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What Engineers Really Want
Engineers describe what they look for in a good supplier.
BY JASON C. BREWER
Survivors in the highly competitive automotive-supply industry will be those companies that most effectively capture and execute new business. Profound understanding of the wants and needs of the customer contributes significantly to capturing business effectively. The wants of the purchasing department at customers is usually clearly communicated: low price from a capable supplier. But unless the supplier is executing a low-cost producer model, there are additional and important stakeholders in the supplier-selection process. Meeting the wants and needs of the customer’s engineers, for example, can enrich the array of opportunities and help reduce the number of viable competitors.
But what do engineers want in a supplier? I conducted an unscientific survey of my automotive-engineering friends and former colleagues to find this out. Through casual interviews, design and release engineers from vehicle manufacturers and system integrators explained what they wanted in a supplier. These engineers shared experiences when suppliers delighted them, and when suppliers didn’t even get the basics right.
The diagram depicts the results of the survey presented in the structure of a Kano model. The Kano model illustrates that customer satisfaction (on the vertical axis) is positively impacted by achieving stated performance metrics and unspoken delights. Achievement of the basics does not positively impact customer satisfaction, but failure to achieve the basics can negatively impact customer satisfaction significantly.
Similar to manufacturing’s supplier-performance metrics of cost, quality and delivery, engineering evaluates a supplier’s performance against timing, cost, and quality.
Timing refers to the supplier’s ability to meet the program timing for prototypes, make-like-production samples, program launch and other milestones. Timing also refers to a supplier’s speed of response to issues such as engineering changes and telephone calls.
Engineers have cost targets to achieve; therefore, cost is still an important metric. However, design and release engineers evaluate cost in terms of product features and performance, weight, and system quality, not just price.
“Quality” means various attributes to engineers, including:
- Quality performance of the company;
- Quality of samples and prototypes; and
- Quality of designs and design support.
Before an engineer can honestly evaluate a supplier’s performance, the supplier must first perform well on the basics. Poor performance on the basics by a supplier frustrates engineers, which opens the door for another company to gain access to opportunities and influence the design.
Suppliers are expected to be competent in their area of specialization, whether products or processes. One engineer illustrated this point by describing an experience purchasing prototype assemblies. When placed on a test stand, all of the prototypes leaked before they could even be tested. Upon inspection, the engineer noticed that not only were the seals cut, but they weren’t all the same seal. Shipping defective prototypes and lack of attention to detail destroyed the engineer’s trust in the supplier to deliver this assembly in production.
As a supplier of a particular product or process, the customer engineer expects the company, as the manufacturer, to possess some level of expertise such that the supplier can:
- Provide input on design for manufacturing;
- Evaluate and explain the impact of design changes;
- Explain the key manufacturing process or product performance parameters; and
- Contribute to trade-off analyses and problem solving.
The engineers surveyed said they didn’t expect the suppliers’ sales people to be engineers, but they did expect to be able to speak directly with a supplier’s engineers when needed. Some engineers feel at risk if they can’t rely on their suppliers to provide a basic level of expertise.
“I have to worry about product performance, targets, integration issues and the [product release] system,” said one engineer. “The supplier makes the part--it should at least know the manufacturing issues.”
Since the implementation of QS-9000 standards, engineers expect suppliers to have a functioning and effective quality system. Tools such as FMEAs and Quality Control Plans are expected to be complete and accurate. If problems arise in production or in the field, the engineers expect to be able to use these tools and others in the quality system in developing a solution. An inconsistent or poorly executed quality system creates excessive work for a customer’s engineers, resulting in lost business over time.
Once the basics are met and the performance is good, there are supplier characteristics that really delight the customers’ engineers. These are the behaviors that satisfy and impress the customer, as well as potentially differentiate the supplier.
Design and release engineers appreciate suppliers that know and can work the customer’s systems, such as product-data management, product release and alerts systems. Engineers believe that a supplier that knows the systems will provide complete data, in the necessary format, not ask questions about the process, and perhaps even complete select tasks on behalf of the engineer, thereby making the engineer’s job easier.
In addition to select tasks, the engineer also appreciates a supplier that provides troubleshooting assistance. Suppliers using expertise to provide feedback on an engineer’s suggested solution is trumped by suppliers proactively identifying problems and generating solution recommendations. “It’s great when [the supplier] can act as one of the engineers in my department to attack the problems,” remarked one engineering supervisor.
Engineering changes are common in many systems. What is uncommon is a supplier that is prepared for engineering changes with a quick response of alternatives and the corresponding data on the tooling, cost, timing and quality trade-offs for each alternative. Engineering changes are often driven by high-stress discoveries from tests or trials. Waiting for a supplier to determine, for example, the build status of the tooling, if it can be modified for the change, and for how much only exacerbates the engineer’s stress level.
Engineers value suppliers that bring relevant ideas on improving product performance, quality and cost. Rather than the supplier presenting its process technology and asking the engineer to figure out how it can be used, it is easier for the engineer when the supplier presents what it can do for the customer. Engineers also value suppliers that volunteer to attack problems when they arise, and then deliver on the offer. Simply put, suppliers that pro-actively make the engineer’s job easier are delights, versus those that pose hurdles to solutions.
The customer-satisfaction drivers for design and release engineers presented here apply broadly. Engineers within each company will have additional unique unspoken wants and needs. Knowing and meeting the needs of engineering is especially true for business models built around product design, engineered solutions and customer intimacy. Investing in the time to identify and deliver the satisfaction drivers for the stakeholders in supplier selection can improve a supplier’s ability to capture business. Under the increasing pressures of supply-base reduction and global sourcing, targeting customer needs is a necessary skill in the survival of the fittest.
Jason Brewer is a manager in the Automotive Supplier Consulting Services Practice of Plante & Moran, PLLC, Southfield, MI; Jason.Brewer@plantemoran.com. This article originally appeared in the January 2004 issue of Automotive Industries.