Great ideas need landing gears as well as wings

C D Jackson

The kind of Boring that is important.

If you live in a developing country, and are involved in the trade of manufacturing, there are high chances that your work is perceived among your friends, family and peers as less glamorous, low paying and only worthy for a person with not much education. As an engineer who is both, I speak from the personal experience of having faced that perception many times over. In a way, this is true for the community as well; a manufacturing engineer in a company with a product focus is often not the key influencer, let alone the last word on its product development activities. More often than not, downstream activities in the product development cycle are not involved in the earlier and important stages of design decision making. Hence, I pose a question which is critical to product realization success; Have you ensured that your product is ready to be manufactured?

The concept of evaluating technology maturity is well established, especially for programs involving complex systems. Technology Readiness levels are used during the development phase of such programs and generically follows the phases of conceptualization, experimentation, detailing and testing under increasingly realistic deployment scenarios. However, an assessment based only on technology readiness still leaves some issues to be clarified. The desired performance level needs to be consistent over the production volumes. Cost is often not a major constraint during the development and prototype stage but is a mission critical factor during the production stage. While the best of minds are engaged in the development phase, production is often left to lesser skilled people and they need to realize the product as per desired quality. Another key concern is the ability to procure materials and components at a reasonable and reliable cost and timeline. Manufacturing Readiness Levels (MRLs) address these important questions and more. Specifically, MRLs are used to perform the following:

  • Define the current level of preparedness to manufacture the product.
  • Create a process FMEA to identify issues around manufacturing maturity and associated costs and risks
  • Provide the framework to enhance manufacturing maturity and manage risk.

The rigor of Assessment

Often, there will be delays made during the design process and the spillover is on the manufacturing stage to quickly introduce. Absence of a rigorous manufacturability assessment process will make it difficult to take decisions. Whereas a large part of design and development is based on innovation, manufacturing depends on the ability to execute and measure under controlled environments. Adherence to an established process is also more important, as a mistake is often too costly and irreparable. The following factors have to be accounted into the manufacturability assessment process.

A formal Manufacturing Readiness Level Matrix has been developed by the US Government’s Department of Defense and is used by most of its contractors as well as organizations involved in the development and manufacturing of complex systems. The Manufacturing Readiness Levels are mapped to each of the above factors in the MRL deskbook (Page 63~77) and the relation of the MRL to program activities and the Technology Readiness Levels is shown below.

The above MRL assessment matrix can be applied in milestone reviews to help assure that the documentation, manufacturing processes, test methods, quality acceptance parameters, tooling, training and all of the necessary details are in place to support a production-controlled environment.

Manufacturing Readiness Assessment as a Competitive Advantage

Though Manufacturing Readiness is a practice which needs to be rigorously applied, it can be leveraged to create a fundamental differentiation from your competition. Often, advancement in technology can be used to provide an innovative product. Manufacturing assessment is also important in the era of outsourcing, where your product is handled by different elements in the supply chain. As complexity of manufacturing is exponentially multiplied whenever an additional link is involved in the supply chain , it pays to keep things simple. When viewed from the other side of the spectrum, a product that uses slower methods, more material or takes longer to assemble or is more difficult to test is a major competitive disadvantage.

Some of the other advantages of using Manufacturing readiness assessments are:

  • The world’s best manufacturing companies use them as inputs for design for manufacturability. This helps to improve product testability and yield and enables change management and corrective action plans.
  • They help companies to visualize and plan to solve potential problems during the realization stage (production, assembly, test and delivery of a new product).
  • They also allow companies to experiment to increase manufacturing throughput. Companies are flexible to scale operations up and down, dictate in-house and outsourcing strategies and align plant for more efficiency as well as a more responsive organization to support growth of new products.
  • They provide a common platform and language to increase understanding of everyone’s contribution during the production stage. This is important because the design and production team have conflicting goals of nurturing innovation and controlling their process, tools and metrics and program managers as well as the business people need to find a common ground between them.

A few recommendations are made below in order to plan and execute a successful manufacturing readiness assessment system.

  • As illustrated in the diagram above, it is beneficial to create and use manufacturing readiness assessments along with design/technology reviews. This will help simplify design and enable use of fewer parts, standard components and optimized fabrication. The program teams will also have a better idea on the cost of change and the amount of rework required.
  • Often, manufacturing success depends to a great extent on quality and yield. A few simple metrics which will guide all stakeholders is critical.
  • Usage of earlier manufacturing data will help facilitate material selection and process changes that complement existing manufacturing capability.
  • It is recommended to co-relate manufacturability and operational improvements during New Product Introduction to specific business goals and provide incentives for product and manufacturing teams to work more closely together.