Shorter time-to-market,virtual prototyping,early involvement with a project, development of complete subsystems, concurrent engineering, increased communication with other suppliers.
These trends, prevalent today in supplier/manufacturer relationships, preview what design engineers working for suppliers can expect. Tier companies are adjusting the way they do business to accommodate these changes. Below are three examples of how companies are adapting:
Design to production quickly. As the car companies shorten their design cycles for new models, Wabash engineers work to achieve corresponding reductions in their work. "We are probably classic in having a sequence of applications, design, process, manufacturing, and reliability engineering, all with the oversight of quality engineering," says Edward Hart, president of Wabash Technologies (Huntington, IN). "What's changing most is the speed at which we perform these phases."
Wabash engineers design sensor and actuator products principally for the automotive and heavy vehicle industries. "Our engineering teams in the U.S. and Europe take responsibility for the complete product design from initial concept through to production," Hart says.
The company's success depends on the ability of the organization to meet a customer's expectations for new designs in a timely manner, at high levels of quality and low cost. "Like most suppliers to the automotive industry, we have been reshaping our company to meet these demands," says Hart.
Wabash does this by shaping a team around customer problems. From the start, this team is in constant communication with the customers via e-mail, video conferencing, the Internet, and product data management software. "It doesn't save us money, but we produce better quality products faster than ever before," Hart says.
As an example, Hart points to the higher quality of vehicles currently on the highway. "If we had the same number of cars on the road in the late 1950s and 1960s as we do today, we would have a parking lot of broken-down cars," says Hart, "Because they were of inferior quality. But there has been such an emphasis on quality with zero defects, that the automotive industry offers a darn good product."
Computer tools play an important part in helping increase speed. CAD is a crucial tool for the modern engineer, says Hart. Those who use it effectively as their primary design tool are more valuable. "So much of what we do involves modifications to what we've done before," says Hart. "It is easier to make changes to existing designs than to begin from scratch." Depending on the phase of the design activity, CAD-oriented engineers can be two to five times more effective than non-CAD engineers.
The ideal Wabash engineer is one who has all the skills expected of a mechanical engineer, but also has a good grasp of electronics. "Virtually all of our products interface with the customer's electronic control systems," says Hart. "Thus it is critically important to understand the customer's applications to assure the best interface."
If it works, make it better. "We've had a tremendous change of attitude in the past five years," says Fred Hogan, quality engineer for aerospace supplier, L & S Machine Co. (Wichita, KS). "For a long time, we had the same attitude as everyone else, 'If it works, why fix it?' Now, we have the attitude, 'If it works, let's make it work better. Let's manufacture it more efficiently and get it done ahead of schedule.'"
Why the change? Shorter time-to-market demands from customers. "Competition within the vast network of smaller suppliers is fierce," says Hogan, who constantly tries to set the company apart.
Working from customer design specifications, L & S manufactures machine parts such as strut drum control boxes for the Boeing 737, and engine mounts, door assemblies, and wing fittings for military fighter planes. The 40-year-old company also performs aluminum dip brazing as well as tube and duct fabrication. Customers include heavyweights such as Boeing, Martin Marietta, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, and the Department of Defense.
The program engineering group, consisting primarily of mechanical engineers, translates part designs into a computer numerical control (CNC) language that can effectively reproduce the part in order quantities.
"There are a lot of suppliers that do the same type of work as us," says Hogan. As a result, production/method engineers become project engineers, constantly looking for ways to streamline processes. As the company strives to produce a more efficient product, L & S works closer with its customers in a research and development atmosphere.
Hogan has seen the use of concurrent engineering--where manufacturers, suppliers, and vendors work simultaneously to improve the design of a part--increase within the last few years. "Instead of just getting the specs, we work together with our customers to fit the design to the manufacturing process before we actually make the part."
"We consider our engineers among the best in supplier manufacturing," Hogan says. "Our people have extensive backgrounds in machine fabrication, CAD/CAM systems, and quality control/quality assurance. They must have knowledge of commercial and military specifications for material characteristics, tool design, fabrication techniques, finish processing and quality methods, not to mention a good computer background."
L & S employs 120 people and the company is growing. "The company atmosphere is similar to many Midwest companies--a big family working together for a common cause. Often managers are out on the floor working with their employees," Hogan says.
Although they take their work seriously, L&S employees still take time to participate in community activities like the yearly bathtub race at the annual Wichita River Festival.
A close relationship. Electronic component manufacturer Omron Electronics, Inc. (Schaumburg, IL) strives to move engineering closer to the customer base. "We're working directly with customers more than ever before," says Jeff Jurs, manager of Omron's Product Development Center (PDC). "We visit with them regularly and ask, 'What are you looking for in new products?'" This way, clients share their problems and Omron designs products to meet those needs, getting involved much earlier in the process.
With an emphasis on reduced times to market, Omron design engineers are using and investigating more rapid prototyping techniques as well as programs that predict outcomes of product performance such as finite element analysis. In addition, they have an increased reliance on the Internet for communicating directly with clients and vendors. Especially, vendors' on-line documentation is becoming crucial to PDC's design engineering needs.
Omron, a $5 billion company headquartered in Japan, has had a North American presence since the early 70s, but has only been doing local development seriously for the last five years. Jurs' group, part of the division responsible for half of that total, has been hiring engineers in order to grow their development capability and meet the needs of the U.S. market. Because the staff is still relatively small, engineers must be flexible. "Even if someone has a title of hardware engineer, he may do systems engineering and testing. Because we have a variety of duties, we are challenging our most junior engineers as well as our most senior ones," Jurs says.
Omron engineers work in teams, both within and outside of the company to leverage skill sets. The company always keeps in mind an engineer's goals. "We try to adjust our organization between what we need and what the engineer wants to do." For example, if an engineer wants to be more involved with the business side of engineering, we will work with him or her toward gaining more skills in project management or working closer with Marketing. "There are plenty of opportunities for cross functionality," says Jurs.
Top 5 reasons to work for a supplier company
Diversity of opportunity: there will be no time to get bored doing the same thing day in and day out as you will have to wear many hats
Exposure to all aspects of the company and an opportunity to learn many skills
Suppliers tend to be smaller than manufacturers: you are more likely to know everyone you work with and this lends to more of an informal and family-oriented atmosphere
Faster advancement potential: your work will be noticed because there aren't as many people and you will be promoted based on performance
A greater opportunity to move into another department or choose what area you would like to work in
You'll thrive in a supplier company if you...
Prefer smaller companies over larger ones
Like to work in teams