Design By Committee

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Several years ago at my previous employer, I was tasked to do a feasibility study for a large consumer products company. Their patent was about to expire on a product used in the medical field and their marketing department had come up with a great new product that would revolutionize the industry. Representatives from the company had interviewed thousands of people and determined the ideal products for different applications. These products would come in many different shapes and sizes and ensure that they kept or even increased their market share.

Along with a mechanical project engineer and a project manager, we first visited plants across the country and in Mexico to learn how they made their current product. In North Carolina and Wisconsin we watched high speed web lines and folding machines spit out finished products ready for packaging. At two different border plants in Mexico we saw how the new product was made in a manual process. Our task was to determine how to automate the process to produce the millions of products that were anticipated to be needed; the manual process was far too slow.

There were many challenges to be overcome. The manufacturing process for the old product was to simply cut and fold pieces out of a moving web. This process has been used by manufacturers in many different industries for a long time, nothing special there other than high speeds and a special material. The new product consisted of multiple pieces of different sizes that had to be attached together. This posed special problems, especially on a moving web.

Several methods of attachment were evaluated. The material was a polyethylene nonwoven that could be ultrasonically welded. Various adhesives were also considered as well as bar sealing using heat and/or pressure.

The company had already determined where the equipment would be located, so space restraints were known. Working backwards from the estimated market requirements, we determined the speed necessary for the web. The only thing that had to be determined was exactly how it would be done; at this point the budget could be considered unlimited.

We met with experts in web handling, ultrasonic welding and folding. We did research on bar sealing, cutting and adhesives. Overall we spent nearly six months designing, refining and investigating and ended up with several options. None of the options were guaranteed to work within the space and at the speeds required, but the project showed promise.

We gave all of our research to the customer for evaluation. Several weeks later we were invited to present our findingsĀ in front of many of the concerned parties, from marketing to finance to management. Though there were a few technical people and engineers at this meeting, most of the attendees did not know much about manufacturing, physics, machine-building or design.

Imagine our surprise when all of the attendees were handed colored adhesive dots and post it notes. Papers were taped up around the room and the various methods of processing, cutting, sealing and attaching were listed on the paper. The attendees were then invited to vote on all of the different methods by sticking colored dots next to their favorite idea, regardless of whether these methods could be used together or not. The system that emerged from the voting had not even been evaluated and indeed could not be built in the required space, nor would the various stations work at the same speeds as a cohesive unit.

In retrospect, one of the errors that had been made during the process was breaking the system down into individual options and methods for the customer. This gave them a little too much of a look “under the hood” of how brainstorming and machine design work. Coupling this with the presentation to a majority of non-technical people all but guaranteed that the project wouldn’t happen. Long story short, the budget was used up for the study and as far as I know the system was never built. I started my company about a year later and never heard anything about that particular customer again.

The lesson I learned was that the more people that are brought into the evaluation process for a project, the more inefficient and misguided the process can become. For large high dollar projects like this, everybody wants to be involved and ensure that their concerns and opinions are heard. When you open up the design and process evaluation portion up to non-technical people, some truly wild (i.e. crazy) ideas emerge. If the people are from high enough on the ladder, no one wants to be the one that tells them their ideas won’t work.

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Electrical Engineer and business owner from the Nashville, Tennessee area. I also play music, Chess and Go.

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