The Design-Reality Disequilibrium


This month’s newsletter focuses on the importance of defining your entire supply chain when designing and launching a new product. If you want to get off on the right foot and succeed at scaling to volume, it’s critically important to pin down all of the “CTF” (critical to function) components, materials and parts before finalizing the device design. This means “knowing your suppliers” before you start.

A client asked us to manufacture an electromechanical device that would dispense a small consumable part that makes the retail checkout experience safer and more efficient. We had first connected with them last year when the device was at the pencil sketch stage.

While way too early for us then, we discussed the concept and brainstormed about how to load and dispense the single-use/disposable parts into the device. The little parts are about the diameter and thickness of a dime and exhibit both hard and soft surfaces. They also have a unique feature that makes for challenging handling. We envisioned several methods to feed the machine including tape & reel, stacked tube and perforated sacrificial sheet.

Short story made long, when we reconnected the device was “in the can” and “ready for production”. We reviewed the turnover package and were confident that the machine could be manufactured; however we still had many questions about how to make the little consumables, so that they could be effectively loaded into the unit. 

We asked to speak with the design team to learn how the part loading method informed the machine design. And asked. And asked. And asked again… Eventually, what came back was there had been no research or discussion about how to get tens to hundreds of million pieces loaded into the machine. 

The consumables aren’t some ancillary or insignificant fastener, foot pad or latch. They’re CTF in the machine and the to the user experience. The unit was designed in a vacuum with no consideration of how its geometry and operation would interact with upstream suppliers. The consumables fabrication and loading scheme was completely overlooked and became a “that’s your problem buddy” challenge. Think about designing a candy vending machine: before you start, do you want to determine that peanut M&Ms are normally packed in little pouches; or after the fact, do you want to station an attendant behind every machine dropping individual pieces of candy down a chute?

It doesn’t make any sense to design (or quote) any new product in isolation from its supply chain ecosystem. The constraints of the supply chain and its underlying fabrication methods and loading schemes need to be understood early in the process. 

Sometimes we feel “lost in the CAD” when reviewing a new design. Other times, such as this, we feel like we’re in a science fiction movie and are experiencing the Design-Reality Disequilibrium. 

So, please think about your supply chain neighbors, both upstream and downstream when teeing up a new product.


Jack Daniels


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