Does Engineering Really Matter – A Second Look!
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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

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