Product simplification is the discipline of merging the greatest performance functionality into the fewest number of parts using the most suitable and cost-effective materials and manufacturing processes. It is an engineering board game, in a way, answering questions about a design and seeing a Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DFMA) database respond with quantitative costs and reports. There is truth and mystery in confronting an analysis that says there are too many parts, shows the team where, and then launches everyone into the intimacy of trial-and-error engineering, collaboration, and fresh creation.

It’s a game that companies would ideally play regularly, but tend to do most vigorously when innovation and efficiency are both in crisis. Cross-functional product development teams have discovered and rediscovered the phenomenon of product simplification in meeting door- die cost targets for their companies. Along the way, manufacturers learned that it is through the rigorous combination of design and process innovation that market desirability and engineering elegance are achieved in tandem.

Yesterday’s innovative design ideas and process choices are today’s competitive standards. Snap fits and living hinge techniques became great tactics for innovation by Dell, HP, and Motorola. Beyond plastics, engineers made other daring moves from the DFMA game board. Medical companies embedded hydraulics and printed circuits into structural supports to avoid individual part costs, potential part failures, and added assembly labor. Dell and HP continued their design assault on unnecessary cables, harnesses, and separate electronic components, building new functionality onto circuit boards.

Product simplification was helped, of course, by creative supply chains. Finally seeing an opportunity to advance new technology, suppliers showed their OEM partners how to use process breakthroughs to put answers on a sometimes blank work sheet. A designer’s habit, for example, of creating molded ribs for purely visual symmetry can add 30-40% to the manufacturing cost of a component. The expertise of both parties working in transparent collaboration with a cost analysis tool has unlocked significant savings.

There are other catalysts for innovation as well. Motorola University in Asia teaches the integration of lean, Six Sigma, and DFMA to internal design teams, suppliers, and customers. They recognize the impact of product simplification on quality, performance, and profitability in electronic products. Recent benchmarks for cost reduction are impressive. Knowing that their approach is a business, not just a technology strategy, engineers sit in redesign sessions with unit heads — even with presidents — and use a business score card to measure progress and institutionalize best practices.

The benefits of product simplification are spread through every “touch phase” of a product’s travel — from the napkin sketch idea, through CAD, production, shipping, administration, service, and end-of-life disposal. Innovation — brought about through analytical costing and simplification of the complete pro duct, from initial design to final disposal — is the future. Wonderfully, the best industry innovators have already embraced a full understanding of the dynamic beauty of simplicity, but everyone can, and should, play this game.

For more information on DFMA, click here .

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the April, 2009 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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