Systems modeling, “systems thinking” and systems-driven engineering are topics often discussed by professionals engaged in the engineering of discretely manufactured products. But how many engineering organizations have succeeded in implementing a consistent, sustained culture of simulation-led engineering practices grounded in system-level physical modeling and simulation software technology? And how were they able to accomplish it?
To find out, Ora Research interviewed expert practitioners and engineering management at leading manufacturers of off-highway equipment and mining machinery to learn their strategies for accelerating their organizations’ move to a simulation-led, systems-driven engineering practice. A live webinar at 11:00 am ET this Wednesday, October 26, will present key findings of this research: technological, business and competitive factors driving adoption of systems modeling software and methods at current levels, issues that interviewees identified as chief constraints on adoption at present, and strategies and best practices to accelerate adoption, usage and institutionalization of systems modeling tools and methods. Register here to attend the webinar.
Meanwhile you can download our white paper detailing the findings of this research. Here’s an excerpt.
Potential adoption accelerators
The third and last objective of our interviews was to learn practitioners’ visions, strategies and best practices for accelerating and institutionalizing the implementation and usage of systems modeling tools and practices in their organizations. We were strongly encouraged to find a wealth of avenues and opportunities for exploiting enterprise business drivers, current industry disruptions, and related internal realignments and change-management initiatives to help drive introduction—or proliferation—of these technologies and their associated new ways of working into engineering organizations.
These findings offer practical, actionable aids for engineers and engineering management working to help their organization move to a systems-driven approach to product development—both as advice to follow in implementing change, and as documentation to help convince colleagues, management and partners that new ways of working exist, and that the software tools to support and enable them are available, accessible, and delivering payback and business advantage for forward-thinking engineering organizations today.
Systems modeling becoming essential to compete by creating differentiated products
“If we just follow the conventional wisdom, just follow [how it was done before], we will just be like our competitors. In our industry many standards exist, and if everyone follows the same standard, there is only one outcome—you will all design the same thing. We have to be innovative to differentiate ourselves, but it is extremely difficult because the industry also needs to change, because our customers will also impose their own specification referring to these industry standards.
“It’s a matter of changing the culture so that people are more inclined to look for where we can be innovative, otherwise people will automatically fall back to conventional wisdom. I want people to question the conventional wisdom.” Manager of product engineering, materials handling machinery manufacturer
Mechatronics revolution in off-highway equipment
The introduction of electrification in addition to mechanical and hydraulic power transmission in off-highway equipment is disrupting many traditional design practices. Industry sources see this as creating opportunity to make greater use of systems modeling tools and practices, especially as these product changes drive the need for more and deeper exploration of conceptual design alternatives.
Industry downturns and disruptions create opportunities for disruptive innovation
Opportunities to leverage change in underlying industry competitive dynamics
“In automation and heavy machinery, the change of concept for a machine in these industries is very slow. In robotic companies, Fanuc, Delta and others, it’s not like car companies that every four or five years change the design, that’s not the culture of that type of industry. They stick with what works. Their customers love this approach because they can keep it for ten or fifteen years without any modification, they just change the robots to exactly the same robot, there is no need for [architectural innovation.] Even for Caterpillar, they needed to change their engine just because of conforming with [fuel economy or emissions] standards, but just look at the overall excavator or any other machine—they’re same for a hundred years, because there’s no point to change them. People do not buy them for the look, they buy them for the operation.
“But automated warehousing is a new example that we didn’t have [before]. We had automated warehousing in a traditional way, where bulky rail-based robots were picking up one-ton crates from the shelf. But now with e-commerce, I’m ordering something that is only 100 grams and that 100 grams is made of five pieces, so the robot needs to pick up five pieces. So that has brought in many, many new [requirements]—now I have developed a new warehousing robot ,we filed a patent, and in order to develop this, we used many different [new] types of [engineering] techniques. And I’m sure that [many other] startup companies are doing this. The key word is that Amazon brought those mobile robots that are moving the shelves—again, that came out of a startup company that developed it.” Amir Khajepour, Professor & Canada Research Chair in Mechatronic Vehicle Systems, University of Waterloo, & President, AEMK Systems, Inc.
Mining industry down-cycle creates opportunity to innovate, find new ways of working
“Our organization is in flux, we’re changing significantly to try and adapt to this current reality, because the mining down-cycle for us is the now the new reality, it is not just a temporary thing, it’s something that will be there for a number of years. The mining industry is being in a downward spiral. I don’t know if it is still going downwards but it went downwards significantly two years or two or three years ago and it is just staying there. The biggest factor is probably China’s economy.
“So we had more mines and construction projects than ever before, and shortly after that we got this really big drought and now we have got massive oversupply. And it is going to last for another year or two, that is what everybody says, and that will make it five or six years in the down-cycle. It is uncommon to be so severe. And that is why we think that if we standardize [our product lines], we will be able to convince the customers that ‘We can give this to you for less money and it will take less time to get it to you, but you will need to make compromises.’ During the boom times the customers can pretty much demand what they want because they’ve got the capital.” Manager of product engineering, materials handling machinery manufacturer
Some manufacturers are using current down-cycle in mining industry to change their product innovation strategy
“The mining industry is going through a very interesting phase. The super-cycle has collapsed. So the first thing that happens is that all parties retreat into strategic planning sessions, looking mostly into rearranging their businesses to cut costs. But then, slowly but surely, we come to the realization that the sun will still rise tomorrow; it might be over a different landscape. And then, people start having to deal with the change. With our customers, the first phase reaction is, ‘Don’t even talk to me, you’re talking money, we don’t have money.’ Then later it becomes, ‘Okay, what we’re seeing is that if we can’t mine in the same way that we did for the last 15 years because of cost—we’ll have to do something more automated or more robotic.’
