Tapping Innovation for Process Improvement

Technology has had no small part to play in reshaping and resizing the supply chain at every level of its existence. In an earlier article, I talked about the inner department supply chain, where I suggested that department managers should look at their internal operations as links in their own supply chains. I also indicated I would write about the technologies that have shortened the individual inner link and between link execution times. (See: The Mini Supply Chain: Overlooked, yet Potent.)

I have been involved in the electronics industry for over 30 years and have seen the introduction of many hardware and software tools that have significantly affected R&D and manufacturing, product quantity, integrity, cost, process throughput, and quality of final products.

In 1984, I worked at a company that produced point-to-point microwave communication links. As a component engineer selecting parts and assemblies for optimal performance and costs, I became very familiar with RF, base band, IF, and digital and analog circuitry. Probably the most cutting-edge technology that was introduced into our systems was the design and implementation of programmable logic devices.

These configurable logic programs could be cut and pasted into higher and higher capacity parts saving countless hours of redesign time that would have been expended on next-generation products. What used to require months of design effort can now be quickly added to these off-the-shelf parts reducing design time by several orders of magnitude.

For mechanical design, there are numerous CAD programs that do much more than just draw the parts or assemblies. Various modeling tools are common to many CAD packages. By assigning material cost to material types, you can generate a cost versus materials study at the same time you are testing the part or assembly for various, preset motion and environmental stresses under anticipated, worst-case operational conditions.

The result is the designer is able to select the best materials for the job at the lowest cost while considering appearance, assembly processes, and manufacturing considerations. Now add 3D printers that are quickly becoming more versatile with the plastic, cellulose, and other print substances, and within hours, a physical model for assembly fit and interference evaluation can be produced.

By employing just these two linked design innovations, the product's time to market is highly accelerated. This allows for faster supply chain replenishment and an increase in the number of new products flowing into the supply chain. Demand creates supply, and supply creates demand. This is definitely the case with the latest and greatest consumer tech items becoming the necessities for living efficiently and smartly in our world today.

Now with the convergence of so many technologies, the supplier that will create a product that will interface with the greatest number of other related technologies will win the market share. I am happy to say that my tablet has 4G, wireless, and the best pixel resolution of any other tablet on the market today. I had the earlier version, but the manufacturer triggered my demand response by being able to supply what I did not even know I needed. How could it come out with this new version so soon after the previous version was released?

I guess it had the right inner- and inter-department tools and capabilities to hit the supply chain first with the most feature-rich, competitive product on the market today. The next time someone yanks your supply chain, be sure your inner company links are strong enough and sized correctly to take the strain of an ever-increasing demand pull.

7 comments on “Tapping Innovation for Process Improvement

  1. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 6, 2012

    Hi Douglas: I can see how this makes sense from the consumer standpoint–having all the best things together in one package. But I wonder how OEMs feel about this? Once technology becomes popular enough, doesn't every product start to use it? And if this is the case, don't products quickly become “generic?”

  2. dalexander
    August 6, 2012

    @Barbara, You would think everything is going to have 90% identical features as chips are increasingly integrated with higher and higher functions. What is going to differentiate RFID chips? What about GPS? What about FPGAs with same function cores? The company's own IP will be the big factor in continuing to make products unique, but I do believe that as we have seen in air play, bluetooth, 4G, etc., all the products using the same technology are advancing towards generic. When GPS devices used to be displayed in locked glass cabinets, now they are being sold on hooks in shrink wrap. My point is that what is special today, will be leapfrogged soon and won't be so special tomorrow. I gotta believe there is a finite point where either we run out of new functions, or we transition to another disruptive technology that starts a hosts of brand new products.

  3. prabhakar_deosthali
    August 7, 2012

    What these tools and process innovations are causing is a faster commoditization of electronic products, be it the pendrive, the blue-ray disks,the blue tooth dongles or even the smart phones. So the companies have to rely more on revenues from the services and not the products. 

    For customers this is a good news. The people who are ready to wait for a while after the new technologies are introduced get these so called cutting edge products at much lower prices.

    The side effect of this is a lot of unnecesary e-waste is being created becuase a cutting edge product becomes commodity soon and an obsolete product sooner.

    The proccess innovations in the supply chain will definitely make the supply chains more agile and adapt to the fast changing product lines.

  4. dalexander
    August 7, 2012

    @prabhakar, Great observations and comments! I completely agree that service is going to be a major factor.

  5. Barbara Jorgensen
    August 7, 2012

    Douglas: Agreed. It is against the best interests of the OEM to do this, yet it seems inevitable. So there is a cap to Moore's Law (sorta).

  6. dalexander
    August 7, 2012

    @Barbara, if we use our imaginations and consider what the ultimate in must have gadgetry for mobile applications, we will have some idea as to what the future looks like. It will be hands free. It will be small with built into head gear displays. It will be universal in medium. It will be affordable. It will be tied into all other equipment we have at home. It will be wearable. It will be secure. It will be voice actuated, and it will look good, and it will be mandatory because it will be keyed into our DNA or retina, and will also serve as our government required ID like a license does today.

  7. Ariella
    August 7, 2012

    @Douglas it could be even smaller than that. There are now sensors no bigger than a grain of sand that can be swallowed, allowing them to transmit information about the body to a cell phone held by your doctor miles away.

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