Reducing waste by design

Jan. 12, 2006
Finding ways to lower production costs has traditionally been the job of manufacturing engineers.

Charles M. Faulk
Applications Engineering Manager
Danaher Industrial Controls
Gurnee, Ill.

But as companies have increasingly focused on streamlining the manufacturing process, the trend is to look upstream to design for possible cost-cutting and timesaving practices.

A good place to start is the philosophy of Kaizen. Kaizen is a Japanese management strategy for incremental, continuous improvement. The main principles of Kaizen have been known in the West for about 20 years. Key among these is the elimination of waste (known as "muda") and inefficiency.

There are several ways that design engineers can build waste-reducing steps into the design process. For starters, they should (whenever possible) design robust products able to accommodate different components without redesign.

Take servomotors, for example. One customer needs an incremental encoder, another a resolver, and a third an absolute encoder. The conventional approach might be to redesign the motor each time to fit the desired feedback device. But the best motor design would accept any of these feedback devices, without changes to the motor itself. This eliminates extra manufacturing steps and speeds delivery.

Kaizen philosophy defines "value" as something desired by the customer. In this case, a motor design capable of giving each customer what they want — built with the fewest number of custom parts — is a win-win and exemplifies Kaizen principles.

Yet another way to cut waste is by reducing vendor count. Fewer vendors mean less paperwork and greater savings through volume pricing. OEM machine designers should work closely with engineers at component suppliers to optimize components for ease of handling and assembly, even for commodity items. When a component arrives from a vendor, it should be ready to install in as few steps as possible. Keep in mind that designs may need some tweaking to accomplish this.

The practice of lean manufacturing, which by definition focuses on eliminating waste, can as well shorten lead times and reduce inventory.

Lean vendors can help set up Kan Ban programs (grocery-store-type pull inventory) that let customers buy only what is needed and when. In other words, the vendor becomes a source of "virtual inventory." This, in turn, frees up cash for other more productive activities.

Finally, reducing waste can be as simple as planning ahead. A common error of many design engineers is failing to coordinate the efforts of various design departments such as electrical with mechanical. Proper planning helps prevent such last-minute surprises as discovering there isn't enough room for a component, or that environmental conditions are more extreme than the design is able to handle. It's better to design smart from the start to avoid embarrassing and costly revisions later on. Danaher ( is a maker of industrial automation equipment.

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