By Design: Getting there more quickly

August 14, 1998

In this binomthly column, Glenn Beall of Glenn Beall Pastics Litd., Libertyville, IL, shares his special perspective on issues important to design engineers and the molding industry.

People have always wanted to get "there" more quickly. The horse was faster than walking, and the automobile was even quicker. On long trips, the train could beat a car, but both lost the race to the airplane. Prop planes were, in turn, replaced by jets. In the office, FedEx beats the postal service, but can't compete with fax or E-mail. With each new technology, the pace of life increases.

The same situation exists in the injection molding industry. Customers have always complained about the length of time required to finalize the design of a part, to build a mold, or to receive a shipment of molded parts. CAD/CAM and rapid prototyping are technologies that allow injection molders to be more responsive to their customers' desire to get there more quickly. JIT and other business practices have the same goal.

One of the things that these new technologies have not changed is the speed with which the human brain can assimilate and analyze the data required to make a decision. Today, our brains are forced to work at close to their maximum capacity just to keep up. That maximum capacity is about the same as it was when our ancestors got there more quickly by running instead of walking. People who run all the time are worn out by the effort to get there more quickly.

Team . . . or Committee?

This is the Information Age, and the amount of data that has to be considered is overwhelming. Modern management's answer to this problem is to divide that mass of information among several brains in a team effort. The fallacy of this popular approach is that no one brain knows what is going on. There is no one person to hold accountable for success or failure. It must also be remembered that the word "team" is a synonym for "committee." A camel is a special- purpose horse designed by a committee. A camel may get you there more quickly, but only if you happen to be crossing a desert.

There have always been top-priority projects that were red-lined through the system to a quick delivery. In those cases, lesser projects were set aside in order to concentrate on the priority job. Everyone worked long hours and made a maximum effort. When the job was done and the customer was pleased, all those involved felt good about what they had accomplished. They then returned to business as usual and caught up on their other work, while they regained their strength in preparation for the next crisis project. Life was good and there was enough time to enjoy the business of doing business.

The Priority Puzzle

For some unexplained reason, all new projects now demand top-priority consideration. There are no more low-priority projects that can be set aside in a time of crisis. As a result, injection molders, their employees, and their suppliers are now expected to always run at top speed. Unlike machines, human beings get tired. Progress is made by people who have enthusiasm. A tired person is not as enthusiastic about running that extra mile again.

Impressive improvements have been made in the time required to design, develop, and put a new product into production. Computer-aided design, with all of its analytical and tool building capability, has now been accepted. In the past five years, rapid prototyping has reduced prototyping time by one-third. Ten years ago, no one would have believed that toolmakers could reduce mold construction time as much as they have. Yet customers are asking for even shorter delivery schedules.

Trade magazines such as Compression and Rapid News survive by promising people they can get to where they want to be more quickly. The plastics industry media and conferences continue to tout the time savings that are possible with concurrent engineering. Jet travel, e-mail, and the fax have confirmed that things can happen quickly. Many people now have unrealistic expectations of what is possible. Some buyers pretend to believe that they can e-mail a molder an invitation to quote along with a half-finished database in the morning, fax a purchase order that afternoon, and receive molded parts the next day by overnight FedEx. This whole situation is actually humorous, except to the people who are directly involved.

Justifying the Rush to Market

There is no justification for putting all projects on a rush basis. There are, however, certain kinds of time-sensitive products that deserve a top priority status. For example, if a new product isn't ready for the next electronics or housewares show in Chicago, a company will have lost its best sales opportunity for a whole year. A manufacturer of medical diagnostic equipment invested more than $2 million and two years in a product, but then abandoned the project when a competitor showed a similar device at a trade show. The Ford Motor Company estimates that it lost $2 million for every day's delay in introducing the first Ford Taurus.

Computer hardware and software are among the most time-sensitive markets in today's economy. A well-known Hewlett Packard study, conducted by McKinsey & Co., revealed that a six-month delay in introducing a new product of this type could reduce its life cycle profit by as much as one-third. This Hewlett Packard analysis and other studies are now cited as justification for demanding unrealistic delivery schedules.

Other factors are driving the urge to be first in the marketplace.

  • Without competition, the new product can command a higher selling price.
  • Some competitors (like the medical diagnostics company) will not bother to enter the market with a "me-too" product.
  • There is a class of consumers with a strong urge to be the first to own a new product. Some Californians paid more than twice the sticker price to be the first to be seen driving the Dodge Viper muscle car.
  • The sooner a product goes on sale, the quicker it will pay off its initial investment and become profitable.
  • Maximum use can be made of patent protection against a company's competitors.
  • An early market introduction provides the longest possible marketplace life cycle. This is an important consideration. The life cycle of time-sensitive products, such as computers, toys, and running shoes, can be as short as six months. In the 1980s, these products enjoyed a 24-month life cycle.

Quick Delivery Isn't All Bad

The next time a customer confronts you with unrealistic delivery demands, just remind yourself that all of the just-cited reasons for being first to market are to your advantage. If you can help your customer beat out his competition and extend his product's life cycle, you will benefit by supplying the parts that he needs.

Many new products do not justify a top-priority or concurrent-engineering approach. Some projects are top priority only because the customer squandered too much of the up-front time. Customers are entitled to the best delivery that they can negotiate. Injection molders are not obligated to accept unrealistic delivery schedules. But molders do have to be able to run faster than their competitors.

The human race has been very clever in creating machines to help with its work. These new machines can work faster and longer than the human brain. But it is never a good idea to push a project faster than your ability to manage it. One of the shortest paths to early market introduction is to take the time to do the job right the first time. No matter how fast you can run, it is never possible to recov-er the time lost in finishing the product design after the production mold is built and sampled. The molder who held up the introduction of the Ford Taurus for a day or week was, for understandable reasons, in big trouble.

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