Cutting time-to-market

July 1, 2001
With today’s pressing economic crunch, minimizing time-to-market is moving up the priority list for motion system designers

With today’s pressing economic crunch, minimizing time-to-market is moving up the priority list for motion system designers. Be it automotive transmissions or chicken pot pies, speeding product down the line starts with smart, swift design of the automated production and handling equipment.

There are plenty of tools, services, and methodologies to help engineers shorten their motion systems development cycles. For some it’s simulation software that saves the day, eliminating re-design work late in the game. For others it’s consulting services with streamlined approaches to design and vast resources. Another big time saver: Collaborating with product designers early on, which simplifies manufacturability and parts handling. Good working relationships with distributors and suppliers pay off as well, mainly in quicker order delivery and five-star support service. Often shortening the design cycle also involves more of a grassroots effort, such as engineers striving to communicate more clearly and efficiently with one another.

A helping hand

Sometimes a single company designing or automating a production line can stray off schedule while tackling international standards and out-of-the-ordinary designs. This is where automation experts can come to the rescue. Full-service-oriented companies, like Bayside Automation, Canonsburg, Pa., can bail out engineers anywhere in the design cycle, from the proverbial cocktail napkin idea on.

By working with hundreds of customers and vendors, Bayside Automation has compiled more than 200,000 CAD models in a searchable design library. In other words, they rarely have to start from scratch. Not only that, they have a heads-up as to what initial questions to ask. These are the types of things that for the less experienced may come much later in the design process and add weeks to the development cycle, such as examining complex or problematic processes, like soldering instead of welding, or logging process parameters for quality programs. Another example is building in contingencies like extra space for a vision inspection station on a gluing line, even though it’s not included initially.

Bayside also saves time by implementing distributed rather than centralized controls on automation equipment. Engineers don’t have to wait for an entire assembly system to be completed before beginning testing. Individual I/O blocks are put on modules, so smaller portions can be assembled and tested in parallel for a more concurrent engineering design cycle.

Also, when starting on an assembly concept, Bayside sets up meetings with the design team, but also includes production employees and operators to get their input. They design in 3D, which is helpful in visualizing the design concept for those not directly involved, says Roger Hambro, vice president of projects, Bayside Automation.

By using a standard set of vendors, Bayside Automation earns priority delivery of large orders, preferred pricing, and in-person engineering support. Whether large customers, like Bayside Automation, or smaller firms, engineering groups are benefiting from changes in system component distribution, as distributors are becoming more involved in the design process. Designers today rely on distributor support to literally design systems and program controls to fill the voids in their own staffs and keep on schedule.

“Distributors have been struggling with the question ‘where can I add value?’ and the design area has surfaced as a significant answer,” says David Witwer, general manager, Reserve Motion Control Systems, Strongsville, Ohio. In the last ten years engineering personnel at the companies he’s served has declined, and the current economic downturn has caused layoffs in plant, product, and design engineering. With timeto- market ever more critical, Witwer says that engineers expect “out-ofthe- box” components and subsystems, placing more of the design and set-up burden on the distributor. Another distributor, Shingle & Gibb Co., Moorestown, N.J., has consequently beefed up its application engineer staff to fill the daily requests to provide CAD drawings, build control panels, and do programming. They often receive system parameters and are expected to design systems from their stock of components. Because distributor application engineers are familiar with the vendors’ products, they can perform tasks like programming a control much more quickly than an engineer who may have to spend 40 hours learning the necessary programming language before even attempting the job, explains Jim Visconti, vice president of engineering at Shingle & Gibb.

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Along with a stronger design team, Witwer says many distributors today specialize in a line of products or a specific market segment, where historically a much larger scope was feasible. Witwer says that in the past, distributors passed on technical information more than technical support, and with greater demand in the new economy, they are finding ways to charge for the services rendered. Supply chain management in the commodities arena is going through some dynamic changes with vendormanaged inventory, integrated supply, and other initiatives. But in the more technical areas, such as automation controls, Witwer says supply chain automation is impractical because it’s too difficult to predict demand as well as the level of technical support needed.

In the looking glass

While outside assistance from consultants and distributors can certainly reduce time-to-market, it’s also crucial that companies and individual engineers look inward.

“I think time-to-market is one of the most critical items for engineers to be aware of because that’s one area where they can have a major impact on business,” says Todd Yuzuria, author of How to Succeed as an Engineer. Yuzuria is senior vice president of engineering at Labtec, a computer peripheral manufacturer in Vancouver, Wash. When Yuzuria implemented a new team structure at Labtec, the company’s design cycle shrunk from 18 to 6 months, giving an edge on the competition and nearly doubling sales to $110 million annually.

Yuzuria suggests three factors critical to successful organization. First is assigning the right accountability and authority structure. In his case, program managers serve as “window people” who have the authority to make decisions on the fly, so the design process doesn’t get bogged down by red tape approvals. The second item, which goes hand in hand with the first, is communication. At his company, all communications flow through the program manager who converses with other program managers and relays information as appropriate to team members. This is more successful, he says, than blanket e-mailing the entire team on every issue, which can slow things down.

Also falling under communication issues, it’s important when problems exist to bring them up the right way. He suggests doing it face-to-face with a local team rather than e-mailing across the world. If an engineer is frustrated, he can’t just rely on others to fix the problem. Yuzuria encourages a proactive approach and doing what is in your control to remedy a problem. And, give feedback with tact. He also suggests focusing on issues as opposed to personalities and emotions when dealing with team dynamics issues, as those tend to be a lot easier to understand and rectify at the management level.

Lastly, Yuzuria implores engineers to let managers know what tools could help them cut time-to-market.

