By: The ProShop Team
Design engineering and machining are the cornerstones of companies that manufacture products. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for a rift to develop between the two departments. It can feel like an 8-foot brick wall separates the critical functions: engineers throwing designs over the wall to machinists without context and machinists tossing back finished parts without feedback.
The bricks for this wall are laid by a lack of understanding and sometimes respect, between engineers and machinists. Although both are instrumental to innovating new parts, engineers and machinists have different backgrounds and experiences. 68% of engineers have their bachelor’s degree whereas the majority of machinists went the technical training route with only 17% having received an associate’s degree. On the other hand, many engineers, especially younger ones, have little to no hands-on knowledge of machining. These educational differences cause each group to look down on the other. To drive the wedge deeper, the average hourly rate of a design engineer is almost 2.5 times that of a machine operator.1,2 These two groups of highly intelligent, skilled people are working toward the same goal but from completely different angles and for different rewards. This is the basis of misunderstanding and can lead people to feel the need to prove themselves by challenging and even disrespecting the opinions of others.
As you can imagine, this wall creates a litany of problems for the parent company, the biggest of which is that it significantly drives up costs. When information doesn’t flow between design engineers and machinists both groups develop a blindspot. Engineers don’t see how their designs impact fixturing, tooling, tool wear, order of operations, or inspection, all of which add cost. Machinists don’t see the purpose of tight tolerances or challenging features causing frustration and resentment. A poor relationship between departments can lead to a toxic work culture that increases employee turnover, another significant cost. In order to succeed the wall must come down.
The first step to taking down the wall is establishing good relationships. Luckily, despite their professional differences, engineers and machinists usually share hobbies and interests outside of work. A great way for the company to catalyze interaction is to host events that fall into those shared interests. For example, organizing an employee car/truck/motorcycle/boat show over lunch or right after work is a fun way to break the ice and get everyone talking. Learning to appreciate the individual will lead to a better understanding of their role and responsibilities.
The buck is passed to the engineers because the work starts when they design a part. Engineers must involve machinists in the design process early and often in order to visualize their blindspot. Engineers should explain the objective of the project/product and share sketches prior to ordering prototype parts. Engineers are usually doing project-specific work whereas machinists have seen a variety of parts across the company’s entire portfolio. When the engineer shares the bigger picture with the machinist, the machinist may identify cost savings opportunities like reusing a component from another product or leveraging an existing program, fixture, or proven process.
This is also a good time for engineers to solicit feedback from machinists regarding opportunities to make changes that make manufacturing easier and cheaper while preserving design intent. Designing features that align with standard tool sizes or loosening tolerances are examples. This is called design for manufacturing, or DFM. Too often engineers hear “We can’t make this part” or “We can’t hold that tolerance” without further explanation. Collaborative DFM allows machinists to fully engage with the engineer, providing collaborative and constructive feedback on the manufacturability of the part and building rapport. Engineers, in turn, should be open to this important feedback rather than defensive.
This type of communication early in the project life sets the tone that both parties respect the opinion and value the expertise of the other. That big brick wall is on its way down! As the project continues in its life cycle, engineers and machinists should continue to work together in this way to optimize the design and drive down costs. Engineers are data-driven creatures, so quantifying the cost savings of the DFM effort is a huge benefit. An enterprise resource planning (ERP) system can help machinists accurately estimate set up, run, and post-processing times and analyze the data for various design iterations. Over time, the ERP system becomes a database to reference when you start a new project, making informed decisions for new parts based on similar parts.
Once you’ve deconstructed the wall, look to hire individuals who will continue the culture of open communication and positive relationships. If the wall is particularly high or hard to break down, consider hiring a manufacturing engineer and/or a design transfer engineer to operate as a buffer and facilitate communication between design and manufacturing. Continue encouraging departmental alignment with regular opportunities to touch base or socialize--maybe the car show becomes an annual event! Developing healthy and productive working relationships will allow the team to balance design intent and manufacturing costs to produce the highest value of quality products.