Commonality, or the reuse and sharing of components, manufacturing processes, architectures, interfaces, and infrastructure across the members of a product family, is a strategy targeted at improving corporate profitability. Companies from Toyota to GE use product platform strategies to deliver more variety to their customers and compete more effectively. For example, Black and Decker uses shared motors and batteries across a range of power tools. Volkswagen models such as the Jett and TT share similar underbody components and other aspects.
Typical benefits of a commonality, or a product platform strategy, include:
- Shared development costs
- Common testing procedures
- Production economies of scale
- Amortized fixed costs
- Reduced inventory
By definition, commonality seems like an obviously good thing. Why incur the cost of making different parts for different products if the parts do the same thing? Because as it turns out, commonality is not always the right thing to do. And even when it is right, it can be difficult to achieve.
Dr. Bruce Cameron is a lecturer in MIT's Engineering Systems Division and a consultant on platform strategies. His research at MIT uses a healthy dose of systems thinking to tease out when commonality makes sense and how to get companies to pull it off. Cameron oversaw the MIT Commonality Study, which closely examined 30 firms over eight years. The study was the first work to uncover that many firms fail to achieve their desired commonality targets, showing weaker investment return on their platform investments. "That type of behavior and phenomenon is seen in studies that we did in automotive, consumer products, and transport," says Cameron.