How to reduce product design & engineering cycle times by up to 75% in 30 days

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In this article, I’m going to show you how managers of product design or engineering teams at manufacturing companies can reduce cycle times by up to 75% in less than 30 days by implementing closed-loop, objective-driven conversations.

Is this article for me?

It’s worth spending 10 minutes reading this article if you or your team:

  • Manage a design or engineering team
  • Need to coordinate a lot with different teams (eg sales, operations, quality, vendor, customer, leadership)
  • Feel that they often get the wrong or insufficient inputs/feedback
  • Find it hard to drive accountability across different internal teams
  • Find that design or engineering often takes longer than it should
  • Find it hard to trace historical design & engineering decisions
  • Are able to make or recommend changes to their processes for the better

It doesn’t matter how big your company is or what systems you are currently using!

First, a bit about me

My name is Ben Merton, and I’m the CEO of Unifize (more on that later). 

I have spent most of my career running my own manufacturing businesses in various countries around the world. Most recently, I ran a manufacturer of custom industrial enclosures for the power, automation and telecom segments. My co-founder, Lakshman, ran a manufacturer of processed foods (snack pellets).

We both faced a tonne of challenges managing engineering and product design activities in these companies, and we started Unifize to solve them.

Part 1: The Problem

Product design & engineering teams spend up to 85% of their time on non-value added activities.

Let me be clear, I’m not saying your team isn’t working.  I’m saying that they are spending up to 7 hours a day working stuff like this:

  • Emailing
  • Waiting for responses
  • Following-up
  • Internal meetings
  • Transferring data
  • Seeking approvals
  • Setting up meetings
  • Coordinating between teams
  • Updating the PDM/PLM
  • Preparing reports

That leaves only an hour to focus on the core value-added processes, including:

  • Understanding feedback / inputs
  • Formulating ideas / brainstorming
  • Defining objectives
  • Feasibility studies
  • Creating prototypes / designing
  • FMEA / testing
  • Creating design & manufacturing specs
  • Completing Engineering Change Requests
This isn’t your fault. This happens because it’s really hard to get visibility and drive accountability across design & engineering processes because everything is scattered across different email inboxes, software systems and meeting minutes.
Isn’t this true for any process? Not really...

In the chart above, you can see that the simple, linear process you think you are following is actually much more chaotic in practice!

Product design and engineering processes are different because they: 

  • Require context and creativity, concepts that are inherently human.
  • Are highly iterative in nature, meaning they can’t just be squeezed into a database or ERP/PLM.
  • Require more than one individual or team to complete one stage of each of the processes.
  • Can’t be automated.

Therefore, they are therefore inherently collaborative processes.

How are collaborative processes different from regular processes?

Regular processes tend to be predictable:

For example, a manufacturing process has raw material that comes in and finished product that comes out.

It’s fairly easy to predict the resources you need for a regular process, specifically the number and type of people you may require and the machines or other infrastructure you need to complete the process.

For these reasons, regular processes can be managed or tracked in an ERP/PLM or some other database software because the input and output variables are known.

On the other hand, collaborative processes tend to be unpredictable

  1. Unpredictable inputs –  e.g. you can’t predict the feedback you will get from your customers.
  2. Unpredictable process – e.g. you can’t predict exactly how you will design a prototype to an new idea.
  3. Unpredictable outcomes – e.g. you can’t predict the change requests you will get for a new product.
  4. Unpredictable resources – e.g you don’t know what materials or processes are required for a new product until you’ve completed the entire process. What’s more, ad hoc teams need form and disband at different stages of the engineering process, making it hard to predict the exact manpower resources needed to design and engineer products.

Now, you can try to track collaborative processes in an ERP/PLM or some other database-driven system, but the actual work will still get done over email, in meetings, and on the phone.

That’s why they are really hard to measure!

To illustrate this point, let’s take a look at a real world example.