“Previously, when we went to speak to our customers, many of them would say, ‘No, your system looks as if it could save us 36 cents/ton, but I can do better by just picking up the telephone, calling and getting 10 more trucks that cost more money, but it’s profitable and I can move more dirt and make more money. So, I don’t want to be [on the cutting edge]—what you have here is something that I don’t know, it looks complicated and risky, and I do not have experience in operating it.’ If the client can push up his profit by 30% by just buying a few more shovels and a few more trucks, why not do it that way? Because he knows everything about that business model and the technical support model, and it works.
“But what’s happened now is that that same model doesn’t work. So he’s not making money with these first 150 trucks. Buying more is going to put him deeper in the red. What has happened, to our advantage, is that that old model is not functional anymore. So however much all our customers liked it and were used to it and liked the big trucks, it does not deliver the required results anymore. So the customer has to either close a mine, or find another way to do it.
“I think we are in a stage where, although prices have decreased, the mines are looking at different ways of doing their work—not because they are natural advocates of technological advancement, but because the known way is now not working anymore.” Product line manager, mineral materials handling machinery manufacturer
Strategies of manufacturers pursuing disruptive innovation
Best odds are in companies with deep culture of continually inculcating new skills into their people, and rethinking methods and work processes
The most forward-thinking engineering organizations, we found, inculcate systems modeling knowledge through new hires or mid-career hires, together with programs to retrain existing staff and then move them through a succession of relevant professional roles. Leading universities have been expanding their programs to address the retraining needs of mid-career employees. Companies also develop communities of practice for sharing and disseminating best practices and lessons learned across various programs within the company.
Some managements willing to take radical corporate measures to replace old-thinking engineering staff with “systems thinkers”
“[We are moving our engineering organization to a different city and state] which will give us the opportunity to change the make-up of the engineering team, so that it [will be] more suited to this new [systems-oriented] way of thinking. It is going to be a journey of discovery, but I know we need to change the way of thinking.” Manager of product engineering, materials handling machinery manufacturer
Downsizing in off-highway equipment manufacturers may push them to seek more systems-level value-add from their component suppliers
Interviewees observed that at present, off-highway equipment OEMs typically source components and subsystems from suppliers, then do the work of tying them together into systems and whole products. However, with recent workforce reductions in some leading off-highway equipment makers, some believe the resulting loss of systems engineering professionals through early retirement will drive these OEMs to seek more system-level engineering value-add from their suppliers, who will use this opportunity to move more deeply into adopting systems modeling tools and methods.
New technology opportunities inside manufacturers ready to move more deeply into systems modeling
Opportunities in new/emerging industries/companies without legacy investments in systems modeling tools and libraries
“Maybe looking at established companies [for systems modeling sales opportunities] is the wrong way to do it. Maybe [software vendors] should look at new companies, because the other biggest problem in getting into established companies for systems modeling software vendors is legacy software and legacy libraries. [For example automotive OEMs] have hundreds of libraries of different car components in Simulink, and they also ask their suppliers to give them Simulink block for their components. Now imagine a new software vendor goes to them and tell them okay, use mine, the first question is who is going to change all those legacy libraries.
“Look at those startup companies coming. I don’t think those startup companies coming out of universities are going to stay away from modeling software—they have to use it. Their universities now teach them how to use this software, and they do not have the luxury of going back to cutting metal and then putting it together. There are many companies today that make things, whether it’s a mobile robot, a drone, an automation system—there are many of these [new] companies. And I think there’s a push from even Google and Facebook and others to encourage people, in addition to learning programming, to learn also how to put their products together, to make things right. And I think that’s a good place to start [developing new markets for systems modeling software]—to start with these new companies, or companies that are five years old in, for example, automotive. I know it’s very difficult to get into GM or Ford with [new] systems modeling tools, but maybe vendors can get into Tesla, maybe they can get into Apple today, maybe they can get into some companies that are just starting out. All these companies are coming from new people coming out of universities—it’s not from the old culture that said, ‘We have to start in the shop in order to make things.’ Twenty years ago, maybe everything new was coming out of established companies, but that has changed, new things are coming from startup companies of one or two people.” Amir Khajepour
Best practice for introducing systems modeling: start with work process, then bring in software
“The value that you can get from system-level design and right now in our company, we will probably start by first defining the interfaces between the different disciplines, and defining different subsystems properly, before we start a project, just a manual process to begin with. So we need to first get that discipline in before we can go to the next step, which is the system-level modeling software. But if we can do that, it will have a massive benefit.
“What I’m also thinking is that should actually happen before engineering starts. We have to do this modeling before getting into the sales cycle. Because all the decisions around all the things that we sell are made before it gets to the engineering phase.” Manager of product engineering, materials handling machinery manufacturer
Capitalizing on engineering’s leeway and autonomy in specifying systems modeling software compared with enterprise-standard CAD/PLM tools
“[The enterprise] is very prescriptive in terms of which software we should use for the majority of the tools like the CAD and PLM software, but I have leeway in terms of how we execute engineering, what the engineering process looks like, and that is not prescribed at all.” Manager of product engineering, materials handling machinery manufacturer