Management must back engineers
'Continuous improvement' is one of many buzz phrases being bandied about at the moment. However the reality is actual change in a product, material or design is usually quite conservative to ensure the affects of change are positive... or indeed minimise them if they're negative.
Balancing risk is likely at the forefront of most engineering decisions, and while management expect change, they also expect that change to be positive. No one is advocating the other extreme of excessive risk, but perhaps the rate of change in many industries is not where it should be, and arguably needs to be. Materials are a case in point. In many instances the uptake of different materials is too risk adverse, with no one wanting to be the fall guy if it all goes wrong. If a product using a new material fails for one reason or another it can be a career limiting decision for the engineer.
The same can be said about design. New materials open up new opportunities, yet all too often if a new material is used it is initially as a straight forward like-for-like replacement. The classic example is where composites replace steel with no real change to geometry. These have been dubbed black metal parts and there is a reason why it happens, and it is usually not through the engineer being short sighted.
In fact it is to minimise risk and maximise the acceptance of something new. One vital lesson seen across both the aerospace and automotive sectors is that for new materials to be embraced – and for positive change to happen more quickly – top level management must show full and solid support for its engineers.
Aircraft manufacturers Boeing and Airbus have had a concentrated and sustained move toward lightweighting that has been implemented and supported from the highest levels of management. Both have now successfully developed primary composite structures for their next generation of aircraft. However, both have also experienced significant problems and delays along the way, encountering unforeseen technical challenges and escalating costs.
Embracing new materials is risky and for the moment it is neither cheap nor easy. Yet, its implementation does seem somewhat essential in meeting various targets and giving some meaning to the aspirations of continuous improvement.
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