Does Engineering Really Matter – A Second Look!

I just finished reading Mr. Schoonmaker’s article and I must say that I agree with his opinions but I would like to point out that this is not just a U.S. problem as it is also a problem here in Canada. Like the U.S., Canada has fallen prey to Freetrade (everyone want to be in Mexico to manufacture) and as for outsourcing, India has become the place to be. But the question that needs to be answered is “Why?”.

There are two answers to that question. The first is “Cost” and the second is our constant desire to buy products at lower prices which only feeds the first answer. I have purposely left out the idiocy of corporate’s desire for short term profits at the expense of long term viabililty as that is just the force pushing the first answer. Today, in order to compete in the global market place a company needs to be able to produce its products and services at a cost that is equal to or better than the competition. The only difference today is that the competitors can be half way around the world instead of in the next city or state. As pointed out in Mr. Schoonmaker’s article, besides the low cost of labor, the lack of control policies (eg. Environmental controls, etc) also reduce the costs compared to here in North America. So how can we compete?

The answer is simple “Engineering”. While everything that Mr. Schoonmaker said is true and by itself supports the point that “Engineering Doesn’t Matter”, it really is only part of the total picture. The problems of outsourcing and manufacturing “off-shore” is much more complex and has a lot of it has to do with peoples’ perceptions of business in general. Large corporations are an ODD lot. If one goes “Off-shore” and is successful, then everyone else decides they need to do the same. Today, if a company wants to keep it operations here in North America it needs to find ways to design and build their products at a cost equal to or better than the other options available. How do we do that? Again “Engineering”.

This single biggest problem today (in my opinion) in companies that design and build their products is the lack of manufacturing knowledge in the product designers. This is not to say that the design engineers don’t have any manufacturing knowledge but the breadth of their knowledge is usually narrowed to their specialty. As an example, the company has just requested that a design engineer create a new switch based on a customer’s spec. Typically here in North America, the engineer would generate a design and then review it with manufacturing to ensure that it can be made. The problem is that if the assembly of the device doesn’t seem to be an issue, manufacturing will just sign off to manufacture it the way it was design. But wait, is that the most efficient and cost effective way to produce the part. Can the assembly be automated cost effectively. Does the design lend itself to automation. Can the automation equipment be obtained at a low cost. Can the design be built using a low cost semi-automatic assembly process. If the design engineer was knowledgeable and capable in techniques of manufacturing as well as product design, all of those issues would have been taken into account during the design stage before the manufacturing review. Today, manufacturers need to automate to compete against the low wages in other countries and this puts a premium on being able to automate the assembly process at a low cost.
As an example, I was required to design a motor controller for an automotive OEM customer. I was even lucky enough to do both the electronics and mechanical design. Key was designing the mechanical portion so that we could manufacture it locally in our facility here in Ontario, Canada. The initial desire was to build the unit in Mexico which I didn’t think was necessary. Keeping automated assembly in mind when developing the part, I came up with a design that could be assembled using inexpensive pick and place automation and two operators. The result was a product that met the customer’s need and could be built locally for less cost than building it in Mexico. The key here was to do the necessary homework to prove that it was more cost effective to manufacture the part locally instead of in Mexico. So why was I able to make this work, “Engineering”.

The point I am trying to make is that while Engineering doesn’t seem to matter when you look at what is transpiring today with outsourcing and off-shore manufacturing, “Engineering Does Matter” and it is up to us engineers to prove it to our bosses and their bosses and so on up the ladder. So, if you are a product engineer, my suggestion is to learn everything you can about manufacturing techniques, not just what your company does, but what other industries do too. You may find that processes used in an unrelated industry when tweaked or slightly altered may prove to be useful within your company. Learn to be innovative with an open mind so that your company can design and manufacture products more cost effectively than can be done anywhere else in the world.

It can be done and it is done with “Engineering”, which by the way, DOES MATTER.

Mike LaCroix
Freelance Engineer

Review Article
  • Richard November 29, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Richard'
    It has taken me some weeks to "get my mind in order" with regard to this article. As a rider, please note that not all will agree with me, however my review is based on intimate experiences over the last 2 years with products outsourced. I do not wish to offend anyone, but voices have to be heard.

    Mike, you are voicing exactly what I and several of my collegues here in Australia have been discussing for several years.

