Guarantee Innovation & Reduce Risk with Set-based Concurrent Engineering (SBCE)

Have you ever tried scheduling a meeting with someone extraordinarily busy only to never finally meet? Did each of you propose a time each go-around and go back and forth trying to find an ideal meeting time? Now, if you’d have been dealing with an experienced Executive Assistant, he or she would’ve known to set up the meeting quickly by communicating available slots in sets! Communicating in sets was quicker, easier and much more likely to find a solution to the meeting problem. The same approach (looking at sets of options) works great for Product Development and is much better suited to drive innovation than point-based design. It is commonly referred to as Set-based Concurrent Engineering (SBCE) or Set-based Design / Innovation.

What is Set-based Concurrent Engineering?

Set-based Design or Set-based Concurrent Engineering (SBCE) is an approach to Product Development, in which the team considers a broad range of design alternatives or sets and systematically narrows the sets down to a final, often superior choice. Set-based engineering is one of the major tools used when Front-loading the Product Development process.

How Set-Based Concurrent Engineering works

set-based concurrent engineering
Set-based Concurrent Engineering (SBCE). Image credit: Durward Sobek

In SBCE, the teams –

  • Break the overall design or system into the smallest pieces viable for consideration – sub-systems and sub-sub-systems. Ex: A Height-adjustable Lift Desk could be broken down into the sub-assemblies of the Desk-top, Mounting Frame system, Lift Columns and Mechanism, electronics etc.
  • Using the customer requirements defined in the study phase as a sounding board, they set broad target requirements for the systems and sub-systems. Ex: Max. costs, Desired Materials and Finishes, certain manufacturing capability, available vendor network etc
  • Explore multiple solutions or concepts for every sub-system considering product design, manufacturing and supply-chain capabilities in parallel.
  • They gradually get rid of weak solutions by aggressively attacking them with quick, cheap analysis and testing. They often test to failure instead of testing to standards.
  • They use the results from the tests and analyses to build trade-off knowledge databases that define the limits of what is and isn’t possible.
  • Converge on a solution only after it is proven.

The Benefits of SBCE

SBCE works. Especially if the goal is to leap-frog ahead of the competition in terms of innovation. Why does SBCE work so well?

  • SBCE increases innovation! Because the teams explore and evaluate more ideas in more detail, innovation is increased and almost guaranteed. A lot of times, the number of patent applications can double.
  • SBCE reduces risk! in SBCE, if one concept fails, another one is right there to take over (Just like a large semi or big-rig with multiple sets of wheels that can continue running if one goes flat). SBCE reduces the risk factor by about 5 to 10 times. If managed and executed properly, SBCE almost always results in a successful product and manufacturing process, on time and on budget.
  • SBCE reduces chaos! Because solutions are evaluated in sets and teams look for overlapping between the requirements of different functional groups, SBCE reduces the chances of chaos created due to last minute fixes, delays due to surprises with tooling, cancelled projects etc.
overlapping requirements in set-based design
Overlapping between feasible regions of functional groups
  • Reduces development costs! Testing is usually a lot cheaper when performed in the early stages of product development, because you can use relatively few low-cost and crude prototypes to quickly check if the different concepts under consideration work well together. Also, many of the concepts can easily be eliminated by building targeted prototypes to test a particularfunction or fit. Also, there is a lot more room to zig and zag between different options in the early phases, when specifications haven’t been narrowed down yet.
    • For ex: At BDI (prior to attaining lean enlightenment), we used to spend weeks designing and engineering finely detailed 3D CAD models and order fully detailed finish prototypes before doing any testing. After receiving the prototypes, we would find many fit and function issues at a stage where it was too late to use the prototype to take to our trade shows. Now, we build many cheap quick and dirty mock-ups to test and evaluate particular components and hardware. The images below show a corner mock-up of a new hinge with side panels and doors to check for binding.
  • Evaluating multiple solutions allows you to build better trade-off curves and a knowledge database, which can be re-used on future projects without the need to test again. Also, testing to failure vs testing to a standard allows companies to create really robust data on failure modes and points. They can then use this failure information to design products to pass tests, instead of designing tests to pass products.
  • SBCE produces sub-system concepts that are robust enough to work across different systems or projects. Each internal component department and their respective suppliers also consider a number of alternatives that can be used on multiple system-level concepts. They kill the concepts that only work for a few cases and focus on solutions that can be put to work broadly, across a number of different systems. If these are robust enough, they end up being specified as “standard” components across various systems. So, even though the company is trying to re-invent and innovate, they re-use standard components and processes, and focus their creative energy on the sub-systems that truly need innovation.
    • At Toyota, all door outer panels are manufactured using 4 hits of the stamping dies, and all sedans are said to use the same methods for creating torsional stiffness. This reuse of concepts allows for part re-use, reducing design, manufacturing and inventory costs and especially debugging time [1].
  • Specifications are generated at the end of the project when the design naturally converged after all the learnings over the course of the project. The SBCE did start with a broad range of requirements, and I am intentionally differentiating between the terms “requirements” and “specifications”.
  • Designing the product and the manufacturing system simultaneously has a huge benefit! By bringing manufacturing engineers and suppliers into the design process upstream, they can offer information on exciting new capabilities for the product engineers to take advantage of early in the process. Not to mention, feeling included in upstream processes always feels nice and motivates teams to communicate better.

Set-based Design is a powerful remedy to the wastes of chaos, waiting, reqork, wishful thinking and discarded knowledge created by conventional product development. Are you already using SBCE in some form? Let me know in the comments below!

[1] Ward, Allen and Durward Sobek. Lean Process and Product Development. Second edition. Lean Enterprise Institute, Inc., 2014. [2] Durward K. Sobek II, Allen C. Ward and Jeffrey K. Liker. MIT Sloan Management Review – Toyota’s Principles of Set-Based Concurrent Engineering [3] Morgan, James and Liker, Jeffrey. The Toyota Product Development System, CRC Press, 2006.

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