The Path to More, Better, Faster

Baldrige Award–winning manufacturers know how to design and build a high-quality product. However, a skill that even state-of-the-art manufacturers have yet to master is the art of quickly designing many new, high-quality products at once and then building them on the same production line. It is an important issue in the automotive industry, where car companies and suppliers are racing to meet the demand for safer products by creating crash-resistant bumpers, front and side air bags and head restraints.

Conventional wisdom holds that the way to build new products better and faster is to integrate design and manufacturing-process concerns early in the development cycle. But is early integration really the solution? If so, what is it about process-design integration that improves performance? A study of research and development projects at 137 North American manufacturers conducted by researchers at Michigan State University in 2000 revealed some answers. Associate professor Morgan Swink and doctoral candidate Dongsong Zeng of MSU's Eli Broad Graduate School of Management focused particularly on confirming that design quality improves when knowledge from manufacturing experts is integrated early in new-product development. The greater the integration and the earlier it occurs, the better companies fare at coping with complexity and technological uncertainty.

The crucial factor in achieving quality and speed, Swink and Dongsong found, is the extent to which a company's manufacturing processes can deliver what the product designers envision. When Honda designers created a sculptured Acura trunk hood — a distinguishing feature of the new model — they had to talk with the stamping experts in manufacturing to ensure their design would work. However, when designers ask for more than a company's manufacturing processes can deliver, the aim of quickly creating and manufacturing new products is thwarted.

So how can a firm blend the two disciplines? Many companies successfully make use of project-management software, simulation software and cross-functional teams. But one methodology with roots at Toyota that has been successful in efforts at Pella, Maytag, Black & Decker, Mercedes-Benz and other manufacturers is “3P,” which stands for product and production preparation. A 3P program calls for five-day structured sessions that bring together manufacturing, engineering, design, procurement and maintenance personnel, as well as shop-floor operators. Together, such a diverse group brainstorms to find the best way to design and create a product. Team members disassemble products like Black & Decker's DustBuster cordless vacuum cleaner, examine how each part fits, which tools or fixtures are used for assembly and how long it takes to complete each step. After assessing how the product is currently designed and manufactured, the team is challenged to use only drawings, not written words, to design better approaches. Inevitably, team members devise ideas that simultaneously benefit production while improving design.

Companies that use 3P find that they typically reduce late integration problems in manufacturing and design by more than 50%. At Maytag, kaizen teams have improved quality and productivity by using 3P to develop new products. According to Tom Briatico, Maytag Cleveland vice president and general manager, the company's results after using 3P for three years have been impressive. “We see productivity improvements of 25% to 30%, line defects reduced by 90% and service-call rates to the consumer reduced by 30% to 50%.”

Although the Michigan State study underscores the need for more research, it does indicate that integration is a strong driver of design quality. With more tools like 3P and software design aids to facilitate integration, manufacturers are approaching the day when they can design and build many innovative products simultaneously.