Archive for February, 2009

Feb 01 2009

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH . . . . . Vol I

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OK, the economy is in the tank. You and everyone else are trying to stay alive. So what should you do?  Here are some thoughts. Continue Reading »

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Feb 01 2009

GOING TO GET DOWNSIZED?

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Unfortunately even the concept that you’ll be employed next pay period is a tenuous one.  But there are some positive steps you can do: Continue Reading »

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Feb 01 2009

PLEASE MAKE THIS OUT OF “PLASTIC”

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All too often a material is specified as “Plastic” or “Polymer”.  To a customer that is usually a complete definition.  Then you have to come in and tell him to specify exactly what he wants. The problem is that your recommendation now makes you part of the design process and whatever liability (product recall, law suits etc.) come along with it.  Moral: doing your customer’s material specification is a risky proposition.

The solution to this is to give the customer a series of acceptable choices where most or all of the alternatives will fulfill the customer’s needs and let him make the decision.  As a consultant, I’ve learned it is not the answer you’re looking for but the ability to ask the proper questions.  If you’ve asked the right questions those answers will routine almost always point to the proper solution.  

While the list of questions is probably endless, it can be distilled down to seven basic questions.  What you should do is either through a telephone interview or face to face (without sketching anything) is to ask these questions and get concrete answers.  Here are the questions and a rough outline of why you are asking them.

1. What is it?  Here we are attempting to find in the most general terms a product definition.  It could be an enclosure of some kind: a cell phone case, radio bezel, a blade of a snow shovel, a handle, gear, or perhaps a toy where the molded part itself is the compete product.

2. What does it do? This is a definition of function: it could be single or multiple use, have precision or commodity tolerances, high or low stress applications (screw driver handle, gear, toy bucket and shovel set) or it could be part of an assembly either being assembled into something (with few tolerance requirements) of have other components assembled into it (requiring a higher degree of precision).

3. Where does it live?  Operating environment is a major consideration for any material.  A good design uses a material that will outlive the product’s anticipated life.  Considerations like exposure to UV radiation, temperature extremes (inside an automobile or under the hood, working in extreme cold etc), resistance to chemicals, biological compatibility (heart valve, implant  or contact with drugs or food stuffs etc.), temperature shock resistance  (a grille on a car at -20F being run through a car wash at +180F), impact resistance (a screw driver handle being uses as a chisel),  long term heat/cold resistance, flame retardancy; just to list a few.

4. Who are the Police?  Many products or product components come under the watchful eye of some regulatory agency.  You need to be aware of and compliant to the protocols – electrical, fire, biological requirements, and consumer product safety are just a few.

5. Is it sexy?  If you looked at a rifle or an electric saw and then thought about it, the machine itself is extremely simple but not worth the several hundred dollars you’re being charged for it.  People don’t buy function; they buy image.  For this reason you have to chose a material that can also meet the cosmetic requirements (if there are any) and argue against requirements that are not necessary (Is a mirror polish required on the interior of a TV cabinet that will never be seen except by the people at the recycling plant?) Cosmetic requirements may also be choosing a material that need only be compatible or prepped for secondary finishing such as polish, paint, plating, etc.

6. How long will it live?  Perceived value is almost always a function of price.  Plastic picnic ware is usually thought of as single use.  Therefore its value and price require a low cost material. Brake linings, automobile tires and cheap Teflon coated cookware have a perceived lifespan that assumes it will wear out and have to be replaced.  There are many products however that have an infinite perceived life – this does not mean that it will last forever.  It means the product itself will wear out before this specific component does.  The plastic gas tanks in your car, the plastic frame of your couch or bed are examples of this.

Planned obsolescence is also a factor.  As we’ve all seen cell phones and computers go ‘obsolete’ in two years simply because the technology improvements and the lower cost of the new models make it very attractive to discard perfectly useable products.  Something as simple as a car battery has a defined a predictable life.  While completely recyclable; every few years you plan on buying a ‘new and better’ battery. This is a question for your customer to answer and not you.

7. What’s it cost/what’s it worth?  Nobody is in business to lose money.  The basic equation in business is to purchase raw materials, add value, and sell at a price higher than your cost.  You want to lower your costs but not sacrifice quality or delivery. There are some market constraints as to how high you can price your product.  Here is where the ‘China Price’ people lose it.  Yes, off shore pays lower wages.  But if the quality suffers the cost of the product (without any funny accounting) is usually much higher than the savings.  The difference between cost and sales is profit.  No profit, no business.  Do the math.  

 Medical products tend to have a very high profit margin because of the extensive R&D and qualification process they must go through.  Toys have a high price competitive nature but the cost must be minimized.  A highly successful product (whether it’s a doll or a cell phone) will quickly face competition from ‘knock off’ products.  In industries like these, the game is to recover your costs before your competition undercuts your price with a knock-off product.

Once you go through this interview you now have to reduce everything to numbers – How high is ‘high’ when it comes to heat distortion?  How strong is strong – flex, tensile, impact resistance etc? Can it be decorated – can the material take an appropriate polish, paint or label?

This requires some Dumpster Diving into the material data bases.  Usually you’ll find there needs to be a compromise in some of the properties.  But in the end you go back to your customer with a list of candidates and costs.  Keep in mind the most logical choice for a customer is the lowest cost.  You need to be prepared for this because sometimes cheap is cheap and it won’t fit the application.

Present the options to your customer and let them make the choice.  DO NOT let them chose a material and then amend the specification with the infamously laughable phrase “Or Equivalent”.  Point out if it is truly Equivalent it’s an acceptable alternative material and should be specified as such.

All the data and interview techniques plus a penny are worth one-cent until the final product has gone through end use testing.  Sometimes in the rush to market this step is easily ignored.  To this end, make it crystal clear that your customer made the decision and if he wishes to use a material that isn’t tested in this application he’s usually playing Russian Roulette with a machine gun.

* * * * *

This article is virtual.  It might be of some assistance in your helping a customer make an appropriate material choice.  The idea is for you to provide the expertise and them to make the decision; it’s a Win-Win.  Or you can ignore this completely and simply recommend specifying something you’ve got in your warehouse you can’t use up or the material recommended by the last resin rep who took you to lunch.  OR you can use the time-honored “Why Not Nylon?” approach – you recommend Nylon and then come up with reasons not to use it as the material requirements are refined.  You can also use this article as an end use test sample for the office shredder.

The guy who offers the best advice is usually a customer’s favorite supplier.

It’s your choice.   

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