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Fast track to management

Fast track to management

"The technology is advancing so fast, no one company can keep up with it all," says Principal Engineer John O'Brien.

About six or seven years ago, O'Brien, who heads up the control lab at HK Systems' Hebron, KY facility and is responsible for product development, had six people working for him. "Three of them were design engineers who did nothing but board development," he says. "Today, I've got one person working for me, and I leave virtually all of the responsibility for board design to the outside engineering houses."

For engineers like O'Brien, who work for large manufacturers, the work pace is getting increasingly hectic. It is also changing profoundly.

"Actually, the easy part is handing off the design work," says O'Brien. "Back at our end, we're busier than ever defining requirements, writing functionality specifications, identifying the right suppliers and drafting a work contract, and--most importantly--managing how the individual components, subsystems, and controls work together as a whole. Plus, I spend a lot of my time evaluating new technologies."

Doing more--and less. While at the same time design engineers who work for manufacturing companies are doing more, they are also doing less--of certain kinds of work, anyway. The trend toward greater outsourcing of components and subsystems has shifted the focus at many major firms away from traditional engineering and development activities.

Aerospace and auto companies pioneered the concept of outsourcing a portion of their engineering workload, but industries of all types are now embracing the concept. So much so, in fact, that there is at least a perception among design engineers that fewer of them will be working for manufacturing companies in the future.

In a recent survey of Design News readers, 27% of the respondents said that they think design engineers will work for large manufacturing companies in the future. Only slightly fewer (23%) said that they think design engineers will work for smaller companies, including suppliers. More pointedly, 37% reported that their companies are outsourcing more engineering work than they did five years ago.

While Lamb Technicon is actually contracting out less design work than in the past, it currently outsources approximately 50% of its total engineering workload. That works out to about 150,000 hours annually. A builder of machine tools, Lamb farms out work on a variety of mechanical, electrical, and hydraulic components and subsystems to outside engineering houses.

"The advantage of outsourcing is that it helps us manage our workload, which continually fluctuates due to the large size of non-periodic orders," explains Bryan Graham, director of engineering for Lamb Technicon Machining Systems, a division of Unova Industrial Automation (Warren, MI).

HK Systems (Milwaukee, WI), a manufacturer of materials handling equipment and systems, has also turned to outsourcing in recent years.

"In the old days, big companies did all the design engineering work in-house, right down to the last gnat-tail and dittle. But particularly as equipment has become more complex, companies have begun to realize that they simply cannot be an expert in everything--not if they want to be economically competitive and meet development timetables," says Kurt Lloyd, VP and engineering manager for the company's VonGal palletizer line.

So if design engineers at manufacturing companies are not focusing as much on basic engineering and development tasks, just what is consuming their time? Quite a lot, it turns out.

Busier than ever. While machines of the past were made up of primarily mechanical components, many now have significant electronic and optical content. This growing sophistication means that design engineers now need to know about more and different technologies.

Steve Waldor, an engineer who designs harvesting equipment for FMC, can relate. "We make three models of vegetable harvesters, and although I am basically dedicated to the pea harvester, I work across all of the different product lines. I get involved in the electrical, hydraulic, and mechanical components.

"Like all public companies, we are always looking to do more with less. Right now, the typical work week for engineers is in the 45- to 50-hour timeframe," says Lamb's Graham.

Although Graham says that the exact number of hours any engineer puts in varies substantially, management expects everyone to work the appropriate number of hours. "Obviously, we'd prefer that everyone get their work done in a 40-hour-week, but unfortunately it doesn't always work out that way," says Graham.

Outsourcing some of the basic design work has helped free up engineers to broaden their focus. But understanding how all these different technologies, components, and subsystems work together, as well as simulating and testing at the system level, are extremely time-consuming activities.

"A systems engineer has to have more training in the fundamentals of engineering and physics, plus an understanding of the applications associated with our machinery, which is typically in uncontrolled environments," says Graham. "He or she has to be able to outline the scope of work, which comes from knowing and understanding the tasks involved. They also have to be able to recognize what represents reasonable schedule and dollar amounts."

Unfortunately, many of these skills are not taught in the classroom. Some may take years of experience to acquire. "Our basic goal when we bring a new engineer in is to start him or her on specific projects that address technical issues and then grow them into a position where they can assist experienced engineers with more applications-oriented problems," says Graham.

Huge rewards. For the design engineer who makes the successful transition to systems engineering, it can be a rewarding move. That's because more companies now view system integration as a core competency.

"A design engineer's responsibilities today encompass much more than building a machine and shipping it out the door," agrees Graham. "Our customers are looking for us to provide more services and in-depth engineering. There is a growing recognition that engineers who work for the manufacturer need to know and understand the application of machines even better than the users."

True, the job is not easy, and many engineers routinely put in long hours. But the truth of the matter is that this new corporate philosophy is giving engineering as a whole a higher profile within manufacturing firms. That, in turn, leads to better visibility, recognition, and advancement opportunities for design engineers. "From the CEO of our corporation to our vice presidents to our department managers, many members of our top management team are engineers or have risen from the engineering disciplines," says Lamb's Graham.


