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Don't neglect the little things

Don't neglect the little things

When anyone comments about my height, I reply, "Just because something is small, doesn't mean that it's not powerful-just look at dynamite."

The same could be said of seemingly "insignificant" items in an engineering design. Many times, engineers leave the selection of switches or materials to the end of a project. However, taking them into account in the beginning of the design process could lead to a more powerful, cost-effective product. That's especially true when the supplier has a chance to work with the manufacturer, understand the application, and make recommendations based on this information.

"Switches are the most used devices on any machine," says Walter Sadowski, manager of new product development for Carling Technologies, Inc. (Plainville, CT). "They are in total control of the machine."

So why not add a switch vendor to the engineering team, early in the development cycle? Heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar did. As a result, the company saved time and money on their new D-series range of backhoe loaders.

For their switch of choice, Caterpillar chose Carling's new Contura(R) IV Rocker. During the design process, it became evident that Caterpillar needed a two-step locking mechanism for the coupler-lock function. "Because we were in contact with their electrical team on a weekly basis, we saw the need for this application as soon as they did," says Teresa Errato, Market Development Manager, at Carling.

Since this was a new actuator for the Contura V-Series family of switches used by Caterpillar since 1995, Carling had not yet designed a locking mechanism for this style. "But as soon as we saw that Caterpillar's design called for one, we began working on a solution," says Errato. By the time Caterpillar was ready to go into production with the backhoe loader, Carling had an appropriate switch ready.

"Had they waited until the end, then told us what switches they needed, we may have been able to give them, for example, 11 of the 12 required, but it would have taken us months to design, fabricate, and test a locking switch," says Errato.

This could have delayed Caterpillar's market-release date or forced the company to scramble to find an alternate solution. In addition, if they had waited until the harness, dash panel, and the other components were designed, "it would have been a challenge for us to come up with a workable engineered solution," she adds.

Another benefit of involving Carling engineers upfront is that they can often combine functions or simplify circuits. Reducing the number of required wires, terminals, and mating terminals/connectors results in a 10-15% material cost savings per dash panel.

On the inside. Recognizing the benefits of such an approach, DuPont started a Forward Engineering initiative with its Vespel product line.

"It is so much easier to design the best part if you start from a clean sheet of paper instead of trying to replace or retrofit a design that is cast in stone," says Gary Glass, senior development specialist for Dupont's Engineering Polymers Division (Newark, DE). "That is the idea behind our Forward Engineering initiative," he says. "Get the material supplier involved early so we can help our customers get the optimum design."

For example, when a particular steering system component came up for review, an auto manufacturer asked DuPont engineers for their input up front. "We were able to eliminate four parts with one Vespel part," says Glass. "By giving us an understanding of what the part will do and giving us the freedom to come up with a design, we could combine functionality with the optimization of material properties. That translates into substantial cost savings."

Among DuPont's target markets are the oil and gas exploration and chemical processing industries. In June, DuPont held a series of seminars to talk to this industry about the Forward Engineering concept, as well as its five families of the Vespel products.

"We spoke with one company on Monday and they called us on Tuesday and asked to participate," says Glass.

The oil tool company wanted to design an expanded line of products for drilling and pumping oil to the surface. Traditional materials were not working. "They had done preliminary designs, but because of the harsh environment-high temperatures, chemicals, abrasives-they were at a loss as to where to go," says Glass.

DuPont engineers devised a very different solution from what the customer had originally envisioned. "Because we got involved so early, we were able to introduce a radically different device which plays off of the properties of Vespel," says Glass. "The engineers at the oil tool company, in turn, are thrilled because they feel that this part will perform better than the original design as well as be extremely cost effective."

Understanding what the part needed to do, how it needed to function, and what kind of environment it was going to see, gave DuPont engineers the flexibility to come up with the optimum part.

Thanks to the forward engineering program, DuPont is starting to see a lot more of this early interaction, which benefits everyone, says Glass.

Just because something looks small or inexpensive, doesn't mean that it is insignificant. Sometimes the least expensive item on a project can be one of the most important. Just like most "little" things!

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