While most people who know me know that I do something in the automobile industry for a living, not many know what exactly is involved in designing a part and putting it into production. I could write an entire textbook that nobody would ever read on the process, but here’s a very condensed version, from the perspective of a supplier (understand that I’ve also been the customer… I know how it works from both perspectives):

1) Customer starts work on a new engine design. Here, there are two paths, A, and B, that the customer can follow:

A2) Customer invites key suppliers in at the early stages of the design, particularly specialty fields such as pumps/cooling systems (my field), and they collaborate on the design, protecting space for the various parts and all the related bits needed to let them work properly.

B2) Customer works in something of a self-imposed vacuum, unable to bring in specialists from suppliers as purchasing and/or upper management won’t allow it at this early stage in the program, or just unwilling to think that someone might know a specialty better than they do.

A3) Supplier is able to design parts that work as part of an integrated whole, with plenty of time for the inevitable revisions and adjustments, and the full measure of time to produce the first round of prototypes without resorting to expensive and risky overtime maneuvers.

B3) Supplier is brought in about 6-8 weeks before the first prototype parts are due, given a skeleton design missing just about every detail, some sketchy performance requirements, a completely unrealistic performance target (such as mechanical efficiency) they are required to meet, and a promise to buy 30 prototypes if they can just get them delivered by the material required date (MRD).

A4) The first round of prototypes are specified, modeled, quoted, and a PO is cut to cover the tooling & setup charges, as well as the piece cost for the end product, and there is a solid 8-12 weeks to actually produce the parts once the design is finished and approved.

B4) The first round of prototypes are quoted based on a sketchy preliminary design, there’s a substantial expediting fee, which the customer balks at, and design changes are dispensed to the tool shop almost hourly as the design rushes toward something finalized — only to have the customer demand a change AFTER the first parts are made that must be incorporated, necessitating substantial rework, resulting in ugly-looking pieces, and, oh-by-the-way, no, the MRD hasn’t slipped…

A5) Fully-tested prototypes are delivered, installed, and tested on the new engine. Design changes are suggested and implemented through the testing program, with successful ones incorporated into the 2nd-generation design, which started as soon as the design was frozen on the first one.

B5) Quickly-assembled-disassembled-modified-reassembled-and-finally-tested prototypes are delivered via overnight courier, where they sit on a shelf in the customer’s warehouse for 3 weeks over the holiday shutdown before being put onto an engine that doesn’t actually get completed and tested for another month due to other parts being late. Meanwhile, while revisions are underway for the 2nd generation design, most ideas are on hold pending testing of the 1st-gen version, which doesn’t actually start until about 24 hours before 2nd-gen design freeze, resulting in the 2nd generation of prototypes happening a lot like the first ones did.

A6) Usually, the 2nd-generation design is very close to production-intent. Quotes are prepared, POs are cut, and tooling & equipment is ordered.

B6) The misbegotten 2nd generation is as much of a question mark as the 1st gen was, but there’s no time left to test the fixes, so they’re thrown into a 3rd-gen design for production. Quotes are prepared, POs are delayed until it’s almost too late, and, if the supplier dares complain that start-of-production is being jeopardized by the delays, the part is re-sourced to a different company. If that doesn’t happen, the planned 26-50 weeks for tooling and equipment is compressed into less than 20 weeks.

A7) Pre-production parts are run, tested, the process is tweaked slightly, and production approval and sign-off are really a formality as production ramps up.

B7) Pre-production parts actually come off prototype tooling because the production tooling isn’t ready yet. Production starts on a deviation pending sign-off and approval, which may not happen for 6 months or more.

This whole process takes 3-4 years, by the way. What that means is that now, in 2006, I’m working on stuff that won’t see the light of day until at least 2009. No, I’m not naming names, or talking about any specific projects. After 16+ years in this game, I’ve got enough that each scenario above, A and B, are an amalgamation of many different programs where I’ve been either the supplier or the customer. As an engineer, I want to follow the A path whenever possible. And it’s sometimes possible to wrest a program off the B path and onto a lightly-modified A path if everyone is willing to work together toward the goal (and maybe buck the system a little bit in the name of expediency and efficiency).

Well, that’s enough of that for now.


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