Welcome to Sebastian Fixson's homepage at Babson College



Sebastian K. Fixson, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Technology and Operations Management
Technology, Operations, and Information Management Division
Tomasso Hall 226
Babson College
Babson Park, MA 02457, USA
++1.781.239.4414 (office)
++1.781.239.5272 (fax)
e-mail: sfixson@babson.edu

Research Affiliate with the International Motor Vehicle Program (IMVP),
a Research Center of the Industry Studies Association.



I am interested in and passionate about all things design and innovation related.  At Babson College, I recently created a website, Innovation by Design, that bundles the information on courses at Babson with links to local organizations and relevant resources for product design and development work. 



At Babson College I currently teach courses in the following areas:



Within the larger field of Technology and Innovation Management, my research focuses on New Product Development (NPD).  In my recent research I have been exploring two major aspects of NPD: product design and process design.

(i) Product Design - In this research stream I study the relationship between the structure of products on one hand and the structure of industries on the other.  More specifically, I am investigating the effects that architectural aspects of products and product systems - such as modularity, integrality, and commonality - exert on the strategic and operational competitiveness of firms, and ultimately on the competitive structure of entire industries.

(ii) Process Design - This research stream focuses on the impact that individual NPD activities - such as knowledge search, concept creation and selection, or prototyping and testing - and process transition mechanisms - such as design reviews and assessments - have on NPD performance.  In addition to better understand these mechanisms at work in industrial settings, I am also looking into how to teach better these capabilities in NPD and Innovation courses.

Below you can find abstracts and pre-prints of my recent publications. 


  1. Seidel, V.P. and S. K. Fixson, 2013. Adopting “design thinking” in novice multidisciplinary teams: The application and limits of design methods and reflexive practices. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30 (6), Forthcoming 2013.

    Abstract: Scholarly and practitioner literature have both described the potential benefits of using methods associated with a ―design thinking‖ approach to develop new innovations. Most studies of the main design thinking methods—needfinding, brainstorming, and prototyping—are based either on analyses of experienced designers or examine each method in isolation. If design thinking is to be widely adopted, less-experienced users will employ these methods together, but we know little about their effect when newly adopted. Drawing on perspectives that consider concept development as broadly consisting of a divergent concept generation phase followed by a convergent concept selection phase, we collected data on fourteen cases of novice multidisciplinary product development teams using design methods across both phases. Our hybrid qualitative and quantitative analysis indicate both benefits and limits of formal design methods: First, formal design methods were helpful not only during concept generation but also during concept selection. Second, while brainstorming was valuable when combined with other methods, increased numbers of brainstorming sessions actually corresponded to lower performance, except in the setting where new members may join a team. And third, increased team reflexivity—such as from debating ideas, processes, or changes to concepts—was associated with more successful outcomes during concept generation but less successful outcomes during concept selection. We develop propositions related to the contingent use of brainstorming and team reflexivity depending on team composition and phase of development. Implication from this study include that novice multidisciplinary teams are more likely to be successful in applying design thinking when they can be guided to combine methods, are aware of the limits of brainstorming, and can transition from more- to less-reflexive practices.

    Download a preprint here.

  2. Marion, T.J., Fixson, S.K., and M.H. Meyer (2012). The Problem with Digital Design. MIT Sloan Management Review, 53 (4), 63-68.

    Abstract: Yes, digital design is a wonderful tool. But unless it is supported by strong management processes, there can be unintended - and negative - consequences.

    Download a preprint here.

  3. Fixson, S. K., and T.J. Marion, 2012. Backloading: A Potential Side Effect of Employing Digital Design Tools in New Product Development. Journal of Product Innovation Management, 29 (S1), 140-156.

    Abstract: 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 and Fujimoto, 2000).
    Given CAD's recent pervasive use, the research questions for this article 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? This article 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.

    Download a preprint here.

  4. Fixson, S. K., and W.H. Lee, 2012. Shifting grounds: How industry emergence changes the effectiveness of knowledge creation strategies - The case of the U.S. automotive airbag industry. Technology Analysis & Strategic Management. 24 (1), 1-19.

    Abstract: This paper investigates the effect industry life cycle phase shifts have on the effectiveness of firms’ knowledge creation strategies. Building on literature streams on strategic knowledge management and industry life cycles, we develop theoretical arguments for why the best knowledge search strategy should be different before the emergence of an industry compared to afterwards. Testing our hypotheses empirically in the emerging U.S. automotive airbag industry confirms the powerful forces of industry emergence: the best knowledge search strategy is initially one that looks inward into the organization but outside of the technology area, and later shifts to one that is looking outward from the organization and the technology. As practical implication we derive that R&D managers should (i) adjust their teams’ knowledge search strategies depending on the industry life cycle phase in which they find themselves, and (ii) especially look for new applications of their firm’s existing knowledge in related fields.

