Quiet as it’s kept, the best engineering is precision laziness. This is particularly true of engineered cost reduction. Precision laziness reduces the number of parts, operations, specifications, tools, information, and people needed for a product to meet or exceed customer expectations. In all fairness, this kind of laziness typically starts with a great deal of design work, but design work is normally done once. Production and maintenance work are repeated indefinitely as a product is made and sold. This means that the most fruitful laziness will occur when we engineer out production and maintenance work.
Two prime examples of component reduction are found in recorded music and printed books. Engineers started by reducing large stacks of 78 rpm clay recordings to 33-1/3 rpm long playing vinyl albums. Now, several iterations of product reduction later, customers purchase a license for an electronic copy of a recording, buying pure information without a package. One could argue that this product actually became a service in the reduction process. Similarly, publishers changed from hard cover books to paperbacks and now download files to their customers’ tablets, skipping the purchase of physical merchandise altogether. This is stripping down products to their essence, without non-value-adding physical trappings.
Not only do customers save the cost of the merchandise itself, they also eliminate the time and expense of picking up a book or record at the store. On top of all the savings, the quality of the sound and printed material is usually regarded as better than anything provided by physical media. There are some customers who argue that recording reached its peak quality on the analog equipment at Abbey Road. But they don’t usually take into account the wear and tear and peanut butter that affect physical media.
Not all products lend themselves to this degree of streamlining, but the same kind of precision laziness can be applied successfully to most. Producers save money by avoiding work, not by adding it into the process. A quick cost analysis of the book and record examples will also demonstrate that not all of the savings were passed along to customers. A $0.99 song file or a $10 best-selling book download are certainly less expensive than their physical predecessors. But the production, sales, and distribution costs are miniscule by comparison to those for traditional books and records. Moreover, some other costs like spoilage and inventory carrying are practically eliminated.
OK, so more can be less, and the change can be made in a way that is particularly advantageous to producers and maintainers. How do we apply precision laziness to the world of manufacturing and maintenance?
A value analysis (VA) approach to the elements we’re trying to trim will usually help. VA can usually be applied as a set of questions that identify opportunities in products and processes. The questions must be tailored to your products or services, but start with this kind of logic:
- What is the value of this element (part, operation, specification, tool, information, or work) to the customer, or anyone else?
- What is the cost of this element, both as an amount and as a percentage of the total cost?
- Can we eliminate this element altogether, simplify it, or combine it with another element of the product or service?
- Is there another material, process, or labor grade that could deliver this value at reduced cost?
Probably the best-known instance of applying this kind of logic to a product is the Bic pen, developed in 1950. The Bic Cristal ballpoint pen, born into a world of fountain pens and ballpoints that were fountain pen lookalikes, was stripped down to its value-adding elements — point, ink, protective cap, and barrel. The Cristal ballpoint sold for about $0.19, far below the cost of a conventional pen. Between 1950 and 2004, it sold more than 100 billion units. With only one significant engineering change, a vitrified tungsten carbide ball, the Cristal is still available today at $3.29 for a 12-pack.
Yup, engineer it once, and then don’t make most of it. When applied to production and maintenance, the same principle shows a lot of promise. A look at the Toyota Production System (TPS) reveals use of the VA questions. Work that does not add value is eliminated as a first choice and then minimized or incorporated into other operations.
Production of in-process-inventory (WIP), along with transport, racking, stacking, and storage is eliminated. Production and supply lines are designed to run with almost no storage. As for complex inventory management systems, they are replaced by kanban or other simple, physical systems. Today the best auto plants don’t build a car until they have a customer order for it, and there is precious little inventory between them and their suppliers.
|J. Stanton McGroarty, CMfgE, CMRP, is senior technical editor of Plant Services. He was formerly consulting manager for Strategic Asset Management International (SAMI), where he focused on project management and training for manufacturing, maintenance and reliability engineering. He has more than 30 years of manufacturing and maintenance experience in the automotive, defense, consumer products and process manufacturing industries. He holds a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the Detroit Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in management from Central Michigan University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out his Google+ profile.|