The top 3 barriers to effective supplier collaboration (and how to overcome them)

Adam Kimmel

May 3, 2023

4

min read

Hands up: who's got supplier communication figured out and optimized?

This is rhetorical, of course. But however good communicating with the supply base is, there are always areas for improvement. An effective way many manufacturers are using is to adopt a more Agile-like approach: increasing the number of check-ins with part providers and involving them earlier in the design process.

But in practice, there are a few realities that challenge this way of working, such as:

  1. Protecting security
  2. Strained supplier relationships
  3. Poor communication processes

The good news is that there are practical solutions engineering teams can take to overcome these barriers.

Barrier 1: Security risks

One of the biggest hurdles manufacturers face is the need to share sensitive data outside the walls. This need leads to a natural trade-off between data security and speeding up sending data back and forth. 

A tie between security and speed usually results in leaders choosing to protect data security. And for a good reason: often, this data contains sensitive information, trade secrets, or approaches that companies want to shield from competition before the product launch – if ever.

However, cumbersome security protocols result in less collaboration or engineers navigating around the approved security protocols in the name of "driving for results." But it doesn't have to be like this!

Barrier 2: Strained supplier relationships

In all elements of life, healthy relationships require time and effort. Unfortunately, the challenge with manufacturing is that supplier-manufacturer relationships usually start with discussions over time and money – two stressful and high-friction areas.

In addition, even if the agreement is ongoing with a trusted partner, working with an external partner naturally bends toward a transaction, not a real collaboration. Continuing this way leads to a project management approach that checks items off of action item lists instead of creating the best product within the time and budget they have.

The good news is that winning teams realize the importance of repairing commercial awkwardness during the supply agreement and move quickly toward a technical partnership. This shared goal creates the chance to improve how the teams work together to remove the wall between companies and allow them to work as one team.

Every interaction between the combined design team contributes to the output – good or bad. As a result, when communicating with suppliers is difficult, building strong supplier relationships is too. In the end, the final product suffers.

Barrier 3: Inefficient communication

One of the most common drivers of strained supplier relationships is inefficient communication. Using existing organization-based tools (Excel lists, Word docs, PowerPoint decks, or worse…email!) invite nearly countless chances for miscommunication.

Tell me if any of these methods sound familiar:

  • Manufacturer designers "PowerPoint engineer" a JPEG of a CAD file on a slide with text boxes annotating changes
  • A slide contains numbers that represent a series of change notes on a 2D model image. These notes correspond to a spreadsheet or document with explanations
  • The design and supplier teams volley an email chain back and forth dozens of times. The emails have embedded images and thesis-length explanations beside them (don't forget to overlay the text!)

All of these approaches have drawbacks that reduce efficiency and create a chance for human error. Although Office tools are familiar and available, they are everywhere! They are so common that engineers have created a ton of non-standard processes for supplier collaboration.

The supplier team may overlook secondary but critical feedback while focusing on a major change. Or, the different groups could be working with outdated versions of a CAD file, only to discover the mismatch weeks or months later.

The worst outcome of inefficient communication is having decision-makers misaligned due to a lack of clarity. A note in a slide or email may be taken differently or applied to a different feature in one team member's mind than another. This changes the reviewer's perspective and may lead to a decision they didn't want to make.

Framing an advanced approach to remove the barriers

Fortunately, there is a better path to removing the invisible wall between designer and manufacturer through improved collaboration. All three of the barriers described above stem from applying tools designed for in-house manufacturing teams to a contract manufacturing environment:

  • Security concerns are significantly easier to solve between internal departments under the same IT system and oversight.
  • With in-house manufacturing, the agreement between design and manufacturing already exists when employees join the company. Technical leaders can smooth out any issues between the teams simply by the nature of their positions.
  • Communication is easier due to there being no wall – virtual or otherwise – between the internal groups. Team members can freely walk over to each other's offices (or ping each other via Teams or Zoom for follow-up questions).

Still, the communication prong, maybe the most important when converging a complex design, invites errors if the team collaborates using outdated approaches. As a result, striving for all in-house manufacturing will not solve all the issues. It would cost you the benefits of supplier resiliency and rapid scaling when production ramps up. 

There is a better way to collaborate with suppliers to address all three barriers effectively. The best process should alleviate security concerns, enable stronger relationships, and simplify back-and-forth communication so that suppliers can participate during the design process to bake manufacturing process considerations into the product design.

How to improve supplier collaboration

The best way to clear all three barriers is by using a software tool designed for supplier teamwork. Collaboration software like CoLab can host the design for manufacturing process on a single platform, enrolling the host to handle security specifically fit for the application.

The single-platform approach lets both design and manufacturing access the latest model version in real time, attaching the feedback to the 3D model for the clearest communication possible. This solution lets team members from either team check the review status at any time, and it handles admin tasks so stakeholders can check in whenever they want. This strengthens the working relationship with the supplier.

Conclusion

Using a single tool with managed security, 3D annotations, and the flexibility to accept all major file types removes the common barriers to supplier collaboration. When working with a manufacturing partner, clearing these barriers lets the technical teams partner with fewer constraints to get down to the important work: making a great, manufacturable product.

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February 13, 2023
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