Design for manufacturing. In the U.S., it's a practice that has emerged gradually over the last few years as companies have learned the hard way the follies of "over-the-wall" engineering communication: "Here, we designed it. You figure out how to make it."
In Japan, it's different. Design for manufacturing has been a way of life for a generation, a social value, part of the culture of cooperation and inclusion in this small, crowded, dynamic, and industrious country.
That's the consensus from interviews with engineers in several companies designing global products in and for Japan.
Design and manufacturing often work next to each other, where they develop design and manufacturing specs simultaneously, says Chris Miyazaki, manager of mechatronics for THK America. "Cross training and cross communications are critical in Japanese engineering," he says. "Most design takes place in cross-functional teams."
At Omron, design and production departments work together throughout the entire product-development process, says Yoichi Tomita, of the company's Industrial Business Group in Japan. The group develops Omron's industrial automation products, including PLCs, sensors, touchscreens, timers, counters, process controllers, power supplies, and machine vision products.
That kind of working relationship makes for an efficient product-development process. And make no mistake about it: Process efficiency is critical in Japanese companies, says Jim Rideout of NMB Corp., which produces 130 million bearings a month. "The secret to our business is process," he says. "The better the
process, the quieter the product."
And the lower the manufacturing costs.
A recent study by consulting firm D.H. Brown, Port Chester, NY, on agile product development notes that manufacturing costs are 8 to 10 times design costs. So, the Japanese encouragement of the use of manufacturing criteria in design can yield big benefits.
One example: The D.H. Brown study reports that in the spring of 1997, Japanese automakers decreased average engineering lead times (the time between approval of the exterior model design and the start of product shipment) to 20 months. The U.S. average: 30 months.
Part of the credit, the study says, goes to a system known as front-end loading: the acquisition of prior knowledge and the use of rapid problem-solving techniques that allow engineers to resolve issues earlier in the design cycle. Product information management and knowledge-based engineering software play a role here. So does the kind of cross-discipline cooperation and communication typical of Japanese companies.
As in the U.S., supplier involvement in design is important in Japan. THK America's Miyazaki says it's critical. "It's imperative that you get your supplier base to really listen to what you need," he says. THK actually has a financial stake in some of the company's first-tier suppliers, such as platers and extruders.
Japanese engineers also work very closely with customers, says Minoru Hayakawa, a design engineer at Amada. That was the case recently with a new punch press the company developed. While doing the design in Microcadam's Helix Modeling System, engineers worked closely with manufacturing counterparts, then travelled to the customer site to put it together and start it up.
That example leads to two other characteristics of Japanese design engineering: 1) Among the principal objectives is to meet market requirements, says Oriental Motors' Fred Otsuka; and 2) engineers stay with a project until it's finished.
"In Japan, design engineers follow each project through the completion of manufacturing," says Aromat's Jack Gayara. Like many of their U.S. counterparts, they even get involved in testing.
"As a PLC design engineer in Japan, I went through all the testing when designs were complete," says Armoat's PLC Product Manager Junji Ichiriyama.
With that kind of complete involvement in projects, Japanese design engineers don't work on as many products in a year as their counterparts in the U.S. do. They typically handle only one or two projects a year, says Aromat's Gayara, vs. 18 for a U.S. engineer. But the stakes are high. THK America's Miyazaki says Japanese engineers often are required to come up with two new product designs a year. And, says Mark TenEyck, of Microcadam reseller FCI Systems, they better be a hit in the market, or the engineer's reputation could be stained.
One characteristic that Japanese and U.S. engineers share is the reliance on CAD software. But, in Japan, engineers are more likely to use 2D CAD while U.S. engineers, as a whole, use more 3D solids modeling. In fact, U.S. engineers, particularly in the automotive industry, have made the adoption of new engineering software a priority, while Japanese engineers often prefer to stick with what they have, analysts say.
Naturally, there are exceptions. D.H. Brown reports that Mazda uses CAE software to study the concerns of human workers interacting with machinery, and to create models of the assembly floor to detect potential problems. Of course, as the consulting firm points out, Mazda is owned by Ford. Overall, D.H. Brown says, Japanese companies would benefit from the interference checking, part-sizing analysis, and physical-property calculations that come with the kind of 3D solids modeling U.S. engineers use.
Still, just as Japanese engineers can learn from the U.S. approach to software adoption and implementation, U.S. engineering can learn from the Japanese tradition of emphasizing manufacturing and sharing data. U.S. automotive companies, for example, have failed to share information across product-development disciplines within an organization and throughout the supplier chain, says D. H. Brown. That failure can slow down design and make projects more costly due to the necessity of rework when mistakes show up downstream.
The remedy: Forget Kipling's famous claim that East is East and West is West, and let the twain meet, at least intellectually, to learn from each other.
(Design News Technical Editor John Lewis contributed to this article.)