"Better. Faster. Cheaper." For many engineers, those three words have served as the doctrine of product design for the 1990s.
Unlike most fleeting corporate fads, however, this one is here to stay. To hear experts tell it, the 1990s was only a warm-up. The 21st century will bring an even more powerful push toward better-faster-cheaper.
In fact, 84% of Design News readers responding to the magazine's latest career survey predict that design cycle will be faster in the next five years than it is now.
The main reason for that furious push is simple: global competition. If you don't believe it, look at the auto industry. Ten years ago, American automakers took about five years to develop an automobile. Today, some programs are completed in just 24 months. And by the turn of the century, American automotive engineers are expected to launch their first 18-month programs.
Or consider the machine tool industry. Two decades ago, American machine tools dominated the world market. Then the bottom dropped out. Foreign competitors delivered better products. And they delivered them faster.
Today, American machine tool makers take about two years to develop a big machine tool--a cycle time reduction of about 33%. What's more, they're making better products and selling them for more competitive prices.
Without the emphasis on better-faster-cheaper, some firms that make automobiles or machine tools might be out of business now. The ability, or inability, to build a product in two years, instead of five, has changed their very existence. "It's a whole lot tougher to hit a target when you are trying to envision something five years ahead of time," notes David Cole, director of the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "When you lock in your product that far ahead of time, you take an awful risk."
That's why engineers are finding new ways to design and build products. In some cases, they've adopted techniques that were unknown just 15 years ago. They build so-called "paperless" products. They test digital prototypes hundreds of times before fabricating the real thing. They tear away layers of management to streamline the decision-making process. And they operate in teams, sharing data and information with colleagues from marketing, manufacturing, service, and financial departments.
For many engineers, this means unlearning traditional methods, in favor of those that are sure to remain for decades to come. "Losing obsolete techniques is important," Cole says. "Our natural tendency is to extend from where we are. But where you are today is not necessarily an option for the future."
Paperless era. A simple illustration of that philosophy can be seen in any engineering office. A decade ago, most offices had one or two computers, which were used in a limited fashion. Drafting boards, Mylar, and pencils were still the method of choice for producing drawings. Even when some offices carefully switched to computer-aided design (CAD) and engineering (CAE), they still lived by a philosophy of "computer-generated, paper-released."
Compare that to today's corporate engineering efforts. By some estimates, more than half of all designs now flow from computer programs to hard products, with nary a scrap of paper. In the aerospace and automotive communities, that figure may be as high as 80%. And experts say that paperless engineering will grow stronger still in the coming decade.
For engineers frantically trying to cut their product's time-to-market, such techniques are a blessing. At General Motors, for example, engineers now use a tool known as computer-based formability analysis to spot potential manufacturing problems before vehicle designs get too far along. The process begins when stylists surface the doors, hoods, fenders, deck lids, and quarter panels. Using a proprietary software program, engineers check those sheet metal parts for potentially high stresses. "Typically, they find some kind of problem," notes Bill Poulos, director of General Motors' Vehicle Development Process Center. "If you get those problems out of the way early, it enables the vehicle's final 'theme' to meet the die standards."
That method contrasts sharply with the traditional technique, in which experts eyeballed the vehicle's surface and tried to pick out potential problems. "Depending on the visual acuity of the expert, you might find the problem and you might not," Poulos says. "So you might end up with a wrinkled surface or stretched metal."
Engineers are finding that those traditional techniques are no longer acceptable in the era of shrinking cycle times. The reason: Stretched metal and wrinkled surfaces require engineering changes. And engineering changes lengthen the development process. In some cases, they can add two or more months to the vehicle's development time, Poulos says.
Reduced shop time. Similarly, Chrysler engineers say they dramatically slashed development time by employing a paperless process on the 1998 LH vehicles. Digital assembly, they say, enabled them to do on-screen checks that cut time from the vehicle's construction process. On the first prototype vehicle, for example, they easily attached the car's body to the chassis pallet. The chassis pallet, which typically contains the engine, suspension, fuel system, fuel line, and a host of other components, seldom attaches successfully to the body on the first try. But in the development of the '98 LHs, it attached without interferences during the first five minutes. In contrast, engineers needed more than three months to "deck" the first 1993 LH.
Chrysler engineers say they worked such digital miracles, not just because they used computers, but because they used computers for everything. For the LH program, the firm stored some 1,900 drawings in its computers, represented by 11 million digital polygons. When engineers wanted to check for interferences caused by the addition of new parts, they knew they could obtain a reliable answer from a digital interference check in a fraction of the time previously needed. In one case, while checking for interferences between sheet metal components, the computer performed 8,646 checks in 17 seconds.
Time savings, however, is only one advantage of the paperless process. Another is cost. In automotive design, the ability to port CAD drawings into finite-element analysis (FEA) or computational fluid dynamics (CFD) programs has reduced the need for prototypes. Crash tests can be performed repeatedly on screen, enabling engineers to make hundreds of subtle modifications to a vehicle before crashing the real thing. Similarly, CFD enables engineers to optimize a vehicle's shape prior to wind tunnel testing, then easily go back and test the new shape for interferences. It also enables them to check such features as heating and air conditioning operation. "You may go through a thousand iterations in the computer by the time you finally build your first prototype," Cole says. "The whole idea is to trade off computer time for shop time. That way, you're a lot closer to a finished product then you would be if you started by drawing lines on paper." Such processes are particularly important in the auto industry, where prototype vehicles can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, Cole says.
Cultural changes. Experts and engineers who've been through the process emphasize there's more to it than merely applying computers, however. Companies that want to achieve better-faster-cheaper goals usually need to change their cultures first, they say.
