Finding the right level of control for your manufacturing change approvals is essential for getting your product to market on time and at cost, but knowing when to loosen up and when to lock down is often a tricky call.
A loose change process, where individual engineers have the discretion to either expedite change requests or make immediate revisions, exposes your product to unintended consequences including costly scrap and rework at best and field failures at worst. But excessive review slows down the iterative process and burdens team members, making it harder to innovate and rapidly improve product quality.
Eric Larkin, co-founder and CTO at Arena, has firsthand experience with both the benefits and pain points of different levels of change control. His first company, Light & Motion Industries, used an informal change process that gave individual engineers the discretion to authorize product changes autonomously. He later worked at Storm Technology, where all changes went through a detailed review.
I sat down with Eric to better understand how much approval is needed to successfully launch a product, and how a company can find that optimum level of control.
Interview with Eric Larkin, co-founder and CTO at Arena
CTO at Arena
Why did you decide to go with an informal change approval process at Light & Motion?
Eric: At the time, it was very important for Light & Motion to be nimble and iterate changes quickly, because we felt it allowed us to deliver the best possible product to customers. We could handle a looser change process because we were early in the product lifecycle and had a small engineering team, so the details of the design were very familiar to everyone. An individual engineer was expected to make the right calls on product design or call in colleagues for review without formalized approvals. We could also use a looser process because our manufacturing was vertically integrated, meaning that even though the product was complex, we could generally go downstairs and see the result of a change immediately.
Did this informal change process ever backfire on you?
Eric: Yes it did, though on balance I’d use the same approach again in a similar situation. The downside to a quicker change process is, very simply, that you make more mistakes—and those errors can produce scrap and negatively affect quality and company reputation.
For example, the controls on our underwater video housing used high strength (so-called “rare earth”) magnets mounted in movable switches outside the enclosure to activate Hall effect sensors on the inside of the housing. The first versions of the product used samarium-cobalt magnets because they are very high strength and resistant to corrosion. But, they’re also relatively expensive, and our head of manufacturing realized that we could save money by using neodymium magnets instead. It was a pretty big savings—the samarium-cobalt magnets were about a dollar apiece, while the neodymium equivalents were less than a quarter. He did functional tests with the neodymium magnets and they worked fine, so he approved them as an alternative for purchasing.
We soon found out, however, that neodymium magnets corrode very quickly in salt water—a real problem for an underwater device used by scuba divers all over the world. It caused a number of field failures so we switched back to samarium-cobalt. We eventually redesigned the switches to put a seal around the magnets and got to save money and prevent corrosion, but it’s still an error I wish we hadn’t made.
Key questions to help determine the right level of control for your change approval process:
Do you have a relatively large engineering team?
Does your product involve several different engineering disciplines?
Are your teams or your manufacturing sites geographically dispersed?
Do you have low gross margins and little room for scrap or rework?
Do you manufacture your product in high volume?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, than you may want a higher level of control over your change process
Compared to Light & Motion, do you believe Storm Technology benefited from its highly formalized change process?
Eric: Storm Technology had a larger team designing scanners for outsourced high volume manufacturing, so it had different requirements for its change process than Light & Motion.
For a large company producing higher-volume products, it’s important to follow a formal change process in order to minimize the chance of decisions with unforeseen implications. And with several engineering teams in different disciplines, there were a lot of opportunities for one change to impact another aspect of the product. Review was both necessary and appropriate for the product and the scale of the engineering and manufacturing effort.
However, the formality did slow us down early on in the design process. When you’re first prototyping a new design, it is really important to move fast and iterate quickly to work out kinks and figure out a reliable manufacturing process.
For example, we had a flatbed scanner design in which we were bonding the "carriage" that held the scanning element to the other side of the glass sheet where we placed the document. It was a real innovation that reduced part count and eliminated a tolerance stack that affected image quality. But that kind of bonding is tricky—we had to account for material compatibility, work out procedures to clean and prime the surfaces, and address adhesive application and curing. We needed to get the product shipping for the holiday season, and we couldn't iterate fast enough on the design to nail down the process.
We ended up with a higher scrap rate than I would have liked. It’s hard to know what might have been, but I think a looser process early in the design would have gotten better results.
How did these experiences influence how Arena BOMControl handles the change process?
to optimize the change process for its specific needs
Eric: I learned that there is no universally correct way to establish a change process, so I wanted BOMControl to be flexible and allow a company to configure and update its change process based on particular needs and where a product is in its lifecycle.
The goal of BOMControl change management is to provide all the benefits of a centralized product record without hampering rapid iteration in the early stages of prototyping.
What's your general rule of thumb for setting up a solid change process?
Eric: In general, a company with low volume manufacturing, a simpler product and a relatively small, single-discipline engineering team is best served with a more informal change process. A centralized engineering team and vertical integration also make it easier to have a less formal process, since a surprising amount of information is exchanged over the water cooler or on the manufacturing floor.
I also recommend that companies experiment with a less formal review of changes in the design phase and switch to a tighter approval process in production—when mistakes can have major repercussions. And no matter how changes are handled, product data needs to be centralized.
Setting up a change process can be a very tricky balancing act, and I personally feel that unless you are making a safety-critical product, it’s generally not optimal to do so much review that you completely eliminate mistakes.
If a manufacturer isn’t making any mistakes, the company may not be moving or innovating fast enough to stay competitive over the long term. It’s one of those things where you can, and probably should, make continual adjustments to find the best fit between the process and your particular people, product, and business environment.
How Arena BOMControl handles change management:
In BOMControl, a typical configuration for change management allows authorized members of the team to directly release new revisions of parts and products in the design phase—with no formal change order or approvals—so rapid iteration isn’t stifled. However, after the part or product enters the production phase of the lifecycle, the same change requires a formal change order with multiple sign-offs based on redlines of the product design. Of course, companies can configure this as they see fit. Larger customers tend to prefer formal change orders over “lighter” approvals in design, and really small teams sometimes prefer to keep it fast and loose all the way through production.