Too Much Candy Can Give You a Belly Ache

By Jerry Fulkerson

A lot of folks, especially managers, think that engineers like to buy equipment so that they can play with new toys.  OK, there’s actually a little bit of truth in that, but the biggest reason we like seeing a new machine hit the floor is because good engineers are hardwired to solve problems and make things better.  New equipment, if we did our job right, can be a way to take one more step on the path to continuous improvement.    The key phrase there is, “if we did our job right.”

When tasked with producing a new part or component, most manufacturing engineers are pretty good at knowing what type of processes are available to use and where to get more information about them.

  • We are well versed in the processes and equipment that our companies are already using.
  • We attend trade shows and seminars regularly.
  • We regularly whittle away at the stacks of technical magazines on our night stands in the evening.
  • We surf technical sites on the internet.
  • We network with colleagues who work in our industry and share ideas when appropriate.
  • We make time for tool and machine salesmen when we can and listen when they talk about new technology (toys).

Side bar – A lot of people and companies consider salesmen a vaguely necessary evil.  That may be true with one who doesn’t have the knowledge and experience to be a resource, but a good sales engineer can be the difference between a successful project and one that simply limps along. The key is finding a sales engineer who is actually an asset.  If I’m dealing with a machine sales engineer that I haven’t met before, I look at his business card. If he has the letters CMTSE (Certified Machine Tool Sales Engineer) after his name, then it’s a good bet that he has the skills to be a resource.  Most sales engineers are certified if they have been active for more than a year or two.  If yours isn’t, that’s a red flag.

We do all of those things because, generally speaking, engineers are a curious lot who like to learn.

Oddly enough though, after we’ve gathered all of that information, we often hesitate to try new technologies.  Occasionally, the reason for that hesitation is fear…not typically fear of change, but fear of failure.  Some engineers, some companies, don’t understand or don’t embrace the idea that continuous improvement and change are interdependent actions.  They also don’t accept that occasionally failure or unplanned challenges are an integral component of change.  Engineers and companies with that viewpoint tend to take the safe route, especially with large capital projects, and stay close to what they have done in the past.  They live in their comfort zone. That’s a problem which can’t be fixed with a blog post.

Fortunately, that’s not the biggest reason that an engineer will walk past a promising new process and opt to stay with one that is tried and true.  I call the second reason the “Kid in the Candy Store Syndrome.”

*****

Decades ago, when I was a kid, we had “corner stores.”  They were a little like our current convenience stores, but they weren’t chain stores and they didn’t sell gas.  They sold staple items like milk, bread, canned goods, cooking ingredients, soda, comic books and…candy.  The best corner stores sold candy in bulk, like the one closest to my house – Freeman’s.

Candy was cheap then and I could buy a pound for about fifty cents. Fifty cents was a lot of money for a kid back then, but I had my routine down pat.  First thing in the morning I’d head out on my bike in search for empty and discarded soda bottles.  Each bottle I found had a 2 cent refund with my name attached to it and, on the route I used, within an hour or so, I could easily collect thirty bottles.  Shortly thereafter I could be found sitting on the floor in front of the candy display trying to decide what mix of candy I wanted that day.

But here’s the thing, I loved all of the candy (hence my current problem fitting into a speedo).  One by one, I would glance at each container of candy, mulling over its strong points before moving onto the next.  After watching me do that for thirty minutes without making a decision, Mr Freeman would look down at me and say, “Come on kid.  I got things to do! What do ya want?”

Every single time that happened, I’d sigh and reply, “Gimme a pound of Good n’ Plentys.”  The other candy all looked so good that I just couldn’t decide what I wanted, so I went for the safe and easy choice while promising myself that I’d get more adventurous tomorrow.

*****

Engineers can have the same problem when they are comparing new and differing technologies or processes, especially if they’ve never had hands on experience with them.  There are things we can do to get more data, including site visits to the manufacturer, field visits to existing users and even proof of concept test runs.  But, while those activities can eliminate a poor candidate, they often do very little to differentiate viable processes that are close in both cost and performance.  That’s where an analysis tool becomes useful. The tool I use when I have several closely performing processes to evaluate is SWOT Analysis.

