American manufacturers aren't alone in having to contend with low-cost operations in China.
Japanese manufacturers face the same competitive forces that are pulling work out of U.S. shops. "The Japanese have responded with what might be called Super Shops, those that can quickly design and manufacture highly stylized, organically shaped products," says Kubotek USA Chief Operating Officer Robert Bean. "One way they counter low-cost operations is by quickly and cost effectively customizing products. In some cases, designs are completely reshaped for an individual."
The tactic can be used in this country as well, says Bean. A first step for smalltomedium-sized manufacturers is to improve efficiency and get more creative. One way is with a strategy he proposes called M3, for measure, model, and machine. "Measure" refers to scanning either physical models that might have been hand shaped or parts which have no drawings. "Model" suggests shaping and refining scanned figures with 3D CAD software. And "machine" refers to generating NC toolpaths for turning the new digital shape into a physical part. A single software system should be able to perform all three, he says.
The strategy takes into account how design and manufacturing engineers really think, design, and work. However, says Bean, today's CAD/CAM tools impose constraints on designers that impedes this strategy.
"The problem with conventional, parametric-based CAD is that it focuses on repetitive design systems and mass production, making it too confining for today's manufacturing requirements," says Dr. Tetsuo Kubo, Kubotek Corp. founder and CEO. "Designers should be able to take a part model and change or customize it. To do so, they need to mix real-world data with their designs."
Kubo says a more useful CAD system should be based on premises that CAD is immature. The marketplace may be mature, but the software is not, he claims. And despite more than 20 years of development, CAD programs generally are hard to use, based on proprietary architectures, and poorly integrated with complementary solutions.
Kubo says the M 3 strategy also calls for lowering barriers between functions so teams can iterate and refine in hours instead of days or weeks. "The latest CAD tools will let designers attack problems from any angle, input realworld data, mix it with their original designs, and modify results quickly and easily. We will soon provide just such an integrated design and manufacturing solution," he says.