Right now the design chain is disrupted by a shortage of semiconductors; last year it was the pandemic; and the year before that it was trade wars and tariffs. Next year, nobody knows. What we do know is that change happens and these severe and challenging disruptions are getting more frequent, not less.
So how can the engineering team play a role in mitigating risk and reducing the impact of these supply chain disruptions when they inevitably occur?
As with a disease or illness the answer exists in both prevention and cure. Good design for manufacture (DfM) and design for supply chain (DfSC) discipline can reduce the risk of impact from such disruptions and design creativity can help fix the problems that occur even in a perfectly planned world.
Let’s explore these issues one by one:
What is DfD (design for disruption)?
Let’s start with prevention, clearly the most economical way of dealing with a problem. Get the design right and these disruptions are less likely to happen and quicker and easier to fix. The keys to good DfD are in adaptability and parts selection.
For a design to be adaptable it needs to be capable of being made in many factories in many geographies. For us at the Season Group this is about making sure that the design will suit all our facilities, not just one. Part of that is great design and manufacturing data that can be moved from site to site with little or no disruption. We’ve done that numerous times through the pandemic and with great success, but there’s no doubt some products are simply easier to move.
It also means keeping things simple and well within tolerances. Don’t manufacture the product so hard to make that there are only a few factories in the world that can deliver the consistent quality you need. If you do, and you have to move production, you will struggle to stand the product up in a new facility. Just as you probably did when the product was initially introduced.
Parts selection is hugely important, and some would refer to this as design for supply chain. Those suffering during the current device shortages are doing so because they have very limited choice of devices or suppliers for key parts. If you can design in multiple options, do. If you can source from multiple vendors and geographies, do. If you can set up your design to be adaptable, do.
Perhaps the most important part here, though, is to thoroughly understand the supply chain end-to-end. Alternate device suppliers will not help if they all depend on the same supplier a couple of tiers down, or if they all depend on a raw material that may be disrupted.
How can design fix supply chain challenges?
You might be saying, “thanks a lot, but we already have a design in production and now we need to manage a severe component or material shortage or change in production environment.” Well, design can help here. We’ve had numerous examples of companies asking us to take another look at the product design when parts become either redundant or hard to source. And we’ve enjoyed some real success too.
Once we’ve ascertained which component supply is under threat or disrupted we can start to look at the design and see what can be done to create a work-around. This might mean a simple component change, or sourcing a part that will drop straight in, and maybe changing some resistor values, but more often it will mean the redesign, or at least the amendment, of the PCB.
This might seem a drastic measure, but with lead times for some devices going out by more than 10 weeks a redesign is completely practical. Often we can run the current design with whatever component stock is available while simultaneously modifying or redesigning the PCB, getting it tested, and into production. The redesign and sourcing process might only take five weeks from start to new PCBs in hand, sometimes less. This is a much smaller disruption than waiting 10 or more weeks for delayed devices. What’s more, you may end up with a design that is more resilient, one that incorporates many of those design-for-disruption features mentioned earlier.
Component shortages are exasperating, but don’t panic, design is often a good route to reduce the disruption and mitigate the risk of future disruption.