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Over the past 20 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 the 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 (PD) performance.

Given CAD's recent pervasive use, the research questions for this paper became “how has CAD use actually changed the way in which product development is conducted, and through which mechanisms and pathways can CAD impact PD performance, especially with respect to the idea of front-loading?” This paper addresses these questions by studying in a longitudinal comparison in detail two similar product development projects, one conducted in 2001, the other in 2009. The projects were carefully selected to isolate the substantially higher levels of CAD use of the second project while controlling for most other input factors that influence project performance.

The project with substantially higher use of CAD exhibited significant improvements in prototyping costs but only marginal changes in project time and project engineering labor cost relative to the project with lower CAD use. In-depth intra-project analysis on the phase level 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, unintended consequences in the form of back-loading work are also observed. Back-loading can occur in two places in the product development process: First, the availability of CAD systems can cause an early jump into detail design, effectively shortcutting concept development. Second, the ability to relatively quickly conduct small changes virtually to the design can erode process discipline; late changes are made simply because they are possible. Both of these effects back-load work in the opposite direction of the positive front-loading. The theoretical implications of our observations are discussed, and a simple framework to convert our findings into managerial advice is proposed.