Design for Assembly… and Harmony?

I recently uploaded a presentation on the subject of Design for Assembly to Slideshare; stuff from my ‘old life’ in an engineering department. As I looked over all the guidelines and generally tidied things up (I like the teaching material I put on Slideshare to look pretty) I thought about the modern reality of globalised supply networks, and I wondered: whatever happened to Concurrent Engineering?

Back in the 1990s it was a hot topic. Even in the mid-2000s, I used to teach Concurrent Engineering to a hundred students, some years… but somehow ‘Design for X’ just isn’t being talked about anymore. (The elusive ‘X’ was whatever you wanted it to be; some aspect of the later life of the product that you wanted the designer to consider, while changes were still affordable.)

Lucas Methodology: identifying parts as essential or non-essential

Design for Assembly principles [Lucas, 1991]. This is often just common sense… which is surprisingly uncommon.

The alternative to designing with subsequent operations in mind, we called “over the wall syndrome”, the idea being that the designer would produce something that ought to function, and that was that: job done. The guys who actually had to build it, install and service it, well… that was their problem, in the far-off and only vaguely understood context of things that mattered on the other side of the wall.

Sometime around 2003, we decided that one of the ‘X’s we wanted to consider was Design for the Environment: a lecture on that topic was produced and this set in train much of what was to follow, in terms of my work in eco-efficient manufacturing… but as ‘green’ issues became the new hot topic (and something much more likely to attract a research grant), whatever happened to the idea of considering the whole range of downstream issues concurrently, in design?

In an ideal world, the answer would be that this had become so automatic, so fundamentally a part of the designer’s common sense that it didn’t need to be researched and written about as a separate topic anymore. In an equally utopian vision, design tools had become so advanced that it was possible to consider heat, vibration and mechanical loads in the same software tool where you were designing your hydraulics and electrics; keeping track of ergonomic issues, budgets and so on…


In Karl Sabbagh’s book ‘21st Century Jet: the making of the Boeing 777’ [Sabbagh, 1996] he describes the success of Boeing’s last major civil aerospace project of the 20th century. (They called it “Working Together”, but it’s classic Concurrent Engineering. This wasn’t just a software solution: it was notable for early customer involvement in an industry where, historically, airlines had to wait and see what the manufacturer came up with.) Sabbagh describes how developing an aircraft used to be simple enough because “the entire Design Department was within fifty feet of each other.” For the thousands of engineers involved in the design of the 777 this was no longer possible, but through Working Together Boeing managed to get the world’s largest twinjet to market.

Boeing 777

Boeing 777

Then came the 787, or ‘Dreamliner’… a project that was even more ambitious – not only because it was to be the first major airliner to have an airframe primarily constructed from composite materials, but because so many of its components would be sourced globally. Production of the 777 had included significant international content (most notably from Japan) but this was taken to a new level with the Dreamliner.

Wings from Japan, courtesy of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, although the wingtips and certain other parts would come from Korean Air. Landing gear from the Anglo-French Messier-Bugatti-Dowty. Passenger doors supplied by Latécoère, Franne, with other doors by Saab AB, Sweden. Software developed by HCL Enterprise in India. Assorted fuselage sections from Global Aeronautica of Italy, Kawasaki Heavy Industries of Japan, and Boeing themselves… and so on, and so on.

You know what they say: a camel is a horse designed by committee. Considering the difficulty of developing an all-new product, farming its manufacture out all over the world and getting it all to fit together and operate as intended, Boeing did an astounding job. The ’plane itself isn’t a camel… but perhaps its supply chain was. (Gates [2010] gives us a good picture of the difficulties that the 787 caused Boeing as a whole.)

In September 2007 came news of a three-month delay, with an additional three-month delay to the first flight announced the following month – and a six-month delay to first deliveries. These were mainly due to “supply chain problems”. Further delays would follow, although they wouldn’t trouble Mike Bair, 787 Program Manager, as he’d been replaced.

