Six-Sigma, a procedure for improving processes and quality while reducing inefficiencies, has been incorporated into many manufacturers' corporate cultures. The idea is to improve profitability and cash-flow by reducing labor costs, reducing material costs, and improving customer satisfaction.
Six-Sigma for engineering-design processes has been neglected for 2 reasons:
- Needed technologies were either not available, very expensive, or too difficult to use - negating many of the benefits.
- Engineering-design is a creative process. Managers resist disrupting vital creative processes by introducing complex technologies and workflows into the process.
Engineering-design is the most important area to consider focusing your Six-Sigma improvements - to improve profitability and productivity. Here are 10 reasons why:
- Engineering Design is the 'first creation' of the eventually product. Identifying and eliminating design flaws and documentation errors at this stage is very inexpensive - compared to when flaws are discovered on the shop floor or by the customer in the form of a field failure.
- Technology has progressed to where traditionally complex tools are now much easier to use. For example, FEA (finite element analysis) software used to be very complex and expensive; companies would only have this technology if they could hire someone with an engineering doctorate to use the technology 80% of their time. Today, low-cost technologies make it easy for mechanical designers to set up and run simulations based on real-world input.
- Speed! Competition is continually forcing companies to reduce their delivery times - which can put incredible stress on the organization. Many engineering-processes are redundant. If design rules can be documented, they can and should be automated! My company helps customers do this. Stealth Concealment told us they now produce design drawings 10-times faster than before - 10 TIMES FASTER! Bauer Compressors said their productivity increased by a staggering 350% while reducing scrape by 50%! In view of the high and fast investment payback, why wouldn't everyone automating every engineering-design process they can?
- Communication problems results in delays to product delivery and difficulties in shop-floor scheduling. This is most noticeable with change-orders, which often are held up because role players were not notified in a timely manner. Other times, a change-order folder ends up on someone's desk - buried under other work; or worse yet, the person is out of the office for 3 weeks. Relatively inexpensive and simple-to-use technologies now exist to alleviate these issues while keeping intellectual property secure.
- Engineering models can be leveraged for use in sales and marketing. The concern from engineering-designers is that "Sales" will keep asking us to make pretty pictures and movies for them, and we just don't have time." Newer tech tools allow sales and marketing people to use engineering models on their own to create outstanding presentations. Of course, manufacturers must have 3D models that can be used and reused... which is important for the next point as well.
- "Manuals for a $90 DVD player at Wal-Mart are much better than our customer manuals," said the VP of Engineering for a company producing military safety equipment. Yikes! There are no longer excuses for this since newer tech tools allow for easy creation of dynamic customer manuals. Some technologies will automatically update the representations in the customer manual when engineering models are changed or updated.
- Factory design layouts traditionally are done in 2D AutoCAD. Newer technologies can provide intelligent 2D and 3D layouts almost as easily, and have tools to run simulations to determine the best configurations to minimize material travel time. Some technologies provide tools to allow you to quickly create a representation of factory buildings to check for interferences and determine how to make utility connections. Leveraging point-cloud data from scanned images is valuable in doing retrofits.
- Sustainable design is a hot topic, not only to satisfy consumer desires, but for profitability as well. The problem is that this requires experimentation with different materials. Again, newer tech tools allow for easier studies of various materials, while monitoring carbon footprint and energy consumptions. Why not start using these tools to provide customers with an additional great reason to buy from you?
- Better leverage the technology already owned! This is an area that might be difficult to identify by using traditional Six-Sigma methods, but can have a huge impact! The objective of technical training classes is to improve productivity by 20%, but even if your people only get a 5% increase, that equates to a $10,000 annual ROI per person (assuming the person uses the technology 100% of the time)! Is a $10,000 to $40,000 hard-dollar benefit worth a $1000 to $2000 investment? AutoCAD Mechanical is the best example of under-utilized technology, with most people using only the underlying AutoCAD; but applying AutoCAD Mechanical more fully can result in huge productivity increases.
- Competition! How are your products differentiated? If price is a main factor in winning business, profitability will continue to evaporate. To be profitable and grow, sales must always be about adding value. And how do you add value? Innovation - solving important customer problems that nobody thought could be solved! Today's technologies allow for product development time to be reduced by at least 50% compared to older methods, and can help to ensure that the first prototype is the best design.
Manufacturers all over are considering Six-Sigma for their engineering-design processes - including in developing countries. How do you get started? I recommend mapping out your current processes, starting with areas you suspect are the biggest bottlenecks.
Once you've identified some areas for improvement, consult with technology implementers to discuss what solution options are available, what other manufacturers are doing, and what can be realistically expected from potential solutions; as well as what landmines to avoid.
How do you choose the right technology implementers? Do not choose software companies, who obviously have a conflict of interest between your needs and selling their stuff. Independent consulting firms may seem like a logical choice, but they may not fully understand all the ins and outs of the many newer technologies available.
The recommendation is to choose a solutions-oriented VAR (value-added reseller) that leads with services and values long-term business relationships. They know and convey proper expectations of their technology offerings because they live or die based on whether their customers' expectations are set correctly. They also understand that the real value of applying technology tools is to improve processes in line with the Six-Sigma mindset.
For a more detailed look at Six-Sigma for engineering-design processes, I recommend the white-paper: "An Innovative Lean Six Sigma Approach for Engineering Design" from the International Journal of Innovation, Management and Technology, Vol. 2, No. 2, April 2011.