Tool Replacement: The Closest Thing to a Free Lunch (or Free Beer)

12th November 2012 by Mike Heskitt

This post has been contributed by my colleague, Tim Smith, Director of Design Engineering at Altair ProductDesign

I am sure we are all familiar with the standard marketing come-on of getting something for free, a free lunch, weekend get-away or perhaps, in its most effective form, free beer. I am sure we are equally familiar with the standard response to these come-ons that “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” For us engineers who need to take weight out of our products, I think what follows may be the closest thing to a free lunch that we can get. If you can spare me a few minutes, I will explain.


Value Analysis / Value Engineering

For organizations already applying optimization techniques to improve new product performance, the cost of optimization becomes embedded in the product development budget. Optimization is no longer perceived as “costing extra” since the design needs to be realized anyway and one is just adding a means within their process to craft better designs from the beginning.  This optimization process addresses new product development, but what about all of the longer life cycle products already in volume production. How can those products benefit from optimization in a cost effective manner?

For longer life cycle products already in the marketplace, value analysis/value engineering (VAVE) campaigns are often undertaken to find ways to take cost out while maintaining performance, all in an effort to make the products cost competitive alongside new products entering the marketplace. The cost reduction ideas identified in these VAVE campaigns come with the associated costs for research of material and manufacturing efficiencies, part redesign, analytical compliance validation, and physical testing when required for regulatory compliance. Additionally, there is the significant cost of revising the existing tooling or constructing new tooling. A lot of seemingly good ideas fall away pretty quickly when the cost for tool changes exceeds any material cost savings potential.


An Unexploited Opportunity

What if you could implement a design optimization cycle and not have to bear the additional cost of a tool change. How is this possible?

Tooling has a finite life that is fairly predictable in terms of the number of machine cycles (or parts processed) before it needs to be refurbished and then finally, replaced completely. This is a fact of life for those organizations developing products with high volumes and/or longer life cycles and the cost to refurbish and replace tooling is typically factored into the overall program cost. When products are extended beyond their original lifecycle, additional budget is allocated for the requisite tooling for any additional refurbishment or replacement cycles that would occur due to the program extension.

Hence, there exists a significant, unexploited opportunity to target a lightweighting design optimization activity for a product, such that it would coincide with when tooling is nearing the end of its useful life. A new optimized design and new tooling could be brought online before the original tooling wears out or fails. At this point in the product lifecycle, the investment for tooling has already been anticipated and accounted for, so one would only be required to invest in the product engineering, optimization and validation activities. Aha, you might be saying this is the “no free lunch” statement! The good news is that these engineering costs can be offset by the material cost savings generated by the lightweighting activity.


Die repair time offers an opportunity to redesign components to save significant weight and material


Clearly, there are many factors that need to be understood in order to implement a design optimization cycle that coincides with tool replacement. Some of those factors are:

  1. Where is a given tool in its current life cycle and how much time is left until replacement is required based on projected manufacturing volumes?
  2. How much time to fabricate a new tool and bring it online?
  3. How much time to engineer the optimized part and validate it per required analytical and physical test requirements?
  4. How to coordinate factors 1-3 if the tooling is owned by an outside supplier?


Sometimes, organizations merely react to tool replacement requirements and very little of the information above is tracked. A part by part investigation could be initiated when tool replacement requests come in, but there is often insufficient lead time to do the requisite optimization and engineering before the tool wears out. Hence, many potential material cost savings and lightweighting opportunities are being left on the table unrealized.

Considering this, it becomes justifiable from a cost standpoint, for an organization to initiate a study to better understand this lost potential in the context of how tool replacement is handled organizationally or on a product by product basis, by answering the following questions:

  1. What is the current tool replacement notification process?
  2. How many parts come up for tool replacement activity on an annual basis?
  3. Considering factors 1-3 above, how many parts fall within the current tool replacement notification period and become candidates for optimization?
  4. How many parts become candidates via incremental changes in the tool notification process?
  5. What would the investment be to implement item 4?


An obvious and understandably longer term end goal would be to systematically track tool life data within the parts procurement database such that tool replacement notification occurs well in advance of the current notification process so that more parts become candidates for this optimization process by providing sufficient lead time.

So sometimes a  “free lunch” can actually turn out to be as good as it sounds to the teams that bring home this process to their organization and implement lightweighting activities on the right components and crucially, at the right time.