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Custom Model PUBLIC ACCESS

By Reducing Parts Count and Easing Assembly, One Plasma Cutter Maker Explores Customized Manufacturing.

Mechanical Engineering 132(04), 40-42 (Apr 01, 2010) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2010-Apr-5

This article explains how Hypertherm Inc. of Hanover, N.H., a maker of plasma metal cutting equipment, is using customized manufacturing to allow its customers choose product configurations online. Hypertherm Inc. recently started allowing its customers to choose online from 10 CNC Edge Pro product configurations, up from three configurations in the former product line. Hypertherm customers are now able to pick among many more features than in the past, and-in tandem with the company's lean manufacturing process-the product is assembled shortly after the time of request, making for a customized manufacturing approach. The original plasma cutting model featured 12 inputs and outputs, while newer models feature 24 or 48 inputs and outputs. Input numbers are defined by the board circuitry. The company reuses the same product body design. The circuit boards and electrical interfaces inside change depending upon customers' requirements. This helps speed assembly. The Edge Pro product can now be assembled in half the time of the original product using 27% fewer parts: from 315 to 230.

Ask nearly any engineer or manufacturer about customized manufacturing and—to a person—they’ll all say the same thing: Have you heard the Dell story?

Dell is offered up again and again as the number one example of customized manufacturing done right and done successfully. Shortly after its founding in 1984, Dell began what it calls a configure-to-order approach to manufacturing. The computer company lets customers customize their own computers on the Dell Web site. Buyers select how much memory and disk space they desire and the resulting computer is manufactured and shipped to them.

The approach has helped the computer maker see skyrocket growth. Last year, it held the second-highest spot for desktops and laptops shipped, behind Hewlett Packard, according to market-share numbers from research firm International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Manufacturers—particularly electronics manufacturers—have long been taking notice. Many of them are investigating how the configure-to-order model could be put to use at their own companies. And some of them have implemented the method—along with the necessary software to get the job done—with great success.

Take Hypertherm Inc. of Hanover, N.H., maker of plasma metal cutting equipment. The company has recently started allowing customers to choose online from ten CNC Edge Pro product configurations, up from three configurations in the former product line, said John Sobr, head designer on the project.

While Hypertherm customers don’t have as many options to choose from as Dell customers, they are able to pick among many more features than in the past, and—in tandem with the company's lean manufacturing process—the product is assembled shortly after the time of request, making for a customized manufacturing approach, Sobr said.

The process also shares the Dell approach at its base: same basic parts, many configurations; and the capability to assemble the product to order and get the product out the door quickly.

Around two years ago, company executives sought a way to offer customers a broader Edge Pro product line with more options than in the former product line. In the process, engineers looked to reduce part count and speed the production process, Sobr said.

Hypertherm recently redesigned its plasma metal cutting equipment to reduce part count by 27 percent while doubling the number of inputs available. Customers can now choose from ten product configurations.

Grahic Jump LocationHypertherm recently redesigned its plasma metal cutting equipment to reduce part count by 27 percent while doubling the number of inputs available. Customers can now choose from ten product configurations.

“We wanted to take a subset of very robust parts and easily assemble them into different configurations,” he said. “We reuse what's good by creating many flavors of the product, but all the parts are designed to play nicely together.”

Just as with the Dell computers, the ten types of cutting-equipment products look pretty similar to the naked eye; the customization comes at the back end, Sobr said.

For example, the CNC cutter formerly included a sheet metal door that contained a circuit board and an electrical interface. The boards were placed inside the body of the equipment and the door sealed shut on the assembly line.

“Then we added a special hinge that allows us to install one of four doors on the assembly line,” Sobr said. The doors are now aligned with four product configurations—each features a separate circuit board and electrical interface; the body of the cutter itself isn’t changed. Other features further break out those four categories into the ten separate configurations.

The operator merely inserts the correct door depending on configuration ordered, Sobr said.

The original plasma cutting model featured 12 inputs and outputs, while other, newer models feature 24 or 48. Input numbers are defined by the board circuitry.

“So we just added extra hinges and screws, but then we can quickly adapt the product on the assembly line,” he said.

In other words, the company reuses the same product body design. The circuit boards and electrical interfaces inside change depending upon customers’ requirements. This helps speed assembly.

