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The Art of Concurrent Engineering

“Concurrent engineering” is a term that some people may recognize. When I first began to study the discipline back in the 80s, it was at a time in our company when we were releasing products in rapid succession in order to provide many options based upon a core product.

The product had four option areas that allowed for a broader spectrum of utility. Frequency, bit rate, power, and modulation formats could all be mixed and matched to create any number of products that were widely in demand across our business sector. The basic product was a digital microwave telecommunications radio that would option to anywhere from a single T1 (1.544Mbit/s) to 28 T1s (672 channels).

We also created the same product for overseas where the T1 formats were substituted for E1. We offered high-power versions for longer-range microwave transmissions, and, in order to cover various industry sector operational frequency allowances, the carrier bands covered a large spectrum from 2.7GHz to 38GHz. Because our core product had all of the basic circuitry for the higher-level optioned products, we used a lot of new parts and modulation schemes to obtain our comprehensive scope of options.

After the initial product release from engineering to manufacturing, we discovered that we had failed to properly prepare the manufacturing side of our business for matters concerning production, test, burn-in, quality, materials, and most other aspects required by manufacturing to produce the end product. Engineering often heard the accusation that we were “throwing the product over the wall.” This just meant that manufacturing could not see what was coming and therefore had to scramble to determine what needed to be done to produce the product. If it sounds unfair, that's because it is unfair. More to the point, it was a horrible business practice. Enter concurrent engineering.

As a best-practice, concurrent engineering is an absolutely necessary requirement for preparation of new product introductions and engineering releases to manufacturing operations. Here is what concurrent engineering involves.

All products have a few things in common: materials, feature specifications, quality requirements, assembly processes, test procedures, artwork, mechanical and electrical specifications, and environmental operational performance minimums and maximums. Every item just listed has associated departments or individuals responsible to assure product availability and performance conformity.

When a product is thrown over the wall without regard to those who are on the receiving end, the company can expect a multitude of problems to arise. There will most definitely be serious delays in production and shipping requirements. But, if all engineering disciplines get all potentially impacted parties involved during the design and test process before the product is released, then the company has an excellent chance to produce a high-quality product that will ship on time.

Every design review during development should have key representatives from operations present. Purchasing needs a heads-up for long lead-time materials and new component requirements. If purchasing can begin volume negotiations early, then the extra negotiating time may serve the purpose of allowing identification and sourcing from multiple competitors that are offering the same components at different prices.

Manufacturing engineers can begin to build fixtures in anticipation of the new products. Test engineers can write software, and additional test equipment can be included in budget proposals. Programmers can prepare program stations. Materials planners can buy risk items and schedule production manpower in advance of the actual needs.

I could add to this list of practical outcomes easily, but for now, I wanted to communicate the advantages of an “early warning system” for products coming from engineering to manufacturing. The project or program manager, along with the engineering manager, should determine all who should be in attendance during both development schedule reviews and design reviews. During the actual release of the product to manufacturing, the individuals who attended the various development meetings should be in on the approval and routing for the release documentation.

The fewer surprises for the manufacturing people, the more efficient the transfer of the product and the more effective the production efforts. Concurrent engineering is a tremendous discipline that also ups the morale of the entire operation. Make a list of the people who will be involved or impacted by the product transfer and invite them to a design review that is not just technical in nature. I doubt that very many invitees would not want an early look at what will be their eventual responsibilities. Put a few large windows in the wall as soon as possible, and reap the benefits of a smooth and well executed transition.

5 comments on “The Art of Concurrent Engineering

  1. t.alex
    December 10, 2012

    This article provides a good overview of what is actually happening in the product making process. Many times R&D engineers throw stuff to the manufacturing side without knowing things in details. And then later they have to solve all sort of problems during the production run such as low yield rate or certain steps being too slow.

  2. Wale Bakare
    December 10, 2012

    I agree with you. The point is that, in-house good design work would only cut out any redo of work and increase efficiency, saving substantial amount of money for the company that's reason why engineers are hired for anyway.

  3. dalexander
    December 10, 2012

    @ALL, May I ask if any of the readers can respond to this issue? Is your company currently using the practice of concurrent engineering or are you still facing problems that good concurrent engineering procedures could have anticipated and resolved earliier in the R&D or NPI phases?

  4. _hm
    December 11, 2012

    I agree, concurrent engineering is an essential part of newproduct design. As you get more involved in this process, organization gets better profitability from that product.

     

  5. mike_at_DCA
    February 12, 2013

    The vast majority of manufacturers I work with implement this practice. Core teams that involve program management, manufacturing, procurement, engineering, quality, marketing and others as needed from the concept stage and step products through a coherent multi-phase product lifecycle process through manufacturing and – sometimes – end-of-life is a best practice that is commonplace…but not universal.

    It doesn't mean that problems no longer exist (they often do, in part because the implementation is imperfect), but it gives the company an approach and framework that enables resolving these sorts of problems and issues when they do arise.

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