Solar Equipment Development: Going From Fuzzy to Focused

One of the toughest things about starting a tool development design and build project is that, in most cases, the overall requirements for tool functionality and performance are not yet really focused. The group tasked with this tool development responsibility, however, is told to get moving on the project because “we are already late.” In fact, the picture of what is needed is still kind of fuzzy, with few if any critical details clearly delineated.

It is, however, very possible to launch the project and make progress while still clarifying tool specifications and requirements. With a disciplined phase approach, many of these open issues (technical, commercial and market-related) can be resolved in the first phase of the project.

At the start of most tool development projects, there usually is a gap between desired tool functionality and target tool cost: engineers want to design the tool to meet all potential market requirements and perform at the highest level, while the marketing group wants a tool that meets a specific set of market requirements, and can be produced at the lowest-possible cost. What needs to be done very early in the program is a functional/cost trade-off analysis, that is well understood and agreed upon by both parties, before tool specifications and performance can be agreed upon and finalized. When finalizing the tool specifications, it is critical to comprehend how the functionality of the tool will be validated at the end of the program — if a valid test cannot be designed, then tool performance cannot be validated and the specification is meaningless.

Not all tool functionality can be nailed down in the first phase of production tool development — in some projects, development begins even before tool process development is completed. If the process changes significantly, tool specification changes are the inevitable result. Tool design specifications must try to accommodate the range of potential process parameters. Of course, this increase in functionality will lead to an increase in overall tool cost. By thinking about these issues early on, and building in the ability to easily change the tool design once the process specifications have solidified, the impact of process related changes can be minimized.

This lack of clarity exists whether the project is handled as an in-house development project or as an outsourced development project. If it’s outsourced, the selection of a design and build partner to help clarify and focus the development effort is critical to the program’s overall success. While there is always a desire in a tight economy to keep as many costs in-house as possible, the money spent engaging the right outsourced partner from the beginning is likely to benefit the project budget long-term. Where a tool manufacturer may produce a couple of new designs a year, most design houses are involved in as many as a dozen annually. A good outsource partner will have established and proven procedures that can make it significantly easier to take that fuzzy picture at the beginning of the project and put it in focus.

Up-front time must be spent early in the development phase of a project to bring the fuzzy parameters into focus. Trade-offs of tool cost vs. functionality must be well understood by all stake holders. By leveraging either in-house or outside expertise in project planning and management, as well as design input, from the very beginning, one can end up saving a lot of time, money and aggravation.

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