product, it’s generally based on a set of features and requirements that come from the marketing department. Features and requirements turn into a set of parameters, such as size, weight, specific sound power level (SPL), the ability to attach to another unit, etc. All of these requirements must be taken into account when conceptualizing and designing a product. What I find most interesting is solving that equation, taking the different parameters and going through the challenging process of accommodating all of them. When you invent something, there is not just one answer. There are many potential ways to solve the design equation, so it becomes a quest for the best and most elegant answer to the challenge.
[MM] Once you have the requirements, how do you actually launch the product’s development?
[JS] The process begins by making sure we really understand what is being proposed and its context. For example, the context for a touring speaker system is not the same as studio monitors or cinema loudspeaker products. We also have to consider who will be using the new product. Then, before heading toward solutions, it becomes a matter of understanding the background of the project and the underlying challenges it is meant to address.
Once I have a solid understanding of the product’s usage, its basic requirements and what needs to be achieved, we move to the next step—organizing those requirements and parameters, and exploring design options. Then the bulk of the work begins. As engineers, we could probably work on developing the same product over and over again, making it better with each iteration, but we would probably never stop that development process, because there’s always something you feel you can improve upon. However, you have to find a balance that makes sense for the business and follow a schedule, because time-to-market is crucial.
The question becomes how can I be creative in a given timeframe and provide the best or most elegant solution, while making sure I’m going to create something that people can use by the end of the process?
[MM] Is there always a timeframe and a deadline?
[JS] There’s always a reality check in the background. Every week, we have project meetings to confirm we can meet deadlines for each step in the development process—concept, definition, design, validation, design verification, production validation and mass production.
Ideally, we want less time constraints in the beginning, during the concept phase, because that’s where we actually need to think and invent something. Once we have a proof of concept—confirming we can meet all the requirements and have a precise definition of the product—then the design phase becomes more about executing that vision.
The high-level decisions I make upfront inform the rest of development. I can’t go back and re-conceptualize a design once it’s being executed. Therefore, these early decisions drive everything else—time, cost, complexity and the product’s success in the market. The 80/20 rule, meaning that 20 percent of your decisions account for 80 percent of your results, is also valid in design.
[MM] Going back to the first question, how do you actually solve the requirement parameter equation?
[JS] I often start with a mind map (my favorite mind mapping tool is MindMeister). It allows me to graphically break down the project. I include all the requirements and start considering all the design options that can lead to a potential solution.
For example, with a line array loudspeaker design, I know we have to work with a trapezoidal form factor but need to define the precise dimension limits—depth, width and height. The requirements dictate that the height can be no bigger than, for example, the JBL VerTec 4889, so I define that as a parameter. As the process develops, I add notes about different possible options and ultimately highlight the answers we move forward with it on the mind map. This is a simple example, but when you have dozens of parameters, the mind map helps to keep track of all the decisions that are made. It acts as a chronicle of the project and can easily be scanned by the team. That way, we can remember why and how we made the decisions we did. It’s like having the entire product definition on a single page instead of needing to go through a 100-page document.
The great thing about MindMeister is that it allows for a totally collaborative process. You can share the mind map and anyone can add or comment. It has been especially helpful when developing a loudspeaker system, where I’m not the only expert involved. I work on the mechanical design, but there’s also a systems engineer who deals with the acoustics and can create their own branch of the map. Eventually, we work on the same requirements and impact each other’s work; it’s very helpful to so easily share information.
Collecting a lot of imagery also helps with problem solving. Taking snapshots of design variations helps me keep track of changes and communicate with the team in a visual manner for faster feedback. Looking back at the image collection is valuable and interesting, as it illustrates the process we went through until a final design solution was found. I also use Pinterest to quickly tag inspiring images from the web.
[MM] How much of a role does collaboration play in your projects?
[JS] It’s really important, as that’s the only way to work efficiently. Working together and brainstorming ideas creates something greater than could ever be achieved by anyone individually. However, there is a science to brainstorming. One of the most important things is developing the ability to listen, share and not be afraid of what could sound like a bad idea. The main thing I’ve learned through the years is to never shut down an idea, even your own, by self-censoring! There might be a fragment of an idea that ultimately leads to exactly what you need to achieve.
In order to have a good brainstorming session, everyone must check their egos and emotions at the door; it’s really about working side by side. There shouldn’t be any barriers or fears. You can’t always get people to that level—into a collaborative process, where they open up and go on that journey with you—but you have to try. It’s incredibly important and powerful to achieve a certain level of trust with someone or a group.
