Damon Canfield envisions a day when electronics will become the avenue to communicate all aspects of product development. Every piece from early design to tooling to manufacturing to engineering-tweaking to customer approval will be connected by an electronic conduit. Canfield, president of a product-development joint venture between GE Plastics and design house Fitch Inc., sees the Internet accelerating that trend. Yet, that time is not here now. Human interaction still is critical, said Canfield, who is based in Columbus, Ohio.
"We use every aspect of the Internet and electronic technology available to help us," Canfield said. "But it's not quite the panacea."
Electronically looping together all parts of a project, sometimes called "design collaboration" in e-business jargon, has become a hotly debated topic. The question is one of speed: Can it move product design quicker than merely meeting, picking up the phone or sending e-mail?
In a collaborative world, the need for conventional communication would be erased. Instead, a common Web address would be accessed by all parties down the supply chain, and they would make changes and check off approvals at various points.
Software companies and some plastics company executives endorse this trend. Engineering software providers such as Supplybase Inc. and Lotus Corp. have new products that are moving down that route.
Some large suppliers of plastic parts, including Textron Automotive Co. Inc. of Troy, Mich., are excited about the prospects for an e-collaborative world.
Textron would like to use design collaboration in its projects with automakers, Larry Hamilton, Textron vice president of information systems, said at a March 6 panel discussion in Detroit.
Yet, Hamilton acknowledged that the company has work to do before being ready for that level of electronic collaboration. The technology isn't quite ready, and the company needs more support from its supplier partners.
"We'd like to get there this year or next," Hamilton said. "That's really something that gets me excited. It's a great use of our new Web technology."
Some toolmakers think design collaboration is inevitable. Darcy Urquhart, sales manager of Cavalier Tool & Manufacturing Ltd. of Windsor, Ontario, now e-mails sketches and drawings to customers in Israel and other countries. That is the first step to setting up a more sophisticated system, he said.
"There will be a day when all physical content will be obsolete," Urquhart said in a March 22 interview at the Moldmaking 2000 Expo in Cleveland.
Finding ways to speed product development is critical for toolmakers, said Jeffrey Mengel, who heads the plastics industry team at consulting firm Plante & Moran LLC of Southfield, Mich. Many mold makers are taking on design duties to help them compress time for their customers.
According to a Plante & Moran survey from 1999, toolmakers that had no design effort were less profitable than their design-oriented peers 90 percent of the time. However, toolmakers must learn to use those design tools, too, Mengel said.
"Having design doesn't necessarily mean more profit," Mengel said. "Employee training and services [to customers] add the value."
Collaboration with customers can take many forms. Some systems allow engineering teams to huddle around video computer screens in different parts of the world, said John Walling, program manager of San Francisco-based Supplybase.
Others use software packages as a platform that goes beyond design. Supplybase.manager, a new product from Supplybase, ties together feasibility and design with procurement, tooling and ongoing engineering.
Organization is its selling point. For instance, requests for quotes can be sent over the Web-based system to all suppliers at once. The system then groups responses and earmarks those for more feedback.
Questions about materials or part design also can be sent over the site, with answers condensed on an electronic page, Walling said.
And tooling can be tracked from design to manufacturing. The system would warn customers when a bottleneck could threaten lead time or a mold is near the end of its useful life, Walling said.
"It alerts people if anything is running late at a key stage," he said. "The customer is automatically e-mailed. We build whole intelligence into the system."
The use of an electronic system could help get the attention of large suppliers juggling multiple projects, said Bob Olsen, sales and marketing manager of rapid-prototyping company Protogenic Inc. of Westminster, Colo.
"It's a much more powerful tool for a molder or toolmaker than for us," said Olsen, a veteran of several injection molding companies. "They need a system to streamline communication between [original equipment manufacturers] and suppliers. It saves the constant e-mailing and quoting."
Yet, some designers resist signing on to a computer-automated system. Columbus-based Fitch has stepped up its integration of design and manufacturing, said Spencer Murrell, executive vice president for product development.
"There used to be a reasonably big gap where engineering and design ended and where manufacturing started," Murrell said. "Now, we integrate the whole process. Big companies are forced to think like a start-up [company], work faster and use fewer resources."
But to date, nothing replaces face-to-face communication, Murrell said. Fitch includes molders and toolmakers early in the design process, where they share a room and discuss ideas together.
The most difficult aspect of the work is blending the different points of view and finding a compromise, added Robert Hayes, Fitch senior vice president. Computer discussion will not help reach a common ground when companies have "creative dissonance," he said.
Yet, computer communication already has pervaded many areas of product development. In one recent example, Husky Injection Molding Systems Ltd. helped devise new common standards for the thread fittings of PET bottles.
The Bolton, Ontario, equipment supplier took a lead role with the International Society of Beverage Technologists, based in Homosassa, Fla., to develop universal thread guidelines. Designing bottle fittings had become a burden for some companies, said James Sykes, Husky product development engineer for molds.
"Some companies were reluctant to release drawings, and in other cases specifications were photocopies of photocopies that had been passed down for 30 years," he said. "We'd constantly have to redraw fittings, and it was a difficult situation to manage."
In July 1998, the hot-fill committee for the voluntary association completed standard drawings for 28-millimeter bottle closures. Husky worked with Schmalbach-Lubeca AG of Ratingen, Germany, on the project.
Yet, distributing the standards was difficult. A first Web site was launched in 1998. The number of standard finishes on the site has increased from six to 24, and the number of Web site hits is averaging 120 hits a month, Sykes said.
"We discovered that people weren't getting good access to the [guidelines] on their time," he said. "This was a better way for us to go."