Time to streamline thermal management design and production
August 06, 2012 | Dennis Scott | 222904947
Dennis Scott of Noren Products focuses on ways to streamline thermal management design and production.It may be hard to believe in today’s multi-tasked business environment, but there appears to be a “disconnect” between thermal management specialists and real world manufacturing. Some thermal management specialists believe their responsibility and focus are limited to resolving specifically defined heat issues within a product. This is an unfortunate, but common attitude when design and manufacturing are separate whether their location is in different facilities within the same organization, different organizations or different countries. Communication and perspective dissimilarities with these separate entities can become an obstacle and eventually impact the product’s time-to-market. Outsourcing, always initiated for cost reasons, becomes an even greater detriment, perhaps due to language problems or conflicting corporate cultures. That is the price companies pay for having design, thermal management and manufacturing in separate locations—and the price may be too high.
The ability to transfer an idea or discuss a technical problem can turn into an arduous and ultimately expensive task simply because of communication impediments stemming from cross border locations. Testing technicians, production managers and thermal design engineers may each have a different view of a product issue that may not be easily resolved face-to-face, let alone over thousands of miles. While this is not to be viewed as a blanket criticism of outsourcing, it is a fair warning. The fact is: issues tend to be handled more expeditiously and tactfully when all involved departments are at the same location and, most important, on the same page. That along with costs associated with delays may be just a few of the reasons why more U.S.-based companies are considering centralizing design and manufacturing under one roof.
The trouble with decentralized logistics
The logistics that comprise the essentials through design and development, manufacturing, and testing can be staggering. All of the “modules” from design concept to production have their own intricacies that can be either overlooked or misunderstood by those not directly involved as the project advances from one stage to the next. Start with concept and detailed design—always difficult when dealing with conceptual models, especially when attempting to meet the customer’s needs and expectations. At this point, the process is usually one-to-one, designers to clients. Now, however, input broadens as abstract moves to reality with the drafting of manufacturing requirements. This impediment can be a detriment to the project’s successful completion when and if manufacturing is contracted to another provider not closely associated with design and development. That is especially true in the determination of initial testing requirements, prototype construction and additional testing.
All of this is basic process management as understood by designers and manufacturers, particularly those involved in ruggedizing products for the military. Yet this seemingly simplified approach becomes complicated when other parties not connected to product development enter the mix. Each project requires coordination at every step of the process. However, coordination sadly tends to be hampered when the product is outsourced globally. Project management has often been impeded because of component issues that require timely resolution, only to be stalled because of distance, language and occasionally culture.
Thermal management problems are difficult to solve by themselves, but they’re the classic examples of unwanted outcomes when the design and manufacturing process is decentralized with little or no coordination between teams—a common occurrence associated with outsourcing. Thermal management, whether the end user is the military, aerospace industry or Silicon Valley, requires extremely close association and planning at all stages. Issues associated with heat dissipation and/or distribution cannot remain unresolved if the product is to provide optimum performance. Thermal engineers often complain about the difficulty of coordination or simply keeping everyone on the same page—a task made even more difficult when the role of provider is viewed only as a vendor or supplier.
“What you have are various documents and everyone playing the blame game,” said David Thompson, chief executive officer of A1A Vista Tech, a Tempe, Ariz., designer of custom automated assembly lines. “There has to be a common philosophy and that’s what is missing when you have a supplier instead of a partner.”
There are a number of other issues, all of which are detrimental to successful and timely completion. One of them is perspective; the less unified the process, the more likely perspectives are bound to differ. This situation tends to occur with a supplier who sees the company’s sole responsibility as fulfillment of contracted obligations by following specifications. What happens elsewhere is not a concern unless problems, such as thermal management issues, are discovered. There may also be regulatory requirements that vary from state to state or country to country—a dilemma that is generally eliminated through a centralized design/manufacturing effort. When thermal management issues arise as project managers warily eye approaching deadlines, distance between the parties magnifies in importance. Instantaneous electronic communication is not enough to bring about a quick resolution.
