While concepts like
kanban, flow and value stream mapping are well understood in the manufacturing
world, the language of lean has been tougher to translate to engineering
practices, despite heightened interest in new ways to reduce costs and wring
inefficiencies out of product development cycles.
Awareness of lean practices has been amplified thanks to mounting pressure on companies to get products to market faster, often using fewer engineering resources and faced with tighter R&D budgets.
Katherine Radeka, president of Whittier Consulting Group, which specializes in the area of lean product development, says while there's certainly been an uptick in interest, the concepts have been slower to catch on in product development mostly because waste is much harder to visualize in the information-oriented and increasingly virtual world of product design. "When you go on to a manufacturing floor, you can see waste (in the form of) excess inventory or defects, you can see the rework (and scrap) or you can see (the problem with) transportation issues," Radeka explains. "The challenge in product development is that you don't have physical objects floating around - it's about the flow of knowledge and information. Therefore, waste is harder to see."
It might be harder to identify, but not wholly impossible, especially if looked at through a different lens. Experts like Radeka contend that part of what's stymied the adoption of lean principles in product development is the attempt to copy the tools and practices exactly as they are applied in manufacturing.
Because the fundamental principal around lean manufacturing is to remove waste in past processes used to create a physical
Rather than forcing engineers to embrace a standardized development model, which many view as an impediment to fostering creativity and innovation, focus instead on where the iterative process encourages unnecessary waste and non-productivity. "One of the fundamental problems companies have is this practice of continual loopbacks, where they think they made the right decision, but it was the wrong decision and they end up continually in firefighting mode, fixing problems on the back end," Kennedy explains. Instead of rushing a design into CAD and then retrenching to address problems, Kennedy contends engineering groups need to foster best practices and leverage tools that will encourage time spent upfront to fully understand the problem, identify the knowledge necessary for evaluating design choices and work through the trade-offs. ?"If you look at the continual state of loopbacks and lost knowledge in companies, something like 70 percent of engineering talent is used to solve problems that should have been solved early on," Kennedy says.
Tools and Best Practices
There are a variety of tools and best practices to help engineering organizations promote the early learning and knowledge sharing that goes hand-in-hand with lean concepts. One such method is set-based engineering, a practice where engineers put a lot of intensity in the front end of the development process to understand the trade-offs on a possible set of solutions before committing to a single design. Conducting simulation early on in the development process is another way to gather knowledge and explore design options as part of a lean approach. Both approaches may appear counter-intuitive at first since they demand extra time and resources spent upfront.
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"The thinking is go fast and be lean, but it turns out if we spend 10 to 15 percent more time doing experimentation to close the knowledge gaps so we understand what we don't know, detailed designs are more robust and more likely to withstand the process of transferring to manufacturing," Radeka says.
CAD and PLM platforms can play a key role in helping development organizations inject lean principles into their practices. Most PLM suites offer core data management, workflow, visual planning, collaboration, business process and project management capabilities that are essential to promoting the lean vision. For their part, CAD platforms have a variety of visualization, collaboration, workflow and built-in simulation capabilities that can be used to discourage waste, both in the actual designs and in development hand-offs, not to mention fostering reuse and promoting set-based engineering practices among dispersed development teams.
"How information flows in product development is critical to supporting lean, and PLM tools are all about making information more accessible," says John Wylie, vice president of product management at PTC.
Boothroyd Dewhurst has a slightly different take on lean product development - something it calls product simplification. Instead of focusing on leaning aspects of the development process, Boothroyd Dewhurst targets its Design for Manufacture and Assembly methodology as a cost-reduction tool for creating lean product designs right from the start. "Leaning the process is good, but it's just proofreading versus editing and you're just going to catch and fix mistakes," says John Gilligan, president of Boothroyd Dewhurst. "With leaning the product, you're creating the potential for a better product - one that has more features per dollar."
Hypertherm, which manufactures plasma cutting technology, is an avid believer that product simplification is a direct route to leaner product development. The company is a long-time practitioner of lean manufacturing and realized early on that those same principles wouldn't directly translate to optimizing product development, according to Mike Shipulski, Hypertherm's engineering director. Using the DFMA methodology and software, Hypertherm engineers now regularly factor cost targets and assembly strategies into their initial design exploration and continuously evaluate designs from a manufacturing and assembly standpoint. "We're turning lean on its head to focus on the product," Shipulski says. "Not only does design simplification lean the factory, it simplifies the product development process because you're designing fewer things. As a result, there are fewer things to document and fewer hand-offs."