The key is re-using your knowledge

Lean thinking is as applicable to improving engineering design efficiency and innovation as it is to transforming production operations. Dr Tom Shelley looks at processes and systems that work

Lean thinking is as applicable to improving engineering design efficiency and innovation as it is to transforming production operations. Dr Tom Shelley looks at processes and systems that work

Lean thinking, as in the popular production improvement methodologies, is every bit as applicable to improving sales engineering and engineering design and development. The systems are different but the thinking is identical – and two of the keys to success are knowledge re-use and automation.
For example, by storing modular designs that can be mixed and matched, and integrating those with systems that automate the generation of quotations, and then also 3D models and BoMs (bills of materials) that can be used to directly produce tools, moulds or parts, enlightened businesses are totally transforming themselves.
What’s more, it isn’t just the automotive majors, with an all singing, all dancing PLM (product lifecycle management) systems that are doing this: it’s also small design consultancies, medium sized manufacturing companies, and even one man bands. What matters is carefully thinking through the issues and possibilities, and then choosing the right software tools to support the new processes – and that means devoting some time to learning the art of the possible and changing established cultures.
One of the most dramatic ways in which re-use of knowledge embedded in software saves time and money is in the automated generation of quotations. The technology to do this has been around for at least the last decade, but it’s surprising how often it simply is not used. For very many companies, preparing quotations is still extremely time and consuming – and indeed time wasting if the business then doesn’t materialise.
Many manufacturers use Microsoft Excel spreadsheets for parts of the task, but there are limits. A better solution for small or even some larger businesses is to go for packages such as Quantum, produced by Beaumont Computer Services in Newmarket. Quantum uses a product and materials database that links to AutoCAD drawings and incorporates a reporting capability based on Crystal Reports to generate BoMs and other documentation. It provides a common repository of information and can also automatically generate parts lists, estimates and quotations.
And there are other similar systems, albeit with different emphasis and scope, such as those from Data Dialogs and DriveWorks – the latter offering knowledge-based engineering for SolidWorks users – that enable lean thinking to be cemented into the sales engineering and engineering design and development phases.
But there are other ways too. Walter Mantsch, chief information officer at KSM Castings in Hildesheim, says his company can now generate quotations “in minutes instead of hours,” making use of templates within its Agile PLM system. But the process doesn’t stop there.
KSM makes light alloy pressure die castings for blue chip customers including Daimler Chrysler, Volkswagen and BMW at six plants, five in Germany and one in the Czech Republic. Mantsch says the usual process begins with discussions between the customer and KSM engineers about the design of the part. Following quotations, the design may have to be refined in light of finite element analysis using Merlin software, supplied by Instron, and mechanical testing. All that means that an easy part may take three months before it finally goes into production, while one that he describes as more difficult, such as part of a vehicle chassis, may take from one to two years.
If you’re looking for ingenuity though, look no further than Newton Aycliffe-based Roman Showers. Steve Belcher, design manager, says his small design team, with its four seats of SolidWorks, can design a bespoke shower enclosure and come up with a price in 10 to 15 minutes. The key here is designing products that consist of modular elements that can be mixed and matched, as well as of adopting modular design and using the configuration tables facility within SolidWorks. BoMs are then produced automatically.
You might think that shower enclosures stalls are low technology but nothing could be farther from the truth. They have to be reliable and not leak when misused in a hot water environment over a period of years, and manufacturers have to come up with new designs and concepts to titillate customers in a ferociously competitive market. The company makes extensive use of its single seat of Cosmos to verify the mechanical integrity of its designs before committing to manufacture.
There are many aspects to this. For example, the company started making shower trays using GRP moulds but found they took three weeks per mould. Now it machines an epoxy-based material on a CNC milling machine it bought especially for this purpose. The moulds are produced using data taken directly from the 3D system, using tools in SolidWorks with EdgeCAM. First production moulds were produced in February, and the goal for total mould manufacturing time is now one week.
The design part of the process now takes just three hours, and Belcher claims overall design output from his department has increased 100% with only a 25% increase in staff during the last nine months. He doesn’t pretend it was achieved without pain: the company initially used other CAD and visualisation packages, before switching to SolidWorks. One of the attractions of SolidWorks is its integral ability to rapidly visualise in 3D for design review before committing to capital expenditure.
Loosely lean, but on another continent, Santa Cruz Bicycles, a 43-strong California-based maker of upmarket mountain bikes, recently applied software to analyse and more quickly exploit another good idea that in this case doubled its revenues.
Santa Cruz produces full suspension bikes for use in competitive events. While these deliver great control when travelling over rough ground at high speed, their performance can be compromised on uphill climbs. The company solved the problem by adopting a now patented idea, the virtual pivot point. This turns out to be an example of an innovative use of the four bar chain, well known to engineers because of the almost limitless number of variations.
Because of the complexity involved in optimising the idea, the company hired engineering director David Earle to develop it. He decided that the Santa Cruz’s CAD facilities were inadequate to model the behaviour of the suspension, so evaluated SolidWorks, AutoCAD and Unigraphics before plumping for Pro/Engineer. Says Earle: “What used to take seven hours now takes five minutes. With that time saving, engineering was able to gain an additional 415 minutes per simulation. That time was used to further refine the suspension system to levels previously impossible.”
The bottom line is that despite competition from low cost manufacturers overseas, the company has been able to make its suspension as good as it possibly can be in a very limited time frame. As a result, an exceptional new bike, dubbed the Blur, got to market on-time, in optimum form and nearly doubled company revenue in a single year.

Tom Shelley

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