Design Evolution vs Technology Revolution

Did you know there is such a thing as the VW Golf syndrome? It's not those that simply love the car, but rather more of a condition that most engineers and designers suffer from at some point in their careers.

It is a phrase I heard recently to describe the problem of when exactly to launch a completely new product, and when to improve an existing one. The VW Golf is one of the most successful and iconic cars in Europe. It has seen numerous iterations over the years, from the Mk1 first launched in 1974, to the current Mk7.

Each iteration is that bit better. It looks better, drives better, does more miles to the gallon, but it remains stylistically a Golf. It is a clear evolution of the same basic platform and you can tell it is a Golf, regardless of the year.

The challenge, then, is when does that platform need to make way for something else? While it sounds simple enough, it’s really a question of justifying the amount of cost it will take to develop a new product, and then market it, against making something better. It’s called a syndrome as it’s hard to break from a successful brand and product – and indeed why would you want to?

Sometimes you need to develop something new to move forward. It is no longer good enough to offer evolutions in technology and stylistic changes... it is time for revolution. But, revolutions are a big investment.

The VW Golf is an extreme example, and it is likely that the name will continue for decades to come. However, for the airliner industry with much longer lead times and an overhanging need to find hidden improvement, it becomes much more difficult. For example, will Boeing opt to develop a blended wing in the future?

Boeing chose to break from the norm with the Dreamliner and develop a composite aircraft. It fundamentally changed what it was doing, and designed an entirely new aircraft. Had it decided to improve older aircraft and offer another iteration of the 777, for example, it would have been quickly left behind by Airbus and not have had much room for future improvement.

Industries large and small are undergoing tremendous change at the moment as material innovations offer fresh potential to improve, and software continues to drive new revolutions. An example here might be, will VW decide to break from the Golf and design an autonomous car instead?

New products are expected annually, and it means that they need to evolve quickly, and in many cases it opens up the opportunity for a complete rethink. It’s a dilemma that many are facing, and will face, and getting it right (or wrong) will be decisive for products and companies.

Justin Cunningham

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Given that you appear to drive a USA specification pre-1973 VW Type 2 Transporter T2, I am surprised that you chose the VW Golf as the basis for discussion! Sometimes, basic, simple technology is preferable to advanced, sophisticated technology, especially in remote parts of the World lacking the necessary infrastructure for maintenance and repair. At Cranfield in the early-to-mid 1980s, we used to refer to this as appropriate technology.

Comment Nigel A. Skeet, 08/07/2019
Hi David - not a massive amount - but this might help expand on this thought... Hi Ian - they are heavier but there is a much greater bang for the buck, so relative density goes down, but the fact there is more 'stuff' on board - normally related to safety, means that overall weight is increased. JC

Comment Justin Cunningham, 10/08/2016
Interesting article. I've been mulling over the iteration vs. revolution idea myself. Do you have any references or articles that talk more about this subject?

Comment David Cunningham (no relation), 06/08/2016
'Each iteration is that bit better.' Maybe...but also that bit heavier.....

Comment Ian Oliver, 17/02/2016

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