Day 8, New Engineer’s First Job: Manufacturing

Dear Diary, Day 8. During my design review yesterday with John, my manager, he said that I should get input from the manufacturing department on my design. I was surprised, I had always understood that engineers design the products and it is up to manufacturing to figure out the best way to make it. John’s response was “That is the way it has been for years, decades in fact, but it doesn’t work. Our design decisions can make something very easy or very hard to manufacture”. “So we should be trying to make life easy for manufacturing then?” I asked with sarcasm intended. “I prefer to think of it as saving the company money” he said, “print off a few images and show them to ‘Wrench’.”

Now ‘Wrench’ is the companies most experienced fabricator. I choose to believe that he had been given the nickname because he used to be a mechanic. The reaction of a couple of the guys in the office when I asked where I could find him suggested that the name ‘Wrench’ was assigned more in the context of a weapon than an innocent tool. I asked no further questions, ignorance is bliss . . . as long as there are other witnesses . . . I mean workers, nearby when I am talking to him.

Wrench was a big guy, he looked like he had built is own body from the steel he worked. His skin was swarthy and blackened, to the extent that no amount of scrubbing would ever get him clean again. It was obvious just from appearance alone that he was the most experienced fabricator. Hard to put my finger on why exactly but he just looked like he was at one in this natural habitat of his. His work area was not exactly clean but it was organised, set up well and looked like a space he worked hard in, not like some of the other workers areas that were a bit haphazard with parts, drawings and cables lying everywhere.

The almost comically oversized wrench, ominously decorated and hanging over his bench suggested there was a lot more to the story of his nickname that I did not want to find out. Now I will admit to being an introvert and being a bit intimidated in certain social situations. This was definitely one of those situations.

As I approached Wrench I could see his eyes light up like you might imagine a lion’s eyes when it sees a lone antelope wandering his way. “Fresh blood” he said, “I see you were at least smart enough to come down after lunch when we have all already eaten”. Now it is a delicate balance to offer a laugh sufficient enough to acknowledge the joke but without being so hearty as to dismiss the veiled threat. I must have managed it because he then quite pleasantly asked “What can I do you for?”

I apprehensively explained my project and that I was starting into the detailed design but wanted his input. “No problem he said happily”. OK this friendly attitude was actually making me more anxious, all I could imagine was a man in a van with a bag of candy.

He looked through the drawings, I explained the concepts, he asked a lot of questions and then he gave me a number of pointers. I was actually quite amazed at the contrast between the simplicity of his suggestions and the significance of their impact on the design. Things so simple yet things that would never have occurred to me. Tips that will ensure parts are aligned correctly, tips that will ensure access for tools, tips that will reduce the number of parts and material and much more.

I had to ask him after we finished, why he had been so helpful. I told him this was not the experience I was expecting. “5 minutes with you now will save me 5 days when your prototype is being made and 5 hours each when it is in manufacture.” Adding “if only the rest of those old ***** in the engineering office were as open to input as you, this company would make a lot more money.”

Lesson’s from day 8:

Acting on input from the manufacturing department on a design is known as Design For Manufacturing (DFM). This is not about doing manufacturing’s job for them. The investment in the design process is typically only 5% of the overall product cost to manufacture. The irony is that it is in this design process that around 70% of the overall product cost to manufacture is controlled, including material selection, number of parts and assembly processes, etc. The remaining 30% is tied up in overheads etc. You are already aware that as the designer you are responsible for the product cost that is why you will be given a target cost and budget at the start of a project. Designing to suit the manufacturing processes is a major factor in controlling that cost.

Every single factory employee from a line supervisor to a CNC machine operator to the forklift driver is an expert in their own process and can therefore add value to your design.

Generally speaking, most people in production think that engineers are arrogant and that they believe they know everything and are therefore superior. All you have to do to prove them wrong is ask for their advice on designs.

Factory floors can feel a bit territorial, walking through them can feel like trespassing in someone’s back yard. Just be friendly and respectful, as you would expect any of the production staff to be if and when they come into your office.

Clean and fancy clothes tend to stand out like a sore thumb on the factory floor. It is common health and safety practice to wear a hi-vis vest on factory floors. Try to get your hands on one that is worn in (with all respect to health and safety requirements), it will make you look a bit more like you belong. There is nothing that says newbie like a clean high-vis vest that still has its creases from being packaged.

Take any opportunity you can get to work the manufacturing processes, ask if it is not offered. As a graduate, getting your hands dirty is an incredibly valuable learning experience. Some companies actually include placements on the factory floor as part of their graduate development programs.



Coming up: Day 9, Mistakes – How many screw-ups can our new engineer get away with?

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