Side bar –  Purists will be unnerved with how I use SWOT analysis. Besides introducing a numerical aspect, I also take liberties with the traditional “Internal-External” definition of the four factors.  Sorry, life goes on. 🙂

Strength-Weakness-Opportunity-Threat is a tool often used for comparative evaluation.  It’s ubiquitous in advertising and marketing, but its simplicity and versatility make it useful in any situation where a decision between two or more options is being made.  Basically it’s like the old pro/con lists that we all make from time to time but with a wrinkle where a “maybe” factor is included.  With SWOT we make a list of the strengths (known), weaknesses (known), opportunities (potential) and threats (potential) of a process or idea.  Since SWOT is often done during brainstorming sessions, the end result is simply a list of categorized thoughts that are meant to provide structure to the decision making processes.  From an engineering standpoint, that structure, while useful, isn’t definitive.  Engineers like numbers that can help quantify a decision making process.  Verbiage on paper or on a white board doesn’t fit that need.

To get that quantification, I use a weighted SWOT Analysis which assigns values to each identified attribute and then calculates a composite score for the process.  The spreadsheet I use looks like this:

Blank weighted SWOT – click image to enlarge

The first thing you’ll notice is that each attribute has a weighting factor and a value.  The weight factor is built into the spreadsheet.  The positive attributes of the process, strength and opportunity, have positive weight factors. The negative attributes of the process, weakness and threat, have negative weight factors. For both positive and negative attributes, the weight factor for a known attribute is larger than the weight factor for a potential attribute.  For each attribute, the weight factor is multiplied by a value we assign to produce a score.  The scores are then summed and combined to produce a composite score for the process.  Here is a second example of the spreadsheet with a few sample attributes and values added for illustration.

Sample entries in weighted SWOT – click image to enlarge

I typically rate each attribute on a 1-5 scale, but that’s arbitrary.  If you need more resolution, use a 1-10 scale.  You might also want to change the weighting factor based on the type of the attribute.  For example, you could give safety or quality related attributes a higher weighting than production or operation.

The concept is simple.  Come up with as many advantages or disadvantages as possible for a process, determine whether they are known or potential, and then evaluate each one for its importance.  The trick is to remember that we’re evaluating the process here, not a particular machine.  That means that rather than rather than including machine specific attributes like “HP at the spindle” or “Maximum tools in the tool changer” we use a broader focus that includes items like “The part can be dropped complete” or “Tooling is more expensive.”

One suggestion I have is that you should have at least one budgetary quote for each process you are considering.  You’ll need that to do rough ROI period and IRR calculations.  That information, at least in comparative form, should be included in the SWOT.  It won’t do much good to identify your preferred process only to find later that you can’t afford to implement it.

Going back to the project at hand, let’s say that our investigations have identified four  processes that could successfully produce our new part:

  • Multi-spindle bar machine
  • Four axis fixed head stock CNC turning center
  • Seven axis sliding headstock CNC swiss turning center
  • Twin spindle gantry loaded CNC chucker turning center

At this point in the project, our goal is to define the process, not necessarily the specific make and model of the machine.  Completing a weighted SWOT for each one of these listed processes will give us a quantitative tool to compare one process against another.  Is it still subjective to a degree?  Sure it is.  We are using our best judgement to assign values to each attribute that we identify.  The key is to assign those values consistently using a logical thought process.

There’s one last point that I want to make.  Defining the process is the single most important part of a new project.  In some companies the culture is one that leaves that process definition solely in the hands of one person.  That is simply a bad idea.  Defining a process should always be a cross functional activity.  One person can lead the team, but the members should include, at the very least, representatives of Engineering, Quality, Production, and Maintenance.  I’m a strong proponent of having a manufacturing associate on the team as well.  Each one of those individuals will have a different perspective and bring valued input as the various processes are evaluated.

While there are other effective tools to help bring order and focus  when you have to evaluate multiple processes, I’ve found weighted SWOT analysis to work best for me. I’ve used it in one iteration or another many times over the years and it’s invariably had the effect of bringing a degree of order to my decision making process.  I don’t always go with the process that has the highest composite score though.  Sometimes gut feelings come into play.  When they do, I always step back and take another look.  I firmly believe that gut feelings are a sub-conscious way of telling yourself that something has been missed and you’re getting ready to make a mistake.

If you’d like a copy of the Excel spreadsheet for the weighted SWOT, send me an email here.

See ya.

Next post – We’ve defined the process, now it’s time to choose the actual equipment.

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