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Why Engineers Who Hate Documenting Their Designs Should Do It Anyway

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engine blueprint - design conceptYou remember those friends in high school that didn’t like to show their work? I predict that many of them are now engineers. Most engineers I know see documentation as an obligatory and pointless chore, solely designed to take them out of ETAP or AutoCAD—and with that point of view, it’s not surprising they avoid it as much as possible. Yet proper part documentation is important, especially during the initial design phase. Without it, it’s much harder to go from prototype to production smoothly.

If you are an engineer who hates documentation, read on—here are some reasons why you should document your part information during the design phase of production, and a few tips about what you should document.

Why you need to document part data during the design phase

Simply put, designs don’t live in a spreadsheet forever—and when your product goes into mass production other people will need to be able to recreate what you did. For example, when a product goes from prototype to production it becomes the purchasing team’s job to buy parts in bulk so the product can be built in volume—if purchasing doesn’t take the wheel, a contract manufacturer (CM) will. If your purchasing team or your CM want to optimize for cost, lead time and part needs across projects, having detailed part information will make sure that the engineering requirements for your product are met.

Rigorous and consistent part documentation policies can prevent late-breaking component challenges, and make sure your designs get manufactured quickly and affordably. If your organization is fairly new to document control, here are some tips for finding and documenting components during the design and production phases.

What part information you should be documenting

As you are looking for parts, you should document part specifications and key part data along the way. If you belong to a small company, this information may be recorded on paper or in an Excel doc. If your product is highly complex, or if there are multiple people who will need to work with the part data, it is helpful to use an electronic data management tool. No matter how you choose to document your part information, you should at least be capturing:

  • The manufacturer’s part number
  • The vendor name and contact info
  • The engineering requirements

As you document the specifications of components that are critical to your product’s design, you may also want to take future needs into consideration. For example, where is the part in its lifecycle—is it still evolving? Is it mature? Is it being discontinued? Will demand for this component skyrocket, making it even more difficult to source, or do you expect it to flood the market and drop in price?

These additional factors are not necessary items for documentation, but they may help your operations team keep production running smoothly later on down the road.

Special considerations for hard-to-find parts and single source components

If you are using hard-to-find parts or single source components, you should take a few extra precautions when documenting your parts. Since hard-to-find parts may be rendered obsolete by the manufacturer or removed from a vendor’s inventory without notice, you may want to find and document alternative sources.  If you are working with single source parts, you may want to form and document a backup plan to handle worst case scenarios—like what should be done if your vendor has limited quantities or goes out of business.

Do you have the proper tools for success?

Properly documenting part information—capturing the manufacturer’s part number, obtaining part spec sheets, recording vendor information—will enable your internal purchasing team or your contract manufacturer to get the best possible price for parts and can even become a competitive advantage for your organization.

There are some tools that can help you properly document part and design information, like PLM or BOM management software. You may also want to consider storing part information in a component library like an EDA (electronic design automation) tool. A stable and well defined component library makes it easier to use easily accessible parts in your designs, or locate alternative choices for parts if the one you want is unavailable.

You don’t want to wait until a product reaches the manufacturing line to realize that it contains parts with procurement challenges or functional limitations, so document early on in the process. It takes much more time and effort to go back and fix documentation, or to deal with the consequences of poor documentation than it does to document product parts properly the first time.

About the Author

Alex Gammelgard

Alex managed social media marketing and communications at Arena from 2011 to 2012. Although coming in fresh to the manufacturing industry, Alex is married to an engineer and is well ...

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