Developing and launching a product can be stressful – there are many decisions, problems to overcome, and risks to mitigate. While we’d like the process to go smoothly and be able to calmly meet deadlines, this usually is not the case – things we didn’t consider pop up or things that shouldn’t have been a problem become a problem. But, things can be done to minimize surprises and reduce risks of delays. Here's our take on it - a product launch formula.
Many of the decisions, problems, and risks are associated with the materials used in a product. After all, a product is ultimately an assembly of materials that have been shaped, manipulated, and modified. So, making the effort to engineer the materials will have an impact on product cost, performance, and reliability, and on manufacturing throughput and quality.
We can make decisions and get information about the materials that will reduce problems and reduce risks, improve the likelihood of smoother product development and launch, and help ensure the success of a product. The rest of this article discusses different aspects of product development, product launch, and post-launch where materials engineering will improve product success.
The decisions during product development that involve the materials used in a product include:
For component design, the materials selected have a big impact on component performance, reliability, and cost. And that's just not just in terms of the cost of the materials used in the components. It's also from a design for manufacturing perspective. The easier it is to fabricate components out of a particular material, the lower the cost will be to fabricate the component.
With supplier selection, verify that suppliers are capable of consistently producing materials and components that meet performance and reliability requirements. It would seem this is a given, but apparently it is not. Suppliers are often selected based on cost, and the hope that things work out. When evaluating suppliers, verify that the properties, composition, and microstructure of samples meet requirements. Evaluating only properties is not good enough. It’s possible to meet properties specifications and still have composition or microstructure deficiencies that lead to performance or reliability problems. Finally, make sure suppliers have the technical capability to deal with quality problems.
For product testing, verify that the materials being tested meet requirements. It's a problem if the materials being tested don't meet their properties, composition, and microstructure specifications. This can lead to false failures or false passing, and wrong decisions made based on bad data. Verify that materials meet specifications and are metallurgically sound prior to building and testing a product.
Finally, fabrication and assembly process development involves selection of input materials, processes, and process parameters to fabricate components and form joints between components. These decisions influence two things. First, they influence the properties and microstructure of components and joints, which affects whether they have the desired performance and reliability for the product to function as expected. Second, they influence how the materials behave during fabrication and assembly, impacting ease of fabrication and assembly and the quality of the output, which impacts production throughput and cost.
After product launch, people focus on fixing quality bugs with suppliers and production processes. Failure analysis of the problem items should be performed to obtain information that will help determine the root cause. The information obtained during failure analysis includes type and number of defects, material properties, and material composition and microstructure. Without this information it’s difficult to quickly determine the root cause of problems and fix them.
Once production stabilizes it’s time to start thinking about cost reduction and product improvement. Both involve the materials used and will benefit from materials engineering.
Cost reduction can be achieved by using lower cost materials for components, using lower cost suppliers, and improving production quality.
Sometimes, it’s better to design components using materials that offer a high probability of being suitable and enabling meeting development deadlines, and then reduce costs after a product is in production. In this case, looking for lower-cost materials and fabrication processes are options.
Looking for lower-cost suppliers is a good idea after the engineering bugs have been worked out and engineering teams have a good understanding of what to expect from materials and component suppliers. As with supplier evaluation during development, verify that low-cost suppliers are capable of consistently producing materials and components that meet performance and reliability requirements. When evaluating the suppliers, verify that the properties, composition, and microstructure of samples meet requirements.
As for product improvement, it may be necessary to make engineering adjustments to improve reliability. Perhaps components need to be redesigned, with modifications to features or materials.
Finally, if the product is a big success, it may be necessary to look for ways to increase production throughput. Perhaps component redesigns that enable easier fabrication and assembly. Or changes to the production process. In either case, the materials will be affected. Make sure to understand the effects of the changes on the properties, composition, microstructure, and reliability of the materials.
One last thing about using low-cost suppliers. Many companies try to use low-cost suppliers from the start instead of after engineering and production problems have been worked out. This usually involves using overseas suppliers. There's the lure that “we can do it right this time” even though many engineering issues have not been worked out, such as incomplete understanding of the specifications for the materials that will be used in components or incomplete understanding of how components are to be fabricated.
Many low-cost overseas suppliers can't provide the engineering support to help us work these things out as well as they might just under the technical capabilities. This can result in product reliability problems and production quality problems. And it takes money and effort to understand and fix these problems. And sometimes that money and effort outweighs the money and effort that would have been spent working with local suppliers.
Also, there's the effect of being able to make product to sell. Getting poor quality materials and components from our suppliers will impact production throughput. Finally, there's the effect on your reputation when products fail during use and you have unhappy customers.
So, there are substantial reasons for not trying to use overseas suppliers before working out all the details.
Future articles, podcasts, and videos will go into more details about the individual aspects of product development and production discussed here and how materials can be engineered to improve the chances of making sound decisions that enable successful products and lower-stress efforts.