Sunday, April 22 , 2018, 7:32 am | Fair 52º


Paul Burri: No-Incentive Engineering

Cost is at the center of ongoing battles between manufacturing and design engineers

Before I discovered that writing a weekly column was a lot easier than actually working for a living, I worked as a manufacturing engineer for several different companies.

Paul Burri
Paul Burri

The manufacturing engineer is the one who takes the blueprints and specifications from the design engineers and has the job of figuring how to make whatever they have designed. Of course, if you ask any manufacturing engineer, he or she would tell you that the job is harder than anyone else’s in the whole process of getting a product to market. (Just like the heart claims it’s more important than the lungs or kidneys.)

But let me plead my case a bit before you make up your mind about which job is harder.

The job of the designer is to design a product — let’s use an electric toaster as an example — so that it toasts slices of bread or bagels, is safe, can be adjusted for different degrees of toasting, is easy to use, can handle up to four slices at a time and fits on the average kitchen counter. (There could be many more requirements, but these are enough to make my point.)

The design engineer sits down at a drawing board or computer and comes up with a basic design for the toaster. I will cut out a lot of steps from that point, but eventually the design is approved and the drawings are sent to the manufacturing department with orders to make the toaster.

That’s when the manufacturing engineer comes into the picture. Some of his or her first questions are, “How many do you want? How soon do you want them? How much should it cost to make?” (If it costs $100 to make, it would have to sell for about $400, and there aren’t many people who would buy a $400 toaster.) So, the element of cost enters the picture. That’s the hard part of the manufacturing engineer’s job. I exaggerate the cost to make my point, but anybody can make anything if given enough time and money to do so.

Now is when the arguing begins between the design engineer and the manufacturing engineer. It’s the type of battle that has been going on for many years.

The manufacturing engineer wants to eliminate all of the “bells and whistles” and to cut corners here and there because they make it harder to produce the product within the cost target. The design engineer, on the other hand, wants the bells, whistles and corners to stay because otherwise there is the possibility that the product won’t do the job correctly. The design engineer is judged on whether the product works. If a bridge collapses, its design is the first thing investigators consider. Was it designed correctly?

So, here’s what was described to me by one of my engineer friends when I worked for Disney. (Yes, I had some engineer friends, even though I fought with them all the time.)

He said, “There is no incentive for me to design something that will cost less. I am judged by only a few criteria: Does it work? Does it do the job it is supposed to do? Is it safe? One of my least concerns is how much it will cost. That’s why I end up giving you a design that may be difficult and expensive to make.”

The battle continues.

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer and iconoclast. He is not in the advertising business, but he is a small-business counselor with the Santa Barbara chapter of Counselors to America’s Small Business-SCORE. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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