The Hidden Power of Design for Manufacturing


It will probably come as no surprise that the need for Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) came about shortly after society began the mass manufacturing of "things." However, the practice of DFM came much later. The staggered innovation events of the 2nd industrial revolution, to which many of us owe our livelihood today, opened up worlds of technology, processes, and innovation in product design. Surprisingly enough, it would take almost over 100 years before the design process would be optimized around them. 

The Inevitable Beginnings of Design For Manufacturing

The path to designing for manufacturing began at the same trailhead as high-volume manufacturing. When Frederick Winslow Taylor and Henry Ford disassembled the Master-Apprentice Model in favor of the assembly-line process of manufacturing. In doing so, they wrested auto manufacturing from the "masters" who did everything from concept to customer. Like tradesmen of old, coopers, tanners, blacksmiths, the "car making" trade was learned and passed down generationally through apprenticeship.

The operable solution to transitioning from Master-Apprentice to assembly line production was specialization. When broken into parts, what took a decade, sometimes generations, to train and pass down now took a few months per piece, which led directly to high-volume manufacturing.  

Specialization, Siloes, and Stifled Profit Margins 

What came next was a series of workforce optimizations and specialization-thinking throughout the 20th century, including departmental optimization. It began in earnest mid-century as a response to globalization. Managers began optimizing their departments in a quest to keep up with and one-up their global competitors. However, while good for producing and selling a ton of widgets, this siloed approach did very little for quality, manufacturability, or controlling costs. 

Hyper-intricate details, scores of parts, and needless product features were in hot demand. While stunning in a mock-up from marketing or industrial design, they paid little attention to the reality of engineering or manufacturing a product. Specifications and tolerances often exceeded equipment's capabilities. Many, often superfluous parts were not optimized or designed for the available tooling, equipment, and processes. As you can imagine, this added costs, time, and risk and sometimes led to expensive abject failure. The more global the world became, the worse profitability got, and it was often erased altogether. This also led to tensions between engineering and manufacturing, further stifling profit margins.

Design For Manufacturing and the Competitive Edge

Just like a rising tide raises all boats, so too did siloed specialization lower profit margins equitably among product companies. However, it wasn't long before some organizations realized they could gain a competitive advantage if they avoided the excessive costs and missed schedules caused by the buck being passed from engineering to manufacturing. 

The flaws in over-specialization exposed, it wasn't long before the fundamental idea behind DFM was formulated: design ease of manufacturing into products as early as possible in the product development cycle, consequently merging design requirements with production methods. Once the rudimentary methodologies of Design For Manufacturing and Assembly were developed and implemented by industry giants the likes of Westinghouse and Xerox, and Apple, the rest, as they say, is history. 

DFM: Cost Reduction, Risk Aversion, And More 

As you have learned through our brief history lesson, DFMA was created as a way to reduce the cost and difficulty of producing a product while maintaining its quality. It still very much is. However, DFM has hidden powers that, when done correctly, accompany the processes and should be exploited. They are not always the goal or readily apparent to those outside (and sometimes inside) "the biz." But, at the very least, they should be aspirational and are wise to keep close to mind as the process unfurls.

Design For Manufacturing Discovers Fatal Flaws

A one-off product, painstakingly created by an attentive expert, will always be precise and high-quality compared to those made by the hundreds or thousands. Overall quality wanes when production scales, most times even following the same design process. Many times, like in the case of the exploding Samsung Galaxy Note 7 cellphone, a fatal product design flaw doesn't rear its ugly head until larger runs. 

What were the DFM protocols for the Galaxy note? We don't know, but a good guess is-- poor or hurried Design For Manufacturing. DFM, done right, would likely have avoided the $17 billion in lost sales revenue alone. The speculation seems to be that "Samsung went through many versions of the battery, and the latest models 'weren't tested with the same rigor as the first samples,'" which points to several errors, including in the Design For Manufacturing process. 

Design For Manufacturing Uncovers New Processes 

As mentioned, cutting costs is pretty much reason number one for implementing DFM. When done with vigor, this process can and should involve exploring new technologies, methods, and processes. The obvious outcome of which is to save time and money or reduce risk. But what if the pursuit itself was leveraged as an opportunity to discover new or better ways of doing things?  

At Speck Design, we continually choose to be a culture of innovation. This necessitates consistently exploring new technologies while balancing the stalwart best of the old. Of course, the risk vs. benefits must always be weighed. Still, the opportunity to explore, discover, and experiment with novel manufacturing techniques is truly something quietly hiding within the confines of the DFM processes. 

Design for Manufacturing Extends Mutually Beneficial Partnerships 

To get the most out of Design For Manufacturing and Assembly, teams should extract as many benefits as possible from it. Just like exploring new processes in tandem with the old, DFM offers product development firms a chance to strengthen long-term relationships with manufacturing partners while courting new ones. Tried and true manufacturing partners will be the best way to streamline the process and instill confidence within one's organization to innovate. However, mixing in and experimenting with new partnerships in lower-risk development projects is something that DFM allows for and, in many ways, needs. For manufacturing processes to stay healthy and robust, diversity in supply chain and manufacturing partners is necessary. This is especially easy to see against the background of Covid and the pressures we are feeling from supply shortages, shuttered manufacturers, labor shortages, and shipping delays. 

Silicon Valley's Design for Manufacturing Partner

Speck Design is a legacy product design and manufacturing partner located in San Jose, CA. We ensure the right manufacturing processes are identified early and the manufacturing selected based on the volume requirements, timeline constraints, sustainability requirements, and more. Contact us to discuss your product design and manufacturing needs--we'd love to chat!

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