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September 29, 1998

9 Min Read
Avoiding the pitfalls of concurrent engineering

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ArticleImage2522.jpgMaking the best use of concurrent engineering and early vendor involvement means gathering input from all team members, according to David Roche. This electrophoresis gel holder, used to perform medical diagnostic tests, was originally designed as a five-piece assembly (top). But on the advice of the molder, it was redesigned into a single part that required collapsing-core tooling. The result (left) is a more structurally sound design that is actually cheaper to produce.

David Roche, principle at Roche Harkins Design, knows that acronyms and buzzwords don't create products-people do. Roche believes concurrent engineering (CE) and early vendor involvement (EVI) can be used effectively, but cautions against using them as a panacea. "CE and EVI are worthwhile, complementary approaches to shortening product development, but they're methods, not magic. While you may find numerous case histories in which these approaches are used successfully to design profitable, innovative, high-quality products for injection molding in record time, there are plenty of other such projects that are never publicized because they were over budget or behind schedule, or they resulted in products of mediocre quality," he tells IMM.

Reducing time to market by compressing the product development cycle is a worthwhile goal. Studies have shown that first to market tends to translate into increased market share. There are limits, however. "It is entirely possible to completely muck up a project by misusing CE and EVI in an attempt to compress the development cycle beyond its natural limits. They won't make up for poor planning, inadequate management, lack of vision, or just plain sloppy engineering," he adds.

So why do companies continue to invest in these methods? According to Roche, the potential benefits of CE and EVI are real and substantial.

  • EVI helps designers obtain vendor input at a time when budgets may still be flexible and necessary changes and recommendations are more readily accommodated. It can be used to obtain favorable pricing in return for an early purchasing commitment, and to lock in an early delivery date through prescheduling.

  • CE lets multiple disciplines (e.g., engineering, industrial design, tooling, manufacturing, purchasing, marketing, etc.) proceed simultaneously, rather than in the more traditional serial manner, to accelerate project start dates for the disciplines that traditionally begin later in the process. It can also supply relevant, timely input across disciplines to reduce the number of major changes that each has to accommodate.

When we asked Roche how to use these methods for more efficient development projects, he shared the following five "rules" or recommendations.

1. Make a Commitment
EVI and CE require commitment, both broad and deep. An EVI/CE project is definitely not business as usual, and participants may have to work outside of their traditional comfort zones. The tooling vendor, for example, should be willing to sit in on early product-concept meetings, provide input, and give best-guess, good-faith estimates at multiple phases of a project, long before it reaches the stage where every engineering detail is defined and every tooling feature can be precisely costed. Those working with the tooling vendor must also be willing to accept and work with these "soft" numbers in good faith.

Purchasing must accept a new economy paradigm when working in an EVI/CE environment. Under the traditional RFQ/competitive bidding process, success is measured by achieving savings of thousands of dollars on a mold, or pennies per unit on volume purchases of hardware components. This process typically involves weeks of effort that, according to the precepts of EVI and CE, costs far more in terms of time-to-market and market share than it saves in tooling or hardware expenses. A broad view of overall project objectives must therefore take precedence over that of limited economies in purchasing. This may be achieved partly through the use of prequalified vendors who subscribe to the EVI/CE approach.

Manufacturers should "play straight" with vendors who participate on an early-involvement basis. Vendors who invest hours in early-product-stage meetings and offer expert input that influences critical engineering or manufacturing decisions deserve to get the work. It seems frankly unethical to make use of such "free" consulting, then to go out and find a lower bidder.

2. Challenge Assumptions
Accept challenges to basic assumptions. Traditional, "serial" product development is based on the assumption that engineers know best about engineering, toolmakers about tooling, manufacturing engineers about manufacturing, etc. CE accepts the notion that disciplines overlap, and that any one may provide useful input in areas that would appear to belong to another.

This notion is fairly well accepted for the Industrial Design (ID) function, which often plays key roles in aspects of engineering, tooling, manufacturing, and marketing. It has somewhat less currency-though no less validity-in other disciplines, including toolmaking and manufacturing. Is the avoidance of sink marks on molded parts a design, engineering, tooling, or manufacturing issue? The simple answer is "yes"; the solution may come from any of these areas.

Having the tooling vendor at the table when product design is still in the concept-sketch phase can be tremendously valuable. Roche says he has seen numerous instances where the toolmaker contributed substantially to the creativity, manufacturability, and profitability of products that were already well designed. Moldmakers have proposed superior solutions for design details, and made concrete suggestions for combining multiple part assemblies into one-piece designs.

