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The Collaboration Imperative: Why it's Critical to Your Next Project
Team members collaborating on a design project using cloud-based Autodesk software.
Photo courtesy of Autodesk, Inc.
The future of manufacturing, as Scott Borduin tells it, will be driven by the desire to achieve big things—not incrementally small improvements to established methods, but entirely new ways of providing value that separate the providers from the rest of the pack. Borduin is Autodesk’s group chief technology officer for design, lifecycle, and simulation products, a role that has him negotiating some of the fastest, most disruptive currents of technology innovation seen in decades. In his keynote presentation at the TechConnect World Innovation Conference and Expo in Washington, D.C., earlier this summer, Borduin left no doubt about the origins of his prediction.
“Right now is the most interesting time that I’ve ever been through,” he told a packed conference room of attendees. “The most exciting, dynamic, fast changing time I’ve ever seen in industry.”
When Borduin visits people in industry today, he said, their conversations are very different from what they were just a decade ago. Then, if he asked what was important to them, he was likely to hear about an incremental improvement—making the next round of their product “a little bit better, getting it to market a little bit faster, at a little bit lower cost, with a little bit better quality.”
“Now, what people want to talk about is innovation,” he said. “Everywhere I go, I run into people whose titles are ‘VP of Innovation, VP of Advanced Strategy.’ Everybody’s trying to figure out ‘How do I do step function changes in my company’s value, in my company’s brand, in what I deliver to customers? How do I do disruptive kinds of innovation?’ And if I can’t innovate a brand new kind of product, well then, at least, if I’ve got an existing category, I’m going to completely re-innovate the way I make that thing, whether it’s the Boeing Dreamliner that’s 20 percent lighter than you could make it any other way because they went radical on composites, or other kinds of techniques. Everybody’s trying to figure out how to innovate, and there’s a whole bunch of trends that are opening up the opportunities, and actually the imperatives, to innovate around these things.”
One of the more interesting trends, Borduin said, is that design and engineering are no longer a function that’s limited to siloed departments and people with degrees.
“All of a sudden, everybody thinks that they can be a designer or engineer, or participate in that process,” Borduin said. “Now, the people who are out there designing new products want the customers involved, they want suppliers involved. In some cases, they are crowdsourcing their designs and saying, ‘We’re just going to open up a big contest, and have the best ideas come from all over the world, and then reward those people who win.’ And so, we’re seeing now, partly driven by the advances in cloud computing and mobile technology, the ability of people all over the world to participate early in a design process. That’s a big trend.”
Seeing the benefits of open source, collaborative design is changing the way companies think about intellectual property. Long a staple of the software industry, the open source movement is catching on in hardware, too, whether it’s circuit boards, 3D printing machines, or automobiles. And probably the most radical example, Borduin said, is Tesla’s decision to open-source its electric car technology.
“Why on earth would they do that? Because they said, ‘Look, what we’re trying to do is drive the whole industry forward, because we believe if we drive that whole electric vehicle industry forward, we’ll benefit because we have some major advantages in battery technology. So we don’t care if somebody else copies our designs; in fact, we want them to.’
“So people are thinking differently now about what you do, where you’re getting your intellectual property from, and incorporating those things, and collaborating more instead of just treating everything as a siloed, protected piece of intellectual property.”
Borduin said that GE is one of the companies that’s pushing the hardest right now in the area of open source, collaborative design.
“You’ve got GE sponsoring, by the dozen, crowdsourced designs, putting out design challenges and saying, ‘Here’s a challenge we don’t know how to solve. We’re going to put it out there publicly, and people worldwide are going to collaborate and come back with the best answer.’” In his presentation, Borden pointed to a GE jet engine bracket as an example of a design where someone who was not a GE employee—M Arie Kurniawan, from Indonesia—trumped all of the GE engineers in their ability to design a better, more structurally sound bracket.
The first place prize-winning jet engine bracket in GE’s 3D Printing Design Quest, a crowdsourced design competition, was designed by M Arie Kurniawan, of Salatiga, Indonesia.
Collaborative, open source design and 3D printing technology have made it possible to innovate much more quickly, and Borduin believes that moving such design and production capabilities out “much, much closer to the end consumer” could improve the nation’s abilities in the defense arena. Noting that the U.S. military has had a “great history of innovating out in the field,” he wondered aloud what it would mean to equip service personnel with these capabilities.
“Let’s build these kinds of forward operating, mobile, rapid production things, let’s put the skills out there, let’s let them collaborate with people around the world, with real time collaboration, and let’s let them build what they need to do to get their jobs done,” he said.
