From sprinkler heads and cell phones to dog food cans and offshore oil rigs, Bill Jones, director of the expert solutions group at MSC.Software Corp., has run computer simulation tests on just about every type of product there is.
But the worst case of design-cycle panic he's seen was not in the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier he helped design. And it wasn't in the hip replacement joints or synthetic eye lenses he tested, with no margin of error allowed.
"Toy manufacturers, those guys work under the worst design pressure I've ever seen," he says. "They have a six-week design cycle from concept to actual production, because the window of opportunity is very small, it's a very volatile business."
While the design cycle is not as fast as six weeks for most of us, engineers across the country are being forced by global competition and corporate cost cutting to get new products designed and out the door faster than ever.
In fact, Design News research shows that shortening product development times is high among engineers' listed concerns. Our readers say that the top three challenges they face are: keeping up with technology (74% of engineers mention this); shortening the design cycle (65%); and computerizing the design function (42%).
10 CHALLENGES FOR THE DECADE
Engineers in the coming decade will face an array of challenges and opportunities as they design the products that will define our way of life. This report on cutting design time is the second in a series analyzing those challenges and opportunities.
In virtually every industry, engineers are breaking records in speeding design--and being pushed to go even faster. So how are they doing it? Among the most valuable tools are CAD and other engineering software, concurrent engineering, and the Internet.
Datasouth Computer Corp. (Charlotte, NC) used most of these techniques to win a two- or three-fold improvement in their usual cycle time--and an important contract.
It was a classic design cycle challenge for Greg Jung, mechanical section manager at the company, which designs and manufactures printers for business applications.
"The customer (SABRE Group (Dallas, TX)) said 'If you build a printer to our specs, we'll buy it.' But the hook was, they needed it in a year, and it usually takes us 2-3 years," he says.
The printer would be used for airline tickets, so it had to be a low-volume, low-cost machine that technicians could easily repair in the field.
The 125-employee Datasouth (including 30 engineers) doesn't have the financial resources of many of its competitors, but it took a leap and promised the quick delivery schedule. Next step: How? Desperate, the company took four steps: it bought a brand new Pro/ENGINEER® CAD program (from Parametric Technology Co., Waltham, MA); hired experienced CAD-savvy engineers to run it; partnered with suppliers who used the same CAD software, to enable earlier part specifications; and invited SABRE Group to participate on the design team.
To make sure it got the most value from the design software, Datasouth made sure it had strong CAD talent up front. "The initial learning curve for the software can take a few months, and previous usage is very helpful," Jung said. So before the project began, the company hired a designer with Pro/ENGINEER experience; during the project, it hired a contractor with Pro/ENGINEER experience; and then it got training from the CAD distributor for four additional employees.
Next, Datasouth lined up parts and materials suppliers who used compatible design software.
"The suppliers were involved from the very start of the project, and I feel they absolutely helped us to achieve our one-year goal," Jung said. "For the prototype phase, we normally have to take a large amount of time drafting and dimensioning prototype designs. We eliminated this step by sending the CAD data directly to their computers. Not only did this save time, it also proved to be more accurate because we eliminated human dimensioning mistakes."
Datasouth worked with dozens of suppliers for everything from metals and plastics to computer chips and electrical wiring, but it was able to speed the cycle significantly by working with these six suppliers, whose parts defined what could fit in the rest of the printer:
- Clow Stamping (Merrifield, MN), for laser cut sheet metal prototype and production parts
- Delta Tech Mold Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL), for the proper tooling for molds
- Mack Molding (Arlington, VA), for injection molded parts
- Penn Engineering (Danboro, PA), for screws and fasteners
- PTI Plastics (Clinton Township, MI), for internal plastic pieces
- Wielgus Product Models Inc. (Chicago, IL), for early prototypes to verify form, fit, and function of the printer's casing
Finally, when all these parts were in place, Datasouth invited a SABRE Group representative to join its design team, confident that the rest of its operation could keep up with the accelerated schedule.
"We had direct, concurrent customer design specification," Jung says. "We had a rep from our customer--an engineer--and he was actually on the team. Where else do you see the customer being part of your design team?"
Datasouth's usual design schedule included four rounds of modeling: the first prototype (an engineering model); the second prototype; the final prototype; and finally a production release. In the past, Jung would never share designs with the customer until he had reached the third round.
But during their accelerated design of the Journey™ ATB2 (Automated Ticket and Boarding Pass) Desktop Printer, the customer's representative would visit the Datasouth site every two weeks, Jung says. Breaking with tradition, Datasouth delivered a first round model to the customer for tests--in effect, sharing a conceptual model with the customer.
"It forced you to consider customer requirements up front, because sometimes when you design in a vacuum, you kind of convince yourself of certain things," he says. "Normally with sharing beta models, it sets you back 3 to 6 months."
