The Making of a Grid MVP

by Vince Martinelli

To a sports fan, MVP means Most Valuable Player, like Stephen Curry in basketball, Cristiano Ronaldo in soccer or Tom Brady in American football. But in the lexicon favored in technology product management circles, MVP means “minimum viable product.” I find this contrast interesting.

Let’s explore how the two notions of MVP link together in the international sport of developing products for electric utility distribution grids. We shall see that one must understand “minimum viable” requirements to have a chance at becoming a “most valuable” solution.

Getting a Minimum Viable Product Ready for the Big Leagues

The Lean Start Up guys, Steve Blank and Eric Ries, popularized the idea of an MVP, as it relates to developing products. Shardul Mehta’s blog also offers helpful insights to anyone starting the process. But even with their coaching, deciding what features, functions and overall attributes will lead to a most valuable product for the grid is part science and part art.

My personal product management “career stat sheet” includes business stints developing products that have found their way into planes, spacecraft, undersea cables, warehouse robots and automobiles.

Given that history, how hard can it be to define the “minimum” feature set for a product that just needs to hang on a utility pole or sit on a concrete pad in your neighborhood?

ACRONYM SOUP

Did I mention the need to design for a 25-year maintenance-free life? Or that the product must be safe for electrical line workers to install, physically secure from vandals, and cyber-secure for remote access? The product also must operate over ambient temperatures from -40C to +55C (-40F to 131 F) and withstand rain, sleet, snow, and ice.

In addition, if the letter groupings in this “Acronym Soup” don’t mean anything to your engineering team, there’s homework required to brush up on design methods and standards compliance needs.

A minimum viable product for use by an electric utility requires understanding of many standards and design methodologies, some of which are part of this “acronym soup.”

Give me an M! Give me a V! Give me a P!

Hold on, that’s a lot to process. Let’s back up one step and look more closely at how each letter in MVP applies to launching new integrated hardware and software systems for the grid.

M is for minimum. Safe, reliable, low cost, easy to install, maintenance-free. These are the minimum requirements to get a utility to even consider evaluating your product.

V is for viable. Does the system survive power surges, fault currents, extreme temperatures, and salt from the air that comes with ocean breezes? If it survives, does it still function properly? Viable means functioning over the full operating range of the system in all expected conditions.

And if there is ever a failure, it must be graceful, preferably without causing service disruption.

Even with those needs met, if the product doesn’t solve a problem in a better, simpler way than what’s been available for the past 50–100 years it’s not likely to be adopted.

P is for product. A product is different from a lab breadboard or a prototype. You’ve thought about how it will be packaged and shipped, for example. You can provide documentation including specification sheets, test reports, installation and user guides as well as the training to go with them. A product intended for use on the grid, even if it is serial number 0001, must be supportable.

Execute against this MVP list and you are on your way to having a system that a utility will be happy to evaluate. And that’s your first big, new opportunity to learn.

Learning by Doing Adds Value

Years ago, colleagues of mine from a major electronics systems company in Japan contrasted “Fruit of the Desk” — products designed only through computer models with no real-world testing or validation in the field — to the continuous improvement opportunities created via “Learning by Doing.”

When a customer buys your MVP and uses it in their operation, new requirements are uncovered, some original ones are discarded, since they were not true requirements in the first place, and the product can be tuned to deliver more value. This process is key for accelerating the progression from “minimum viable” to “most valuable.”

It’s the difference between having a good practice and winning games.

This is also true of the learning that happens when you go from building one unit to many in production. Controlled engineering changes based on customer feedback and manufacturing experience enhance and simplify the product over time, minimizing wasted investment in less useful features and driving out costs in the process.

GOAT of The Grid

At Gridco Systems, we’re not completely satisfied with being an MVP of either type. We believe grid-side power electronics are a key building block in grid modernization to support society’s energy future. We launched our first products in 2014 and now have five product families deployed in the field. We monitor these systems continuously and interact directly with our many utility customers, currently located in six countries. We can check the boxes for “viable” and “valuable,” so we choose to raise the bar, recently introducing the X Series, based on our 2nd-generation platform.

We like the challenge that goes with bringing new technology to the grid, wrapped into a variety of products. We look forward to having these systems deployed at a scale that makes such a positive impact that they are recognized as (perhaps) the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of The Grid.

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