When What You Want Isn’t What You Need

February 26, 2021, 12:00 am Peter Bigelow

Solving the age-old dilemma between design and manufacturing.

Developing a new product or process – or even aggressively refining them – is a juggle of “wants” and “needs.” As manufacturers in an industry that constantly pushes the envelopes of performance, real estate, and – yes! – cost, our industry is precisely where the rubber meets the road in reconciling needs and wants.

Manufacturing is a curious profession that often relies on older equipment, processes and employee skills to produce cutting-edge “new” products. The catalyst is, of course, people: people who design and people who take those designs and make functioning product. As smart, talented, dedicated and thoughtful as these people may be, however, they often fail to communicate the needs vs. the wants.

Indeed, it can be hard to know what’s on the other side of the hill.

I personally experienced this while involved with an OEM of instrumentation equipment. The company’s CEO was a brilliant engineer who over decades had designed virtually all its expansive product line. He was truly an engineer’s engineer. One little problem, however, was manufacturing the instruments was difficult, with abundant scrap at many stages of the production process. The machine shop had a devil of a time producing components that met specifications. Trying to outsource was a disaster because “merchant” shops failed miserably on the specifications, no-quoted the parts, or walked from the business. Not wanting to disappoint the CEO, everyone on the shop floor sucked it up and dealt with the high levels of scrap, rather than address the root cause. This high-end manufacturer had to charge healthy prices in part to compensate for the high cost of manufacturing.

As the CEO began to eye retirement, he decided it was time to cut back on some day-to-day engineering responsibilities by hiring a seasoned engineering manager to oversee the large engineering staff. Upon arriving at the company, the new engineering manager heard the horror stories from manufacturing about yield issues stemming from the tight, demanding tolerances. Trying to understand exactly why the tolerances were specified so tight, considering the function of the instruments, the engineering manager asked his staff why they chose to specify those tolerances.

The responses boiled down to two basic answers: The junior engineers said they took the specifications from existing products and applied them to new ones they were working on. Asked why, they responded, “That’s the way it’s always been done.” And the senior engineers said, “Those are the tolerances the CEO requested.”

The engineering manager then sought out the CEO and asked why such tight tolerances were needed on all the many component parts, as well as final product. He expected a lengthy technical explanation related to performance, patents, reliability, etc. – the things that created the “secret sauce” that made these products so great. Instead, the response was surprisingly simple: “I asked for those tolerances, but we don’t need them. I figured if there was a problem with the tolerances someone would say so, and we would adjust accordingly.”  

When you have designed most of a company’s products, and your name is on the building, employees tend not to mention when the “wanted” tolerances are both overly difficult to achieve, costly and not really “needed.” Ditto, most junior engineers will cut-and-paste, not focusing on details such as tolerances or costly surface finishes, especially when told “that’s the way it’s always been done!”

I have seen similar scenarios play out over and again. Engineers specify materials, surface finishes, component placement and especially tolerances they “want,” rather than understanding the manufacturing challenges that could be avoided by specifying what they actually “need.” And too often, those on the shop floor will moan and groan about a given process or specification without bringing their concerns – and recommendations for improvement – to the design staff, so a possible improvement can be achieved.

Manufacturers in a fast-moving, technologically forward industry that supports customers even more focused on rapidly developing cutting-edge products too often lose the understanding between what is needed and what is wanted. This usually can be avoided.

Early communication between the design and engineering team and the fabrication and manufacturing team to discuss processing parameters of materials, surface finishes, balanced placement of components, and appropriate and achievable tolerances can make the difference between profitable and marginal success. This communication is most often appropriate at the time a part is quoted. The contract review that incorporates everything from initial quoting through order entry should be an open, proactive discussion to ensure what is “needed” is the top priority by all, and that what is “wanted” does not derail an otherwise successful product.

Understanding what is needed vs. wanted is a fundamental challenge when designing and manufacturing any product. Achieving a reasonable balance is not always easy but is worth the effort to eliminate wasted time and cost for all.

Peter Bigelow is President / CEO of IMI... Email is: pbigelow@imipcb.com

About IMI Inc.

Founded in 1971, IMI is a leading provider of commercial and military, technologically-advanced printed circuit boards with significant expertise in fabricating on all types of PTFE/Duroid, polyimide, and more traditional FR-4 based laminates as well as mixed construction applications. Based in Haverhill, Massachusetts, IMI is MIL certified, ITAR registered as well as AS9100/ ISO9001 registered and focuses on leading Aerospace, Military, Medical, RF/Microwave and Industrial electronics OEMs and contract manufacturers from its Haverhill facility. For more information, visit www.imipcb.com.