If you try doing a time study of the last time you closed out a non-conformance or complaint with a proper root cause and corrective action, it might look like this:

 

Process Step

Tools

Teams

VA

NVA

1

Gather feedback / inputs

Email/chat, excel

Sales, marketing, service, engineering

 

2

Clarify/categorise feedback / inputs

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Sales, marketing, service, engineering

 

3

Feedback review

Meeting

Engineering, leadership

 

4

Create a project/work order

Excel/PLM/ERP/Proj. Mgmt

Engineering

 

5

Understand requirements

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Vendor, quality, production

 

6

Brainstorm concepts

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering,leadership

 

7

Coordinate teams for concept discussion

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering, leadership, operations

 

8

Clarify questions or responses

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering, leadership

 

9

Update project/work order

Excel/PLM/ERP/Proj. Mgmt

Engineering

 

10

Coordinate feasibility review

Email, phone call

Engineering, prodn, quality, vendor

 

11

Complete feasibility review

Meeting, email/chat

Engineering, prodn, quality, vendor

 

12

Incorporate feasibility feedback

Meeting, email/chat

Engineering, prodn, quality, vendor

 

13

Update project/work order

Excel/PLM/ERP/Proj. Mgmt

Engineering

 

14

Follow up with costing team for BOM

Email, phone call

Engineering, costing

 

15

Receive BOM and update project/work order

Email, Excel/PLM/ERP/Proj. Mgmt

Engineering

 

16

Ask clarifications on BOM

Email, phone call

Engineering, costing, vendor mgmt

 

17

Follow up for responses on BOM

Email, phone call

Engineering, costing, vendor mgmt

 

18

Identify vendors

PLM/ERP/Google

Engineering, vendor mgmt

 

19

Start discussions with vendors

Email, phone call

Engineering, vendors

 

20

Define production bill of activities

Excel

Engineering, production engg

 

21

Follow up with vendors for quotes

Email, phone call

Engineering, vendors

 

22

Consolidate BOM and cost product

Email, phone call

Engineering, costing

 

23

Set up pricing discussion

Phone call, email/chat

Engineering, leadership

 

24

Finalize pricing

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering, leadership

 

25

Update project / work order

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering

 

26

Complete the designing/modelling

CAD

Engineering

 

27

Create prototype manufacturing specs

CAD, paper

Engineering

 

28

Release tooling details

Email, paper

Engineering, production/vendor

 

29

Clarify tooling questions

Email

Engineering, production/vendor

 

30

Monitor tooling production

Email, paper/pen, chat

Engineering, production/vendor

 

31

Release prototype drawings

CAD, paper

Engineering, production/vendor

 

32

Monitor prototype production

Email, paper/pen, chat

Engineering, production/vendor

 

33

Take feedback from production/quality

Email, paper/pen, chat

Engineering,production/vendor, quality

 

34

Set up design review

Phone call, email/chat

Engineering, prdn, leadership

 

35

Complete initial design review

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering, prdn, vendor, quality

 

36

Discuss feedback with leadership

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering, leadership

 

37

Incorporate changes into design

CAD

Engineering

 

38

If necessary, update the BOM/Pricing

Excel, PLM/ERP

Engineering, costing, leadership

 

39

If necessary, repeat prototype

CAD, paper

Engineering, production/vendor

 

40

Complete testing

Email, CAD, paper

Engineering, testing

 

41

If testing fails, repeat prototype

CAD, paper

Engineering, production/vendor

 

42

Final design review and sign off

Meeting, phone call, email/chat

Engineering, leadership

 

43

Update project / work order

Excel/PLM/ERP/Proj. Mgmt

Engineering

 

44

Release detailed manufacturing specs

CAD, paper

Engineering

 

45

Plan production

Excel/PLM/ERP/Proj. Mgmt

Engineering, planning

  ✓

46

Hand off bought-out specs to vendor team

Excel, PLM/ERP, Email

Engineering, vendor team

 

