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Jeffrey Heimgartner


Be Ready for the Manufacturing Renaissance

Insights into the main design and development challenges

Published: Wednesday, January 4, 2023 - 13:03

As the U.S. manufacturing sector barrels toward a renaissance, the path ahead comes with challenges that many manufacturers may not be prepared for. The industry—which employs 12 million people and accounts for 11 percent of the U.S. GDP—has slowly crawled out of a decline, and it has the potential to create 1.5 million jobs.

While the resurgence is ripe for the taking, and most manufacturers are confident of growth, many factors play into that developing reality. PTC, the software company that created the design software Onshape, recently released a report, “The State of Hardware Development and Product Design 2022–2023,” which highlights some of the main hurdles manufacturers must overcome. Engineering.com spoke with John McEleney, PTC corporate strategy advisor and Onshape co-founder, to glean highlights of the report and what manufacturers can do to prepare themselves for the future.

Navigating manufacturing challenges and inefficient processes

From troubles with supply chains to collaboration among teams or partners, the manufacturing process comes with many bumps in the road. Unfortunately, even the smallest and most trivial problem has the potential to create an exponential impact.

“The old original vision in this industry 40 years ago was if I get everybody in my company and everybody in my supply chain through the different tiers working on the same CAD system, we can have all the same data, and we can all share and communicate much easier,” McEleney said. “That sounds wonderful until you realize that the supplier you’re using also does work for another company, and that other company may use a different CAD system. You can’t ask the supplier to have five or six different CAD systems. We’ve got these high-fidelity models, yet people are using a low-fidelity communication mechanism.”

Although technologies are available to improve efficiencies, they often lead to what McEleney refers to as a versioning problem. For example, a plastic injection-molding manufacturer may receive a quote. After sending a quote and receiving the job, what happens if the file is actually the prototype version instead of the latest version? Proprietary information also factors into the equation. If a quote is sent to multiple suppliers, it may include vital information. Once a supplier is chosen, it’s not always possible to recall or remove access to that information or get a guarantee that the supplier will destroy it.

These issues also arise within the engineering and design team. A minor change to tolerances on a part in one version may easily go unnoticed. In the end, it means making the wrong part, which means inefficient use of time, materials, and money. For the latter, that can start to add up to billions of dollars.

“We have these great tools that allow people to define digitally what they’re trying to build with, literal accuracy to six decimal places, and the parts can be machined directly off of the CAD files,” McEleney said. “The reality is that people are sending engineering drawings that are often photocopies, faxes, and PDFs, or it might be just one section of a drawing.”

Moving to a cloud-based system offers a way to eliminate those costly mistakes and ensure that everyone has access to the same, most current file.

“We took a different approach when we started Onshape,” McEleney said. “We wanted to allow people to have access to one CAD system in the cloud. There’s only one version, so there’s no issue with incompatibility. When you have a cloud-based type of system, you can place restrictions. In the end, the data is actually residing in the cloud, and you’re giving people a link to gain access to that. Once you award vendor A, you can remove vendor B and vendor C in terms of having access.”

Finding skilled workers and retaining them

In the report, 64 percent of companies said they struggled with finding suitable candidates. Even if they did, keeping them is becoming more difficult. While it might seem like media hype, the “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting” are very real. In the aftermath of the pandemic, a massive number of people quit their jobs. In many cases, the reason was for enhanced work-life balance. For the latter, burned-out employees are clocking in but only putting in the minimum amount of effort.

Seeking a better work-life balance

Another phenomenon associated with the pandemic is remote worker backlash. As the world shifted to remote working, people proved that it was possible to be efficient from anywhere. Now that many companies are reopening, many of those employees are resisting a forced return and looking for other options to stay at home.

During hiring, finding and connecting with the right applicants has been an ongoing problem. From unqualified people to a tight market, the challenge only increases for jobs that require people to work onsite. While money is a factor, other factors that are keeping people away include office politics, work-life balance, access to the latest technology, and having their voices heard.

Although there is no one solution for this problem, automation and digitization are providing key solutions when it comes to getting skilled employees. According to McKinsey research, physical and manual tasks will fall by 27 percent by 2030. Instead of focusing on new hires, many companies have seen the benefits of upskilling current employees.

Wasting time

When companies do have the right people in the right place, they need to ask, “Are we using current employees to their full ability?” In many cases, the answer is no. According to the Onshape survey, design engineers spend one-third of the year working on nondesign tasks.

“It’s such a challenge to find qualified good people and to think that good, qualified people inside your organization are just wasting time, it’s very frustrating as an industry,” McEleney said. “I don’t think people really understood necessarily how much time they were wasting trying to do just everyday tasks. We’ve taken a great step forward with Onshape in terms of the things that we’ve done. As people are adopting it, they’re seeing a lot of those times compressed. But the reality is, looking for a CAD file or looking for the right information to send to people should have been yesterday’s problem, and it’s still not.”

To put that in numbers, “with a minimum investment of $100,000 per hardware engineer (not including benefits), losing one third of their design time amounts to $33,000-plus in productivity losses per engineer per year.” Although interruptions rank high, software inefficiencies play a major role in time usage.

So what are the 12.3 wasted hours a week spent on?
• 4.6 hours on status updates/team meetings that could have been chats or emails
• 3.4 hours locating, accessing, and communicating the correct CAD information
• 2.8 hours dealing with CAD software stability, reliability, versioning, or performance
• 1.9 hours on the administration of CAD software, integrations, hardware, and licensing

During the conceptual stage, an engineering team is taking in information from an array of people, from the customer to the marketing department, while also factoring in costs and manufacturability. This creates a potential eye of the storm for version mania, miscommunication, and ensuring all feedback is entered into the 3D model. Even for a small company that doesn’t have to worry about collaboration, getting to the final design has step after step, from the engineer taking snapshots to the product manager creating a PowerPoint to a person creating the documentation.

“Up until now, these tools have been very difficult to use,” McEleney said. “So the engineering team had to go and spend their valuable time going and basically taking and rearranging pixels on the screen. We’ve made it simpler now with the ability to share and control things. Essentially, you’re allowing engineers to go and make it much more self-service to the rest of the organization. We’re making it much easier for people to allow others to do self-service, access, and get what they want and get what they need.”

While the U.S. may be on the cusp of retaking its place as a global manufacturing leader, manufacturers need to step out of conventional thinking.

“The findings [in this report], some of them were surprising, but some of them were reinforcing things that we’ve observed,” McEleney said. “Honestly, they’ve been solutions or issues that have been kind of brewing in the industry for a long time. Some of the solutions are very difficult to build and take a long time to build, but some of it’s also why we started Onshape.”

First published Nov. 27, 2022, on engineering.com.


About The Author

Jeffrey Heimgartner’s picture

Jeffrey Heimgartner

Jeffrey Heimgartner has more than 20 years of experience in the computer-aided drafting and design field. He manages the Lincoln, Nebraska-based drafting and design firm, Advanced Technical Services. His main responsibilities include managing the CAD team, sales, scheduling and coordinating projects, drafting and design, as well as marketing and all IT functions.