Design for Manufacturing as a Knowledge Management Tool

Suprematist Composition (Kazimir Malevich, 1916)

In the first part of this two-part blog article, I discussed how two global high-tech manufacturing companies use validation tools to formalize and automate the design review process for downstream manufacturing, thereby reducing costly and time-consuming rework and engineering change orders, manufacturing defects, and costs.

In this article, I discuss the benefits of using formal manufacturability validation tools as a mechanism for best-practice knowledge capture and continuous improvement.

A Growing Manufacturing Knowledge Gap

Many design engineers lack theoretical and practical manufacturing process knowledge in well-established manufacturing disciplines such as injection molding, casting, and sheet metal fabrication. This gap is more pronounced in newer manufacturing processes that involve composite materials and additive manufacturing.

Of course, many product organizations employ veteran grey-haired manufacturing engineers and machine operators, but their experience is becoming an increasingly scarce commodity as aging workers are exiting the workforce. And as more design and manufacturing work is handed over from brand owners to suppliers, much of newly gained knowledge, both formal and informal, resides outside the product organization’s walls.

Most engineering organizations have not invested systematically in methods to capture and reuse manufacturing experience and best practices. Knowledge and experience tend to remain isolated and locked away within the business area where the learning takes place, and it is typically committed to the grey matter between engineers’ ears rather than in a discoverable and reusable form. And, to be sure, there are as many bad practices and erroneous routines that have become “best practices” over many years through habits and inertia and were never vetted and updated.

This business-critical knowledge gap continues to expand, as a large experienced workforce is leaving the workplace and as manufacturers are adopting newly emerging manufacturing methods. But unlike the manufacturing industry of yesteryears, relentless market and competitive pressures require product companies to adopt and master new manufacturing technologies in an extremely short period of time.

Slow organizational learning and poor transfer of manufacturing process and design for manufacturability knowledge and experience is yet another reason forward-looking companies adopt formal design for manufacturing practices, challenging a long-standing assumption that “engineering did things right.”

Design for Manufacturing as a Knowledge Management Tool

HCL’s DFMPro provides an environment to capture and formalize best practice knowledge.  A database of manufacturability rules represents aprioi knowledge curated from common industry best practices, handbooks, and industry associations recommendations in industrial manufacturing disciplines such as milling, injection molding, sheet metal fabrication, casting, and additive manufacturing.

As importantly, DFMPro’s rules base incorporates rules that aren’t related directly to part geometry and manufacturing process.  These rules govern general workflow and non-part attributes such as material properties and broaden the use of general best practices as well as the organization’s standard operating procedures and compliance.

As discussed in the previous article, DFMPro facilitates the discovery and identification of design errors early in the product lifecycle, before entering volume manufacturing.  New knowledge and best practices are codified as design rules in a centralized system and are reapplied enterprise-wide to ensure past mistakes are not repeated, which is particularly helpful in still-evolving manufacturing disciplines such as additive manufacturing. Furthermore, easy and automated access to the corpus of industry-wide and organization-specific knowledge facilitates faster and more effective on-the-job training of new design engineers.

Admittedly, these aspirations sound a lot like the promises made by the advocates of knowledge management theories some two decades ago. That quest to elicit and aggregate “tribal knowledge”—the knowledge and experience of many individuals—into a formal, stratified enterprise-wide knowledge base had largely failed because of two reasons. First, many knowledge management initiatives lacked clear business-oriented performance indicators and measurable benefits. Second, the knowledge elicitation process felt coerced, as it was antithetic to corporate culture and organizational structure.

Early adopters of DFMPro emphasize the success of a “soft” approach to deployment, which strongly encourages, but doesn’t force, its use. Design engineers find that using a comprehensive rules base that represent the state of the art and the cumulative knowledge of the enterprise helps identify manufacturability weaknesses and improvement opportunities. And as new manufacturability mistakes are discovered, new design rules are added and shared across multiple global competency centers.

Closing the manufacturing-design loop by practicing structured design for manufacturing improves organizational learning and enables faster and smarter innovation.

Image: Suprematist Composition (Kazimir Malevich, 1916)