Workplace impact using design automation
The place for configurators
Product configurators offer business owners and management the opportunity to reduce cost, staffing levels and improve efficiency. However, proposals to introduce such systems are not usually welcome by engineers and other staff who see these tools as a direct threat to their livelihood. This article discusses workplace impact using design automation. Are these fears are justified? Can the introduction of design automation systems benefit employees and bring new prosperity to the company and the employees themselves?
The reduction of repetitive work
A well-designed product configurator has the capability of reducing thousands of hours of repetitive work. Completing this work in just a few minutes, more accurately and in a format that conforms precisely to company procedures. Customers receive well-presented information which meets their exact requirements. Product configurators are not suitable for every business. However, where products are configurable, considerable productivity improvements can be made.
Objections based upon reasons of complexity
What is the workplace impact using design automation? The first objection received from staff is often that the products have too many variants to be configurable. Too many variations is usually a good indication that these are precisely the types of products that are ideally suitable for configuration. Product configurators are not ideal for mass-produced single design products, or one-off bespoke items regardless of their complexity. Products that have numerous size permutations, options and features are usually ideally suitable for configuration. There is no upper limit on the complexity of a configured product. Rules are embedded in the design of configurator to ensure the user makes the right selection.
The inevitable personal concerns
Personal concerns can arise once it becomes clear that a product configurator can be used to automate the design. Some employees are very likely to become fearful and resistant to the introduction of such a tool. Objections such as “what happens to my job when this configurator is up and working?”. Saving this number of hours makes this a reasonable comment.
It is not uncommon that engineers are both sceptical and afraid of the idea of automating design processes. A typical response is “why do we need to change?” and “if it’s not broken, why fix it?”. It requires active management to reassure staff that they may, in fact, benefit from the changes. Employers will need to demonstrate that skills are in fact augmented by design automation. The introduction of design automation reduces the need for repetitive work. Assurances of more interesting value-added work are required.
A recent product configurator deployed by Gatehouse Design utilised a single input screen. This screen allowed the entry of customer details, commercial conditions and product selection. Overall, the input of data takes 20 to 30 minutes. During the entry of information, results are immediately apparent. The 3D models change dynamically to reflect the changes in data and continuous feedback of cost is visible. While making selections, the sales engineer could understand the commercial and technical implications of each choice. Once the configuration is complete, the sales engineer creates the quotation at the click of a button. A further button brought up a financial summary for management approval. Drawings, specifications, shipping weights and sizes, commercial terms and conditions were all immediately available to be sent to the customer.
The configurator proved to be an efficient system for creating a capital equipment quotation with a value of more than £100,000. Previously this work would have taken several days. The sales engineer would have needed to have engineering support to prepare drawings. Contacting suppliers for component prices would have caused a delay. Previously, the finance department would have spent time advising commercial terms and bank guarantees. This work was all completed by the product configurator.
Once the customer agreed to place an order for the equipment, the sales engineer was able to update the configuration status as an order. The responsibility of the project could then transfer to the Projects team, and the 3D model verified against site details. The touch of a button generates detailed drawings and parts lists. Engineers review automatically created process drawings and specification sheets. Engineers are responsible for creating the templates and have few concerns about the information generated by the configurator. Electrical schematics and pneumatic diagrams are produced automatically. Within an hour of receiving the customer’s order, the engineering team were reviewing the final documents.
Once the project manager was happy with the specifications, the parts lists and drawings are packaged and sent to production. The project manager completes the process by generating the remaining documentation automatically. By pressing several other buttons to produce the installation, commissioning, operation and maintenance manuals. The quality plan, certifications and risk assessments could be generated similarly.
Engineers are still vital to this process
So, what are benefits of using a product configurator? The customer received a high-quality proposal within a few hours. The company saved a lot of money on staffing costs. The quotation contains accurate information with reduced commercial risk. There were no bottlenecks. The company was able to focus on growth initiatives rather than repeating engineering tasks. And yet, it is the engineers that keep this all running smoothly.
Maintaining the quality of information used by the product configurators will refocus engineering roles. The company retained the ability to carry out work manually. Sometimes, a solution is not commercially sensible to add to the configurator. By exception, integrate manual documents into the configurated output.
Do not allow product configurators to become static, without maintenance they will become useless. Configurator systems must contain the very best information the company has and be continuously updated. Design automation systems must be core business processes. It requires a change of culture, and they need to be used and supported by everyone.
Review the availability of skills when considering workplace impact using design automation. Product configurators and design automation systems do impact individuals roles within the company. Those that resist change are likely to become obsolete, but this is a fact of all business. Engineers must learn new skills, and they will need to become product managers, not just design engineers. They must consider products in a new light. Product design starts with understanding how the product will behave as part of an interdependent family. It also requires a knowledge of product structure and modularity. How do assemblies integrate with each other most efficiently?
Engineers must learn to use programming languages and the ability to communicate with the computer-aided design software. Within ten years, I believe every engineer will be compelled to use a programming language. Programming will become part of their daily toolkit in a similar way they currently reach for a pocket calculator.
It’s an investment
Invest time to create and deploy a configurator solution. This investment ensures the processing of enquiries and orders quickly and accurately. Therefore, customer response takes hours rather than days. Design engineering time will be freed up to do more productive work. Companies and individuals will become more pro-active in product development with a renewed customer focus.
Yes, engineers and other employees should be concerned about the workplace impact using design automation. However, perhaps in a positive light. Design automation can bring new prosperity for companies. It can also bring increased job security, growth through the introduction of new products and more business for existing products. For engineers, there will be new challenges, new skills to learn which may lead to new job opportunities. Companies can become more customer focussed, and pro-active. Hopefully, there will be more resources available to re-invest in the business and the people the businesses employ. There may now be an opportunity to level the playing field with overseas competitors despite their low labour rates.
If you are concerned about workplace impact using design automation or would like to explore how product standardisation, configuration or design automation may help your business, please contact us, we are always pleased to help.
Written by Peter Slee Smith, Edited by Jason Spencer – 21/03/2018
Gatehouse Design offers services around product configuration, along with other design services.
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