Mavericks of Engineering Change

EngineeringChangeThere’s just a bit of hot-dogging going on in engineering these days and engineering change is right at the center of it all. Change is often regarded as the one guaranteed constant in engineering design. So it should come as no surprise that change is also central to cost and execution. Projects that execute well, handle change well. Those that struggle, often do so under the relentless weight of compounding change. As new Computer Aided Design (CAD) technologies continually accelerate the capability to change, pressure mounts to execute as fast as the technology will allow. Friction is growing as the simple ability to make a change increasingly outpaces the ability to manage change. They have a need. A need for speed.

Let’s look at Exhibit A: Part Interchangeability, a discussion I started a while back with One Revision to Rule Them All. Why, after all these years of well understood engineering change process, are so many getting wrapped around the control tower with respect to part interchangeability? Let’s look at the two pieces involved: the CAD system itself needed to update geometry and documentation and the change process likely managed in some combination of Product Data Management (PDM), Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software technologies.

Since its adoption, CAD technology, has arguably accelerated the capacity to execute a design change by at least three orders of magnitude. The first wave of improvement came with the initial adoption of CAD over manual board drawings, allowing a substantial change that might have taken just inside of a week, to instead be accomplished the same day. The second wave brought product structure and robust parameterization, reducing most changes to mere hours.   Most recently, reinvented direct editing technologies that play nice in larger parameterized contexts can reduce many changes to a matter of minutes. So the Mavericks of engineering see a need for a change and they go after it sometimes at the expense of best judgment with respect to interchangeability. Then when it’s time to push it through the system, what do they get? Negative, Ghost Rider, the pattern is full.

The friction arises in how to define “significant” change and when to disturb the larger system with cascading rolling part numbers that to this day, are largely not automated. With regard to Form, Fit, Function- and “significant” change, the definition of significant is almost always trouble. The problem is very few changes are truly insignificant, and sometimes what seems a safe assumption later results in a defect or failure rate that defines that change as very much non-interchangeable. Covering those scenarios requires overlaying effectivity models, lot numbers and myriad other solutions that multiply complexity and cost. Complicating things further, the problem cascades from not only the detail part where the change occurred, but where to draw the line as you traverse product structure up to the end item level. Often arbitrary cutoffs of interchangeability (used to reduce the churn on product structure to manageable levels) also cause problems. The whole thing can be overwhelming even to the most diligent of cultures. For smaller manufacturers especially, where staffs are small and schedules tight, this all might seem insurmountable, and you see quite a few brute force compromises. And if you screw up just this much, you’ll be flying a cargo plane full of rubber dog poo out of Hong Kong!

So it’s really easy to generate a bunch of changes and not know which end is up, especially if the handoff to the ERP side is not clean. Oleg Shilovitsky in a bit of a back-and-forth blog discussion we’ve been having, sums it up nicely as usual:

“Complexity of two lifecycle management is a key problem in part management in PDM. It is hard to combine part lifecycle including interchangeability rules and effectivity with proper management of CAD documents. The user workflows are getting complex and engineers are having hard time to use the system. While the reality of manufacturing is that both documents and parts need to managed in an appropriate way, PDM vendors facing real challenges to get efficient Part Management processes in place”

So the PDM/PLM/ERP side of change has been outpaced by CAD. The benefit of CAD evolution is being throttled from only a single order of magnitude improvement in the systems that manage the change process. Most of this existing improvement comes simply from transforming the classical engineering processes into electronic step-for-step equivalents. Precious little other evolution has occurred.

Chad Jackson, captured this perfectly in a recent blog about how the time has come and gone for the classical Engineering V model:

“The reality of today’s engineering and development process is one that is characterized by continuous, progressive and pervasive activities. The activities occur constantly, from concept to design release and beyond. They are progressive in that they mature over time, reusing work from prior activities. They are pervasive in that they occur at every level of the product, from the top level systems all the way down to the smallest part. And none of this is represented by today’s engineering V model.”

He concludes:

“As radically new technologies are being incorporated into our products, design and engineering needs to evolve.”

There’s certainly opportunity here for something new. This is what I call a target-rich environment.