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Designing for Excellence with your Supply Chain

In my early new product introduction (NPI) projects, all of our product data was stored in file cabinets. To release a printed circuit board (PCB) for fabrication, we copied drawings and discs and then physically delivered them to the PCB house—we pushed the data.

For each new release, we always received design for manufacturability (DFM) feedback, whether good, bad, or ugly. If the feedback was “good,” manufacturing started immediately. If it was “bad or ugly,” the PCB required serious improvements before it could be manufactured, eating up precious time in our project schedule.

Although all of my customers now use PLM systems to manage their product data, many are still creating and pushing physical packages of data to their supply chain, incurring opportunity costs on PCBs and other product data. Aside from the electrical components, there are hardware, software, and packaging subassemblies that comprise the final finished good or sellable product. These subassembly designs all require early supplier collaboration and feedback to evaluate and consider how to Design for Excellence (DFX) for other factors like test, cost, safety, reliability, and logistics.

If you’re throwing your product design over the wall to your suppliers late in the NPI cycle, then you’re missing out on valuable DFX collaboration. You can’t act on supply chain feedback at the same time you’re asking partners to start ramping up volume production. This will likely result in manufacturing issues or delays. The key to DFX is involving your supply chain partners in collaboration early in the product development process and through final shipment of your products.

This topic is fresh in my mind as I just completed a project to design and implement my customer’s Supplier Collaboration initiative leveraging their product lifecycle management (PLM) system. Consider these four keys to success when setting up supply chain partner collaboration:

1.       Security

The first consideration in supplier collaboration is always security. It’s never acceptable to compromise your company’s intellectual property for the ease of management or maintenance of communicating data to your supplier. You should ask and answer these questions before you include access to your PLM system:

  • How will you enable supplier access to product data each supplier partner needs while preventing access to sensitive or restricted data?
  • Do you need to enforce regulatory constraints or export controls?
  • How can you ensure valid security filtering on your most sensitive data elements?
  • How will security attributes allow you to include suppliers in your change processes?
  • How will access to your PLM system enforce secure connections, data encryption, and transfer of information?

Spending the time to review these security concerns up front will result in faster development time and save yourself many headaches when leveraging the collective expertise of your suppliers.

2.       “Push” versus “Pull” of Data

In one of my recent customer engagements, the suppliers suffered from a lack of visibility of pending changes and delays in accessing product data to keep builds synchronized with the latest, released product data. Rather than manually creating static product data packages that would be physically picked up by the supplier, my customer opted to invite suppliers into their PLM system, upgrading from a strictly “push” method to a real-time interactive supplier engagement model—or “pull” approach—where suppliers could get information when they need it.

This helped my customer’s suppliers receive proactive notifications from the PLM system not only when a sub-component or assembly was being revised, but also when the proposed revision was approved and ready to be used for production. The four walls of my customer broke down allowing their suppliers the ability to access and retrieve critical product information in real-time whenever it was needed.

3.       Process Maturity

Although supplier collaboration was a business requirement when my customer first deployed their PLM system, they chose to “walk before they ran” by rolling out supplier collaboration in a subsequent phase. This allowed their internal teams to become familiar with the system and allowed their own processes to evolve, mature, and stabilize before inviting suppliers to participate. Defining and documenting clear roles and responsibilities helped ensure smooth transition to the new collaborative model without having to provide frequent changes in direction.

4.       Training

There is always some degree of training necessary to ensure success. With my customer, the new supplier collaboration framework was rolled out in a controlled fashion with supplier training, testing, and feedback. Trainees included not only the relationship managers from the supplier, but also the hands-on resources who would be receiving the system notifications. It was important they understood and practiced the required actions, as well as learned what troubleshooting options and contacts were available. And, in support of the ongoing integrity of the security model, they were asked to report any issues with their access to sensitive data.

Is it right for you?

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all model for successful supplier collaboration, there are best practice recommendations that can be evaluated for fit to your company. The more you rely on outsourced manufacturing and suppliers, the bigger the need for and the greater the benefit of including your suppliers in a collaborative model on your PLM system as early in the product lifecycle as possible. DFX can be accomplished only when all parties to the design, development, and production process are included throughout the NPI process.

If you have a supply chain and are not including them in a pull model, ask yourself why and consider the impact that is having on your ability to deliver high-quality products to market fast.