Manufacturers want to be more flexible in the future with shorter product cycles. But that's easier said than done for factories. Altering products and changing assembly lines usually are the tasks of engineers, not manufacturing groups.
But as pressure intensifies for shorter cycles, the solution for some manufacturers will be a redeployment of product engineers - away from their central design centers and engineering offices and to the spot where the action is.
A burgeoning trend already is turning factories into "centers of expertise," where product decisions can be made on the spot, and engineers are on hand to see them through.
Siemens VDO Automotive Electronics Corp. is the cutting-edge example. The Huntsville, Ala., electronics center, which Siemens acquired from DaimlerChrysler in 2004, turns out more than 9.5 million powertrain and infotainment parts a year, mostly for Chrysler. But with its acquisition, Siemens immediately began shifting to Huntsville product engineers who would be capable of working directly with various customers.
More to come
Huntsville had 514 administrative and engineering employees when Siemens arrived, mainly involved in manufacturing support. It now has 760. Company officials say more engineers in various disciplines will be added over the next three years, particularly in software engineering.
Electronics modules can change by the week, especially in the new area of navigation systems that Huntsville is entering. That requires fast-paced software revisions and regular updates that don't interfere with the supplier's production plans.
Will the trend show up everywhere? Clearly not. Structural components and metal stampings won't need constant engineering attention. And megasuppliers, such as seat and interior producers, simply have too many factories to start empowering them as centers of expertise.
But the core of the trend is real: Customers need faster on-site response from their supply chains. The odds are that other companies that make sophisticated parts and assemblies will follow Siemens' lead.
"This is an innovation center for the NAFTA region," says Joe Fadool, Siemens' vice president for powertrain electronics and drivetrain. Fadool, who has responsibility for developing business with new customers, is now based in Huntsville. At a conference table of golf-shirted manufacturing managers, Fadool is the only Siemens exec in the room wearing a necktie as he prepares to catch a plane to meet with a customer.
On-site engineers have global responsibility for their products, meeting with automotive customers in Europe or Asia, if necessary. Huntsville is now designing the controllers that go into its devices.
"There is a shift to combine engineering and manufacturing in one location in order to create new products," Fadool says. "We can do more than if we were just manufacturing."
Such changes have turned Hunts-ville into a self-standing profit center for Siemens, says Wolfgang Burk-hardt, the plant's controller, and meant adding a finance group at the plant.
"We will engineer products here that will get manufactured in Mexico or elsewhere," Burkhardt explains. "We have to take on more responsibility than we would have in the past. All of it is intended to help us react much faster."
You may e-mail Lindsay Chappell at [email protected]