Ultimately, Borduin said, all of these trends create not just opportunity, but also the imperative to change, “because if you don’t change, somebody else will.” And it’s not all just about the technology, he said, but about people.
“If you don’t change how you think and how you operate, who you connect with, how you share IP, how you coordinate things, none of this will really matter.” He ended by encouraging attendees to “think about how you connect with people in disciplines that aren’t even closely related to you. If you’re a manager, think about how you create not just the opportunity, but the imperative for your people to think differently and do different things.”
A Driver of Innovation
A striking example of how collaboration can facilitate design innovation is Divergent Microfactories’ prototype supercar, Blade, which company CEO Kevin Czinger introduced at the O’Reilly Solid Conference 2015 in San Francisco in June. Blade, which features a 700-horsepower, bi-fuel engine that uses either compressed natural gas or gasoline, reportedly goes from 0 to 60 in two seconds and weighs about 1400 pounds. The prototype represents a new approach to auto manufacturing that radically reduces the amount of material, energy, and capital needed to build a car.
Divergent Microfactories has developed Blade, a lightweight prototype supercar that uses 3D printed aluminum joints to connect pieces of carbon fiber tubing to make up the chassis.
(Photo: Business Wire)
In a presentation at the Solid Conference, Czinger said that Blade’s key enabling technology is a “node,” a 3D printed aluminum alloy connector that joins aerospace-grade carbon fiber tubing into standardized building objects, which enable a small team to design and build car chassis ranging from two-seat sports cars to pickup trucks. Whereas traditional chassis can weigh over a thousand (1,000) pounds, Blade’s chassis weighs about 102 pounds—61 pounds of aluminum nodes, and 41 pounds of carbon fiber, Czinger said. The result of using 3D printed aluminum alloy to connect the larger, structural fiber of the chassis is that the chassis “requires dramatically less material and energy to produce,” he added.
In a Q&A following his presentation, Czinger talked about the role of collaboration in the development of the prototype supercar. It all began, he said, with his initial idea of combining the strength of 3D metal printing (“complexity is free,” he said) with aerospace-grade carbon fiber material for the chassis tubing. The first order of business was to design and test to make sure this was a real automotive application—not just another artisan application, he said—that was replicable and scalable.
“First, the engineering team came together and we did real physical testing and simulation, like you do in an automotive context, and then, from there, we brought in our designer,” Czinger told D2P. “Using the chassis structure in that way means that the body can be sculpted in any way you want because all of the structure is in the chassis itself, not in the body. So, literally, that body could have been made out of Spandex. At that point, we were one team. We were always all together, talking, solving problems, and collaborating as a small team.”
Czinger said that the model for his team’s collaboration was the late Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the former Lockheed engineer and team leader of the Lockheed Martin Skunk Works (Advanced Development Programs) known for his contributions to the designs of the Lockheed U-2 and SR-71 Blackbird.
“He had a set of principles of how, with a team of 20 to 30 people, you could basically design the most complex plane in the world,” Czinger said. “What they did is, during the Cold War, I think, in literally a month’s period of time, a team of about 20 people designed the U-2 and, within a year, put it into production. And he created a set of principles that basically said, ‘If you have people who are willing to collaborate, and be cross functional, and learn from one another, then that’s a know-how multiplier.’ You’re basically adding know-how so that in the end, the result is much greater than individual know-how that people have from hiving off into different function groups.”
Czinger said that Divergent Microfactories’ goal is to use the know-how learned from the prototype car to make the first scalable microfactory platform, standardize it as a manufacturing platform, and then transfer that know-how by turning over and licensing it to other teams, which could be anywhere in the world.
“Once that happens, they’re like, ‘we not only have the node, but each of those nodes is a part of a node in a network, generating information,’” Czinger said. “All that innovation gets shared, which is why we’re calling it ‘Divergent.’ So you diverge in your innovation, you share, new ideas emerge, get assimilated into the system, and then you go through the process again at a much higher rate of innovation.”
Collaborating for Part Quality and Cost Reduction
Collaboration between product manufacturers and their suppliers isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. But as they see the advantages that can be gained through collaborative partnerships, product manufacturers are increasingly looking to engage with companies that can function more as active, collaborative “partners” in their customers' success, as opposed to just “suppliers” of parts or services. Companies with strong problem-solving skills, including the ability to listen carefully, communicate effectively, and truly understand customer needs and requirements, are in particularly high demand.