47

Define quality documentation

Excel, QMS, Paper

Engineering

 

48

Hand off to QC & answer questions

Email, meeting

Engineering, quality

 

49

Hand off to sales/marketing team

Email, meeting, CAD

Engineering, marketing

 

50

Monitor first production batch

Email, paper/pen, chat

Engineering, production/vendor

 

51

Release first batch to customer for review

Email, phone call, meeting

Engineering, sales/marketing, customer

 

52

Get initial customer feedback / comments

Email, phone call, meeting, paper

Engineering, sales/marketing, customer

 ✓

 

53

Receive & clarify engineering change requests

Email, phone call, meeting

Any department

 

54

Create/approve engineering change note

PLM/ERP, email, meeting

Engineering, leadership

 

55

Complete engineering change note

PLM/ERP, email, CAD

Engineering

 
 

Total

10 different tools

12 different teams (40 people)

15%

85%

Do you see what is going on here:

A.  10 different tools to manage this process, meaning you’ll likely face a visibility problem trying to keep on top of things because everything is in so many different systems.  Other signs you face a visibility problem are as follows:

    • Too many meetings
    • Too much data transfer
    • Too many siloes
    • Not knowing who is doing what, where, when and why

B.  12 different teams (comprising 40 people) that are constantly changing at each stage of the process, meaning you’ll face an accountability problem because it’s so hard to assign ownership to each stage of every process.  Other signs you face an accountability problem are as follows:

    • Deadlines slipping
    • Constant follow-ups
    • Too many CCs
    • Email ping pong

C.  85% of the steps are non-value addition activities, meaning you have an efficiency problem.  Other signs you face an efficiency problem are as follows:

    • Incomplete processes
    • Wasted resources
    • Long cycle times
    • Frustrated customers
So, let’s see how waste manifests in these collaborative processes?

We need to modify lean principles to take a look at waste in collaborative processes like engineering and product design.  In this case, we’ve reinterpreted the eight sources of waste as follows:

  • Motion:  Data transfer between different systems (eg email, Excel, PLM/ERP)
  • Over-production:  Excessive meetings
  • Defects:  No change
  • Inventory:  Processes left incomplete (eg concepts, prototypes, change requests)
  • Transportation:  Too many emails / ccs / notifications
  • Waiting:  Unaccounted delays
  • Non-utilized talent:  Too many people at each step
  • Extra-processing:  Cumbersome processes & approvals
  •  

Part 2: Three steps to improve the efficiency of your product design & engineering processes

If you want to reduce these sources of waste in your product design or engineering processes, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Create visibility:  Bring all collaborative process activities in one place
  2. Improve accountability:  Assign ownership for each step of a collaborative process
  3. Increase efficiency: Measure non-value addition activities in real-time

Step 1:  Bring all collaborative process activities into one place

In order to bring collaborative process activities into one place, your solution needs to be able to do the following:

  1. Enable collaboration around processes:  Humans bring creativity and context through collaboration.  Your processes depend on this. Don’t try to suppress this.
  2. Ensure the system integrates with email:  Many internal and external teams won’t come onto your system.  Ensure you choose something that works well with email.
  3. Make data collection collaborative:  Your system should help people to collaborate around gathering data, rather than imposing rigid databases and rules.
  4. Enable first, manage later:  Get buy-in from your team/users to find out whether it actually makes their work easier or is seen as ‘extra work’.

     

Step 2:  Assign accountability for each step of the collaborative process

In order to assign accountability for each step of a collaborative process, you need to be mindful of the following:

  1. Don’t over-structure your processes:  Collaborative processes are inherently human and variable.  Rigid structures suffocate creativity and collaboration.
  2. Democratize accountability:  Make accountability transparent and negotiable to ensure that it actually works.
  3. Get broad participation:  Don’t restrict participation to team leadership or to particular departments.
  4. Ensure only the right teams are involved:  Broad participation does NOT mean everyone on every process…eliminate the ccs and unnecessary notification.

