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Product Management
Industrial Product Management

All the Responsibility with Limited Authority

Apr 03, 2019
By Anup Rama

So you are a product manager or in the process of being a product manager in an industrial company. An industrial company could be any company that may strictly play in the B2B world and its products may compete in a car assembly plant, in a petrochemical refinery or maybe in an oilfield in Texas.

Chances are that you have landed on this article because you are wondering what such Industrial Product Managers do and how different is the role from those in tech organizations such as Google or Apple.

The truth of the matter is that a product manager in an industrial organization shares some similarities with those of a product manager at a tech organization. The similarities lie in that this role still bears a lot of responsibilities and accountability with limited authority. What does this mean?

As a product manager, you are the CEO of your product – whether that be a flashy phone or an industrial controller used in process applications. It is your responsibility as a product manager to steer the product team towards the end goal – a final product that meets the customer needs and is profitable for your company and differentiates itself from the competitor’s offering.

Who is in this product team? This team comprises of key members from Product Development, Supply Chain, Operations and finally Sales. It is your role as a product manager to manage this team, their competing priorities and drive them towards the development of a product from cradle to grave. So how is the role of an industrial product manager different from other product manager roles? The key difference is the customer, the market and the product lifecycle.

For example, say you are a product manager at a company that manufactures motors that may control a conveyor at an automotive plant. Chances are high that your customer may be Ford, Chrysler or another big name automotive company. Chances are also high that your product will be spec’d in to the customer’s sales contract. This means that your customer is looking to buy the same product for every application going forward – which in turn means that the product is expected to last for a significant lifetime (typically 10 years plus) and is not expected to have drastic changes in pricing and performance.

What does this all mean to you, as the product manager? It means that your product (in this example, the motor) is now expected to serve your customer in the auto industry for an extensive period of time. This means that your product goes through extensive testing, longer development time, and strict compliance with regulatory approvals and competitive pricing with healthy margins. This also means that your product will take anywhere from at least 6 months to several years to develop, test and eventually launch.

Although this goes without saying, an industrial product manager may need to take additional efforts to stay close to the customer, understand his needs and also determine whether his needs have changed during this long product development time.

As you define and detail your career path, being an industrial product manager certainly poses some advantages over being one in a B2C world. An industrial product tends to last a long time, due to the adoption curve of typical industrial customers. You will rarely see auto companies like GM, Ford or big petrochemical refineries change their equipment (why may be your managed products) in their facilities.

The reason being is that the industrial world prefers consistency and is slow to adopt new technologies. This is one of the reasons that IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) has been slow to pick up despite its tremendous potential for value creation for the businesses.

If you are a product manager for a motor that runs an automotive conveyor or say a filtration product that separates oil and water in a refinery, the chances are high that these products still continue to exist despite being old in service and outdated in technology. The mantra “don’t fix it till it's broken” continues to plague industrial customers due to either lack of funding to modernize their equipment or a general conservatism towards adopting new technology.

The good news is that you will work on long-lasting, durable products adored by the industrial giants, who will continue to spec it for every project barring any unforeseen product failures. The bad news is that your friend in the Silicon Valley will working on products (new to the market) every six months.

B2C products are constantly challenged by consumers and this is exactly why Apple releases a “new” iPhone every year. Another advantage of being an industrial product manager is that since the development cycle is so long, you will get to know every aspect of the business – development, mechanical, regulatory approvals, prototyping, testing, quality control, marketing, pre-sales, launch and post-sales support.

No matter what product you are managing, make sure you attend your relevant industry events, subscribe to subject matter magazines and journals. It is your job as a product manager to remain up to date with the latest in technology, regardless of whether your customers are willing to accept them or not.

Challenge your product development teams and come up with the next generation product. Force your customers to think outside the box and help them champion the technology, so they can remain competitive in their markets.

Remember, you are the CEO of your product.

About The Author
Anup Rama

Having worked in Automotive, Manufacturing, and now Oil and Gas, Anup has over 15 years of experience in various B2B roles - Engineering, Technical Marketing and Product Management. Anup holds an Electrical Engineering from the University of Ottawa in Canada and a MBA from the Schulich School of Business in Canada. Anup's passion is to always be closer to the marketplace, understand customer needs and launching next-gen products to answer exactly these needs, in a profitable manner.

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