Spokane Industries, headquartered in Spokane Valley, Washington, manufactures sand and investment castings for industries that include oil tool, mining, construction, military, marine, medical equipment, food processing, and pump and valve. The company’s capabilities in both sand and investment casting allow Spokane to satisfy customer needs ranging from very small, finely-detailed investment cast parts to large sand castings up to 5500 pounds. When using investment casting, Spokane is able to produce parts ranging in weight from just ounces up to 100 pounds.
“A lot of the parts that we collaborate with customers on are pretty complex and are being used in mission critical applications, either on drill rigs or in mining applications, or in a frame for a heavy truck,” said Terry Decker, sales and marketing manager for Spokane Industries, in a phone interview. “What we do a really good job of is identifying problems early on and then doing the hard work to come back and say, ‘You know what? This is the way we all thought we were going, but what we’ve learned, as we’ve gotten more into it, is that if we go in this direction, it’s going to be a better deal,’ and then addressing any issues that come up with that. If it takes us going around again to do a new solidification model or move some things around, we’re always willing to do that and really work with the customer to make it right.”
Spokane’s technical team works closely with customers from the time of receiving a request for quote, through shipping of the final product. The team collaborates with customers during the quote process to fully understand their requirements, the application, and the final machined form, Decker said in an emailed response. After reviewing the drawings and requirements, Spokane will recommend changes that preserve the functionality of the part while improving castability and reducing final cost. The team can also help identify parts that are good candidates for conversion to castings, and collaborate with customers to ensure a successful conversion, she said
“Some of our really great examples of collaboration over the past two years are where customers can really define well what their ‘problem space’ is, what their requirements are, and what they need,” she told D2P in an interview. “If they give us a little more leeway to work on the ‘how’ to make that happen, we can come up with some really creative solutions that, in the end, are significant cost savers and can provide better quality and better longevity out in the field. The way it works best is, if we can get involved early, and if we can have some leeway to be creative in how to best apply our processes to that problem, I think you get some really great results.”
A final machined part produced by Spokane Industries, a manufacturer of sand and investment castings.
Photo courtesy of Spokane Industries.
Besides being involved early, a supplier’s ability to establish a successful collaborative relationship with a customer hinges on a couple of other essential requirements: its technical knowledge and expertise regarding the application, and its ability to understand what the customer needs.
“To be successful with it, you certainly have to bring your ‘A’ game and have the right talent and the right people from our side that can really provide that consulting,” Decker said. “We have to understand our side of it really well, and we also can do our best when we have a fairly good understanding of what the customer needs—what’s the application that it’s going into? Is there machining and assembly that’s happening downstream? If we know about it, we can help design to minimize machining, or to make things simpler and integrate more parts together. So it all starts with being really great at what you know, being really good at being able to understand the customer application and the downstream processes, and then establishing a good, healthy working relationship.”
Decker was asked if the need for supplier collaboration has always been great, or, alternatively, has it become more important to manufacturers in recent years?
“My belief is that it’s always been really important for casting suppliers to work really collaboratively with their customers,” Decker told D2P. “We know our process; they know what they need in terms of design and requirements. And to get a part that you can consistently cast, with good quality and at a reasonable price, takes both sides of that equation working really well. But I also would say I think it’s become more important in recent years.”
Decker believes the greater need for collaboration these days is partly a reflection of changes in workforce demographics. As people who’ve worked with castings for many years retire, they’re often being replaced by workers who have less experience with castings and more experience with designing and developing parts using different kinds of techniques. To bridge that knowledge gap, it’s become more important for casting suppliers to reach out more and provide more consulting and more collaboration earlier on, she said.
“We can get requests for quotes for products that really just aren’t castable the way they’re designed, or are really prohibitively expensive to cast that way,” she said. “But once you get to a point where that drawing’s been stamped off and approved, it’s really hard to go back and make changes. So I think, over time, it’s becoming more important to collaborate, and to collaborate early on.”
Engineering Lead Time Reductions
For Tri-Mack Plastics Manufacturing Corporation, one of the keys to meeting its clients’ needs for high-performing, cost-effective parts and shorter lead times is its collaborative approach to working with customers. The Bristol, Rhode Island-based manufacturer of high-performance engineered components specializes in high temperature thermoplastics and thermoplastic composites for the aerospace, industrial, medical, and other demanding markets (see Composites Manufacturer Helps Aerospace OEMs Meet Demanding Project Requirements).
The company is open to working with customers who come to them at any stage of a project, said Tri-Mack President, Will Kain, in an interview with D2P. And because collaboration with customers is about more than manufacturing components, it’s therefore essential that customers engage them early in order to maximize opportunities for cost and lead time reduction.