    Download a preprint here.

  5. Fixson, S. K., and J. Rao, 2011. Creation Logic in Innovation: From Action Learning to Expertise. In: The New Entrepreneurial Leader: Developing Leaders Who Shape Social and Economic Opportunity. Danna Greenberg, Kate McKone-Sweet and H. James Wilson (eds.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, pp. 43-61.

    This book chapter discusses the importance of complementing the traditional education approach which focuses on building analytic capabilities with an approach that teaches how to create new possibilities.  We illustrate this approach with detailed descriptions of two educational offerings that we developed and deliver at Babson: one is an interdisciplinary undergraduate course in Product Design and Development, the other are customized programs on innovation management for executive education.
    1. An abbreviated version of this chapter has been subsequently published in the Fall 2011 Issue of Babson Insight for Entrepreneurship Educators.

      Fixson, S. K., 2011. The Role of Experiential Learning in Developing Entrepreneurial Leaders.

  6. Fixson, S. K., 2009. Teaching Innovation through Interdisciplinary Courses and Programmes in Product Design and Development: An Analysis at Sixteen U.S. Schools. Creativity and Innovation Management. 18 (3), 199-208.

    Abstract: If innovation is understood as a process of inventing and commercializing new products and services, as a process that incorporates activities from multiple disciplines, and as a process that follows more heuristic than algorithmic rules, then perhaps this process can be taught in an interdisciplinary setting with a strong experiential emphasis, such as product design and development. In this paper, I compare and contrast 14 courses and three programmes in interdisciplinary product development at 16 leading U.S. schools. The overall finding is that while the courses appear similar on a high level, there exists substantial variation in the details. In particular, the way in which multiple disciplines are involved in these courses and programmes varies substantially. Similarly, while a team-based term project tends to be the common element across the courses and programmes, the degree of fidelity to which the products and services are developed varies considerably. Overall, although these courses and programmes tend to be very labour and co-ordination intensive, their success has established the legitimacy of interdisciplinary, experiential product design and development education at leading schools in the U.S.

    Download a preprint here.
    1. This paper has also been re-printed in a special issue of IEEE Engineering Management Review on 'A Global Perspective on Teaching Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Engineering Management':

      Fixson, S. K., 2012.
      Teaching Innovation through Interdisciplinary Courses and Programs in Product Design and Development: An Analysis at sixteen U.S. Schools. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 40(2): 48-58.

  7. Fixson, S. K., and J.-K. Park, 2008. The Power of Integrality: Linkages between Product Architecture, Innovation, and Industry Structure. Research Policy. 37, 1296-1316.

    Abstract: A substantial literature stream suggests that many products are becoming more modular over time, and that this development is often associated with a change in industry structure towards higher degrees of specialization. These developments can have strong implications for an industry’s competition as the history of the PC industry illustrates. To add to our understanding of the linkages between product architecture, innovation, and industry structure we develop detailed product architecture measurements based on a previously proposed method [Fixson, S.K., 2005. Product architecture assessment: a tool to link product, process, and supply chain design decisions. Journal of Operations Management 23 (3/4), 345–369] and study an unusual case in which a firm – through decreasing its product modularity – turned its formerly competitive industry into a near-monopoly. Using this case study we explore how existing theories on modularity explain the observed phenomenon, and show that most consider technological change in rather long-term dimensions, and tend to focus on efficiency-related arguments to explain the resulting forces on competition. We add three critical aspects to the theory that connects technological change and industry dynamics. First, we suggest integrating as a new design operator to explain product architecture genesis. Second, we argue that a finer-grained analysis of the product architecture shows the existence of multiple linkages between product architecture and industry structure, and that these different linkages help explain the observed intra-industry heterogeneity across firms. Third, we propose that the firm boundary choice can also be a pre-condition of the origin of architectural innovation, not only an outcome of efficiency considerations.

    Download a preprint here.

  8. Ro, Y., S. K. Fixson, and J. K. Liker, 2008. Modularity and Supplier Involvement in Product Development. In C. Loch and S. Kavadias (Eds.). Handbook on Product Development. Butterworth Heineman, pp. 217–258.

    Abstract: This book chapter discusses the role of modularity for New Product Development.

  9. Ro, Y., J. K. Liker and S. K. Fixson, 2008. Evolving models of supplier involvement in design: The deterioration of the Japanese model in US auto. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. 55, 2, 359-377.