[MM] Once you’ve originated a mind map and shared it with your team, what’s the next phase of development?
[JS] The next step is to research as many solution options as possible and go deep into the thought process, exploring each problem from every angle. Before you can truly say if an option is going to work or not, you have to dig until you have significant knowledge of each alternative and have a significant vision of its outcome.
Personally, I’ve encountered instances where I’ve rushed designs into one option or another, without really thinking it through, just assuming it’s going to work. Then weeks, or even months, later it comes back to bite you. You try to put bandages on the design, maybe realize you need more parts—or worse, you have to make some major changes, which makes you really unpopular. So then, right then, you feel like you’ve killed your vision of an elegant product, of something you thought could turn into a great product. You can’t afford to go back and change the foundations, so you’re sort of stuck with it.
My design philosophy is to really take the time to build a strong foundation by exploring and working through all the options to let form follow function.
[MM] How do you know when you’ve exhausted your options?
[JS] In order to really wrap your head around the various options, you need to have a clear vision of what you’re creating and stay focused. You need to project yourself as far into the future as you can, always keeping the big picture in mind and regularly taking a step back to ask yourself if what you’re doing still makes sense for the design, the product and the customers.
When customers use something that has been fully thought out, is practical to use and has a good design, at the end of the day, they notice it. That’s the kind of impact I’m interested in and how I think you build the success of a brand.
Persistence is really the key. But, when you find yourself going back and rethinking the first option you had a gut feeling about, you know you’ve circled the problem. Personally, I am never completely satisfied; my instinct is to keep improving.
[MM] What happens if you hit a wall with your thinking?
[JS] If I’m pondering a problem for two hours and I am still stuck, I walk around or do something else to help my brain settle down. Sometimes, if you feel like your head is in the clouds, it helps to ground yourself and start fresh.
It’s also very important to have people around who can give you feedback. If I get stuck in the exploration of a solution, I often talk to someone and leave the conversation with new ideas. The interaction can spur me to think about things in new ways. Social interaction is incredibly helpful and a key to successful product development!
I’ve joked that I could design a new loudspeaker suspension system in my sleep, but it’s actually kind of true. It calms me down sometimes to think about the solution for a design outside of the office, and I do it over and over, trying to visualize it in my head. Eventually, it puts me to sleep at night. It’s funny how the brain works. You can put some seeds in there at night, go to sleep and somehow those seeds turn into new ideas by morning.
There are often dead ends in the design process, but there is also always an exit. The important thing is to never give up. When I have a big challenge, I think about it constantly in the car on my way home at night. It’s gratifying to work through the process and never let go. At the end, when you get that aha moment, it’s an amazing rush of feelings: accomplishment, pride and awe. I can’t get enough of these moments. Some people ride roller coasters for an adrenaline rush; my roller coaster is the design process!
[MM] How do you know when to pull the trigger on a design option?
[JS] Sometimes I have to put together a matrix. Let’s say I have five or six potential solutions, knowing none are perfect. It becomes a matter of finding the best compromise. I come up with a rating system and say okay, this solution answers 80 percent of the problem, but it will be more costly and more complex. This other solution only meets 70 percent of the requirements, so I will have to negotiate with marketing and find a compromise. And then, this other option might not look as good, but it is simpler and would have a faster execution. I rate the various solutions and, with the group, determine which is the best overall.
It becomes a constant loop of analyzing whether a potential solution is in line with the requirements and making sure it actually solves most of them. During the design process, you may also find solutions by accident, things that might take the design to the next level. So, it’s important to stay aware and know how to listen and observe. Ultimately, we don’t do things because they look cool and we think they will be good enough. We want to design things that are relevant for customers, things they can be proud of using. It’s about connecting with them on an emotional level.
[MM] Are there any authors who have impacted your creative approach to engineering?
[JS] Yes, here’s a list of reading material that has inspired me to be a better designer:
- “The Elegant Solution: Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation” by Matthew E. May
- “Do You Matter? How Great Design Will Make People Love Your Company” by Robert Brunner, Stewart Emery and Russ Hall
- “Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking” by Matthew E. May
- “Mindfulness” by Ellen J. Langer
Many thanks to Jacques for the fascinating insights into the mind of an engineer! Do you work in product development, design or engineering? Let us know how you initiate your process in the comments.