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Inside the shotgun marriage of design and supply chain processes

Companies like TE Connectivity and Creation Technologies ask staff from product design and supply chain management to collaborate early in a new product's design cycle to avoid ecological problems.

For 20 years, consultants have attempted to wed product companies’ design functions to the supply-chain side of their businesses. We’ve educated executives about how they can achieve cost savings and faster-time-to-market by asking designers to work closely with supply-chain professionals — early in design cycles — on procurement of reliable parts and materials.

“The old practice of ‘throwing the design over the wall to manufacturing’ is over,” we’d implore.

In all of those years, many executives casually have listened, and some actually have strategically aligned the two functions. TE Connectivity, for example, conducts supply-chain planning up-front in the actual product-development process.

These days, however, joining design and supply chain processes is a necessity, owing to customers’ increasing demands for responsible environmental stewardship and worker safety, along with numerous countries’ regulations enforcing those two protections. Product designers have no choice but to engage their company's supply chain to ensure that products are hazardous-substance free, that supply-chain workers are treated fairly and that products are responsibly recycled.

Product-substance restrictions including the European Union’s RoHS Directive, which restricts the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, and California’s Safer Consumer Products law restricting substances from an increasing scope of products, as well as producer-responsibility requirements such as the EU’s WEEE (Waste from Electrical and Electronic equipment) Directive, all force product designers to ascertain from supply-chain professionals whether their products’ materials will allow them to be sold in global markets.  

Worker protection laws such as the part of the Dodd-Frank Act requiring companies to disclose their use of conflict materials, are another consideration that a product designer and supply chain duo have to work out. Many corporate customers are dictating that suppliers follow even more stringent rules for safe substances and responsible worker treatment.

Working together

The necessary relationship between design and supply chain became clear at last month’s hands-on workshop in sustainable product design, hosted by electronics design and manufacturing services company Creation Technologies in Silicon Valley. I led the teams, comprising Creation’s and their customers’ designers, supply-chain managers and manufacturing engineers, in two design for environment or eco-design activities.

In the first activity, the teams disassembled common electronic products to analyze how design and material decisions could have been made jointly for highest-value upgrades, reuse and recycling. Clearly, the companies that produced these common products left money on the table by failing to follow simple yet strategic eco-design principles that would have resulted in post-customer value.

The second activity required the designers and supply-chain team members to jointly develop a way for presenters to share visuals with their audiences, using as many eco-design principles as they can. The teams succeeded in this exercise by overcoming their tendencies to first “design stuff” then “buy materials” to make products; instead they creatively leveraged existing products and materials with smarter interfaces, through engaged teamwork.

The humor that is nearly always present in eco-design workshops forges bonds between designers and supply-chain team members — further fostering teamwork. When during the disassembly exercise teams resort to using a hammer to separate materials, team members laugh at how little thought is given to “design for economic end-of-life.” Product teams disassembling their own products laugh even harder when reaching for the hammer. When the principle of de-materialization is introduced, nervous laughter is heard from hardware design engineers wondering if their professions will become obsolete, until the supply-chain folks assure them that design engineers with eco-design training and supply-chain partnerships will have the highest survival rates.

Designers, don’t go it alone. Work closely with your supply-chain colleagues forevermore. It’s good for business, people and the environment. Plus, you might even enjoy the partnership.

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