Design collaboration: identifying the real needs of the customer

By building closer working relationships with customers, preferably at the concept design stage, INA FAG says it is helping to add real value to design projects. Dean Palmer reports

"We want to be seen as a resource for customers, not simply a bearings supplier," states Kate Hartigan, UK MD at INA FAG Bearing Company. "Often, we gain new contracts because the customer has had a specific design problem that its current bearings supplier cannot solve," she continued. "The UK is a shrinking market for bearings, so the only way to grow your business is to bring more added value to the customer than your competitors."

Hartigan believes that getting closer to the client and working in a 'true' partnership to jointly solve application and design issues, is the key to the company's success. "That is why design collaboration is so important to us, and that is why we are sponsoring the 'Engineering Design Collaboration Award' category of the Best Factory Awards," she enthuses.

According to Hartigan, design collaboration is most prevalent in the automotive industry, one of INA's primary target markets. "Cross-fertilisation of ideas and solutions internally as well as externally with suppliers and customers is important. And, when it comes to winning new customers, having a presence in that market is the most important thing for us."

Total sales revenue for INA FAG UK (part of the German privately-owned business, the Schaeffler Group) was around 25 million pounds. The Schaeffler Group has more than 3,500 staff working on new products and technologies based in 30 R&D centres around the world. The organisation owns the rights to more than 12,000 patents and patent applications. "The company clearly understands the importance of design innovation and collaboration. About 500 patents and 1,000 product innovations are added each year," explains Hartigan.

Although INA FAG UK's primary revenue comes from the automotive sector, the firm is active in many other markets. Initial design and development work with a potential customer can go on for months or years. Hartigan cites the recent Wembley Stadium project as a good example of collaborating with the customer to add value to a design project.

She continues: "The Wembley Stadium project was much more than simply supplying bearings to a customer. It was more to do with solving a design issue. In other words, the client's architect asked us: 'What we want, is the arch to move like this, can you help us?'

The steel arch above the new Wembley stadium is supported at each end by INA's spherical plain thrust bearings, made from Teflon, a PTFE fabric composite developed by INA. The bearings are also coated with a very thin, electroplated coating called 'Corrotect'. The arch alone weighs 1,650 tonnes, but the arch also supports most of the retractable roof, which weighs around 7,000 tonnes. The bearings weigh 3.5 tonnes each and are guaranteed by INA to satisfy one million movements over 100 years, with no maintenance requirements.

One of the many design collaboration challenges for INA, says Hartigan, was to ensure the linking of the bearings to the adjacent construction on site. "Since the steel arch is assembled while horizontal and only fully erected after completion, the bearings had to be fitted in the vertical plane. Axial spherical plain bearings are not self-retaining [the shaft locating washer is loose in the housing washer] so the bearing housing was provided with retaining clamps and transport eyebolts. These clamps were removed before initial use to allow movement of the bearings and the complete arch."

Hartigan says that over recent years, INA FAG has strived to develop an ethos within the business to get much closer to customers, to more accurately identify their needs. "What we aim to do much more now, is get to these customers at the design concept stage, rather than later on in the project. It is here, at the concept stage, that we think we can add most value for the customer," she explains.

"It goes further than simply responding to a client's requirements and offering them a certain bearing solution, it requires us to ask more investigative questions such as 'Why do you want a box like that?' Perhaps we will then discover that the customer's real needs are for a ball with a box inside. The ideal scenario for us is to take cost out of the customer's project, by perhaps decreasing the size of the box required by using our bearings, or some other design feature." She cites noise reduction, vibration or less maintenance as typical examples here.

"It's really about trying to find out what your customer and his customer really needs or expects. Building relationships is key. With all of our existing customers, we are looking to strengthen these relationships. When the market was buoyant in the UK, you tended to work with a client and automatically got the bearings business. Nowadays, with increasing competitive pressures, we are not the cheapest bearings supplier by any means, so we have to ensure a total offering over the product's lifecycle that is more cost effective than the competition. It's about offering the customer better value over the complete product lifecycle, rather than winning business simply on price alone."

Hartigan advises that other manufacturers must understand more about their customer's business and their particular design issues. In the automotive sector, this way of working is now almost a given. "If you don't work in this way," she says, "you simply would not survive."

INA FAG has technical expertise in most relevant product and industry sectors. Each sector has its own 'expert' managers and engineers, who provide essential skills and experience in solving design and application issues for customers.

Another excellent example of INA FAG's attempts to get closer to its clients, is an innovative software offering that was recently introduced to UK customers, the 'Bearing Calculation Service'. This allows a more in-depth analysis than a CD-ROM programme and, unlike other software available on the market, considers the whole drive system, not just the rolling element bearings.

It works like this. Following a detailed discussion with the specifier, the engineer at INA will construct a software model of the drive system in the form of a block diagram. This is followed by defining the drive elements, such as gears, and then assigning the operating data. Shaft geometries can then be determined and the positions of the bearings defined. Data for the bearings is loaded from a database and standard options for mountings, materials and lubricants are selected.

The 'BEARINX' software then creates a 3D virtual model of the drive system, which can be viewed and manipulated on-screen. Factors such as operating clearance, preload, tilting, edge stresses, elasticity values for the shaft and supporting table, lubrication conditions and contamination are all taken into account by the software.

Engineers can even use the software to undertake a parametric analysis, whereby key influential parameters such as bearing clearance and load position can be varied automatically within specified ranges. This helps the engineer understand how these factors interact, enabling recommendations to be made for optimising the design.

Tom Shelley

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