“New customers come to us at all different stages of projects,” Kain said. “The ones that come to Tri-Mack a little late may already have a tool design figured out, they may be thinking that they’re saving time, and they’ll say, ‘All right, here’s our design. Can you guys just make us a tool? And then we’re going to take that part and go out and machine it somewhere.’ They’ve missed the advantage of working with Tri-Mack because they’ve come in late and we’re not able to steer them in things like cost-effective ways of molding near net and machining.”
As an example, Kain said, the customer might believe that they need to use a “super Cadillac,” complex tool to mold every feature to finish. But in fact, for the volumes they have, it might have been more efficient for them to mold some features to finish and some features with secondary machining, and greatly reduce the tool complexity.
“They’ve missed an opportunity; they’re already down a path, and they’ve committed to that. We’ll work with them at any stage of it, but the real successful ones are the ones that come to us and say, ‘Hey, have you guys made something kind of like this, and what would be your approach?’ When we have that level of cooperation early on, we feel very confident that we’re going to be successful.”
Engineering is a big part of this ability to collaborate. “It’s the biggest piece, for sure,” said Kain. “It takes an attitude throughout the corporation, but also engineering’s ability to foresee where there’s a need and then go fill it.”
Collaborating with customers from the outset of a project—in the sense of sharing its engineering know-how in everything from choosing the right material to offering recommendations on cost-effective part design and a manufacturing process that suits the design intent—has long been a staple of Tri-Mack’s repertoire. But Kain believes the need for collaboration has become more pronounced in recent years as engineers at product manufacturing companies grapple with the issue of time scarcity, a problem amplified by heightened pressures to reduce lead time.
“We have been providing that service for some of our closest customers for a long time—as I recall, since the early 1990s,” said Kain. “But it has definitely become more prevalent. We’re not going to take full credit for it, but we have definitely turned on our customers to that approach whenever possible because other companies are beginning to realize that they can cut a huge amount of lead time out of a project if they let us get in early and help design for success. It’s definitely becoming a trend, at least in our industry, and people are seeing the success of it.”
Kain credits flexibility and a willingness to adapt to the customer’s culture as keys to Tri-Mack’s effectiveness as a collaborative partner. For many of its customers, especially longtime customers, the Tri-Mack team already knows how much flexibility they can expect, as well as how open their design teams are to suggestions. “Once you have that figured out, you know the limits of where you can help and where you can’t,” he said. “Some customers would never trust a supplier to make design-related calls, but once you know those limits, you can supply support. We can adapt. We’re not so rigid in our structure as to say, ‘Okay, our process is 1 through 19, and we’re going to do it exactly this way. If you like it, great; if you don’t, we’re not going to work well together.’ We’ve never taken that approach."
Tri-Mack’s ability to be flexible and adaptive serves customers well in today’s manufacturing environment, where redesigns are often made on the fly, in the later stages of a project. It’s a trend that Kain sees happening more now than in the past.
“With better CAD/CAM systems, you would think that everything would be perfectly modeled and there would be no interferences, and everybody would know exactly what they’ve got before they released the first drawing,” he said. “And in fact, the timelines that they’re working to are so fierce that there may be less definition now than there was 10 years ago, and it’s in that rush to improve on the fly. There might be an improvement in overall efficiency: Somebody comes up with a breakthrough, and they’re going to want to ‘sneak’ it into the design. And that may require 50 other parts to be redesigned at the last minute. We’re actually going through that right now, and we’re able to provide the flexibility to support this redesign process.”
Solving Problems and Speeding Product Launches
After making substantial investments in recent years to improve its service offerings, Bestronics, Inc., is in the midst of a significant period of growth. As of June 30, revenues for the San Jose, Calif.-based electronics manufacturing services company were up “almost 70 percent” over the previous year, said Bestronics CEO Nat Mani in a recent phone interview. The company moved into new quarters in San Jose’s International Business Park in 2013, tripling the size of its former facility, and is already eyeing an expansion that would double the space at its current facility, Mani told D2P.
Mani attributes Bestronics’ growth to its success in maintaining long standing relationships with customers and providing them with “highly flexible manufacturing solutions.”
“If you want to summarize our business model, once we get a customer, we don’t ever, ever lose them,” he said. “We do whatever we can to keep them, and that’s been what distinguishes us. The last few years, we’ve added a significant amount of technical capabilities and collaborative partnership models, essentially trying to figure out how to solve customers’ problems, and getting more strategic with them. That’s how we can differentiate ourselves within our competition.”
