May 2008

Teaming up for globalization

By Patrick E. Patterson

It is no secret globalization is changing how we develop and produce products. In such a global economy, product development teams need to be even more innovative in an environment constrained by fewer resources with less time from concept to market. In the biomedical field, for instance, teams are often comprised of individuals spread around the world. To simulate this setting, we revised an existing course to incorporate teams of on-campus and distance students, with each team including engineers and other specialties.

Through interactive lectures and projects, we presented a systematic approach to innovation that should be useful to engineers and non-engineers alike. Students found the course challenging and exciting, displaying an improved ability to work in distributed teams and in developing innovative design solutions.

Such extended teams must rely on communication technologies to establish a cohesive design group, despite any distance, time zone, and cultural differences. Complicating the logistics, research has found distributed teams to be less cooperative, less persuasive, and engage in more deception than do centrally located teams. Not only must they manage communications for efficiency and effectiveness, but they need an approach to developing solutions within such teams as well.

This combination of distance communication and improved problem-solving skills can help meet the demand for timely innovation that will allow a company or entrepreneur to beat their competition. Creatively approaching design problems can be a daunting and time-consuming undertaking without the use of a systematic approach to problem solving.

I often hear, "I'm just not creative." But with the right tools and methods, teams can rapidly produce and evaluate innovative designs that meet or exceed customer demands for product usability. Improving our understanding of how to best work in a distributed design environment, and to meet the increasing need for innovative solutions to design and manufacturing problems, will present challenges for tomorrow's designers and for today's education.

Design at a distance

We developed an experimental course to expose students to designing at a distance.

The course looked at the design and manufacture of user-friendly products. Each lecture introduced one or two scenarios (mini-cases) developed from journal articles. Teams consisted of on-campus and off-campus students that included mixtures of engineers and other specialties. Teams proposed and worked on design and redesign projects in rehabilitation devices, equipment for the aging population, medical monitoring devices, and exercise equipment.

Teams used e-mail, videoconferencing, teleconferencing, tablet computers, interactive white-boards, and screen-sharing applications.

Three tools made up the foundation for the course: quality functional deployment, TRIZ, and value engineering.

Capturing criteria

Quality functional deployment (QFD) is a technique for assuring a product meets customer requirements. The product team first identifies and captures these customer requirements, then translates them into technical specifications that correspond to product characteristics. A series of interrelated matrices and tables help carry out the translation. The most widely used QFD model for product development involves a series of four linked matrices-product specification, component specification, manufacturing process specification, and production rules specification. Each matrix uses information from a preceding matrix as its starting point. The strength of the relationship at each intersecting cell of the matrix shows relative priorities and potential conflicts. You can add tables to show target numbers for each of the measurable characteristics, as well as the corresponding data for competitor products. Other matrices can link requirements to product functionality, further detailing how you will assemble the pro
duct from component parts and subsystems. You can then develop more matrices for each part, showing the process and technology characteristics, as well as the operating procedures and conditions for the production phase. 

Inventive problem solving

Engineering design involves the use of many methods to elicit creativity. Techniques, such as brainstorming and morphological analysis, have seen use to produce creative solutions by combining expertise that exists within a team. These approaches depend on individual experiences and knowledge, and they are often trial-and-error methods that need to oversimplify the situation surrounding a complex problem. The theory of inventive problem-solving process, from the Russian Teoriya Resheniya Izobreatatelskikh Zadatch (TRIZ), is based on developing universal principles of invention that provide a framework for creative innovations. TRIZ translates a specific problem into an abstract problem and then uses a generic design guideline (pattern) relevant to the problem to find a solution.

We applied TRIZ tools systematically, replacing trial-and-error methods. Five concepts distinguish TRIZ from other problem-solving strategies: functionality, contradictions, ideality, resources, and a shifting perspective. The TRIZ approach consists of finding these repeating patterns of problem-solution, the patterns of technical evolution, the methods of using scientific effects, and then applying these universal TRIZ patterns to the problem.

Creating value

Value engineering analyzes products and services and then attempts to incorporate the necessary functions and essential characteristics to create maximum value. The goal is to increase product value by lowering cost, by increasing functionality, or through some combination of these two. The process depends on the designer understanding the user's and buyer's definitions of value. Function analysis system technique (FAST) diagrams help prioritize objectives or functions of the product. Once prioritized, we evaluate options to find those that return the most value based on some predetermined criteria. FAST describes the system under study, allowing the team to think through the functions the system performs or is expected to perform. This provides a basis for the selection and use of a wide variety of approaches and analysis techniques. FAST allows people with different technical backgrounds to communicate effectively and resolve issues that require multi-disciplinary considerations.

Results

We developed an integrated course model, based on QFD, value engineering, and TRIZ, using projects of on-campus and distance student teams, as well as a mix of engineer and non-engineering specialties. The format of combining lecture, distributed team mini-cases, and a major project was successful in its first offering. Planning and execution in the distributed environments was initially complex and time-consuming for all.

Students evaluated the course through an exit survey, which assessed their acceptance and valuing of this approach toward understanding innovation and distributed teams. Students said they benefited from the course, suggesting they would continue to use QFD, value engineering, and TRIZ tools. We evaluated individual and team improvement through before-and-after comparisons of the number of usable solutions developed, product component reduction, and product cost reduction. All students felt more confident in their ability to understand and find a design solution no matter the constraints.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Patrick E. Patterson is professor and chair of industrial engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Tex. Contact him at Pat.Patterson@ttu.edu.