Focus on the Workforce: Enhancing Engineering Capability for Manufacturing
By Peter Schmitt
Dassault Systèmes Delmia Corp.
Auburn Hills, MI
The development of new and innovative products is paramount to the strength and success of any industrial company. However, a new product development strategy must be coupled with the ability to also manufacture efficiently. There needs to be a tight relationship between the product design and the processes needed to efficiently manufacture in today’s competitive economy, where the product launch cycle continually shortens.
The challenge of a shortened delivery cycle is also compounded by the changing manufacturing organization. Ten years ago there existed distinct departments responsible for very specific aspects of the product, from designers to design engineers to mechanical engineers to manufacturing engineers. Today, many of these roles have been eliminated and manufacturability issues have now been pushed into the design engineer’s realm of responsibility. Most of these engineers do not have a manufacturing background. When you combine this with the fact that manufacturing is often located at a geographically different site, we find that product design is going directly into production, resulting in products that often cannot be built efficiently, and requiring a plethora of last minute engineering changes. This has a negative impact on cost, quality, and delivery.
Another challenge is that companies have pushed manufacturing into low-cost countries such as China, Mexico, and India. This change adds numerous issues to manufacturing, including increased geographic distance between engineering and production, as well as language barriers. To justify this offshoring and outsourcing, the typical thought process surmises that by saving the cost of a manufacturing engineer a company can afford to lose a little in inefficiency, yet still come out ahead cost-wise. Labor costs are rising in these countries, however, while our labor costs, due to recent concessions, have become more competitive. Additionally, when companies factor in shipping costs, money that passes hands to make work happen, and the inability to react quickly due to geographic and language barriers, the cost benefits start to fade. Engineering change management is an expensive way to optimize production processes.
Our experience with various manufacturers has shown that the lack of manufacturing process planning by those experienced in this area is having a detrimental effect on quality, productivity, and cost-efficiency.
Recently, there was a manufacturer in an executive review session for a new engine design. The engine had been developed in a sophisticated CAD engineering tool. On the screen simulation, the engine fit nicely into the engine compartment. However, what was neglected was the process or the "how" aspect of getting the engine into the housing. By not addressing this assembly issue up front, it was found that, although the engine fit within the housing, there was no way to actually get it in the housing. Including an engineer experienced with the assembly process, as well as the use of manufacturing simulation tools, would have identified this problem early in the design, avoiding costly rework at this late stage in the development cycle.
Another example, and one that is quite common, involved the installation of a radio into an instrument panel. On the CAD drawings, the receiver illustrated a beautiful fit. But, when the components arrived on the manufacturing floor, there was no room for an operator’s hands to slide the radio into the compartment.
In yet another scenario the manufacturing process was planned so that the vehicle would go directly from the body-welding area into the paint booth. Unfortunately, when the vehicle arrived at the paint area, it structurally did not fit. This problem halted production for weeks. These are all situations that can be avoided with proper manufacturing planning.
These same issues that affect manufacturing can also impact serviceability. A vehicle engine compartment may look beautifully compact and smartly designed in its CAD rendering. If, however, to change a headlight, the mechanic has to remove the engine, then there is a bit of a problem. In a case involving a washer bottle and air cleaner, all fit nicely on-screen. When the parts arrived on the production floor, there was actually no way to install the washer bottle. This required reprocessing, redesign, retooling, and revalidation for a nifty cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In another instance, there was no way to access the caster/camber of the wheels after the vehicle came off the line. Resolving this difficulty required a redesign of 11 components, along with reprocessing, re-tooling, and revalidation.
It’s crucial in today’s global and competitive economy that organizations rid themselves of this "We’ll-figure-it-out-on-the-plant-floor" philosophy, which is outdated thinking given today’s highly sophisticated process planning and simulation tools.
There are two ways that companies can address this issue. The first focuses on organizational changes. Companies need to rebuild and enhance their manufacturing discipline so that it has the ability to properly influence design for the better. Efficient processes need to be developed that follow the product from design through manufacturing, including training materials for shop-floor personnel at an early stage. There is a logical sequence of steps, where "part fit" in engineering is just the start. The next, and often the missing step, is the logical assembly sequencing of the parts. Can the parts be put together in the proper order to complete the assembly? Next, discover and define the tooling and human handling required to assemble the parts. And lastly, provide shop-floor work instructions that guide the operators in the correct processes. This allows engineering changes to be pushed to an earlier point in the product design, where they are far less expensive than on the production floor. This also provides a positive impact on product and process quality.
Second, with workforce reduction resulting in fewer manufacturing engineers, we need to re-educate and train the engineering workforce to understand how to perform the task of manufacturing-process planning. It is crucial that we have engineers who understand enough about manufacturing processes to influence the product design. As noted above, all too often we see that components may fit together beautifully in engineering, but be unbuildable once you add humans, tooling, manufacturing constraints, and assembly sequencing to the mix.
Both of these approaches are based upon the premise that there are, and will continue to be, fewer engineers to perform the necessary tasks. In addition to training that will enable more work through a cross-disciplined workforce, there is a need for software and tools to help gain efficiencies to make up for fewer personnel and lack of in-depth experience. No one would think about creating a complex product from 2-D drawings anymore, as the power of 3-D CAD has proven itself numerous times. The same applies to manufacturing processes. The use of digital manufacturing production and simulation tools can greatly improve processes and reduce product-launch time.
The manufacturing and industrial engineering professions are still out there, but are being undervalued and underutilized. It is common sense to lay out a process plan before executing the design. A perfect example of not planning up front lies in this recent true story. A gentleman built himself a new basement and accidentally walled himself in, managing to escape only by drilling his way through to his neighbor’s (http://tinyurl.com/4crjzgg). As competent manufacturers, we need to foresee the process before we hit a "wall" on the production floor. As the economy picks up, in tandem with the fact that we are becoming better positioned to bring overseas work back home, we cannot afford to make these types of mistakes.
Companies need to change the organization to revalue industrial engineering. Collectively, academia and private industry need to come together to re-educate design engineers as well as the discipline of production, so that we are better able to communicate best practices found in the development process. The US is still the world’s largest manufacturing economy and, as such, we should be leading the way in the most forward-thinking and effective processes. ME
This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.