Design and manufacturing in perfect harmony

10 August 2010

Design with manufacturing is not about the software or hardware, it is about having the forethought to work with production. The whole design process goes quicker, is less frustrating and gets product out faster

An oft-heard complaint in the world of design is that no matter how many design iterations, however many changes are made, it seems almost impossible to push an idea through engineering that doesn’t end up getting shredded on the production floor.

What should be a simple process becomes a waking nightmare for all involved. Perhaps it’s the demands of the manufacturing environment that is the problem - the schedule, the lead times, the overworked production manager who, like you, needs to spread his caffeine intake throughout the day and go home at a decent hour? But perhaps it is a more fundamental problem?

Perhaps the whole process has been broken?

You may remember a time when drawings were spread across a table with designers and manufacturers discussing the finer points, while lights flickered in unison with the sound of drill presses winding up. You designed with manufacturing, greased your hair with cutting oil, familiarised yourself with processes and made better decisions with each new design.

As projects got bigger, tasks were spread across more people and manufacturing wasn’t so close to the design function any more. Manufacturing was completely separated and became an afterthought to whatever model you had to render, meeting you had to attend and spreadsheet you had to format. Manufacturing was a bore.

For some, that separation was a relief. There can be a lot of unnecessary tension in an engineering production environment which can complicate things. As much as you may know about tolerances, thread depths, and material properties, there are always going to be limits to a shop’s ability to manufacture something. It may be because it only uses a certain supplier, only has a single bit size, or uses an inspector who has cataracts and a disturbing twitch.

Design can be limited by production, but knowing the limits can smooth out those fiery expectations. It took me nearly ten years to figure out that making something wasn’t me designing it, sending it off to production and forgetting about it.

The strange thing is; I started out in R&D design sitting right next to a CNC guy. I breathed aluminium shavings and cutting oil as the prints were coated with the same. Somewhere in between then and now it all became about what design, engineering and manufacturing could do within their annoyingly structured schedules.

So, scratch the schedules. Scratch when production is allowed to get the prints and provide feedback. Move straightaway, the day after the project starts, discussing the design with manufacturing, the materials, and familiarising yourself with what they can do.

Design with manufacturing. It’s not about the software, hardware or birthing brilliance into the double-shift of a manufacturing process after months of development. It’s about having the forethought to work with production. The whole design process goes quicker, is less frustrating, gets product out faster and best of all… when someone criticises what you’ve done, you can sit back and smile confidently when you hear them say, “You must be dreaming.” 

Josh Mings is a mechanical engineer in the aircraft interiors industry and the brains behind solidsmack.com. He sincerely wishes the inspector with cataracts and a disturbing twitch was just a figment of his imagination  
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Comments on this article:

A good way to get at how people really see this is to ask one simple question: "Is tolerance a design or manufacturing issue"? The way people answer this tells you a ton about how they see the design | manufacturing divide.

Posted by chris on Thursday 12 2010 at 12:52 PM

Interesting question Chris, my gut reaction is to say manufacturing but if I think it through some more I would have to say it's a design issue.

Posted by Kevin De Smet on Wednesday 25 2010 at 01:10 PM

A great article Josh. Understanding the manufacturing process and its limits from the start of the project is essential for good design. In fact probably THE most important thing.

Posted by Alex Jones on Wednesday 01 2010 at 12:12 PM

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