A Passion to Serve
As products commoditize, the battleground shifts to service excellence. Delivering exceptional service requires a real passion infused throughout the organization-a real desire to serve and make life easier for customers. It starts with how personnel are trained, not just in the service organization but across the company. But then it must be reinforced in every speech, every policy, and every gesture until it becomes part of the heart and soul of the company.
The Evolving Role of the Design Engineer
When the product alone was the primary basis of competition, the life of a design engineer used to be a lot simpler. If you completed your project on-time, within-budget, and met the "functional spec", you were golden. No more. Design engineers are being asked to make an increasingly complex set of trade-offs (performance vs. manufacturability vs. ease-of-use vs. material cost vs. environmental requirements vs. time-to-market vs. transportation costs vs. serviceability vs. localization vs. reliability vs. duties and tariffs, etc., etc.) This mandates a very cross-functional and inter-enterprise approach to the design process.
It is widely understood that the majority of material costs for a product are "baked in" during the design phase (see figure 1). The design engineer has a much greater influence on the cost of goods than the procurement professional. Realizing this, more advanced companies get their engineers and procurement people to work together before the design is finalized.
Source: Boothroyd & Dewhurst
This same concept applies to serviceability as part of the total lifecycle cost of the product. In other words, the design of a product has a major impact on the cost to assemble, package, ship, maintain, repair, and ultimately dispose of or recycle the product. So in the enlightened company, the design engineer's responsibilities include designing for serviceability. Engineers can improve design-for-serviceability via:
- Parts Rationalization
- Self-diagnostics and remote diagnostics
People usually think of the benefits of parts rationalization on reducing raw materials inventory. However, when the same part is used across many different products AND in multiple generations of the same products it also greatly reduces the amount of inventory required in the service chain and simplifies the repair technician's job (fewer parts to carry onsite).
Self-diagnostics and Remote Diagnostics
Although self-diagnostics do not belong in all products (e.g. low-cost consumer electronic devices are basically disposable), the more complex, expensive, and mission critical a product is, the more that built-in-diagnostics makes sense. And as the cost of embedded computing and sensors continues to decline every year, on-board diagnostics makes sense in more and more products. Built-in-diagnostics help tremendously by:
- Predicting failure before it happens and thereby eliminating or reducing expensive downtime
- Letting the repair technician know ahead of time exactly what parts they should bring, often saving a trip
- Enabling the skilled technician to guide the end user through simple repair procedures remotely, resulting in instant correction of problems and eliminating the technician's travel altogether
- Reducing catastrophic failures that could result in extensive or irreparable damage to the equipment and safety hazard to operators
The need for service is reduced when products are designed to be inherently more reliable. The science of designing for reliability is quite mature, with proven methodologies for analyzing, predicting, and improving reliability-e.g. analysis (thermal, worst case, finite element, fault tree, etc.), simulation and testing (e.g. Accelerated Life Testing), analysis of field failures to improve future designs, etc.
Ease of Repair
Ease of repair should be an explicit design goal, but it is often over-looked unless A) the active involvement of service personnel early in the design process is institutionalized, B) engineers are given tools to simulate service procedures, and C) a mechanism for regular feedback from the field service back to design engineering is maintained. There are many methods to achieving it:
- Rationalize and reduce the number of different repair tools required across products
- Simplify replacement procedures
- Use quick fasteners, as well as "Fool-proof fasteners" and "fool-proof connectors" -designed so that only the correct connections can be made when reassembling
- Positioning the parts with greatest replacement frequency in the easiest to replace places.
- "Hot swap" components--that can be replaced while the equipment is in use.
- Reducing or preferably eliminating the need for calibration and adjustment.
The methods for design-for-serviceability are not hard to understand. But they will not be implemented unless design engineers are measured not just by the usual metrics (budget, schedule, spec) but also on their contribution to serviceability and the total lifecycle costs of a product. Very few companies do that today.
In addition, the design process must be made very cross-functional. This means moving to an "integrative organization" that has sourcing/procurement, manufacturing, service, and suppliers all involved early in the design phase. This is part of a broader philosophy of cross-functional cooperation that must be driven from the top. It is difficult for champions to work across boundaries, even if they are motivated, when the leaders are territorial and fighting turf wars.
Reaping the Benefits
It may be true that the life of an engineer used to be a lot easier. But the life of a customer was a lot harder. In an exceptional service organization, the tables are turned and engineers put a lot of effort into designing for ease-of-use and serviceability.
The benefits of designing for serviceability are enormous. Warranty costs are lowered, profitability rises, and customer satisfaction and loyalty increase. Over the long term, highly reliable products and rapid service build a very strong brand (think Mercedes and Toyota) that translates into increased competitiveness and growing market share. Designing for serviceability is a great investment with great monetary rewards, but also the satisfaction of knowing you've made life easier for others.