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How to boost US productivity? Take close look at product design

Boosting productivity is the watchword of US business. The introduction of robots and other sophisticated technology to American industries is being hailed as the answer to the economic challenge of nations such as Japan.

But one university researcher says that the most important factor in improving the industrial performance of the United States is being largely ignored. Geoffrey Boothroyd, a professor of mechanical engineering, argues that the method of manufacturing (manual or automated) is of little consequence unless the initial design of the product lends itself to efficient manufacture. Dr. Boothroyd has developed a system, called ''Design for Assembly - A Designer's Handbook,'' that he says could be the single biggest boost to US productivity now available.

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Xerox Corporation is a believer. Using his system, Dr. Boothroyd showed that company how to cut the cost of a latch mechanism by 36 percent by reducing the number of parts from 62 to 17 and the assembly time from 6.9 minutes to 1.48 minutes.

The money saved from that design change and others ''should be in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year,'' says Sydney Liebson, who before he retired from Xerox last year sold the company on the idea. Not a bad return for a handbook that sells for $20 ($5 each when ordered in bulk).

For $2,500, a company receives the system in the form of personal computer software, with the right to reproduce the program for use anywhere within that firm.

Interest worldwide is growing. Boothroyd's research, which he is continuing, receives half its funding from the National Science Foundation and half from giant corporations such as Xerox, IBM, Digital Equipment Corporation, General Electric, and Westinghouse. Not to be outdone, Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi and Hitachi have sent a steady stream of visitors to Boothroyd's laboratory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. An article on his system in the trade journal Assembly Engineering last year brought in an astounding 1,500 inquiries. His handbook is being translated into Dutch by N.V. Philips and into German by Siemens AG, the GE of West Germany.

How does it work? Basically, says Boothroyd, he and his colleagues have created a systematic approach to finding the most efficient design for a product while it is still ''on the drawing board.'' The procedure includes giving a numerical rating for the ease of assembly of a design, a rating that can be independently checked and which can form the basis for improved designs. The result, he says, is fewer parts, simpler design, easier and quicker assembly and disassembly. The bottom line: lower costs, higher productivity.

''Dr. Boothroyd has changed design from an art to more of a disciplined approach,'' says Dr. Liebson, a physicist who followed Boothroyd's research for a number of years before he recommended it to Xerox. ''I feel it's the major contribution in the past 20 to 30 years in the field of manufacturing technology.''

The Boothroyd system ''is a darn good checklist'' for product design, adds Domenic Zambuto, manager of advanced manufacturing technology at Digital Equipment Corporation in suburban Boston. Before choosing the Boothroyd approach , Mr. Zambuto compared it with a system created by Hitachi. He concluded that the Massachusetts engineer had carried the concept ''one step further'' than the Japanese firm, which offers the only other system available.

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Unlike most US companies, Boothroyd says, Japanese firms encourage designers to consider ease of assembly from the outset. One result: Cars rolling off assembly lines in Detroit need about 30 percent more manual effort to assemble than those made in Japan, contributing to the $1,000 to $1,500 Japanese cost advantage. Even so, the Japanese ''still don't have a systematic procedure'' for design, he says.

But a ''major problem'' to wider use of the system in the US, says Mr. Zambuto, is resistance from design engineers who ''feel threatened.''

''Some product designers feel it's something they already do,'' he says. He has made a promotional videotape that explains ''Design for Assembly'' in an effort to make engineers more comfortable with the system.

Most engineers see the ''common sense'' of the system when it's explained, says Liebson. But the biggest savings are in ''hidden costs'' that often are difficult to show managers on a ledger, such as the administrative costs of repeated design changes, he says.

''I don't know of anyone who's seen his research who sees any flaws in it so far,'' says Terry Thompson, the editor of Assembly Engineering. ''But Boothroyd himself would be the first to admit there is much more to learn. It's only the beginning of a whole new science.''

Mr. Thompson says that although advances in assembly and product design don't catch the public's imagination (''except for robots, with their science-fiction aspects''), they are vitally important. ''The US has a labor surplus now, but within a decade there will be a labor shortage. We have to learn how to design products so that they can be assembled through automation.''

''There is no question in my mind that (Boothroyd's research) eventually will be adopted by everyone in manufacturing,'' adds Liebson, now a private consultant. He estimates ''Design for Assembly'' concepts would produce a minimum savings of 10 percent in total manufacturing costs for a typical manufacturer. ''This is the fastest way for US companies to increase their productivity,'' he says.

''The problem lies in getting people in senior technical positions to make a decision. The lack of progress of this (Design for Assembly) program is a terrible indictment of US companies that give lip-service to productivity. Unless our industry learns to analyze risk, and (when appropriate) accept it, we can never compete with the Japanese.''

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