Measuring Design

Departments - Ensuring Excellence

Does your engineering measure up?

June 12, 2014
Alistair Munro

Precision is king – ranging from new metrology technologies to Six Sigma and lean process control tightening up the manufacturing floor. Where are the measurement standards and accountability within product design? Can your engineers pre-calculate the cost from quality issues in their initial concepts and drawings? Can they tell whether their new designs will be manufacturable, or will there be the proverbial throw-it-over-the-wall-to-manufacturing attitude, waiting for them to make the impossible possible? Do you know early on how much a new design is going to cost or profit you? There have been techniques and technologies to answer just these questions for many years.

Even without re-hashing recent design and manufacturing disasters in both commercial and defense aerospace, cost overruns and poor quality are often not realized until design has progressed to the tooling and manufacturing phase. When considering the costs involved with lower volume vehicles such as aircraft, every part is an expensive piece of the total puzzle that needs to be right the first time. Therefore, the aerospace industry especially has room for improvement for proactive measures to identify, quantify, and examine areas of risk, weight, and cost in the design phase.

For years, the perspective is that engineering, manufacturing, and finance exist in separate bubbles, bumping into each other only retroactively when an issue has been identified. How many times have product design engineering teams forced an inadequately designed product down through the manufacturing supply chain only for it to be regurgitated?

The old adage of measure twice and cut once doesn’t seem to apply to design. Very often, due to budgets and time constraints, product design engineers simply rush out a hurried but compliant design that meets function but not excellence.

When you understand that the first design is never the simplest nor the best – especially when dealing with multi-department coordination bogged down with putting out proverbial fires – then you can grasp how important a variety of checks and measures can be to avert risk when a design is in its infancy. With the industry getting more obsessed with lean manufacturing and Six Sigma efficiency efforts on the factory floor, people often forget that 70% of quality and manufacturing costs are directly attributable to design.

Cost predicting

First and foremost, you must have the ability to track and measure the drawing beyond the basics of general procurement and purchasing. Namely, you need to examine total accounted cost. What are the ramifications of quality (not just function) on the material choice of certain systems when connecting to other parts? How is tooling going to come up with this architecture? Does the design team consider the capabilities of the supply chain?

If these are still questions that can be further examined, then final engineering is not in sight. Too often, these are only mildly explored questions.

Understanding the complete lifecycle of a product is an integral part of launching a successful product line. Only when the product as a whole is considered – from concept through production, to service and eventually to end of life – can a design be considered complete.

A large tool box full of engineering software and methodologies can be daunting to the engineering team. The key lies in picking the correct tools and using them appropriately.

One key element, often skipped or not implemented, is using a detailed visual map of the entire production incorporating all of the data and metrics your team plans to track and analyze.

There are several good product lifecycle management (PLM) applications that capture lifecycle data, but they tend to focus heavily on the CAD modelling rather than display an easy-to-understand overview that rolls up important data to facilitate informed executive decisions.

The first step is to thoroughly and accurately map the design in a visual, step-by-step process that captures all of the parts and all of the manufacturing and assembly steps. This entails a team effort that involves product design engineers, quality engineers, manufacturing, and finance. Silo mentalities must be dismantled for this process to succeed.

The team must gather data from material studies comparing weight, cost, quality, and combined function. Supply chain should be considered and preferably involved with this process. The future of supply chain management will include the supply chain working with the OEM at the concept and design phase to make product releases smooth and easily integrated.

Within each symbol or place holder on the map, every known aspect of the part needs to be captured, including weight, a best-guess piece cost, quality data, labor costs, and timing. Rolling up the data should not only give the team a more accurate sense of total accounted costs, weights, and timing, but also highlight areas for concern and improvement. This is a step that needs to work in tandem with and throughout the CAD modelling process.


Wall process

A wall process should be a necessary and ongoing methodology to continually analyze proposed designs to further unite the engineering, manufacturing, and finance teams allowing them to visually chart the progress of the unfolding systems.

After mapping the parts and processes, the teams will have a joint ability to visually assess the viability and producibility of design concepts. This process will reveal areas of opportunities to combine or eliminate parts that add unnecessary complexity, add cost, and quality issues. As any system adds more weak chains when variables are included, the same is true for parts in a design. Creating simple, clean, and lean designs will reduce labor time, piece costs, and potential liabilities for the manufacturing floor. More importantly, you don’t have to apply lean manufacturing methods to a cell that doesn’t exist because that part was eliminated in the design phase.

Certain types of parts – such as rivets – are quality inhibitors by their very definition. Why choose rivets when friction stir-welding is possible? Aircraft are more likely to have maintenance issues and leak air when using rivets – this is an industry-proven fact.

Engineers employing pro-active quality predictor strategies using such tools as the cost of quality or the quality report card, can calculate and red flag the larger quality issues in the design phase before they are painfully experienced in manufacturing and endured for the lifecycle of a poor design. Calculating and tracking Sigma while still in the design phase is a key metric that is possible based upon known or historical data from previous, similar platforms.

Team coordination

The mapping and analysis process should also identify possible ergonomic issues and design dangers that might not be obvious to the product design engineer but are illuminated with the help of the manufacturing team. Calculating possible workers compensation payouts from injuries, and assigning them to the poorly designed parts within a design map, adds a deeper level of corporate responsibility besides mere cost savings.

Poka yoke issues – from a Japanese term that means error-proof or fail-safing so that two parts cannot be assembled wrong – can also be eliminated at this stage instead of trying to eliminate them in manufacturing, which is much more costly and less effective. Often overlooked are poka yokes in aerospace design – truly low hanging fruit. If manufacturing is involved at this stage, hidden pitfalls such as these can be avoided.

In defense, manufacturing readiness level (MRL) is a must-track metric. This is truly a best practice that all manufacturers should follow. Software exists that can assist in tracking this with cross-functional teams keeping everyone in compliance and moving forward.

Carbon footprint and energy use are also metrics that can be tracked, quantified, and reduced by applying these methods. CO2, energy, and sustainability in general are becoming more topical and important in a global market where taxes on these factors and rising fuel costs are changing the playing field.

If you map your ideas in a clear and accurate way, visually bringing to the forefront the operations involved, considering the tooling needed in aerospace body and structure manufacturing, and analyzing ways to reduce weight and increase quality, you are on the path to create a winning design.

Moreover, you are not just tracking and costing your product launch with greater accuracy, you are changing the culture of your design team for the better. This creates a ripple effect that filters through the whole of your organization and right down to your bottom line.

Munro & Associates Inc.


About the author:
Alistair Munro is director of business development for Munro & Associates/Lean Design Canada and can be reached at