When someone talks about lean, the general assumption is that they’re talking about the production line. Lean does have a number of benefits in manufacturing such as lowering manufacturing costs and increasing agility. However, lean principles can be applied during the engineering and prototyping process itself. Here are some of the advantages of going lean in engineering manufacturing.

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You Reduce Product Development Costs

Designing complex products is always a challenge. It is also expensive; it isn’t uncommon for last-minute changes to lead to schedule and cost overruns. By streamlining the design process and improving task delegation and team coordination, you keep the project on its original timeline, and you reduce the odds that the product costs more than expected.

One rule of thumb is that the cost of engineering changes goes up by a factor of ten at each stage of the engineering design process. Changing a drawing on the drawing board or computer screen costs a tenth as much as altering a prototype, and making changes to your product after you’ve gone through the test and validation stage is tenfold that of altering a prototype. Fixing a product after you’ve mass-produced it is easily ten times as expensive as starting over because someone didn’t like the prototype. Lean and agile engineering certainly reduces the risk you ship something that offers no value to the customer.

One study found that lean engineering reduced deviations from product target costs by a third or more. Furthermore, when you reduce product development costs, your company can earn a greater profit on the product or offer it at a lower cost without losing money.

It Creates a Faster, More Responsive Design Process

The standard engineering process has a lengthy requirements phase that extends through the entire project timeline. Unfortunately, that means the design may have to radically change due to last-minute requirements, adding time and increasing the risk of errors.

Lean engineering can be agile, and agile development is almost always lean. This form of development breaks the project into measurable chunks of work. You come up with solutions, implement it, test it, and then get customer feedback.

If there is a problem, you go back and fix that one issue until the customer is satisfied. Then you work on the next design issue. You’re able to make changes to the design much faster, and because you’re only changing one aspect at a time, you’re less likely to make changes to A and break B. You also get more specific requirements tied to user value, so you aren’t wasting time creating features no one cares about or implementing solutions that the customer doesn’t like.

Lean, agile engineering does alter project management. Each team is self-guided except for user feedback and product testing. This doesn’t mean you can’t keep up with what each team is doing. This article by Kanbanize explains agile product development and its place in the product life cycle. It also explains how Kanban boards can be used in agile engineering. Their visual nature makes the workflow easier to monitor, and the system also allows work in progress limits to reveal bottlenecks.

Agile product development doesn’t eliminate the need to test products or determine how you’re going to maintain it in the field. Instead, it improves the sequential nature of the process. For example, by getting customer feedback in the development process when it is easy to make changes, you don’t waste time creating a final product that the customer says is not good enough. You also get an optimized product to market faster. Studies suggest that this reduces product development time by up to six months.

You Minimize Risk

Creating working physical prototypes during each development cycle reduces the overall risk of the project. You create physical prototypes that allow managers, marketing professionals, and customers to see, handle and even test the item. You get feedback from a wide range of people, and you are better able to identify all sorts of risks that can then be mitigated in the next generation of the design.

A physical prototype shown to manufacturing allows you to get feedback early on how to improve manufacturability, lowering production costs. You can also give the prototypes to customers to learn how they actually use the product.

You may realize that it isn’t intuitive to use and adjust your instruction manual accordingly. You’ll hear the questions they ask and know what to include in your documentation or how-to videos. You reduce the risk someone is frustrated with the assembly instructions or uses it incorrectly and then blames the design. You may learn about additional uses of the product and make certain parts more robust so it doesn’t break when used that way.

It Can Increase Sales

When your product is optimized to meet customer requirements, it is much more likely to sell well, and you eliminate the wasted time and money spent developing products that don’t sell. By getting customer feedback early on and being able to do everything from user documentation to marketing, you’ll be able to maximize initial sales and positive customer reviews that drive further sales.

Lean principles should not be consigned to the production floor. You must apply lean, agile engineering concepts to the design process.

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