Make ‘Made in Britain’ cheaper – and better

4 min read

Some companies in the US are using advances in PLM and CAD management software that are transforming their ability to compete. Dr Tom Shelley explains

Companies in the US are finding that to succeed in today's ultra-competitive global village they need to get much more out of their CAD. And the winners are doing so by some novel integration of CAD with their business processes - coupled with some neat automation. There are important lessons here for those of us currently wrestling not just with our engineering design strategy, but with how it links into sales, production and the rest. The question is, having captured CAD data, how do you turn on the magic and make more of it? Yes, with 3D there's potential for faster collaboration, review and markup, and, importantly, automatic generation of CNC machine programs for production. But with that up and running, some US companies are finding that harnessing aspects of PLM (product lifecycle management) software that don't cost a fortune are revolutionising their ability to compete all over again. A classic example is at Fresno Valves and Castings, a small company in California that makes water control systems for farmers and irrigation authorities. It was facing the challenges of cheap 'Made in India' competition, ageing but hard-to-replace designers and an engineer-to-order environment for products which don't sell for a lot but were taking several days to design. The firm is a SolidWorks user, so couldn't go for a SolidWorks PLM solution since the company doesn't offer one. However, it found something much better - in the form of a solution from RuleStream, a company in Massachusetts that specialises in what it describes as 'rules-driven product management'. According to Fresno project consultant Jim Brown and engineer Sukhbir Singh, the sales engineering problem was that each of its sluice gates is different, not only in terms of dimensions, but stiffness, strength and reinforcement according to the width and depth of water channel. Under its old system, each gate had to be designed from scratch, taking four days to prepare a bid, followed by customer mind-changing, redesign etc. Value of rules Despite the existing CAD system, engineers usually prepared drawings by changing earlier prints because it was quicker, and orders were lost to competitors because of the lead times. Even those orders won presented problems due to inevitable mistakes. Configurators couldn't solve the problem because they're aimed at variations on a theme, which didn't allow flexibility. Meanwhile, knowledge-based engineering products were either inadequate or too expensive. However, implementing RuleStream resulted in a user interface form for the sales people that now guides data entry and prevents invalid specifications. The rules also ensure compatible materials, while calculations in the background also generate the right supports. Not only that, but the software interfaces with the Fresno's ERP system to produce BoMs (bills of materials) and prices, and outputs a quotation and a conformity certificate. It then also starts up SolidWorks to produce drawings with isometric views for sending to the customer as PDFs - all of which took less than two minutes in the demonstration I saw. If the customer changes his mind, a few changes at the front end generates another analysis and a revised quotation. Now the lead time for a full response to an enquiry is down from half a day to a few minutes. Guesswork and errors are gone, costs have been slashed and, because of the improved links to manufacturing, delivery is down from six weeks to just two. The bottom line: sales are up from about 25 per month in 2003 to 50 per month in 2004 when the new process was implemented, and 150 per month in 2005. And Brown says all that cost a total of just $125,000. Horses for courses No-one is suggesting that all engineering-orientated companies need exactly this approach: it's always about horses for courses. For some, it might be an advanced 3D CAD system with an integrated all-singing, all-dancing PLM system. But for others, it may be something simpler that allows 'Made in the US' or 'Made in Britain' to undercut and outperform 'Made in China' or 'Made in India' by months, dollars and pounds. But making that choice to re-engineer your engineering has to be done with great care. It's not usually the cost of additional software that's the killer - nowadays that's often relatively trivial. It's the time and effort that has to be spent getting it up and running and getting your team up the inevitable learning curve. Meanwhile, although SolidWorks doesn't have PLM, others do - like PTC, which recently demonstrated its new Wildfire 3 CAD product and full-blown Pro/Intralink and Windchill PDMLink and ProjectLink PLM systems to journalists in the US. The firm trotted out a series of users (interestingly, both large and small) making good use of the capabilities of these packages, which, now they have them, they say they couldn't imagine working without them. However, the solution that caught my attention, because it addresses the problem of designing to a budget and offers another excellent route to beating 'Made in China' and 'Made in India', came from a third party. APriori is a software package that came out of 10 years of research at the University of Illinois working with John Deere. The name comes from a Latin expression meaning knowledge 'prior to' experience. This has been tried before, with various so-called CAD advisors, and in systems that call up the cost of components in BoMs from PLM and other data management systems - but what APriori does is much cleverer. Working within PTC's Pro/Engineer 3D CAD, it extracts geometric information and associates it with real manufacturing costs, based on company information extracted from payrolls, materials costs, machining times and so on. APriori President Frank Azzolino says set-up takes three to four weeks, but concedes that requires real commitment from management. For this reason, he says he doesn't accept second meetings at potential customers unless attended by representatives of all relevant departments: design, engineering, manufacturing and financial at vice president level or above. "All are going to have to do homework assignments if the project is going to succeed," he insists. The demonstration by vice president of marketing John Busa shows an analysis of a milled steel part that the system ascertains would cost more than $500 to make - with a target cost of $100. A costing is made for manufacturing in China, which still comes out high when transport and logistics costs are included, so the study is switched to making it as an aluminium casting with a small amount of machining. Busa points out that in the real world, the design would require some modification and re-analysis, but after deciding on a parting line, the system automatically extracts the cost of side cores from the geometry, and presents the options of casting in the US or China, with tooling included. The lowest all-up cost then comes out at $64 - from a local casting shop in Massachusetts. And that's several tens of dollars cheaper than China. APriori's first customer application was for a Tier One automotive and commercial vehicle supplier. The pilot application was a 44-part slider assembly whose original cost was $521.80, manufactured at a volume of 26,000 per year. Use of APriori cost comparisons enabled a cost reduction of 34% to $343.71, resulting in a saving of $4.6 million in the first year and $23.1 million over the five-year life of the product. Return on investment was 20:1.