     

Step 3:  Measure non-value addition activities in real-time.

In order to measure and reduce waste in your collaborative processes in real-time, you’ll need to do the following:

  1. Create a single thread for each process:  Your tool should be able to visualize for every single activity for each instance of every collaborative process.
  2. Measure actual wasted time:  Your tool must measure non-value addition time from the underlying activity data in real-time.
  3. Ensure your analysis can be audited:  You can increase trust in the data and get buy-in from your team if the data is transparent and auditable.
  4. Respect your people:  Reducing wasted time can worry some people.  Focus on improving average response times and not individual delays.

Part 3: Potential solutions

Great, so what are my options?

You currently have three options:

  • Email / chat + spreadsheet
  • Email / chat + project management tool
  • Email / chat + ERP/PLM

Let’s take a closer look at these options.

Part 4: There's a better way

If you think those options are cumbersome, there’s an easier way...

We built Unifize specifically for product design and engineering teams at manufacturing companies.

It helps them increase visibility, accountability and efficiency by:

  • Bringing collaborative process activities into one place
  • Assigning accountability to each stage of the collaborative process
  • Measuring (and reducing) wasted activities in real-time

     

Specifically, Unifize enables users to do the following:

  • Collaborate from anywhere on simple-to-use, cloud-based mobile and desktop platform
  • Increase accountability with objective-driven conversations that have a defined status, owner and participants
  • Get visibility into all design & engineering activities with a real-time list of conversations mapped to every instance of every process
  • Reduce email ping pong and unnecessary follow-ups by bringing everyone into the right place to discuss specific objectives
  • Create an auditable, measurable trail of time-stamped activities relating to each objective
  • Make data collection easy & collaborative with customizable forms for each product design & engineering process
  • Get fast-track adoption by allowing users to collaborate on engineering objectives right from their inboxes.
  • Give managers a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in their organization without having to be involved in a single conversation
  • Get actionable insights about your engineering processes from customizable forms and dashboards

Is it easy to setup?
It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen or implemented before.  We can get you and your team up and running in less than an hour.  You can start seeing results by the end of the day!

Will this integrate into your other PLM / ERP or other software? 
Yes, of course. You don’t have to worry. It easily integrates into the most common tools you are already using.

How much did this cost to build? 
We spent $1M building and testing this suite over a period of 3 years.

Is there a free trial?
In addition to being free for up to 5 users, we can also give you a 30 day free trial if you need more users from the get-go.

What happens if it doesn’t work for you? 
We offer a 30-Day-Money-Back-Guarantee after your trial – just in case you sign up and don’t implement right away, or you are not experiencing positive results within 60 days. 

What if you don’t have budget for this solution?
This is a process efficiency solution. This means that when you use it, you will save time and money – it’s a tool that will give you an ROI. Think of it as an investment, not a cost. But we are giving you a free trial to try it out anyway, so you are not risking anything.  

Do you have to be technical to use this?
No. We designed the solution to make sure everyone is successful. We provide kick-off calls and support. Anyone who knows how to turn on their computer can use this product. 

How much time does this actually save us?
We have data showing we’ve been able to reduce collaborative process cycle times at manufacturing companies by 75%.  Think about that for a second….

What happens if this doesn’t work for you? 
If this doesn’t work for you, just get your money back – No harm no foul…

How should you present this to your boss / senior management?
Use the trial and bring them results, first. Lead with proof and save everyone’s time.

Let’s sum up this offer: 

  • Free for life for up to 5 users 
  • 30-Day-Trial
  • 30-Day-Money-Back-Guarantee After Trial (60 days risk-free) 
  • In-Depth Support 
  • No Contract (cancel anytime)
  • No Cancellation Charges

If you serve in a product design or engineering function at a manufacturing company and want to improve cycle times – and you want to work with experts – please book a call with us!

https://www.unifize.com/book-demo

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