So your company has a new product. That's great.
You even booked some sales. That's even better.
Now comes the hard part - actually making that new product a reality.
``As soon as you win that new business, you have to start thinking about what you're going to do with it, where is it going to go, what equipment are you going to need, what's the best configuration for that equipment,'' said Jack Endres, engineering and technology director for Mann+ Hummel USA Inc.
For automotive suppliers like the Portage-based U.S. division of German company Mann+Hummel, that means an 18- to 24-month period of product planning, which includes everything from prototypes to plant layout.
Do that planning right, and the company will turn out thousands of functional parts such as air-intake manifolds, cylinder head covers and filters that operate flawlessly in thousands of engines while also making money for the company.
Do it wrong, and everybody pays.
``The cost associated with putting out even one bad part is too high,'' Endres said.
During a recent interview at the firm's Portage headquarters and plant, Endres and other members of the management team discussed the steps between selling the product and successfully bringing it on the market.
Mann+Hummel, with corporate headquarters in Ludwigsburg, Germany, posted nearly 1.6 billion euros ($2.15 billion) in sales in 2006.
In North America, the company has two U.S. plants - in Portage and South Bend, Ind. - and one in Queretaro, Mexico.
The global company also has 500 people working in research and development, focusing on breakthrough products that can deliver cost savings, meet new regulatory requirements or improve the environment, said Claude Mathieu, president of Mann+Hummel USA. Coming up with new parts that can hit one - or all - of those targets means Mann+Hummel continues getting new business.
``It is very good when we are successful in these applications,'' he said. ``This business is so tough, if they just see us as the same as our competitors, what makes the difference?''
But new products also mean additional work to make sure part launches are flawless.
Ideally, Endres said, the Portage team that will make those parts is part of the bid process. Before the company even wins an award, the team is asked to determine how much tooling will cost, whether Mann+Hummel will have to buy new equipment, and the number of hours needed in development and during manufacturing.
Typically, the company has bids in for dozens of parts at once, with hypothetical press usage and factory layout figured into each one. Once the contracts are awarded, it then has a better idea of precisely what it will need on the shop floor.
As the production team figures out the best layout for presses on the floor for future production, the design team and its toolmakers spend the first 12-24 weeks building prototype parts, using stereolithography for a few parts produced for air-flow tests; and aluminum tooling for turning out anywhere between 50 and 300 parts for full tests in the laboratory and on the road, said Stu Miller, manager of design and development.
Prototypes are crucial for the company's products, which are key engine components. For some parts, the firm will install a prototype part on an existing engine and run tests at a race track.
``If we can't catch it in the prototype, it's expensive and it eats up a lot of resources later to fix it,'' Miller said.
Mann+Hummel tweaks every inch of production space to ensure parts will move through the plant as smoothly as possible. The firm has a six-year plan for floor layouts, so it knows what presses are available, how they can be placed for the best manufacturing flow, and where new equipment can go, operations manager Tom Obringer said.
Laying out a production cell in the right order to get optimum flow from pellets to parts can make the difference between making money on a contract or watching it drain away.
``The R&D cost is pretty fixed, and once we quote a product, the price is set, so where do we take out our costs?'' Endres asked. ``We have to look at where we can take it out on the line. You've got to get more and more creative with how you design the machines and how you design the line and run things through the line.''
Even once production launches, the firm must look for ways to adjust that production for any changes in customer demand.