Instead, the combined design team identified mistakes when they were still on screen, and corrected them instantly.
"You save incredible amounts of time this way because you don't take any false steps; the customer is there to catch you," Jung says. "To me, that's the future. Not just in our industry but in other industries too."
Recycle to shorten cycles. Of course, there are other tricks to shortening design, as computer chip makers are discovering. One is reusing existing designs.
"What we're seeing is that computer chip designers are doing more and more designs every year," says Jeff Jussel, director of the consulting division at Mentor Graphics (San Jose, CA), the design consultants and makers of electronic design automation (EDA) software. "And we attribute that to the evolution of silicon technology."
Jussel tries to help these harried designers by creating customized design platforms and adopting design-reuse strategies. The result: a designer will verify just once that a certain section works, and then merely test its connections to future parts as he continues to construct the chip.
"It's not really rocket science, but engineers have been taught since college to do everything from scratch," Jussel says. "So it's a paradigm shift."
In today's market, most designs don't need to run as fast as the technology will allow; the winning product is the one that hits the market first, he says.
So designing by re-use is one of the only ways to manage a fast design cycle without creating more mistakes in an object as complex as a chip.
"The automobile industry has been doing it for years and years," he says. "GM only has a certain number of types of gear shifts. Then engineers design new models not from scratch but from standard parts. It helps to ensure reliability. We're applying that now for the first time to chips."
Fix the bugs. Another approach to shortening the design cycle is to avoid delays by making sure you have the bugs fixed at the very start of the cycle, says MSC's Jones.
"In 1968, we were designing a pump for a nuclear aircraft carrier, and it took four of us three months to design," he says. "With today's CAD technology, you could do it in three weeks with one person. The cost of doing analysis is cheaper, and salaries have gone up a lot since then. So we're bound to look for labor-saving devices."
The best way to save labor is to avoid expensive rework, so Jones tests his products as early in the cycle as possible.
"We can test products before they're actual drawings," he says. "There's a rocket nozzle made out of carbon we're working on. It only has to last five minutes, but that's hard to do. So we're looking at thermal stress simulations. We'll take the original concept, and if we can prove something won't work, we won't waste our time."
Help from the outside. Often, manufacturers save time by outsourcing.
"Companies are realizing that they can't be experts at every stage of the design cycle," says Irv Christy, a product marketing manager at CoCreate (Fort Collins, CO). So many companies are hiring specialists for contract jobs to assist them with small parts of the design cycle on different products. And some freelance designers will do the entire design process for a client company. It's a great way to assemble a far-flung "dream team" of experts, but the hidden cost of outsourcing is the extra time it demands for people with different CAD systems to translate each other's drawings.
6 quick tips for reducing cycle time
1. Buy a new CAD system and hire trained users (or
dedicate some of your own company's engineers to be trained) to use it
2. Work with suppliers who use the same kind of software,
so you can work hand-in-hand on advanced specs
3. Invite a member of the customer's engineering team to join
your design team, to use concurrent engineering to avoid missteps in your early design stages
4. Practice reuse of common components, avoiding the need to
design every last part from scratch
5. Use FEA to test the feasibility of early designs as early as possible
in the cycle; if possible, do this even before you have drawings
6. Practice DFMA to smooth the
manufacturing and assembly
Christy addresses that "crying need for collaboration" with OneSpace, his company's software product that allows engineers to design simultaneously over a dedicated Internet link. As they would do in a conference call, the company and the freelancer can log onto a web site at the same time, then watch each other manipulate the CAD drawings in real time.
"We target the process very early in the design cycle, where the design is still fluid," he says. "So we can make small changes up front, and the payback is phenomenal in terms of saving time and money downstream."
Also beating the drum for the need to make all design changes at the very beginning of the cycle is Gordon Lewis, director of manufacturing practices at DaTuM 3D Inc. (Newton, MA).
Lewis practices DFMA--design for manufacturing and assembly--where engineers analyze a proposed design from the specific point of view of assembly and manufacture, resulting in simpler and more reliable products. This early-stage dialogue between designers and manufacturing engineers can deliver significant time and money savings.
"This is something that is very seldom done--people have product requirements, but it's usually just boilerplate," he says. "It's not magic, but to me it's an amazing thing how you can improve the design process."
And that's one more way to beat the clock in the design cycle.
Time is money, but do you know exactly how much?
Making last-minute design changes is one of the best ways to make sure you fail to get quality products out the door quickly, says Gavin Finn, President and CEO of Prescient Technologies Inc. (Boston, MA), a software company that works with manufacturers to improve data quality.
Those last-minute changes can also blow your budget. Finn's research indicates the average cost of a design change is $3,500. But this cost increases by a factor of ten ($35,000) if you wait until the test/manufacturing stage to make the change, and it increases by another factor of ten ($350,000) if you wait until the production release stage.