From mechanical design to testing and everything in between, the capabilities required to bring a product to market today are too diverse for one company to handle entirely in house. As a result, Mani believes, the need for collaboration has become more important in recent years.
“I think it’s become more important because it enables a much faster launch of the product idea,” he said. “To the extent that you can see what’s out there, what’s readily available, or what somebody can put together, helps you dramatically speed your product innovation cycles and launches.”
Bestronics doesn’t offer a “one size fits all collaborative approach” because each customer has different needs, Mani said. Some customers, for example, may want help on the design side of the product.
“They have an idea, and so they come to somebody like us,” he explained. “We may not have those resources in house, but we can network and bring the right kind of design resources, whether they’re industrial design or whatever, to come up with a solution for the customer that meets their requirements. In some cases, we’ll work with distribution partners that have some innovative approaches towards a very cost-optimized design solution. They also allow for component selection, which is critical in this sort of thing.”
In addition to enabling a much faster product launch, collaboration allows for a “well-reasoned solution,” Mani said. If a customer comes up with a design that appears not to be mechanically viable, for example, the Bestronics team might suggest shock and vibration and stress testing of the product under certain conditions. If the product fails any of those tests, they would then suggest design improvements. “Those are things that they wouldn’t consider if they were doing this on their own, so that sort of knowledge base is critical because it essentially ensures that the product design is much more robust,” Mani said.
On the other hand, if a customer chooses a manufacturing partner that lacks expertise, Mani said, they won’t be able to see whether their milestones are going to be met, or if the product that’s coming forward is going to meet their requirements. “The fact that we’re able to do that is a tremendous value,” Mani said. “So you rely on an industry knowledge base to not only speed your product launches, but make sure your costs are in line with what you need, and also for a more robust sort of solution.”
Building a successful collaborative partnership with a client requires an open and practical conversation on both sides, Mani said. “We all need to understand that we’re working together to get this product into the market in a certain amount of time and at certain cost parameters, so that collaborative approach—and what the issues and challenges are—will be shared openly,” said Mani. “We’re able to figure out, as a team, how we address those [issues and challenges], and if there are some unrealistic targets or unrealistic expectations, we all sit together and say, ‘This is what we need to look at’ and assess that, and that is very important.”
Silicon Valley’s flourishing innovation ecosystem is tailor-made for companies that are working to develop transformational new products. Partners exist, Mani said, for “almost anything and everything” that a company would need for its product to be successful.
“A little known fact about San Jose is that it has, I think, from the data I saw from the city, about six times more electronic manufacturing head count than any other region in the U.S.,” said Mani. As a result, the area is a magnet for “virtually every type of supply chain partner,” including design firms, testing houses, and plasma coating service providers.
“When you’re launching a product, you have those available, literally, in your Rolodex, and you can actually get these things done very quickly,” he said. “In fact, that’s one of the reasons why we’re attractive to customers that are located outside of Silicon Valley, because they can use us to help them tap into the local resources. Silicon Valley has that knowledge base and the resources. It is something that’s just hard to duplicate because the momentum has been built over 40, 50 years of technology innovation that’s happened in this area.”
Bestronics recently hosted the first annual Silicon Valley Agile Manufacturing Economic Strategy meeting, which is focused on growing and supporting agile manufacturing in Silicon Valley. Mani explained why agile manufacturing has become so important. Expectations regarding product lifecycles today, he said, are driven by a standard that’s been set, for example, by someone who writes an app that quickly solves a bunch of problems. Now, when someone designs a hardware product, there’s a similar pressure to get a solution as fast as possible. The goal is to demonstrate the proof of concept and get it into a customer’s hands as quickly as possible.
“That means that the whole supply chain, the ecosystem, everything has to respond literally around the clock in order to meet that,” he said. “In the old days, you could afford, if you were a larger company, a three-year or five-year design cycle, sometimes, to come up with a large product platform. But that is simply not possible today, if you were that slow. So you need to figure out how quickly to put these things together, and this is where this whole [necessity of] being agile, nimble, lean, or on demand becomes vitally important.”
Mani realizes that listening carefully to customers is a vital key to building successful collaborative relationships with them.
“That’s where I think we’re successful because we really take a lot of time and effort to really understand what the requirements are. What we’ve learned, having been in this business a long time, is to be really humble, listen carefully, and keep talking to customers and understanding what their changing requirements are. We understand that a solution that’s prescribed today may not be relevant ten years from now, or five years from now, so we need to constantly adapt and tailor that, not only within the same timeframe, but also to each customer’s unique situation.”
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