Although side-action tooling for a more complex part costs more initially, it is often a sound investment because it eliminates some or all of the associated downstream costs, including assembly equipment, supplies, and associated inventory and paperwork; assembly personnel; plant overhead; work-in-progress; scrap from bad assemblies; and potential problems of balancing and filling a multicavity family mold (if not the added expense of building and running multiple molds on multiple machines). So go ahead and spend the extra dollars on a side-action tool; it usually pays for itself many times over.

3. Manage Wisely
Project management must be far-seeing and authoritative. Because of the interdependence of disciplines on a CE/EVI project, it is essential to identify and disclose information early, coherently, and completely. So throw out most "need-to-know" restrictions; disseminate information generously. Often, a simple component that must be identified, sourced, and procured becomes a project's Achilles heel. If the intended component is unavailable or proves inadequate in some unforeseen way, it may be necessary to substitute a functionally similar item with slightly different specifications. A few millimeters' or milliamperes' difference will often cause a cascading effect requiring changes throughout the project. It is better to distribute the information to all parties as soon as possible, to avoid changes later.

This principle extends to the necessity of involving ID as early as possible, to help define critical product concepts. Proceeding any significant distance on engineering, without having design formally involved, results in design decisions being made ad hoc. This is a good way to ensure mediocre design, and/or significant changes at the point when design does get involved.

As you can see, CE projects require good project managers, to serve as the hub through which information from all disciplines must pass. The manager must be able to see in all directions at once, and recognize the potential engineering, scheduling, and budgetary impacts of every decision on every aspect of the project. The manager should have the authority to direct all the disciplines involved, even if they are not his or her structural subordinates in the organizational hierarchy.

4. Perform Reality Checks
Lead times are not infinitely compressible. This sign is posted on the wall in some commercial printing shops, "You can have it fast. You can have it cheap. You can have it good. (Choose any two.)" Product development managers attempting to perform the ultimate fast-track project must bear this homey advice in mind when purchasing services, including design and tooling. Too often, jobs are awarded to shops that promise to meet unrealistic lead times, and deadlines are then missed and deliveries delayed until the processes reach their "natural" limits. The fault often lies not with the vendor, but with the purchaser who demanded the impossible, and then was told what he wanted to hear.

While CE and EVI are designed to provide speed, economy, and quality, tradeoffs and limits remain. In most cases, some level of product quality is defined (or assumed) at the outset. To an extent, projects can be hurried along by adding more people (thus increasing direct costs). But once you've assigned an individual or a team to every subtask, further time compression can come only at the expense of quality.

Unrealistic expectations concerning the extent to which the design function can be compressed are common. This may be due to a lingering misconception that ID is concerned mainly with form, color, and aesthetics. The truth is that ID's main concerns are usability and manufacturability-issues absolutely central to product marketability and profitability. By spending a few extra weeks on the design process, it may be possible to reduce part count and eliminate assembly steps. This could save months downstream when establishing manufacturing systems.

Another factor that may be responsible for unrealistic expectations concerning design is, ironically, one of designers' greatest tools: 3-D CAD.

While CAD promotes rapid data transfer, compressed tooling cycles, and powerful analysis of manufacturability and performance before parts or prototypes are available, it does not compress the creative thinking process. Its facility to make an early rendering appear as "finished" as a final drawing seems to confuse some parties as to what stage a project is in at any moment.

There are potential liabilities in going to CAD too early on a project. Substantial effort is required to construct a 3-D database, and design changes may be very time consuming to implement during later project phases. Better, more creative products may result by spending just a little more time in the felt-tip marker/rough concept phase of design, and postponing the use of CAD until the project reaches the stage where it helps, rather than hinders, the process.

5. Be Compatible
Work with technically compatible vendors, and establish communications protocols early. The ability to transfer files via disk, tape, or modem between engineering, design, and tooling is a great timesaver in product development. It is particularly beneficial if all parties are technically compatible-i.e., they use the same software-so that files can be transferred directly, without translation.

Even between "technically compatible vendors," file transfers often require a fair amount of tweaking and debugging, which may cause delays. Long before it is time to start cutting metal, therefore, communications protocols should have been established and tested, using sample files as close as possible to those that will be employed. In order to ensure that electronic file transfer is a benefit to the process, it is useful to have a knowledgeable systems administrator on the product development team.

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