Automating Rapid Product Development
Our industry experts let us in on what role automation plays in rapid product development.
Todd Grimm, Accelerated Technologies, Inc. (Hebron, KY)
Automation may not be the right word. For me, automation implies that the human aspect is removed from the process - and this is something that will not happen in product development. In the terms of technology assistance, I think that collaboration tools and knowledge bases have a strong potential to improve the process. Using these software tools will allow the product development professional to quickly gather intelligence on what works and what doesn't. Minimizing the time to collect this information then allows efficient use of the product development cycle to pursue powerful ideas fueled by both data and human intuition.
To utilize these tools, there must be major changes in processes, cultures and individual perceptions. For example, if valuable information is hoarded under the guise of job security, collaboration and knowledge sharing will never work. The tools are there, and more are coming, but it is up to companies, departments and individuals to make the changes that will allow them to positively impact the product development process.
Preston Smith, New Product Dynamics (Portland, OR)
I presume that the type of automation intended is automation of the design process. Much has been done in conventional CAD systems to automate certain parts of designs, for instance, tolerance stack-ups and interference checking. These are tasks that the computer can handle much faster and more reliably than can humans. Not only do you save design time, but you also eliminate last-minute delays when mistakes could show up in final assembly.
Your competitors have these tools too, so real competitive advantage comes from going beyond them to automate parts of the design of your particular product that are labor- or time-intensive but do not contribute to your competitive advantage. As an example, Cummins Engine Company (Columbus, IN) - a designer and manufacturer of diesel engines - discovered that certain parts of its engines - such as flywheels - had to be redesigned often but did not add pizzazz to its product. Consequently, they automated flywheel design entirely. An engineer enters a few dozen parameters that completely defines that flywheel, and the Cummins Automated Flywheel Designer produces drawings and CNC tapes without further human intervention. This frees Cummins' designers to concentrate their effort where it will count in the marketplace, thus producing a highly competitive product in less time. It is this type of customized tools that go beyond what your competitors can buy off of the shelf that gives you a substantial cycle-time advantage.
Terry Wohlers, Wohlers Associates, Inc. (Fort Collins, CO)
Years ago, we learned that organizations should simplify, integrate and automate, in that order. Many companies picked up on this common-sense approach, but many did not. Today, an alarming number of companies get caught up in the sizzle of new technology and try to use it to solve their problems. They tend to automate for the sake of automation and fail to examine some of the basic elements of their operation. Big mistake.
About a decade ago, some believed that simplifying their methods and processes could yield savings in time and cost. In some cases, it resulted in gains of 50 to 70 percent. Furthermore, they found that integrating people and systems inside and outside of the organization could reduce time and cost an additional 20 to 40 percent.
Automation was the next step. When applying it at the right time and in the right place, they realized further gains, but only in the 10 to 30 percent range. This has changed over time due to improvements in hardware and software, but it's not dramatically different than it was 10 years ago. So, if you work at a company that is caught up in the sparkle of shiny new automation products, first consider the need to simplify and integrate before you drop cash on technology and expect big returns from it.