“Modularity” is the word that Mike Shipulski, engineering manager at Hypertherm, uses to describe his company's new manufacturing model. It's a nice way to broaden the product line while offering a more customized product and slashing manufacturing costs to boot, he said.

This chart depicts Hypertherm's profit-per-square-foot of factory floor space from 2003 to 2008 as engineers redesigned parts. Per-square-foot profit increased by about 60 percent over that period while warranty costs per unit fell about 75 percent.

Grahic Jump LocationThis chart depicts Hypertherm's profit-per-square-foot of factory floor space from 2003 to 2008 as engineers redesigned parts. Per-square-foot profit increased by about 60 percent over that period while warranty costs per unit fell about 75 percent.

Shipulski defines modularity as a series of loosely coupled subassemblies that can be configured in various ways. He too cites the Dell example.

“The older personal computers used to be hardwired in a box with the memory and the drives and the control boards; it was all a system and you couldn’t swap things out,” Shipulski said. “Now you can call the manufacturer and you can choose the size of your hard drive and choose the speed of your chip, which they get from various suppliers.”

“It allows flexibility across the whole system,” he added. “You have one computer frame on which you provide for a whole lot of needs for your users.”

Hypertherm followed the personal computer model when redesigning its own CNC cutter, Shipulski said.

“Basically, if you think of it like a computer, you can provide different interfaces and different capabilities and each is priced differently and offers a different level of performance,” he said.

The Edge Pro product can now be assembled in half the time of the original product using 27 percent fewer parts: from 315 to 230, Sobr said.

“The way we achieved the parts reduction we wanted was to make the system more modular,” he said. “We had to make the parts multitask. It's like, if you made a transmission that could work for a car, a truck, and a dump truck. It's the same component, but has to be more versatile so you have to add complexity.”

Engineers did away with unnecessary fasteners, for example. In the redesign, one fastener may do the work of two or three in the old design.

The original design goal had called for using 50 percent fewer parts in the redesign as compared to the original. Engineers are still working toward this, Sobr said.

The Edge Pro redesign would ultimately be a year-and-a-half project, Sobr said. Design engineers used a design for manufacturing and assembly method and attendant software to help carry out the method. The application is from Boothroyd Dewhurst Inc. of Wakefield, R.I.

Engineers began by analyzing existing products and assembly techniques. This included counting parts and documenting assembly steps—a seemingly tedious process, yet one that yielded a chart to serve as a baseline to measure the success of the new design and to quickly see where the greatest opportunities for improvement exist, Sobr said.

They coupled that chart with feedback from customer surveys from CNC installers, customers, and machine operators, who spoke about their own hopes for a future product line. Engineers paid attention to their feedback to insure they were on the right track with their market, Sobr said.

Ultimately the redesign benefits ripple beyond the assembly line out to customers and even to the delivery people.

They also got input from operators on the assembly floor, by asking them how to speed the assembly process while keeping it straightforward and easy to execute. Operators suggested simpler harnessing systems, easier access to components within the CNC equipment, and reduction in manipulating products on the line as they’re built, Shipulski said.

Then engineers redesigned the product, with an eye toward reducing the part count.

“The main power supply is a good example of simple parts count reduction,” Shipulski said. “Previously, a bracket was mounted at each end of the power supply and fastened with two screws. Then, the assembly was mounted with four nuts onto studs, which were difficult to access,” he said.

The new method uses one bracket and two easy-to-access screws, with tabs and slots for added support.

“That's eleven parts reduced to four, with quicker assembly with fewer tools, much less reorienting and handling, while adding improved access for production and field service,” he said.

Ultimately the redesign benefits ripple beyond the assembly line out to customers and even to the delivery people.

“In fact, the benefits are felt throughout the facility from the UPS drivers who bring fewer boxes of parts into our facility daily, and our procurement people who have less to worry about now with the lower variety and quantity of parts to purchase,” Shipulski said.

But the greatest benefit is selection. Customers can now choose among products suited to their needs and their budgets.

So while Dell may have led the way with customized manufacturing on a fairly broad level, bringing the idea into new lines of business.

Copyright © 2010 by ASME
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