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Upfront Engineering is Real Business

By Miles Parker

Miles ParkerThose who have been patient travelers on the boulevard called concurrent engineering have recently seen the pavement start speeding by at a breathtaking rate. Engineering software programs are running faster and smoother. Sophisticated design, analysis and manufacturing tools are pushing deeper into an upfront engineering process once centered largely on building basic CAD geometry.

This new convergence and integration of CAD/CAE/CAM tools is helping engineering transform from a "means-to-an-end" journey — aimed at getting products on shelves and into showrooms — to a real business strategy, with a clear avenue for addressing profitability at the point of design.

The goal of concurrent engineering has always been to drive everything as far upfront as possible. With product lifecycle management (PLM) vendors and specialized engineering firms striving to break down unproductive organizational silos and interlink departments and supply chains, it is becoming increasingly foolhardy for financial managers to overlook the role upfront engineering is playing — not only in driving innovation, but in attacking avoidable costs.

Tangible Results

Using process automation templates for CAD-to-finite element analysis (FEA)-to-CAD hand-offs, a major American automotive original equipment manufacturer (OEM) last year saved three to four weeks on an analysis of an oil filter adapter. For a cylinder head deck lift analysis, time used for model setup dropped from about two-and-a-half days to less than 30 minutes. Greater ease-of-use is helping analysts and designers improve quality and speed as they tackle new performance benchmarks.

Even quite exotic and complex FEA-related analyses, such as evaluation of composite structures, are becoming more integrated within the design process. Design optimization, margin-of-safety checking, and manufacturing analysis of composites can now be done in a loop that connects CAD, FEA, material selection and virtual design testing more quickly — and less manually — than ever before.

Results on a recent wind blade design showed up to 25% cuts in weight and 70% cost-to-manufacture improvements on individual ply drops. Moreover, the same tools have met NASA’s most stringent tests for space flight durability on an all-composite prototype space capsule.

The reach of upfront engineering is also touching production system operations in ways almost unimaginable a few years ago.

Process automation and design optimization in the steel and heat treating industries, for example, are allowing engineers to select configurations best suited to perform within a range of desired manufacturing behavior. Tool settings, materials and design geometry are all treated as an interrelated set of conditions. These customized information loops work from sensors and controls at the production level, and return data to the integrated CAD/FEA package for checking and re-analysis. Up to 40% improvement in yields has been reported. For such capital- and material-intensive industries, this is a huge business gain.

What’s Next?

Concurrent engineering, formed as a strategy in the mid-1980s, is now in its adolescence. The integrated all-digital development path associated with PLM is becoming more mature as a foundation for effective upfront engineering — where the most problems get solved and where the greatest opportunities arise.

We often think of the whole of design only in CAD-centric terms. However, the very core direction of a design can be formulated well before modeling, as information develops from teams with members as diverse as marketing and procurement. Someday, perhaps, design programs will offer feedback even as models are in the concept stage, with little detail beyond crude geometric shapes.

Boothroyd Dewhurst’s Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) methods and tools quantitatively guide decisions about basic features, material and process choices that live on into documentation, factory throughput, service, warranty and end-of-life costs. This approach sheds light on how early information can have an impact on the total organization.

Understanding engineering better as a causal process, with business cost implications at every feature and key stroke, is where the future is headed. Upfront engineering is real business.

Miles Parker is president of Parker Group in Providence, RI, and has observed and written about product development for more than 25 years. He can be reached at mparker@parkergroup.com.

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