    Abstract: The U.S. auto industry in the 1990s was in a state of transition, driven by a rapidly changing environment and attempts to adopt best practices from other automakers. The Japanese supplier management system is regarded as extremely effective in delivering high-quality component systems integrated into the vehicle with short design lead times. American automakers dedicated themselves to reengineering their product development systems, benchmarking the Japanese model, and outsourcing increasing levels of vehicle content and design responsibility. This paper analyzes how these attempts at institutional imitation evolved new approaches to supplier involvement in design in the U.S. auto industry based on interviews conducted during 1998-2001. Although once copying the Japanese model, the United States has chosen a modified approach and developed models distinctively different from the original. The authors identify two dominant supplier management models emerging during this time and a newly emerging hybrid original equipment manufacturer/supplier relationship style. Concepts from organizational design and behavioral economic theories are used to explain observations across industries overtime. Evidence suggests that American automaker practices have not evolved to support the great responsibility being outsourced to suppliers. There are still barriers that create adversarial relationships when a partnership model is required for true integration of design efforts.

    Download a preprint here.

  10. Fixson, S. K., 2007. Modularity and Commonality Research: Past Developments and Future Opportunities. Concurrent Engineering: Research and Applications. 15, 2, 85-111.

    Abstract: Research on modularity and commonality has grown substantially over the past 15 years. Searching 36 journals over more than the past 35 years, over 160 references are identified in the engineering and management literature that focus on modularity or commonality in the product and process development context. Each of the references is analyzed along the dimensions subject, effect, and research method. The subjects of these studies have been products, processes, organizations, and even innovations, although the set of references shows a strong preference towards products. Similarly, a broad range of effects has been studied, albeit with the topic cost dominating all other effects. A variety of research methods has been applied to the study of modularity and commonality but the distribution of research methods differs substantially for modularity and commonality research. Despite the wealth of existing research, there are still significant opportunities for future research. In particular, studies that incorporate modularity and commonality’s multiple effects on various players along the supply chain, that combine multiple research methods, and that follow systems over time appear very promising.

    Download a preprint here.

  11. Ro, Y., Liker, J. K., and S. K. Fixson, 2007. Modularity as a Strategy for Supply Chain Coordination. IEEE Transactions on Engineering Management. 54, 1, 172-189.

    Abstract: Companies across industries have admired the success of Dell Computers in using modularity as part of a mass customization strategy to achieve build-to-order and a streamlined supply chain. Many companies are attempting to emulate this successful model, including the American automotive industry. This paper focuses on how the auto industry has been attempting to move to modularity, in part, motivated by a desire to build cars to order. This movement has led to major changes in supply chain practices based partly on imitation of successful keiretsu models in Japan and a move toward modules. This study finds significant impact of modularity on outsourcing, product development, and supply chain coordination based on interviews conducted with automakers and suppliers from 2000–2003. Based on our interviews, we observe that modularity has accompanied a major reorganization of the automotive supplier industry. We identify two major issues that appear to block U.S. automakers from gaining most of the advantages possible through modularity. First, most modularity activities appear to be primarily strategically cost reduction driven, leaving the potential of modularity for mass customization largely untapped. Second, the shift in industry reorganization has not been accompanied by changes in the supply chain infrastructure to encourage long-term partnerships. We contrast this to the more gradual approach used by Toyota as it incorporates modularity on a selective basis and moves to a build-to-order model.

    Download a preprint here.

  12. Fixson, S. K., 2006. A Roadmap for Product Architecture Costing. In: T. W. Simpson, et al., Eds., Product Platform and Product Family Design: Methods and Applications. Springer, New York, pp. 305-333.

    This book chapter lays out the landscape to be considered when trying to understand the cost impact of product architecture design decisions. It develops linkages between individual aspects of the product architecture and various costs along the product life cycle.  The roadmap for product architecture costing comprises four steps. The first step is an assessment of the differences in product architecture between potential candidates. This step is crucial because in order to make the analysis of cost consequences of different product architectures possible requires the ability to distinguish different product architectures in the first place. The product architecture costing roadmap builds on a multidimensional product architecture description methodology. In the second step of the roadmap the relevant life cycle phase, or phases, with respect to costs have to be identified. The question of relevance hinges on a variety of factors such as product lifetime, production volume, total value, and cost ownership. The third step requires determining the cost allocation rules to be used for the costing procedure. The choice of certain accounting decisions can have a profound effect on how the product architecture-cost relationship is modeled. Finally, in its fourth step, the roadmap calls for the selection of suitable cost models. Existing models differ in their requirements for data accuracy and sample size, as well as their ability to predict cost differentials of product architectures differences.

    Download a preprint of the book chapter here.
    1. An earlier version of this chapter has been presented at the ASME 2004 Design Engineering Technical Conferences and
      Computers and Information in Engineering Conference, September 28 – October 2, 2004, Salt Lake City, Utah and is published in the Conference proceedings.

      Fixson, S. K., 2004. Assessing Product Architecture Costing: Product Life Cycles, Allocation Rules, and Cost Models.

