Cost while you design

Tom Shelley reports on software that addresses the number one headache for design and manufacturing managers, that of costing manufacturing whle design is in progress

Tom Shelley reports on software that addresses the number one headache for design and manufacturing managers

A new tool is able to inform a designer realistically how much the part being worked on is going to cost to make, as it is being developed in real time, thus ensuring not only efficient manufacturing, but the ability to make timely, realistic bids for work with the confident knowledge that they should neither be undercut nor yield insufficient profit when won.

Manufacture by different methods, subcontract out or buy costs can all be called up almost instantly, or are shown on a ticker at the bottom of the screen, before committing to a particular path. This saves much time in not pursuing design strategies that later have to be abandoned when they are found to be too expensive or a cheaper alternative is discovered by manufacturing and production or the purchasing department.

Results can sometimes be surprising, and sub contractors who know they are particularly efficient, are already queuing up to pay to have their manufacturing costs put into the database, confident that what they have to offer will be competitive with alternatives, effectively submitting rough quotations online without designers even to having to ask for them.

The software is called aPriori, which the back of the company business cards explain is a Latin expression meaning knowledge that can be had, "prior to" experience. It addresses the problem of meeting cost targets, which according to head PLM analysts Bob Kraus and Kevin O'Marah of AMR Research is the number one concern of design and manufacturing managers. It is well known that the costs of making changes in the design and manufacture cycle rise exponentially as engineering projects proceed. It is therefore essential to firm up as much as possible of the design at the earliest possible stage. With margins tight and even the world's two largest engineering companies, Ford and General Motors making losses and having to cut costs, it is more essential than ever to keep costs to a minimum while still ensuring a profit.

The aPriori software has come out of nearly ten years research at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne conducted in conjunction with John Deere. The first application in industry was installed in May 2003 and the spin-off company founded in September 2003. So far, apart from John Deere, the customer list includes: Thomas & Betts, Dana, JLG, Wrobel Engineering and Caterpillar.

It can be used stand alone, built on a Microsoft SQL database or closely integrated with Pro/Engineer, where it extracts geometric information and associate this with real manufacturing costs. In house costs are based on those actually incurred in the company, based on information extracted from payrolls, materials costs and overhead cost information within a company SAP system or in Excel spreadsheets.

Company President Frank Azzolino told us that setting up takes typically three to four weeks but requires real commitment from company management. For this reason, even if invited by a potential customer, he says he will not accept a second meeting unless it is going to be attended by representatives of all the relevant departments: design, engineering, manufacturing and financial, at vice president level or above. As he puts it, "All are going to have to do homework assignments if the project is going to succeed."

In a demonstration in the US by vice president of marketing John Busa, an analysis was made of a milled steel part that the system ascertained would cost more than $500 to make with a target cost of not more than $100. A costing is made for manufacturing the part in China, which still came out as much too much when transport and logistics costs were taken into consideration, so the study then switched to making it as an aluminium casting with a relatively small amount of machining. Busa pointed out that in the real world, the design would probably require some modification and re-analysis, before being re-costed in its new form.

After deciding on a parting line, the system automatically extracted the cost of side cores from the geometry, and then presented the options of casting it in the US or in China, including tooling costs. Taking transport, visit costs, inspection costs and other costs associated with manufacture in China into account, the lowest cost then came out to be that available from a local casting shop in Massachusetts: $64, several tens of dollars cheaper than China.

The first real world customer application was for a Tier 1 automotive and commercial vehicle supplier. The pilot application was a 44 part 'slider' assembly whose original cost was $521.80, manufactured at a volume of 26,000 per year. Use of aPriori cost comparisons enabled a cost reduction of 34 per cent to $343.71 resulting in a saving of $4.6 million in the first year and $23.1 million over the five year life of the product. Return on investment was 20:1.

Information is available to the designer either as separate screens, or a 'ticker' box in the corner of the screen. Although the demonstration of the software took place in the PTC offices in Needham, Frank Azzolino pointed out that the original version was developed in conjunction with Unigraphics, and one of his goals is to make the system platform independent.

Target markets are: Tier 1 to Tier 3 suppliers, HVAC, and makers of heavy machinery. Process modules in aPriori V4.0 are: Sheet metal, assembly welding, injection moulding, machining/turning and casting. The software is fully integrated and compliant with Pro/Engineer Wildfire 3.0 through Pro/Toolkit. It additionally works with any XML compliant ODBC database. Typical budget cost to get the system up and running is from $150,000 to $200,000 including all services and assistance.


Eureka says: The software appears to be the best solution we have seen so far to the problem of meeting cost targets, which according to head PLM analysts Bob Kraus and Kevin O'Marah of AMR Research is the number one concern of design and manufacturing managers


* Software extracts geometry from Pro/Engineer and constantly recalculates manufacturing costs as design work progresses

* It is based on real world financial models of the manufacturing process in the user's factories or those of sub contractors

* Sun contractors, presently mostly those in the North Eastern US are paying to have their data in the system, so that potential customers can see at once when they offer a best buy alternative.

Tom Shelley

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