Change is inevitable in business, particularly when it comes to technology products. From technological improvements to supplier bankruptcies, internal and external forces continuously spark changes to established product designs. Unless handled seamlessly, changes to a product's design mid-production can disrupt deliveries and cause shortages that can impact a product's success. The imperative to avoid such disastrous outcomes makes many OEMs reluctant to cede control of the change process by outsourcing manufacturing. Most contract manufacturers consider design changes to be wholly the purview of the customer, so support for changes is not priced into the original production quote.
Of all the ways Benchmark is different from other contract manufacturers, the difference in how we handle design changes may be the starkest. Benchmark considers seamlessly addressing design changes, whether driven by internal or external factors, a core part of our service offering. Our change management process is transparent and robust, giving customers visibility and control over the process, especially when resource investment is required.
Identifying the Cause
Let's start by identifying the causes of mid-production design changes. Changes can be reactive to an immediate obstacle to production or proactive to improve a product or prepare it for a foreseen future constraint. Reactive changes should be avoided whenever possible as time limitations could constrain remedies. Benchmark uses a host of globally standardized tools to routinely review product bill of materials (BOMs) for projected part obsolescence and monitors international trade regulations to reduce reactive changes.
Proactive changes can either be initiated by the customer or driven by external factors. Customers may choose to upgrade a product's capabilities or review an entire design to look for ways to reduce costs through BOM cost reductions or simplification of manufacturing processes. Foreseen circumstances can also trigger a change, such as new regulations or a desire to reduce failures in the field. Benchmark's change management processes take all of these factors into account.
Interestingly, a customer may be least likely to undertake a self-initiated, proactive change. After all, if there is no looming crisis driving the change, and any change comes with cost and risk. However, it is essential not to underestimate the risks associated with failing to update technology or seizing opportunities to reduce production costs. In either case, its money potentially "left on the table." Instead, a flexible change management approach that reduces risks and costs gives OEMs good options for adapting to ever-changing market realities.
Addressing the Change
In either case, Benchmark uses the same approach to address a design change, adjusting timelines and options presented depending on the impetus for the change.
First, with the Program Manager in the lead, we work with our customer to dissect the problem the change will address. Then, Benchmark's deep bench of design engineers, manufacturing engineers, test development engineers, supply chain architects, and more evaluate the problem from all angles.
Consider an end-of-life part as an example. When Benchmark detects that a component will soon no longer be available, a team evaluates options. Is the customer's product close to end-of-life and a good candidate for a last-time buy? Are there other commercially available components that address the same form, fit, and function requirements? Is the product regulated by the FDA, FAA, or other regulatory bodies so that changing the component may have other implications? Will the change affect the cost to manufacture by adding time or steps? Benchmark presents all of the possible options to the customer with potential pros and cons.
In addition, Benchmark studies whether the required change presents an opportunity to make other improvements to the product or process. In the end-of-life component example, is a redesign to include a new part an opportunity to upgrade the product's capabilities? Or perhaps review options to reduce the BOM cost?
Selecting the Best Solution
Once a customer has identified the most likely solutions, Benchmark collects additional details such as the time and cost requirements of implementing the change. Many customers choose to use Benchmark's design engineering team to update designs, review for manufacturability, and even conduct testing required to certify new designs. Benchmark's engineers become an extension of the customer's internal engineering team. Even when Benchmark wasn't involved in the initial design, access to our network of design engineers can save a customer time and allow them to keep their engineers focused on their core priorities.
Before any change is implemented, it goes through a rigorous review with the Change Control Board (CCB) for that product. The CCB process ensures that all documentation to implement the change is in place and that there are no surprises when implemented. This rigorous review by engineers, supply chain experts, and subject matter experts in designing and manufacturing high-reliability products is critical to a smooth transition.
After the approval, the change goes into Benchmark's information system to route all necessary data everywhere it is needed—supply chain, production, test, etc. Training on new manufacturing processes takes place, guided by manufacturing subject matter experts, with the aid of design engineers in some cases.
Some customers may not even realize our robust change management process exists until their first change arises. They are relieved to find they chose a partner who has their back. The extra support is like insurance—you don't need it until you need it. And when you do, you'll be glad you chose Benchmark.