DFA Saves More than Six Sigma and Lean

I can’t believe everyone isn’t doing Design for Assembly (DFA), especially in these tough economic times. It’s almost like CEOs really don’t want to grow stock price. DFA, where the product design is changed to reduce the cost of putting things together, routinely achieves savings of 20-50% in material cost, and the same for labor cost. And the beauty of the material savings is that it falls right to the bottom line. For a product that costs $1000 with 60% material cost ($600) and 10% profit margin ($100), a 10% reduction in material cost increases bottom line contribution by 60% (from $100 to $160). That sounds pretty good to me. But, remember, DFA can reduce material cost by 50%. Do that math and, when you get up off the floor, read on.

Unfortunately for DFA, the savings are a problem – they’re too big to be believed. That’s right, I said too big. Here’s how it goes. An engineer (usually an older one who doesn’t mind getting fired, or a young one who doesn’t know any better) brings up DFA in a meeting and says something like, “There’s this crazy guy on the web writing about DFA who says we can design out 20-50% of our material cost. That’s just what we need.” A pained silence floods the room. One of the leaders says something like, “Listen, kid, the only part you got right is calling that guy crazy. We’re the world leaders in our field. Don’t you think we would have done that already if it was possible? We struggle to take out 2-3% material cost per year. Don’t talk about 20-50% because is not possible.” DFA is down for the count.

Also unfortunate is the name – DFA. You’ve got to admit DFA doesn’t roll off the tongue like six sigma which also happens to sound like sex sigma, where DFA does not. I think we should follow the lean sigma trend and glom some letters onto DFA so it can ride the coat tails of the better known methodologies. Here are some letters that could help:

Lean DFA; DFA Lean; Six Sigma DFA; Six DFA Sigma (this one doesn’t work for me); Lean DFA Sigma

Its pedigree is also a problem – it’s not from Toyota, so it can’t be worth a damn. Maybe we should make up a story that Deming brought it to Japan because no one in the west would listen to him, and it’s the real secret behind Toyota’s success. Or, we can call it Toyota DFA. That may work.

Though there is some truth to the previous paragraphs, the main reason no one is doing DFA is simple:

No one is asking the design community to do DFA.

Here is the rationalization: The design community is busy and behind schedule (late product launches). If we bother them with DFA, they may rebel and the product will never launch. If we leave them alone and cross our fingers, maybe things will be all right. That is a decision made in fear, which, by definition, is a mistake.

The design community needs greatness thrust upon them. It’s the only way.

Just as the manufacturing community was given no choice about doing six sigma and lean, so should the design community be given no choice about doing DFA.

No way around it, the first DFA effort is a leap of faith. The only way to get it off the ground is for a leader in the organization to stand up and say “I want to do DFA.” and then rally the troops to make it happen.

I urge you to think about DFA in the same light as six sigma or lean: If your company had a lean or six sigma project that would save you 20-50% on your product cost, would you do it? I think so.

Who in your organization is going to stand up and make it happen?

7 Responses to “DFA Saves More than Six Sigma and Lean”

  • Dear Mike,
    I feel your pain. I use DFA and DFM as regularly as possible during the concept design phase of my Product Developments, and I am able to shave so much time and money off the costs of manufacturing. Unfortunately for DFA, like you mentioned, the lack of a good pedigree is an obstacle.
    But here in India, where Lean and 6 Sigma themselves are new, I find introducing DFA is a lot simpler, as my fellow un-enlightened Indians will lap up anything if it saves them money.
    Great article. Would you mind if I linked to it through my blog?

  • Mike:

    Prithvi, Thanks for the context from India. It sounds like your fellow Indians have the right spirit – if it saves money, it’s good. I would be happy if you would link it through your blog. Also, feel free to do so in the future. Mike

  • Willem Super:

    Nice story Mike. I claim 20% improvement and also nobody seems to believe. But we are lucky, ages ago peoply like you and we were thrown in the slammer right away, to b never released again. Now we only battle ignorance.

    I believe in combinations. Use every tool available for the good result. What I would like to discuss with you… how does DFA fit into the big picture besides six sigma and innovation etc….

  • Great point Mike! Lean and Six-Sigma were thrust on the industry because whoever wasn’t on board would not survive as the competition would beat you out because they were doing it and gaining the value and respective competitive positioning that is realized from the initiatives. A forward looking company would also view DFA in the same way, that applying it would mean sustainability and competitiveness. But if your competition does it and you don’t, you won’t survive in this tough market. That should be incentive enough for people to get on board!

    Brad Rowe

  • David Hunt:

    As the guy who trained Hypertherm’s engineers on Design for Assembly – Hypertherm being the company Shipulski works at, while DFA being my Master’s Thesis – I can well attest to the effectiveness of the DFA methodology and mindset in reducing the complexity and assembly costs not only in mass-produced items but also in large-scale, capital equipment like Shipulski’s employer makes.

    Under my auspices, we examined sub-systems, did rolling reviews, and took out over 50% of the part count. A stunningly successful application of the work, learning, and research that I did in grad school.

  • Mike,

    Great story. There is a huge movement in the design and problem solving community that is called Design For Blah Blah Blah, like Design for Six Sigma. It is an attempt to shed light on the importance of the design process. A concept called “Desigh Thinking” is also getting a lot of press in Fast Company and other design mags because of the Tom Kelley/IDEO push. He started a design thinking program at his alma mater Stamford.

    You might want to hitch your wagon to that movement because with a nice clear story like above you have a lot to offer in the area of DFMA conceptual implementation first then expanding on it.

    Nice story.
    Steve Kochan

  • Now I understand why people are programming using ‘C’ instead of ‘Forth’.

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