      Download a preprint of the conference paper here.

  13. Fixson, S. K., Ro, Y., and J. K. Liker, 2005. Modularization and Outsourcing: Who drives whom? - A Study of Generational Sequences in the U.S. Automotive Cockpit Industry. International Journal of Automotive Technology and Management. 5, 2, 166-183.

    Abstract: In this paper, we study the interactions between modularity and outsourcing in the auto industry. Focusing on vehicle cockpit projects in North America, we collect data over three product architecture generations and the associated shifts in firm boundaries for multiple processes covering product development and production. We find that the direction of influence between product architecture and firm boundary varies across individual processes and over time, resulting in a zig-zag path towards higher levels of modularity and outsourcing over the observed timeframe. The relative strength of the factors that drive these changes appears to be dependent on (a) idiosyncrasies of the logic of individual processes, i.e., their cost structure, their perceived strategic value, and the capabilities available in the supply chain for their completion, and on (b) the relevance and relative weight of external factors such as labour costs, capital cost, and external development of technologies.

    This paper received an 'honorable mention' in the 2006-2007 Industry Studies Best Paper Prize of the Sloan Foundation Industry Studies program.  Download a preprint here.


  14. Fixson, S. K., 2005. Product Architecture Assessment: A Tool to link Product, Process, and Supply Chain Design Decisions. Journal of Operations Management. 23, 3/4, 345-369.

    Abstract: Increasingly heterogeneous markets, together with shorter product life cycles, are forcing many companies to simultaneously compete in the three domains of product, process, and supply chain. Dependencies among decisions across these domains make this competitive situation very complex. To address this complexity, three-dimensional concurrent engineering (3D-CE) has been suggested ([Fine, C.H., 1998. Clockspeed—Winning Industry Control in the Age of Temporary Advantage. Perseus Books, Reading, MA.]). Applying 3D-CE requires an operationalization of one of its core elements: the product architecture. In this paper, I develop a multi-dimensional framework that enables comprehensive product architecture assessments. The framework builds on existing product characteristic concepts such as component commonality, product platforms, and product modularity. The framework’s utility is illustrated with two example products, showing how individual product architecture dimensions link decisions across different domains. This framework can be used to focus advice for product design on product architecture dimensions that are critical for a given operational strategy, to assess advantages and limitations of operational strategies in conjunction with given product architectures, or to develop dynamic capabilities such as planning effective product–operation strategy combinations.

    Download a preprint here.


  15. Veloso, F. and S. K. Fixson, 2001. Make-Buy Decision in the Auto Industry: New Perspectives on the Role of the Supplier as an Innovator. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 67, 239-257.

Abstract: Combining recent theoretical results related to the ownership structure of the firm with the notion of modular design, this paper provides a new framework to analyze the decision of the automakers of whether to develop a new component in-house or to subcontract it to a supplier. Older frameworks associated with transaction costs or principal–agent theories have often been associated with contradictory empirical evidence on make–buy development decisions. Our perspective follows some recent insights proposed by the property rights theory of the firm, whereby a decision to pass the development of the innovation from the assemblers to the suppliers exists when the supplier product shifts from being complementary to being independent of the assembler product. The hypothesis we explore is that modularization of the automobile is a strong enabler of product independence, being the key driver of increasing supplier responsibility. Our analysis is based on detailed case studies of two important innovations that were introduced in the automotive over the past decades: the Antilock Brake System (ABS) and the airbag. The paper evaluates the role of the suppliers and the assemblers in the introduction and development of the innovation, and explains how we can understand this role in light of the proposed framework.

Download a preprint here.


Other Manuscripts

  1. Fixson, S. K., 2007. What exactly is Product Modularity? The answer depends on whom you ask. MIT Sloan Working Paper 4631-06. MIT Sloan School of Management, Cambridge, MA, pp. 35.

    Abstract: ‘Product modularity’ has recently experienced a significant increase in interest in the academic literature. While the concept of product modularity is used across a wide range of academic research areas, substantial variations exist in the ways in which the concept is described and interpreted. In this paper, I develop a framework to represent the similarities and differences that appear across these variations of the concept of product modularity. Next, through an extensive literature search I construct a set of 85 references representing the use of product modularity in the engineering and management literature over the past 30 years (1975– 2006). With help of the framework I then analyze the use and interpretation of product modularity in every reference in the set. The analysis demonstrates that the product modularity concepts taken together really encompass a bundle of product characteristics rather than a single condition, and individual research areas exhibit certain preferences in which they define and operationalize product modularity. I conclude with some recommendations for future research. Overall, this paper strives to provide a vocabulary to improve cross-disciplinary understanding of product modularity.

    Download a preprint here.