That's what Cincinnati Milacron did during the 1980s. After several dismal years in which the company fought for its life, the firm's management developed ultra-aggressive "Wolfpack" teams, which focused on concurrent engineering, early customer input, and ambitious design goals. Those design goals were a key for the engineers, Cincinnati Milacron managers say. By calling for such things as a 40% reduction in parts or cost, the company sent an unmistakable message to engineers. "People need a clear vision of the product and its specifications," notes Mark Adkins, marketing director of the Machine Tool Group for Cincinnati Milacron. "Going in, the engineers should know the target cost, horsepower, rapid rates, special rates, footprint, and whatever else is relevant."
True to their name, Wolfpack teams are equally aggressive in the way they attack management issues. If time-to-market is critical for a certain product, the company allocates the resources to get the job done quicker. That includes putting more manpower behind the effort, when necessary (see sidebar). "Once we approve it, we staff it," Adkins says. "Too many companies today say, 'We don't want to put all our eggs in one basket,' so they dribble their resources into their projects."
Sometimes, those aggressive goals call for accelerated development techniques, which can be costly. But if the program is truly time-critical, Adkins says, companies must be prepared to bite the bullet. "You have to put a price on time," he says. "If missing your deadline costs you $200,000 per month, then that extra $50,000 you need for rapid prototyping is well worth it."
Supplier partnerships. Many big OEMs are also reducing their cost and time-to-market by forging relationships with their suppliers. John Deere's Horicon Works, for example, recently partnered with its mower blade supplier and cut its time to manufacture the blades from 15 days down to two.
Deere's Horicon Works, which makes riding mowers, splits the cost savings evenly with the supplier. If it doesn't improve the company's manufacturing costs, then Deere charges them nothing. "The process is designed to further the partnerships we have with our suppliers," says Paul Ericksen, manager of supplier development at Horicon. "We go into the suppliers' factories and look at their manufacturing efficiency with a microscope. If we see a performance gap where we can reduce costs, then we help them make the change."
In the case of the mower blade, Deere worked with Fisher Barton, Watertown, WI, eventually reorganizing their departments into manufacturing cells, where workers were responsible for every manufacturing operation performed on each mower blade. Previously, each worker had been responsible only for his or her single operation. After the change, operators were able to take on scheduling responsibilities for the parts, which had previously been handled by managers.
The key to the partnership's success was that Deere initially sent a design engineer from its team in Horicon to Fisher Barton. Over a two year period, the engineer spent 80 man-days there. "Our design engineering managers hate the idea of losing their best designers for a year or two," Ericksen says. "But when the engineers come back to the design side, they are better engineers because they understand how the supplier operates."
How fast is 'fast enough?' Ultimately, the drive toward faster design cycles must reach a limit. Essentially, it's a tradeoff, experts say. When the cost of reducing the design cycle exceeds the benefits gained by going to market earlier, manufacturers will begin to apply the brakes.
For automakers, the sticking point to further reduction of cycle time is in the creation of dies. Major metal dies still require lead times approaching 80 to 100 weeks. Yet by the turn of the century, automakers hope to reduce their cycle times to 18 months, or 78 weeks. In theory, that leaves no time for design, engineering, testing, or analysis.
Automakers are not discouraged by such figures, however. Many engineers believe they can cut the lead time for dies by applying detailed software simulation programs. No one, though, is as yet sure how many weeks they can cut from the process. "That last little bit of development cycle time will be very expensive to achieve," Cole says. "There is probably going to be some minimum point, but no one is really sure where that will be."
The vast majority of manufacturers, however, have not come close to that point. That's why many are still frantically pushing at the edges of the cycle time envelope. "Most people believe that if you rush something to market, your risk goes up," says Adkins of Cincinnati Milacron. "And it's true that you want to make your technologies reliable. But in most cases, the slower you are, the greater the risk."
The pace quickens
Design News readers were asked: How you expect the pace of the design cycle to change in the next five years? Their responses:
No change 14%
How to design faster
Design News readers were asked: How have you dealt with the need to produce products faster? Their responses:
Reorganized into teams 44%
Purchased software 38%
Outsourced design work 34%
Hired more engineers 34%
Purchased/leased rapid prototyping tools 9%
Top ten ways to prepare for 21st century design challenges
How can engineering teams change their cultures to help meet the "better-faster-cheaper" needs of the 21st century? Here's an unofficial list of techniques, based on recommendations from Cincinnati Milacron and the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation.
1. Define your customer. The design of any machine flows from the needs of the customer. Knowing your customer makes it easier to define your machine specs.
2. Clearly define product requirements. Too often, engineers lose valuable time because the machine requirements aren't clearly defined from the outset.
3. Use common processes. Don't use one method for one department and a different method for another. Math tools, for example, should be common across the organization.
4. Encourage lateral flow of people through an organization. Boundaries, such as those between manufacturing, engineering, and purchasing, slow progress. Erase boundaries by encouraging employees to cross them.
5. Plug into networks. Don't engineer in isolation. Don't always engineer from scratch. Another department may be working on a component similar to yours. If so, draw on that work.
6. Staff quickly. Once a program is approved, staff it quickly and attack it aggressively.
7. Use modular product architecture. Modular architecture enables a team to break a design into its component parts and assign it to more individuals who can work in parallel.
8. Know your competition. Know how your product fits relative to your customer and your competition.
9. Maintain math skill competency. In the coming decades, engineers who refuse to learn math/software skills will be left behind.
10. Choose the right leadership. In the era of concurrent engineering, managers need to choose leaders who work well with other departments.