Design for Manufacturing

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The first Corvettes produced in Flint, Michigan on June 30, 1953Ok, so I talk a lot of about design for manufacturing, it’s probably about time that I describe exactly what I mean. In a nutshell, Design for Manufacturing is a design philosophy and product release strategy that tailors the assembly of a product to the operational structure of the firm. This ties in with the earlier discussion on Competing Commitments where engineers must balance the design process to serve the end user, as well as the company’s need to turn a profit. A good and successful product is one that both exceeds customer expectations for the price, and is manufacturable a cost low enough to generate profit.

Easy right? Not so much.

The key to Design for Manufacture strategy is for engineering and operations to build a good 2 way relationship and communicate the needs and structure of both units. Engineering must have a good understanding of the specific manufacturing process of the firm, and Operations must have a good understanding of the capabilities and product intents of Engineering.

For example, Engineering might intend for a product line to be offered to customers with a number of configurable options. Think of the automotive industry in the 70’s, cars could be ordered with an extensive menu of options from colors to engines to curb feelers. In reality this would mean that thousands of permutations may be possible for a single line of cars. In order to accommodate this, the manufacturing line would need to be set up in a manner that allows for a bunch of non-standard work steps based on selected options. Engineering on the other hand would need to structure its BOM’s in a ‘kit’ type format, which would group all of the components together that would go into a particular option. This might include a radio kit, an air-conditioning kit, or an engine kit, and a configuration tool that would bunch all the kits together to equal a complete product.

From a product design perspective, there are 2 main areas of emphasis for a design for manufacturing strategy.

  1. Match the operational model: Operational models may vary from a vertically integrated structure where raw materials are processed into components then into finished goods, or could be a contract manufacturing structure where raw goods and sub-assemblies are outsourced to contract manufacturers (CM), the brought in-house for final flavoring and assembly. The big difference for product designers in these scenarios is in BOM structure. Vertically integrated firms will benefit from a flat BOM structure that will list out every raw material and bottom level component so Operations can purchase, store, pick and assemble. In a CM model, designers are challenged with ‘kitting’ or sub-assembling groups of parts in the BOM structure in order to create ‘buyable’ assemblies. This ‘buy level’ kit or assembly is driven by how Operations would like to receive the components in the door for final flavoring of the overall product. This model requires a higher level of communication through documentation to the CM’s, specifically for revisions of parts within assemblies.
  2. Optimize for the operational process: This is a higher level of Design for Manufacturing. Optimization of sub-assembly BOM’s is intended to balance sub-kits to accommodate configurable options with assembly line load balancing to reduce down-time between steps on the manufacturing line. That is a mouthful. Simply put, an engineer will structure BOM kits so they take equal time to assemble. An air-conditioning kit should take twice as long as a radio kit and headrest kit, which is intentional in order to balance out assembly stations on the line.

Design for Manufacturing can be complicated upstream and require a good amount of coordination between Engineering and Operations, but the whole organization benefits with components come together efficiently into a finished good. Poorly run manufacturing organizations are often structured into silos, where Engineering will release product without regards for manufacturability, rather ‘throwing their work over the wall’ for Operations to figure out. Conversely Operations does not provide feedback to Engineering due to the siloed barriers.

Hopefully I didn’t confuse the topic, it’s a simple concept that can be tricky to implement. What are your thoughts?

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