on August 17th, 2020

It was hailed as the next giant leap for personal transportation. Now, it seems, the idea has become redundant. The Segway PT was a one-person electric vehicle that was brought to market in 2001 — with extreme hype and expectation. Nineteen years later, the self-balancing, two-wheeled personal transporter is being discontinued. It seems that lower consumer demand for the vehicle has convinced Segway to pull the vehicle from its assembly lines, to instead focus on other projects in the mobility industry.

The discontinuation of one product and the evolution of another is seemingly the great challenge for consumer-driven engineering companies all over the world. As technology advances and some technologies become obsolete, one can look back at how those technologies laid the foundation for newer, more advanced technologies to enter the market.

The Segway PT, while an attractive prospect for consumers, was dogged with scathing headlines whenever a crash of the vehicle would occur — resulting in its 'fair share' of highly publicized sensationalist coverage. Nonetheless, Segway inventor and founder Dean Kamen was praised by fellow entrepreneurs at the unveiling of the Segway back in 2001. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said, about the Segway PT, that it was the most significant invention since the personal computer and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos called it 'one of the most famous and anticipated product introductions of all time.'

"Within its first decade, the Segway PT became a staple in security and law enforcement, viewed as an effective and efficient personal vehicle," said Judy Cai, Segway president, in a recent statement on the discontinuation.

"This decision was not made lightly, and while the current global pandemic did impact sales and production, it was not a deciding factor in our decision."

Associated Press confirms that the Segway PT currently only accounts for 1.5% of the company's profits. The company is, therefore, looking to debut new products that may buoy their company from now on. Even though the PT has seen a downward spiral in demand at the consumer-level, the transportation industry continues to make strides forward.

The Segway company is not disappearing into the history books, however. The company has introduced a new vehicle to the personal transport industry at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January. Their new concept is a self-balancing electric wheelchair and is named the Segway S Pod.

The company is also designing and selling several variants of lightweight scooters. They continue to innovate in the space and seek an audience in the personal transportation industry. PT's story is one of demand, after all. Demand forecasting and predicting a product's life cycle in the market is good business practice, and something engineers have to grapple with within companies.

When to discontinue a product

Companies tend to design products with lessons learned from their previous endeavors. Apple is one of those companies. The company went from designing personal computers to music players to smartphones. After the introduction of the iPhone, some of the company's different music-playing hardware products very much fell out of fashion, and some were promptly discontinued. The iPod Classic, Nano, and Shuffle are no longer being engineered.

Companies usually discontinue certain products because they are in the process of introducing a new line of products into the market that will render the previous product obsolete.

Image: Adapted from Reid & Estell's book

Dr. Kenneth Reid, an Associate Professor in Engineering Education at Virginia Polytechnic, and John Estell, professor of computer engineering and computer science at Ohio Northern University put together an engineering design book, "Engineering Design and the Product Life Cycle: Relating Customer Needs, Societal Values, Business Acumen, and Technical Fundamentals." They sum up the entire engineering design and product life cycle in 9 steps:

  1. Conceptualization
  2. Feasibility
  3. Definition
  4. Implementation
  5. Introduction
  6. Growth
  7. Maturity
  8. Decline
  9. Discontinuance

Business management concepts, coupled with product design and engineering life-cycle theory, are vital concepts to impart on up-and-coming engineers who are entering engineering workplaces or founding engineering startups. Knowing when to introduce products to the market, and when to discontinue, is one of the modern-day challenges for a plethora of engineering companies in a wide spectrum of industries.

For companies that prepare products to sell to consumers and clients, starting the product development process with the end in mind is smart business practice. With how fast technology is advancing, being aware of when to begin producing the next product, and discontinuing the one that came before it is becoming an engineering art form.  Reid and Estell conclude:

"Even the most successful, earth-shattering, and monumental designs eventually go out of style, lose their significance or usefulness, or are simply replaced by a superior design. In each case, discontinuance from an engineering standpoint implies more than simply throwing something away. We should anticipate the discontinuance in our design."

Works Cited

Ott, Matt. "Segway, Popular with Police but Not the Public, Hits Brakes." AP NEWS, Associated Press, 23 June 2020, apnews.com/3525b9a69569d57dc41a373e82a8f1cd.

Reid, Kenneth J., and John K. Estell. Engineering Design and the Product Life Cycle: Relating Customer Needs, Societal Values, Business Acumen, and Technical Fundamentals. Momentum Press, 2018.

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