APICS is the premier professional association for supply chain management.

Prototypical Situations

By Jonathan Thatcher, CSCP | September/October 2013 | 23 | 5

Following R&D’s lead to improve speed to market

Reader K.S. writes, “Our management wants to accelerate lead times for new products from prototype to first article. We are evaluating a design for-manufacturing approach that can support our operational environment. What do you think of this plan? Can it be applied to the supply chain?”

You stand before a beautiful new prototype made by your company’s research and development (R&D) team. Management loves the breakthrough and asks production to mass-produce the item. The production team is unsure they can do the job profitably. The CEO says, “R&D hit the bull’s-eye with this prototype. Why can’t we do the same on the production floor?”

The answer is simple: R&D environments have a rich array of tools, options, and talent made specifically for invention. In contrast, a production facility must be a lean, efficient asset primarily designed to produce, not invent. It requires a strong approach to processes, skills, quality assurance, suppliers, forecasts, amounts of inventory, and other critical variables to place a prototype into production. However, many organizations lack a well-defined function that can help develop these tasks—one that begins with R&D output and ends with optimized supply chain and operations management.

Designing for processes
Fortunately, this is a growing area of interest. One driver is better recognition of costs: The majority of a product’s manufacturing expenses are determined by design choices, with production decisions responsible for only a small percentage. Another factor is advances in computing technology, including computer-aided design, computer-aided manufacturing, computer-numerical-control machining, and digital components replacing complex analog components. Prototyping is becoming faster and more accessible, and many of the ideas once seen as core to R&D are finding their way into multiple platforms, enhancing collaboration with enterprise resources planning systems and the like.

These advances also have helped standardize the design review process. During design review, an engineer sends plans or models to the production team for evaluation and feedback. An increasing number of concepts are helping to add structure to the review, including design for manufacturing, design for assembly, and design for remanufacturing. These “design for” concepts feature a general list of guidelines and preferences known in advance to all participants, such as

  • preference for standardized components 
  • minimizing total part count 
  • greater use of multi-use or multi-function parts
  • using parts that are easy to work with and that minimize production or assembly errors.

Prototype maps can help evaluate your progress. For example, once a prototype is complete, you would create a tool map, noting the tools needed at each stage of assembly and considering what additional items would help ensure scalable production with high quality and little product variation. Then, you would apply a similar approach to a map of components or production processes and skills. These maps facilitate a common understanding between R&D and production teams. They also encourage the exploration of lean methodologies as a continuation of product R&D.

Still, you may run into challenges. For example, a prototype can be too complex to manufacture, even with the use of prototype maps. One potential solution would be to produce multiple versions of the prototype or of certain problematic sections, making a bit of progress in each iteration. Additional challenges include unexpectedly high production expenses or a competitor releasing a similar offering, forcing you to differentiate your product. Work your way down to a handful of strategic issues, and make recommendations to senior management for approval.

As your organizational skills increase, you might decide to take on additional “design for” projects, such as design for six sigma, design for minimum engineering change disruption, and design for mass customization. Perhaps, one day, you will even perform a design for supply chain process.

Earning partner trust, forming a joint supply chain strategy, and providing benefits to the value chain currently fall outside the scope of many R&D processes. Partner relationships tend to be complex, particularly where supply chain partners serve both your firm and competing organizations. This area likely will benefit from advanced computing technology and big data, which make it easier to evaluate the various risks, opportunities, uncertainties, and protections. With some education and effort, your work in this area hopefully will result in a real payoff in terms of speed to market.

Jonathan Thatcher, CSCP, is director of research for the APICS professional development division. He may be contacted at askapics@apics.org.

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