Tool box

Managers often don’t know what tools engineers “in the trenches” need, says Yuzuria. “I think it behooves engineers, if they know about certain tools that can really help their job, to talk to their managers about it to publicize and get out in the open what the benefits could be,” he says.

“The same way that CAD packages have gone through an evolution, very high-priced CAE systems have led to development of mid-range, competitively priced motion and FEA-based simulation tools, of which some managers may not be aware. Rather than the traditional FEA programs aimed at the Ph.D. with an extensive FEA background, these simulation tools, available from companies such as ALGOR Inc., bring FEA technology to engineers by automating many of the FEA tasks that would otherwise consume hours,” says Mark Decker, senior engineer, ALGOR Inc., Pittsburgh.

ALGOR’s Mechanical Event Simulation (MES) software allows the virtual simulation of impacts, drop tests, crash tests, and reciprocating mechanism assemblies and lets engineers focus on the fundamental physics rather than nonintuitive procedures or complicated loads required in traditional FEA.

“The future of computer-aided Simuengineering lies in this ability to accurately portray a product’s intended behavior through the integration of motion simulation, stress analysis, and multiphysics analysis,” says Decker.

Mechanical Dynamics Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., provider of ADAMS virtual prototyping software, describes the relationship as when virtual prototyping software simulates the motion behavior of a mechanical system, it automatically computes the reaction forces at each joint for each split second during a simulation. The software can automatically reformat the data into dynamic loading conditions for input into finite element analysis software to study stress and strain of individual parts. Likewise, FEA-computed flexibility, or stiffness, can be imported into virtual prototyping software to accurately simulate the motion behavior of systems with flexible parts. ADAMS V 11.0 features two new modules to measure durability and vibrations, which Mechanical Dynamics president Robert Ryan points out are two areas of physical testing that can limit the ability of manufacturers to shorten the design cycle. Mechanical Dynamics suggests six “ingredients” to measure when selecting virtual prototyping software: integration, customization, parametrization, optimization, visualization, and implementation.

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Simulation software can help eliminate the traditional iterative process of designing, testing, and prototyping, says Barry Christenson, DesignSpace product manager, Ansys Inc., Canonsburg, Pa. The proving stage of the design cycle is often underestimated, and by doing upfront simulation, he explains, you allow for that. Insight into things like deflection of pick-and-place arms, which is very important for repeatability in automation equipment, helps reduce rework when equipment is on the shop floor.

Building a machine takes weeks to months with a high cost attached. Machining parts is expensive, and each prototype can cost several thousand to a million dollars, says Terry Denery, MSC.Working Knowledge North America, San Mateo, Calif. With software like visualNastran 4D, he says, you’re instead doing it in a couple of days on a computer. Aside from saving time and money, Denery points out that product quality can be improved with virtual prototyping. Because it is inexpensive, you can have ten prototypes instead of two, with each iteration closer to the optimal design.

“ALGOR’s Mechanical Event Simulation incorporates a highly stable, implicit time-step method to yield a highly efficient and accurate solution. This type of software simultaneously produces motion, deformation, and stresses in a single ‘what-you-see-iswhat- you-get’ process. Compared to the typical FEA process, MES reduces the overall design process by minimizing the need for downstream prototyping, advanced analysis, and testing,” Decker says. He points out that pure kinematics analysis applications may assume rigid body motion, when actually, these bodies are not rigid, but have a finite amount of elasticity based on geometry and material properties, which MES takes into account. In addition, MES fully considers inertial effects.

It’s getting easier for engineers to effectively relay design information to other team members as well as those further removed from the design process. Animation capabilities in the software described above let the engineer more effectively communicate the product’s performance to others in the design group. Another communciations tool, doc- Quest software from Digital Paper, Alexandria, Va., allows secure access to large, technical information files, such as CAD drawings or manufacturing schematics. And, all that’s needed to view these documents is a Web browser, so someone without CAD on their desktop can still view a drawing file, easing the flow of communications. In docQuest, engineers can put together an RFQ by grouping a set of documents together on one Web link. Documents can be redlined with text, arrows, and various shapes.

With docQuest, a large crane manufacturer was able to reduce scrap work and step up the design cycle. Digital Paper vice president Lisa Welch says that by increasing access to the right documents by the appropriate people, the manufacturer saved about $260,000 in its engineering services and control area and almost half a million dollars in its scale-up prototype cycle time.

Team players

Teaming up and streamlining ebusiness efforts adds up to more efficient distribution and design processes.

For example, one recent partnership between Rockwell Automation, the Timken Co., the SKF Group, and INA holding Schaeffler KG formed CoLinx LLC, an independent equally owned ebusiness and logistics corporation. Through a single site,, users can enter orders for components from all of the above manufacturers, check product availability, gather engineering data, and maximize shipping cost savings. CoLinx logistics support faster shipment delivery and potential inventory reduction. Shipment consolidations are possible and most distributor branches are served in 24 hours.

Elsewhere, Ticona, Summit, N.J., has formed an alliance with Conferos Inc., Woburn, Mass., to let Ticona offer project management and design collaboration and data storage services through its Web site.

“While OEMs or Tier 1 suppliers traditionally perform the conceptual design function, they often look to others in the design chain to ultimately deliver a plastic part that meets the enduse requirements,” says Kevin Cronin, Ticona global e-business director. This often results in iterative processes, and without a collaborative platform, can increase time-to-market. With the new Web site capabilities, however, all involved engineers will be able to view and work on designs simultaneously, have remote access to create and share files, and be able to collaborate on projects.

Also improving efficiency, a standardized directory of e-business products to help solidify such partnerships is growing on-line at 260 plus members. The Universal Description and Integration project is an industrywide, on-line directory that gives businesses a uniform way to describe their e-business services, scope out prospective partners, and understand the methods necessary to conduct business with a particular company.

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