What is R&D? Why Does it Matter?

Joely Wu September 22, 2022 4 min read

Research and development is a critical stage in any product development process. Learn the ins and outs of R&D and how Autodesk Fusion 360 can support it.

Every product rooted in science was likely born from a concerted research and development (R&D) effort. The phrase “research and development” has largely become a synonym for innovation and is a critical part of any organization in the technology sector whose goal is to transform or advance a product category.

In 2019, global spending on R&D reached $2.3 trillion, distributed amongst industry, government, and academic institutions. Research and development must be a worthwhile investment, but what does it entail? To answer this question, one must break down the phrase and analyze how each step functions in concert to drive innovation.

The significance of research

The research portion of R&D refers to exploring new ideas, discovering new principles, and formalizing how to harness these new principles and ideas. The general research umbrella is often divided into two distinct modalities: basic research and applied research.  

Basic research

Basic research, as its name suggests, focuses on the most basic principles or concepts. Basic research aims to advance understanding and knowledge instead of searching for a specific solution to a problem. For example, a design firm working on a medical wearable device may conduct basic research on the medical wearable industry before creating concepts. This type of research, while not critical to developing a specific product, may help inform a wide variety of decisions that the company will make, ranging from executive management to technical focus and risk analysis. 

Applied research

Applied research, on the other hand, serves to find solutions for, and applications to, a specific problem in the real world. Applied research often follows the classic method of scientific inquiry, wherein a researcher identifies a problem, hypothesizes a solution, and then carries out repeated experiments to validate the hypothesis.

Continuing with the same example of medical wearables, the design firm may conduct applied research to determine what materials are safe and appropriate to use for their device. They identify the criteria and performance requirements, propose various possible material candidates, and finally test these candidates in a host of experiments to ascertain their viability. The result is hopefully several solutions to the initial problem along with a detailed analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.

Diving into development

Once a foundation of basic and applied research has been created, the development process comes into view. This is often a different and specialized team that works hand in hand with the research team and company management across all organizational entities, including sales, marketing, operations, and manufacturing, to name a few. This collimating role of the development process is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1 – Relationship between research, development, outside factors, and the product.

The development team aims to integrate the research discoveries into a product with practical use and common appeal. They may analyze customer feedback from prototype studies, emerging market trends, regulatory requirements, and a host of nuanced inputs. This juggling act requires a well-defined process and diligence in following it.

Research and development: The process

Research and development followed a fairly linear process in the past. The advent of the computer age, however, has led to new ways of thinking about developing products. This was primarily driven by the speed and flexibility of software development and the ease with which prototypes could be built and tested.

In recent years, the same has become true of other disciplines like mechanical design, electronics hardware development, and biotechnology, to name a few. The widespread availability of tools like additive manufacturing, low-cost PCBs, highly configurable electronics, and immense cloud computing power has ushered in an era wherein complex products can be quickly and readily prototyped. You can now apply the same methodologies used to develop software products to any product.

Agile development 

Agile development is one of the most widely known and highly effective methods. In simple terms, this method uses a process of continuous development by iteration with input from a variety of cross-functional teams. Teams create many prototypes, each moving the project toward completion with learning and refinement. It has become widely accepted that this type of rapid incremental development produces the highest quality results with the highest probability of success.

Other methods

Additionally, other popular methods include Waterfall development, an older linear approach, and Spiral development, which uses controlled iteration around well-defined steps of a spiral. Teams can pick and choose which method to move forward with based on team size, available resources, and project goals. 

The Evolution of Research and Development

Research and development in the modern era look very different from the past. While basic research still follows traditional methods, applied research and product development have adopted many new prototyping techniques and successful implementation methodologies. The result has been a boom in research expenditure and a general consensus on the importance of innovation for the long-term health of any company.

What comes after R&D?

Following the R&D stage, teams typically kick off the design stage. Autodesk Fusion 360 is an integrated CAD, CAM, CAE, and PCB software that can help you bring your idea to life. Easily take your research findings and turn them into viable prototypes, then export your files straight to your manufacturing process of choice. Ready to take your R&D process to the next level?

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