The 2008 global downturn changed the economics of manufacturing. To stay in business, companies slashed budgets and cut staff to operate as leanly as possible. Now that the economy has recovered, the focus is shifting from survival mode to market leadership.
The problem is that the staffing cuts that helped companies stay solvent may have left them without the in-house engineering talent needed to develop the innovative products that will move them ahead of the competition. The solution? Outsource.
Although outsourcing is more commonly associated with manufacturing or service offerings like customer care and payroll, outsourcing engineering is an increasingly common way to bridge the skills gap. It is particularly effective in the case of complex support technologies like motion control.
Motion control is often essential to the performance of a product, and yet frequently has little to do with its true function. Outsourcing the automation subsystems to motion specialists creates a sort of virtual engineering team that ensures the product operates as desired, while freeing the in-house engineering team to allocate its efforts where they provide biggest competitive advantage.
As with all things in engineering, outsourcing is not a universal solution. If an organization has an extended development timeline, deep expertise, and widely available resources, keeping the project in-house may make the most sense. In many other scenarios, outsourcing may be the best approach for cost control, product quality, and time to market.
Here are five reasons to consider outsourcing your motion control engineering:
1. Lack of In-House Motion Expertise
The most obvious candidates for outsourcing are companies whose products may require automation, but whose core value proposition lies outside of motion. A DNA sequencer, for example, applies precision motion to rapidly position a pipette over a series of DNA wells. That’s not the key differentiator, however.
What matters to the company in the marketplace are the chemistry and the analytic software that enable the instrument to outperform the competition. By outsourcing the engineering of the XY stage, the organization can devote more development hours to the biology and science aspects of the machine. The outside team becomes the mechanical engineering extension of the company.
2. Performance Goals that Exceed Capabilities
Even organizations that have been designing and building sophisticated motion control systems for years may at some point reach the limit of what they can achieve performance-wise. That is when outsourcing to a group that specializes in motion control can make a big difference.
Recently, a customer who was having difficulty meeting spec on a product reached out to our company. The customer wanted to order a specialty bearing to hopefully solve the problem. When our engineers learned more about the system, however, we realized that the issue wasn’’t caused by a single component. The problem had to do with the overall design.
The customer brought the machine to our facility, where we could analyze it using specialty equipment that they didn’t have. Our team identified several small but crucial issues. By making minor modifications that same day, we were able to improve system performance more in a few hours than the in-house team had been able to over the previous six months.
This highlights two core values of outsourcing engineering: Not only can it enable an organization to achieve better performance than it can accomplish alone, but it can deliver that performance significantly faster.
The stats above show the countries with the most engineering graduates. (Image credit: Statista)
3. Tight Development Cycles
Time to market has a huge impact on the profitability of a product over its life cycle. Particularly in sectors like medical and semiconductor, being first to market creates great customer loyalty simply because the initial product is familiar. Companies can’t afford to invest 12 months in design and testing; they need to develop and release new products in a short period of time to keep up with the competition. This is where outsourcing engineering can make a big difference.
Organizations that provide engineering services frequently have portfolios of motion systems that can be easily tailored to a particular application. A company designing a novel automated patient bed, for example, can take advantage of the expertise of a motion partner who has developed dozens of beds.
By making a few modifications to a proven design, the motion specialist can help the medical device company roll out a new system in a month or two rather than a year—and with a very high confidence level that it will work, based on data from field-tested systems.
Outsourcing engineering also speeds customization. In one recent project, a customer wanted to add an additional axis to an already complex machine. There was no question that, given enough time and resources, the in-house engineering team could make the modification on its own. The problem was that all of the engineers were hard at work on the main platform.
Rather than delay getting the product to market, the customer asked our engineering services group to develop it as a subsystem that could basically be bolted onto the machine at the last moment. The machine builder was able to offer its customers additional functionality without losing first-mover advantage.
4. Need for a More Manufacturable Device
There can be a world of difference between a working prototype and a production-ready product. Minor design elements like alignment features can significantly improve ease of assembly, quality, and production throughput. Engineering for manufacturability can also make a difference in overall system operation.
We worked with an equipment builder who placed a highly effective but failure-prone component in the heart of its machine. The machine delivered high performance, but had the potential to be a maintenance headache once it was in operation. Our team redesigned the system so that the component could be replaced after moving just one part. This design modification would enable the asset owner to replace a failed part and be up and running in hours instead of days.
5. Cost Concerns
At the end of the day, business is about profitability. Manufacturers constantly seek ways to control costs by reducing inventory, manufacturing space, labor hours, etc. Motion system design can impact all of these factors and more. Organizations with motion expertise can perform cost-down engineering to reduce the number of parts, speed assembly and test, and limit equipment demands.
If the partner offers manufacturing services, as well, things get even simpler. Instead of writing eight to 10 purchase orders and taking up factory space and labor hours to build a subsystem, the manufacturer receives the complete assembled and tested subassembly.
Design of motion control systems is as much art as science. For OEMs who need performance they can’t achieve alone—whether through limitations of experience, time, cost, or other factors—outsourcing provides an effective solution.