Saturday, April 30, 2022

Manufacturing from the Start

In April 2011, in my first couple weeks at work with the company I would spend seven and a half years with, I had a Webex meeting with myself (at the time the finite element structural analyst), the design engineer, and the manufacturing engineer for a particular welded assembly. I was presenting the results of my analysis, and then we would talk about next steps to try and optimize the structure to have a higher life, lower weight, and easier welding and assembly. The manufacturing engineer attended hundreds of meetings over the next four years before we actually started production of that particular item and many other similar items in January 2015. You should have heard the arguments over how big the internal access holes had to be!

I had forgotten about this experience until recently, and it struck me how talking about manufacturing so early in the design phase helped avoid future problems. I think for anyone reading this they will say "of course", but I wasn't actually able to articulate that until just recently. I remember one day back in 2011 recommending 25 mm thick steel plates for a component, and the manufacturing engineer essentially said no, 20 mm was the max thickness unless there was a really really good reason. In this case we found a way to use thinner plates.

In April and May of 2013 we built 24 prototype machines for this program, and we found major issues left and right! There were a lot of young engineers on the program and we simply didn't know any better. Looking back it had to be one of the best learning experiences for a 25-29 year old new engineer to be able to make mistakes and then have time to correct them.

However, also looking back we did a lot of things really right. Having a manufacturing representative involved in the structural analysis discussions two years before building prototypes and four years before the start of production laid a lot of good groundwork for designs that were structurally sound and not excessively difficult to manufacturer. For example, we did a lot of welding plates together, and had welding robots, so we optimized the design of joints for the welding robots. I was thinking about this because I was recently part of an issue that in hind sight we should have thought about before we encountered it. And frankly, it's a wildly different scenario holistically from the 2011 through 2015 manufacturing story, so it's not an apples to apples comparison. Still the recent issue was embarrassing and humiliating to me personally because I realized that it was totally possible to get ahead of the issue, if we had simply thought about it two years ago.

This is part of a larger arc that I'm articulating my way through. How do you go from nothing into something? How do you see a market need, and then put out a physical product in volume to meet that need? At some point in the future I'll go into depth on systems engineering, because that's pretty underrated. For today the lesson is include manufacturing early, even when you might not think to, like on structural analysis result discussions well before the first parts get made. I think it's probably faster to iterate with more people in the room than it would be to iterate on one aspect of a design at a time (strength of the part, manufacturing of the part, etc.) in series.

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