This is a preprint of an Article accepted for publication in the Journal of Product Innovation Management © 2011 Product Development and Management Association.

Selected papers by Sebastian K. Fixson are available on SSRN at


Over the past twenty years, the use of digital design tools such as Computer-Aided-Design (CAD) has increased dramatically. Today, almost no product development project is conducted without the use of CAD models. Major advantages typically ascribed to using CAD include better solutions through broader exploration of the solution space as well as faster and less expensive projects through faster and earlier iterations. This latter effect, the shifting of simulation and testing traditionally accomplished with help of physical prototypes late in the process–a slow and expensive activity–to doing similar activities with virtual prototypes faster and earlier in the process, has been identified as a key aspect of front-loading, an activity shift promising to enable superior product development performance (Thomke & Fujimoto, 2000).

Given CAD‟s recent pervasive use, our research questions for this paper became how CAD use has actually changed the way in which product development is conducted, and through which mechanisms and pathways can CAD impact product development performance, especially with respect to the idea of front-loading? To address these questions, we study in a longitudinal comparison in detail two similar product development projects, one conducted in 2001, the other in 2009. The second project exhibits substantially higher levels of CAD use and significant improvements in prototyping costs but only marginal changes in project time and project engineering labor cost. In-depth analysis reveals that the use of CAD affected how the product development was executed, with both positive and negative consequences. In addition to, and separate from positive aspects of front-loading we also observe unintended consequences in the form of back-loading work. We discuss theoretical implications of our observations and propose a simple framework to convert our findings into managerial advice.


Management Information Systems | Technology and Innovation