by Tony Parker, Avance LLC
Around our office, we have forbid ourselves from using the word “easy” when discussing client projects. Utter that word too often and Murphy’s Law will eventually let you know that nothing is ever as simple as it first looks.
The majority of these complications stem from issues that occur when sharing data with clients or strategic partners throughout the development process. CAD drawings and 3D models, product definitions and specifications, test results, compliancy reports, photo renderings, technical illustrations and more all comprise my definition of “product data”.
The intent of this article is to shed light on common issues that hinder the process, with the hope it draws attention to refining your own design data control process or sharing best practices within the MAPP community. Whether you are a full-service processor that offers turnkey product development resources or a provider that relies on strategic partners throughout the development cycle, many of the same challenges exist when managing product data. Minimizing the potential for errors will certainly benefit you and your client’s profitability and garner trust from your client that their intellectual property is in good hands.
First, we’ll take a look at issues confronting the “Upstream” travel of data in the development process. This collection of phases consists of getting the data out of the head of the inventor or concept originator(s), up to the point where production level tooling is fabricated.
1. Keeping It Confidential
Prior to project kickoff, start by asking your client if they have a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement for you to review, and if agreeable, sign. While this is probably already common practice in your organization, new and eager clients often will fail to bring this up prior to discussing or sharing data for their new product, but it will ultimately serve you well should a litigious situation arise. Be diligent in reviews of NDAs brought forth by new clients, and include your legal representation as necessary. Not all NDAs are written the same. I was recently asked to sign an agreement that specified my company could not offer our services to any business that would compete in this new client’s market for a period of years. When asked if the new prospect would revise this clause in the NDA, they declined.
It certainly is not uncommon for a plastics processor to service a variety of clients that compete in the same market space. Ensure your agreements are current and proper protocols are followed for each, especially when transferring data to strategic partners that serve you.
2. Who Owns What?
Data ownership should be clearly understood from the beginning of a project. At most kick-off meetings, the client requests a quote from the plastics processor for tooling and parts. The client may or may not have the design completed in some format that will facilitate the tooling process, whether 2D or 3D in nature. If you offer services to complete the design for the client, whether through in-house or outside sources, be very explicit about the ownership of product data as part of your quoting process. Another example: a client awarded Molder “A” with a purchase order for tooling and parts, and design data provided by the client was not “mold-ready”. Molder “A” had an outside tooling source create the final design. After some time and scheduling considerations, the client selected to move production to Molder “B”. When revisions to the part design were requested, neither Molder “B” nor the client had a copy of the 3D CAD data from which to work. In good-faith, Molder “A” presented the tooling files when requested, and the client avoided much higher costs to complete the revisions. This situation could have been worse, as Molder “A” was under no obligation to archive or present the data.
Also, be explicit about items to which the client does NOT have entitlement. You may have developed trade-secret processes that efficiently manufacture a complex product. If the client chooses to move production elsewhere, those processes remain part of your intellectual property unless it was previously agreed upon otherwise.
3. Know Your Role
In many instances, the client has completed the early design phases of development of the new plastic part. Tooling and production quotes are based on a 3D CAD model provided by the client. This model has features accounting for manufacturing processes such as draft, shrink, sink, etc. When this is not the case, someone is tasked with the creation of a digital model of the part. All associated engineering tasks, prototyping, etc. that accompany the development cycle will need to be controlled. How a plastics processor chooses to manage data control is a key ingredient to the success of a program. Are your personnel and processes flexible enough to accommodate a variety of client cultures?
Some clients can be very dictatorial by nature, controlling all aspects of the development process, and perhaps even imposing on your own. Others can be more passive, revealing just enough information to consume excessive time and resources to complete their programs. Vetting new clients early to learn their habits and expectations can be helpful in putting together the right program plan. At project kick-off, assignment of roles and responsibilities should be clear.
4. Specification Revelation
Perhaps one of the more frustrating issues is managing a hidden or changing specification late in the development phase. Symptomatic of “project creep”, a client brings forth information or a revision request that alters the design of the part, perhaps after tooling has been fabricated.
Texture selection appears to be one of those often overlooked examples. A part has been designed with shallow draft angles to accommodate fit into an assembly, and texture specifications at the time of kick-off were “To Be Determined”. Once tooling is complete and sample parts approved, the client wishes to select a texture requiring much greater draft. At that point, the client must weigh compromising texture selection or possible tooling re-work.
We try to cast a broad net to gather and lock down as many specifications as possible at the beginning of a design project. Mechanical, environmental and aesthetic considerations, along with certification or compliancy requirements, cover a broad range, but may not capture all. Be proactive in pursuing potential “hidden specifications” with your client.
One of the marvels of today’s sophisticated CAD software is the ability to repurpose a 3D CAD model for a variety of uses. Most retail consumers would probably be shocked by the number of product images used in marketing materials that may appear to be the physical product, but are actually photorealistic renderings from a 3D CAD model. Patent authors, technical writers and simulation analysts among others all rely on access to product data, and more specifically, the 3D model. This constitutes the “Downstream” distribution of product data. Once the product design is complete, a host of support activities clamor for access, leaving more opportunities for error.
1. Archival Responsibility
After design data is created, it needs a place to be stored. Securely. Digital storage/archiving is a relatively low-cost means of providing a value-add to your clients, but there are risks and responsibilities involved.
Be very clear with your client about what, if any, product data you will archive, in what format and for what length of time. There are a number of situations that can necessitate the recovery of archived data, whether for your own use or to the benefit of the client. Revising a product design and its accompanying production tool based on its original data is inherently less costly than recreating that data from scratch.
2. Revision Control and Data Storage
Managing data and tracking revisions to that data can be a daunting task. Most mature companies already have systems in place to assign and track part numbers, revision levels and ECOs (Engineering Change Orders). Start-ups or small businesses may have developed their own systems that work efficiently for a time, but may soon find them outgrown. In this case, consider PDM (Product Data Management) software to help facilitate this task. Most of these packages behave like digital libraries, where documents can be checked in and out of storage. Changes to data can prompt an automatic revision assignment, and “rules” can be established for allowing specific types of access.
But even these systems require disciplined use to be effective. Approved design models shouldn’t languish as email attachments for long-term storage, nor reside somewhere in the “My Documents” folder along with pictures from your last vacation. Regardless of process, avoid errors by keeping all client data centrally stored and consider an offsite backup solution for additional protection.
3. Data Disseminator
If your organization participates in the creation and/or storage of your client’s data, be aware of the time spent to manage and distribute that data. Be clear of expectations when working with clients about the time or resources you can allocate.
Conversely, if you are not managing your client’s design data, be cautious of executing revisions that are not originated through a formal process. Consider this scenario: The client has a processor build a tool and run production of a part that was originated with the assistance of an outside design firm. The client accepts the lot, but inquires if the parts can be made more rigid during the next production run. To be helpful, the processor recommends changing material, adding ribs, etc, to improve the part. The client approves verbally, but does not engage in a formal change order process. The tooling and material are modified, so the next time parts are delivered, they are not to print. The design firm, the processor and the client ultimately spend time investigating and rectifying a situation that could have been avoided by following procedures.
In summary, reviewing your current processes may reveal program risks and inefficiencies in the way you currently manage design data throughout the development and production cycle. When investigating process issues unexplained by the obvious, consider the data trail leading up to the event in question. Continuous improvement in these areas will give you a competitive advantage while impressing upon your clients that their product data will flow smoothly.
Tony Parker is a principal and design engineer with Avance, LLC, an Indianapolis-based product development consultancy. The past fifteen years of his career have focused on design process using 3D CAD and rapid prototyping technologies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.