Top 5 reasons to work for manufacturers

  1. Opportunity to move beyond technical problem solving and acquire "big-picture" systems engineering and project management skills

  2. High visibility, particularly as more organizations begin to recognize and value systems engineering as a core competency

  3. Good advancement opportunities, particularly in smaller manufacturing companies where an ambitious engineer can become a big fish in a small pond

  4. Opportunity to work with a diversity of customers, suppliers, and technologies

  5. High probability that whatever challenges you tackle today will be different than the ones you tackle next week or next month


You'll thrive in a large manufacturing company if you...

  • Have good training in the fundamentals of engineering and physics

  • Have the willingness and ability to go beyond basic technical-problem solving

  • Are able to grasp the "big picture"

  • Can summarize technical problems succinctly

  • Can write clear and complete functional specifications

  • Are able to identify, manage, and direct outside suppliers in the development of components and subsystems

  • Are willing to put in long hours when the job demands it

  • Can work on multiple projects at one time

  • Can manage budgets

  • Have excellent people skills


Outsourcing sensor design cuts cost and time

Deciding what components to develop on the outside, and what outside companies to get to develop them are critical actions in any OEM's product development efforts. At HK Systems (Milwaukee, WI), a manufacturer of materials handling systems and equipment, the decision whether or not to outsource is made on a component-by-component basis. Economics, time-to-market, and degree of technical complexity all factor into the analysis.

HK Systems recently partnered with Sick Optic-Electronic (Bloomington, MN) to successfully develop a photoelectric sensor for use on an accumulation conveyor. "Basically what it came down to was that we felt we had neither the technical expertise in optics nor the engineering resources to do the development work in-house," says John O'Brien, principal engineer in the company's control lab who is responsible for new product development.

Actually, HK engineers originally had a working solution by wiring a photoeye and solenoid to a junction box and linking the boxes together. But it wasn't a cost-effective design. "So I wrote up the functional specs and went out on a search-and-destroy mission to find a company that could deliver a more cost-effective solution," recalls O'Brien.

Enter Sick Optic. "Since our focus is on developing new sensor technology, this application was right up our alley," says Lonnee Vandenheuvel, project manager at Sick Optic.

"Working with Sick Optic, we wound up with a design in just five months that did the same thing functionality-wise as our junction box," says O'Brien.

"The biggest challenge was figuring out how to pack all of the electronics into the sensor, because typically the smarts are built into an external controller," says Vandenheuvel. "HK wanted everything internal to the sensor. Fortunately, we were able to draw upon our experience with other applications to come up with a solution using surface-mount technology."

"One of the biggest advantages in letting Sick Optic do all of the technical work on this project is that it freed me up to develop application drawings and notes and technical bulletins, plus work on five other projects," says O'Brien. "Best of all, this new sensor costs two-thirds less than our previous design."


Up close with:

Joe Golonka Project Manager, Lamb Technicon B.S. Computer Science, Wayne State University, 1981

I came to Lamb Technicon in 1979 and have been here ever since. You could say I'm a career machine-tool engineer. I was hired in as a designer, became an assistant project engineer, then a project engineer. Now I'm a project manager, and I've generally been involved in transmission and chassis-type programs, such as steering knuckles, differential cases, and carriers. Lamb is generally perceived as being a producer of high-volume cylinder head and block machining and assembly equipment, but you can see from my experience that we are involved in all areas of machining.

The way it works at Lamb, a project manager has complete responsibility for a program. I oversee the design of the machine, which is typically done through an outside engineering house, the build process, and run-off, which involves cutting the parts to make sure that they meet the specified tolerances.

I am basically the troubleshooter for anything and everything that can go wrong. When components don't mate correctly, for example, I have to figure out the best way to fix it. You always try to do it right the first time, but Murphy's Law is a powerful one.

The work pace is hectic. Right now, I have three programs involving nine machines. If a fourth pans out, that will mean another 10 machines. Typical programs run 48 to 52 weeks. Adding to the load is the fact that as long as you work here, you never leave a job behind. In the past 20 years, I've worked on 61 different programs, some involving up to eight machines each. The question from a customer with a 15-year-old machine is just important as the one from a customer whose machine we are currently building.

I'd like to say, "Today, I'm working on this, this, and this." But in reality, my plans usually fall apart. Issues constantly need my attention, and I have to react immediately. So I try to get in by 7:00 am and do whatever paperwork I can before the phones start ringing. During the build process, I try to go over to the plant and make myself visible. I probably get too involved in the details, but sometimes the only way you can guarantee that you'll get something done is do it yourself.

The truth is I could work 25 hours a day and still never catch up. So to keep my sanity, I try to keep my weeks to no more than 50 hours. Here, my experience is invaluable because it gives me an intuitive feel for which problems are the important ones and how to fix them. Outsourcing has relieved some of the demands, but the bottom line is if it's not right, I'm responsible for making it right.

I take my work very personally, which makes me a good engineer. But it can be stressful, because in this type of job you're always wrong until proven right. Even if you are right, you still have to fix it. Occasionally, I've been known to blow off steam at the wrong time. But then it's right back to work as usual.

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