Gary Kuba, RuleStream Corp.
Engineers at "to-order" manufacturers spend way too much time trying to shoe-horn old designs to fit new customer orders; and they do it at the cost of neglecting new designs and product innovations—innovations that are critical to a company's long-term success. They know it, their management team knows it, but few companies seem to be able to do much about it.
It's the old problem of short term vs. long term priorities. A better, stronger, faster product might make the company more competitive next year, but if the orders don't get processed, the company won't even survive until next year.
The result? The job of engineering becomes the very antithesis of what engineers went to school for—and the resulting frustration they experience should come as no surprise. The consequences aren't just frustrated engineers. Lack of innovation can turn into a lack of competitive advantage sooner than you may think.
Don't get me wrong: The problem is not the concept of engineering products to-order—after all, custom products are easier to sell and command higher margins; and for many companies in the industrial products space, engineering-to-order (ETO) is simply the only way to do business. However, the focus on improving ETO operations has historically put too much emphasis on manufacturing and not enough on engineering.
Fixing the engineering process has proven difficult or impossible in the past. There are, after all, very good reasons why engineers focus so much of their time on order-related tasks. Engineers are usually personally responsible for quality assurance and regulatory compliance, not to mention the basic structural soundness of their deliverables. Add to that the always-growing customer demand for new functionality, increasingly complex product configurations, and responsibility for stacks of paperwork.
Too often, the only solution to the problem of high-speed engineering paper-pushing is increasing the engineering staff responsible for order processing. Historically, it is product engineering that suffers as more engineering manpower is dedicated to address these issues. What we need is a system that allows sales personnel to generate accurate proposal deliverables (quote drawings, estimates, etc.) without tying up engineering resources.
One promising approach to addressing this issue involves capturing the rules surrounding sales, engineering, and design processes. Rules-driven product management's focus on quantifiable engineering processes differentiates it from earlier attempts at solving this challenge.
If you can express an engineer's thoughts so that another human can get the same results you do, then it is a "rule." Rules come in many different types, and can govern part selection or quantity; manage geometric relationships such as size, location, orientation, and mass properties; compute functional properties; constrain pricing and cost; perform compliance checks; or enforce the decision path for generating a set of deliverables.
Of course, a rules-based approach to engineering automation is only as good as the rules themselves.
Using rules helps engineers focus on value-added activities like comprehensive design validation, the identification and analysis of design alternatives, and, of course, creating innovative new designs.
Reach Kuba at email@example.com