A decentralized failure
Could these issues have been prevented through a consolidated effort? Quite possibly if one company’s unfortunate experience is viewed as a learning example. The U.S. manufacturer of component parts for aircraft products determined that a ruggedized product for the military would be cost-prohibitive if designed and manufactured stateside. Instead it outsourced mechanical design and fabrication to companies in India, but contracted with an American firm for thermal management. That decision turned out to a costly oversight that would negatively impact the project throughout the process. The oversight: some key mechanical and thermal design requirements were "hidden" in governing specifications and procedures. The offshore companies failed to take those into account due to the lack of familiarity with some of the specialized requirements. The project sustained numerous delays as the Indian companies had to redesign and rework. The initial cost savings that the company anticipated through the decentralized approach were obliterated by constant delays and their predictable corollary—escalating expenditures that exceeded budgetary limitations. The company finally admitted defeat and cancelled the project.
This example should not be viewed as criticism of the capabilities of the outsourced firms. Instead, it graphically illustrates the need for constant communication between all involved with the logistics of thermal management design and manufacturing. Clearly, that was not the case with the company that separated thermal engineering from design and fabrication. The fact is that the quality and speed to solution will be impacted by this demonstrated lack of understanding.
Contrast that outcome with the success of a U.S. firm in the Southwest that expeditiously resolved thermal management issues thanks to centralization. As the development process continued, the customer demanded working prototypes in three weeks. Engineering moved first to define the thermal requirements with the customer. Now, it was time to discuss the project with all of the disciplines including production, testing, engineering, quality assurance and sales, all of whom were close enough to conduct their review in the same room. Working together without the specter of delays caused by distance, language and corporate culture, the group identified potential challenges, quickly resolved them and produced the successfully functioning parts to the customer within the obviously tight time frame. “I doubt we could have resolved things that quickly had we been scattered around the globe,” the owner said.
All companies recognize the imperative of scaling up manufacturing and reproducing parts without frequent delays. The process is rendered more efficient when all sides speak the same technical language—a preferred scenario and one of the fundamental reasons for unifying design and manufacturing. Expeditious communications and ultimately a solution are less likely to occur when design, fabrication and thermal management exist in separate and distant facilities.
The value of cross-pollination
Companies are understandably proud to trumpet the “added value” of their products, but that value tends to be eliminated when disciplines from design through production are isolated—a situation that tends to increase costs of development for the company and the purchase price for the client. The necessity here is for bridge building, in this case interaction that can be facilitated through a centralized process. This type of interaction is similar to cross-pollination in which pollen is taken from one type of flower or plant and delivered to a different one. In our example of centralized design and manufacturing, various disciplines transfer their seemingly unrelated expertise (pollen) in real-time to help facilitate thermal management solutions. Globalization is a permanent fact of business life, but thermal management generally will not benefit from it because of the need for system interaction and communication at every step of the process.
“If you’re embarking on something that will give you a competitive edge, you won’t get there without a centralized design team and a relationship,” said A1A’s David Thompson. “Cost margins and profitability come from working with the right relationships.”
Cost benefits from a centralized approach can exceed those projected from either overseas or domestic contractor outsourcing especially if the rationale for outsourcing has been predicated on reducing component costs. On the surface, this view may seem to be a paradox since component costs are often the source of overruns that project managers desperately want to avoid and believe outsourcing to be the solution. Yet the intense focus on those costs rather than on process is an enormous pitfall containing potential cost-prohibitive consequences. Anticipated savings based solely on outsourced product have been lost because of delays and revisions necessitated by resolution of serious thermal management issues. To focus on individual component costs (parts, human resources, etc.) is to lose the added value that centralized interaction can provide.
In fact, interaction is the greatest benefit of the centralized process. Problems that erupt from initial design through manufacturing should be expected, but delays due to different technical, manufacturing and even cultural frameworks should not. The whole point of centralization is to keep all of these disciplines under one roof if possible or at least in close proximity where problems can be responded to promptly. Thermal management is the classic example—one of the most critical elements for optimum performance and that means constant and close coordination among thermal and testing engineers, designers and manufacturers.
Cost control will always be crucial, which is the usual rationale for outsourcing. The approach, however, greatly escalates the potential for costly delays that will increase time and costs of preparing the product for the marketplace. That’s especially true with heat management issues, functions that cannot be resolved by thermal engineers working separately component-by-component in an isolated bubble. Focusing on cost savings based on component prices misses the point. Centralization is likely to pay for itself when the product is successfully completed.
About the author:
Dennis Scott is thermal solutions manager for Noren Products, Menlo Park, Calif., an industry leader in providing thermal solutions through heat pipe technology for a variety of industries and market sectors for more than 40 years. For additional information please call 650.322.9500, or visit the company website at www.norenproducts.com.
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