I’m wondering if increasingly outsourced and international supply networks give rise to a new and particularly ugly version of “over the wall syndrome”, which I’ll call “over the ocean syndrome”. The original problem was that designers didn’t understand how difficult it might be to produce a part of a given geometry, or how difficult it might be to assemble, etc. That’s much more of an issue for a complex supply network: the designer might not be told what the yields or limits of a high-tech process are because that’s proprietary information. Equally, the subcontracted manufacturer might not feel that they are able to gripe about the specification for a part, because any suggestion that it will be ‘hard to make’ might be a deal-breaker. In a world of take-it-or-leave-it contracts worth billions where business is awarded on a “build to print” basis, who innovates?

For a couple of decades, now, the big innovation for a lot of companies has been to tap into the possibilities of manufacture in a low-cost nation; preferably one that comes with huge tax breaks. That’s all very well, but it’s got to put a strain on the engineering process. Instead of having key staff within fifty feet, you’re lucky if they’re in the same time zone – and culturally, they’re worlds apart as well.

The low-cost angle is a mighty big compensation, but it’s a shame to squander so much of the benefit on acrimonious relationships arising as a result of questionable designs for components that are needlessly difficult to make.

Where Design for Manufacture looks at a component with a view to how long it takes to produce, a Design for Supply Chain view would have to factor in such complexities as the other things that we ask of the same supplier, their other commitments, and the best way to make use of their knowledge – not just their capacity. Or we can ignore this latest aspect of Design for ‘X’ and just go on hoping that our designers are really good, despite the fact that they haven’t necessarily had a chance to actually see the manufacturing processes that result from their design decisions.

Now, in a discussion of acrimonious business relationships, I’d be missing the big story if I didn’t mention Apple and GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT). GTAT were going to take Apple’s iPhones to the next level of durability, using artificial sapphire to make scratch-resistant screens… only it didn’t happen: it appears that the company failed to meet a contractual milestone, and they lost the Apple contract. Apple went with plain old ‘Gorilla Glass’ for the iPhone 6, and GTAT filed for bankruptcy protection. Then the stories about their dealings started coming out. Journalist Kif Leswing [2014] describes the situation thus:

“Apple did not ever really enter into negotiations, warning that GTAT’s managers should ‘not waste their time’ negotiating because Apple does not negotiate with its suppliers. According to GTAT, after the company balked, Apple told GTAT that its terms are standard for other Apple suppliers and that GTAT should ‘put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement.’”

– Leswing [2014]

In the eyes of GTAT’s Chief Operating Officer Daniel Squiller, Apple’s tactics were “a classic bait-and-switch … onerous and massively one-sided.” The result, inevitably, is that a company with some genuinely interesting patents can’t exploit them, a newly-built facility in Arizona stands idle… and we still have mobile ’phones that scratch far too easily. Everybody loses.

Now, I have another reason for mentioning Apple. Slideshare’s recent analytics feature lets authors see exactly where their viewers come from. That’s always nice to know, but one of the first to view my Design for Assembly presentation stood out. It was reported as:

Location: Cupertino, United States
Organization/ISP: Apple

Does that mean that my presentation might, in some small way, have influenced a person at Apple? Might some future Apple gadget be easier to assemble, because of something I wrote? Even if you reason that assembly will be performed on the cheap by Foxconn or Pegatron in China so it doesn’t matter if it’s a horrendously difficult job, the same rules that govern ease of assembly might be applied to some aspects of ease of use. Is it too much to hope that some future Apple desktop computer will have the SD card reader slot where you can use it, rather than hidden away at the back where you can never find it? Restricted vision scores a penalty of 1.5 in the Lucas [1991] Design for Assembly Methodology…

Apple Mac Mini: rear view

And the award for stupid card reader placement goes to…

Yes: it’s probably too much to hope. But it’s always nice to have visitors.



Gates, D. (2010) Albaugh: Boeing’s ‘first preference’ is to build planes in Puget Sound region, Seattle Times, March 1st 2010 (available online)

Leswing, K. (2014) Apple to sapphire supplier: “Put on your big boy pants and accept the agreement”, Gigaom News, November 7th 2014 (available online)

Lucas (1991) Mini-Guide: The Lucas Manufacturing Systems Handbook, Solihull: Lucas Engineering & Systems Ltd

Sabbagh, K. (1996) 21st Century Jet: the making of the Boeing 777, London: Macmillan Publishers (see also, the movie of the same… part 1 here)


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