    We have seen the effect of outsourcing not only production, but design as well. The result, in a nutshell, disaster. The Indian product is woeful, design concept is draconian, and attitude to complaint, what attitude, we didn't design or make it! In one instance, 40 tonnes of product was rejected by the buyer due to rust, bad welds, incompatability with existing product. Instead of the order going back to the supplier, it was sold off for 1 cent in the dollar and hence accepted. Total rework time and desigtn changes meant the product was actually dearer than the locally produced. But one thing remained true, the quality - a $60,000 boat spearing through the rear of a 4WD under normal braking is not a good thing, especially when the boat and the 4WD are written off! Result - none, manufacturing fault, insurance paid up. Again we rescued those who shouldn't be saved.

    The Chinese experience is a lot better, except for the fact that all products are "throw away" items, great for the environment (not), but a heck of a lot better than the Indian product.

    I am coming to the end of my working career, and I look around and I don't see Trainees, Apprentices or the like. I realize that I am the last of the true "journymen", "tradesman", "master" call it what you want, but there is no-one following, everything is being outsourced to Asia. We used to design for a servicable life, to suit our conditions, our society, but not anymore.

    The Western world is "selling out" to the Asian countries, but what happens when the Asian currencies are forced to be linked to a Western currency (ie US dollar)? Manufacturing costs will rise dramatically, and we will have to bear it, as ALL our skills will be gone.

    Engineering DOES MATTER, as we engineer for our own particular set of circumstances, and only when you reside within the arena you are engineering for, can you do the job well.

    I hope I have not offended anyone, but I am passionate about my country's future within the Engineering and Manufacturing sectors, as I do not wish my children, or for that matter anybody, to be out of work for the sake of "a few measly dollars" and poor quality.

    Good engineering save costs all round in all countries, but does not save anything in countries that operate "sweat shops".

    Where will this leave US, USA, Australia, England, Germany (BMW is opening a plant in India, will the next generation BMW's look like Indian cabs?) as societies? I suspect we will all be salepeople, subsisting on sales to each other, earning a bowl of rice each a day!

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  • Prolonging the inevitable November 09, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Natek'
    Presumably, you're talking about "design for manufacturability" and "systems engineering," which requires a broader knowledge base, and which N.A., currently, doesn't do very well anyway. Japan has mastered this, and is using it in its auto manufacturing in the U.S. and throughout the world, and exporting it to China faster than you can imagine. It's only a matter of time before China's/India's design capabilities catch up with its manufacturing capabilities. (Think about it: their children go to school earlier and longer, and they study harder). At that point there will only be two ways in which N.A. can differentiate itself: mass customization and speed of product introduction. If the majority of the cosumers are still in N.A., N.A. companies CAN compete, but only by increasing the speed of introduction of new products so rapidly that lead times and shipping costs become the deciding factors. Can you imagine a product lifecycle so rapid that by the time comparable product arrives on the docks, it will already be obsolete? Th only way you can accomplish this is by using local manufacturing, for short runs of customized parts. Mass manufacturing cannot compete with this. Yes, I agree we need more knowlege of manufacturing techniques, but that's not enough. Gone are the days when you could invent one product and ride it into the sunset. N.A. needs ingenuity and creativity and inventiveness to regain competitiveness.

    Here's the hope of "free trade": At some point, wages in the world will equallize and the world will be THE marketplace. My problem with this is that nobody really knows how long this will take. Just a hunch: it won't happen in my lifetime.
    Nathan Kellogg

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  • The good old days are gone, but ... November 09, 2005
    Reviewed by 'Mike Koehler'
    Mr. LaCroix's article mirror's my own opinions on the industry's woes. It IS up to engineering to keep the US on the world manufacturing map, but engineers have not always done a proper job of convincing management that better up-front engineering is the key to avoiding manufacturing and in-service problems downstream. The input we get from a manufacturing review is often not critical enough, and this (IMO) has to do with the effect of the IT industry on manufacturing trades:

    In the old days, high-school grads who were good in math/science but did not attend college often went into manufacturing trades. But over the last 20 years there has been a new avenue for these students: computers and network training. In addition a higher percentage of our young people are getting a college education/ But neither of these groups is going to be working in our factories. Therefore the knowledge level of the average factory worker is probably going down in highly developed nations. So you cannot count on insightful input anymore from the manufacturing departments to improve your design.

    Because 3rd world countries cannot send many people to college, they are likely to have a much higher competency level in their factory staff than in North America. When we outsource a design overseas, we are probably getting a level of production planning expertise that does not exist in our factories. I don't think we can blame everything on environmental regulations, etc.

    I hope someday that factory work in N.A. again becomes a highly respected trade and attracts more bright young people, but until then it's up to the designers and engineers to understand the entire product lifecycle and ensure that manufacturing, assembly, QA, packaging, and maintenance issues are all addressed up-front regardless of where the parts are to be produced. And that my friends is a tall order for our lead engineers to bear - especially if upper management does not recognize it. So are we up to the task?

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