Work your Supply Chain as Early as Possible


Ken Haven

August 19, 2017

In the early 1980’s, Ford embarked on developing a new car by utilizing a different development process on order to develop a product that had more universal appeal and was more easily manufactured. The process involved early and frequent communication with customers on the design of the car, but also incorporated a new concept (which seems obvious in retrospect) – teamwork. By assembling a team of designers, manufacturing engineers, and marketing/sales people that worked together from the very beginning of the development (vs. the more traditional approach where engineering “throws the design over the wall to manufacturing”), Ford was blazing a trail for the way cars would be designed and put into manufacturing that is still employed today by many if not all of the world’s top auto manufacturers.

This approach is now used more broadly across many industries and products, as it helps to reduce risk, time to production, and overall development costs. Acorn utilizes a similar approach in designing products for our clients. Let’s look at the process in more detail to see how it works and the benefits it offers.

Studies have shown that between 70-80% of a products manufacturing cost is determined at the concept stage of development. Making the right choices in     overall system architecture, materials, finish (if applicable), is therefore key. Moreover, understanding where things such as tighter tolerances, high areas of potential thermal or mechanical stresses, or other special requirements such as food compatibility, sterilization, UV or other types of exposure may be needed. As these requirements are understood, it’s important to start working with potential vendors to understand if those requirements can be met, at what cost and in what timeframe, and can they support the expected manufacturing ramp up and expected volumes. For example, suppose you’re designing an appliance that will come in contact with food, and you know that the area that comes in direct contact will need to be able to withstand some extremes of temperature and/or pressure. And the expected tolerances of parts in this section will be fairly tight. Gaining an understanding up front of the types of materials that will fit the requirements and their associated tolerances that can be met will impact both the architecture and individual parts. This may cause you to use different materials or dimensions on the materials, or both – or it may drive the design towards a slightly different architecture. By interactively developing and working with a supply chain early in the design cycle, you can avoid costly re-spins of the design later on down the road.

The advantages are not limited to parts and materials, they also can benefit the assembly process as well. By identifying and working with CM’s early in the design process, they can provide valuable input on how the design can be optimized for assembly while the design is in process. Things such as where and how components are mounted, volumes and locations of free space, the types of fasteners used, etc. can all impact the cost of manufacturing.

This early work with suppliers is also key when estimating the COGS of the design as it evolves – and working with the supply chain during the design process to keep COGS as close to the design target as possible.

Acorn utilizes its extensive database of suppliers and relationships on a daily basis throughout the design process – Ford really did have a better idea….(for those of you who may not understand or remember, in the late 1960’s, “Ford has a better idea” was a slogan used in many of their ad campaigns for a number of years…)

About the author

Ken Haven has been CEO of Acorn Product Development since the company’s founding in 1993. Ken has more than 25 years of product development experience including technical leadership roles with NeXT Computer, Attain, Inc., and Hewlett-Packard. He holds MS and BS degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell University.