Peter BigelowSupply chain separation has made engineering a more expensive proposition.

Based on my sailing experience, I can say with certainty a chain, such as the one that anchors your boat to a secure mooring, is only as strong as its weakest link. In the intangible world of business, however, it can be difficult to see differences between “weaknesses” versus “just another way of looking at things.”

Such was the case recently during a meeting with a large customer – the type of very large customer where they have almost as many global facilities as they do egocentric engineering personalities – when an alleged strength revealed itself to be instead the weakest link in a very long chain. Around a large table sat engineering, manufacturing, and quality gurus revealing their latest, greatest project.

Discussion focused on the “elegant” simplicity, the utilization of the “best available new technology” and of course the “time critical” requirement that all suppliers had to perform to. This was quite the humdinger of a program I am sure was going to make – or break – more than a few careers of those present.

After presentations were made, the floor was opened to us potential suppliers for Q&A. One by one we asked – as diplomatically as possible – why they had designed an almost impossible-to-build apparatus instead of a simpler, less costly, quicker-to-build device. As each of us finessed our way around the clearly perturbed and increasing defensive egos, the major weakness in at least one of the links in this new program’s chain became apparent. That weakness: a lack of understanding, brought about as this large company embraced a culture where once interdependent departments were operating autonomously, becoming so specialized they no longer comprehended how their needs impacted others, or vice versa.

In this particular situation, engineers were so removed from their fabricators and assemblers they had little-to-no idea what “Manufacturing” required to produce a cost-effective, robust product. Instead, working in an information vacuum, they designed a product that would be expensive (read: difficult) to fabricate and virtually impossible (read: expensive) to assemble. The engineers had done their intra-department homework and had spec’d the best and newest components and technologies, but, functioning as an autonomous island, had no clue as to how those components and technologies  would, in the real world, go together – or not.

As we suppliers provided input and suggestions on how some simple changes might improve manufacturability, the corporate egos at first flared, and then, in one of those “aha” moments, melted away, resulting in solid technical discussion among all parties. The final result – which took several more meetings to iron out – was a far better solution for all. The board could be fabricated with high yield and run through the EMS process quickly and cost-effectively, resulting in an end-product under budget and with a shorter lead time.

The various silos of our supply chain can yield theoretical efficiencies but too often become a weak link in the product development chain. Most OEMs long ago shuttered their fabrication and assembly operations. New employees, never having worked in a truly vertically integrated product development through manufacturing environment, now have little, if any, understanding of the challenges they must design around so their product can be cost-effectively produced.
Equally, too often fabricators and assemblers have succumbed to tunnel-vision, as they are not in the daily loop of interaction with design engineers and those in other but equally important albeit different links in the supply chain.

But, where there is a gap, there is an opportunity. Understanding where there is a possibility of a breakdown in communication, and what parties need to be involved to prevent said communication breakdown, enables those with vision and capability to provide value.

Engineers in larger, more autocratic and segmented organizations who want to get ahead and ultimately have greater career success taking projects from concept to production should invest the time to visit suppliers to learn critical fabrication issues, the idiosyncrasies of pick-and-place assembly and the challenges of box build. The better the fast-changing real world of turning concept into a viable (manufacturable) product is understood, the greater the chances for delivering a successful design.

This is especially true for newer design or manufacturing engineers. A design is only as good as the ability to produce it, on time and on budget. By getting out and talking with and understanding the supply base, an engineer creates a successful, production-ready design, rather than a marginal one that weakens an otherwise strong product chain.  

Equally, the sharp fabricator or EMS provider can profit as the catalyst to bring together the disparate parties so the customer achieves a cost-effective, highly manufacturable and successful product. Being a catalyst for the customer not only will land the initial order but, more important, will earn your company the reputation as the go-to partner for future projects.

Working with others in the supply chain may also yield additional business from those other partners you pull together and who benefit, if not profit, from your efforts. Assisting those who are also part of your customer’s critical supply base may yield additional leads and customer contacts that might otherwise never materialize.

Most important, knowledge of manufacturability that can be gained is critical, especially in an industry where, due to aging workforce or corporate mandate for people to specialize, there is an increasingly lost knowledge of the entire process. Taking advantage of this trend by being a catalyst to customers so they can glean that needed information will both broaden your knowledge base and provide an opportunity to excel. Whether in a design capacity at the OEM level or as a manufacturing partner tasked with delivering the goods, identifying and fixing the weak link in the product manufacturing chain offers opportunity, provided you look at things a little differently.

Peter Bigelow is president and CEO of IMI (; His column appears monthly.

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