How can automation be used to drive early stage design, freeing up engineering resources for non-standard aspects?
The task of taking a customer’s requirements, developing a specification and moving into the product development stage comes with many pressures. In addition to the constant requirement for ‘better and faster’, there are now further burdens on the design department.
One challenge is the increased demand for customization. Discerning customers are looking beyond off-the-shelf products; they want custom products that match their needs exactly.
For many organizations, however, building bespoke solutions for each customer is a challenge too difficult. The time required to develop, test, prototype, build, document and ship unique solutions simply isn’t available in today’s competitive economic environment. But there is a middle road that allows both parties to get what they want; custom products without the burden of having to deliver entirely unique solutions. This is called design automation.
Expert systems go mainstream
Design automation or rules-based design has been around for decades. Starting out in advanced industries such as aerospace, these ‘expert’ systems were built to capture the knowledge and rules required to design specific components or subsystems.
Design automation is not just driven by geometry. The integration and linking of form, function and performance is key. Users punch in the variables and parameters and the design comes out of the other end. Yes, checks, validation and sign off are still required, but the heavy work can be done in a fraction of the time.
Today, the cost of establishing a rules-based design environment has been lowered and tools are now available for mainstream use. The scope of performance metrics has also grown and can now include complex simulation. It’s not just about rudimentary equations anymore. Custom products can also be highly optimized.
Leaders in the field
In a recent survey of 400 leaders in the industrial equipment market, rules-based design was identified as a differentiator. Within the market as a whole only 14% of respondents were looking to rules-based design as a performance enhancing approach to product development. Amongst the leaders, this rose to 46%.
So if the leaders are doing it, how can every organization better adopt these processes? Where is a good place to start?
Selecting the sweet spots
Consider your organization’s key design workflows. Are there areas where automation can be applied to carry out common design or engineering tasks?
Look at the last few projects your team has worked on. Are there areas where the same team is carrying out a variant of the same process, designing another iteration of the same base product? Can the performance and geometry of that product be captured in a set of rules that lend themselves to reuse?
Freeing up resources
Setting up a rules-based design does take time and effort. Resources are required to capture rules, establish processes and build templates.
However, consider how much time is wasted repeating common design tasks. It might be a single component that represents the underlying platform of your product range. It might be something more complex; a set of components that create a subsystem or subassembly. If the design of each customer’s variant can be stripped back, captured, automated and removed from the process, it can free up valuable design and engineering resources.
Room for innovation
Introducing automation also means that the wider design team can engage in the development of these products. ‘Old Bob’, the expert that everyone has in-house, can concentrate on experimental development and validation of these products. Also, once the work is done to capture these rules, it pays further dividends with each use.
Each subsequent project helps free up extra capacity. This leaves time to develop the customer-specific portions of the design. Time to test and prototype new concepts. Time to bid for more work. And, of course, time to develop the next generation of products to further advance your company’s competitive advantage and find areas for innovation.