Better procurement and integrated design

I read a good feature in my old university magazine with Prof Ann Dowling from Cambridge University’s Engineering Department who is working with MIT to come up with a  very quiet plane: the SAX-40 (Silent Aircraft eXperimental).

But what stood out from a procurement perspective was not all the clever stuff that goes into designing a near-silent aircraft (if you are interested it might be ready by about 2040). What stood out was the design process:

Dowling’s team designed the whole plane as a single, integrated piece of work, including the engines, and built a sufficiently complex computer model of how it would fly to enable them to design out the noise – a far cry from the conventional approach in almost all walks of engineering life. Cars, for example, are currently drawn by graphic designers, handed off to engineers to build, and then handed off again to an engine specialist tasked with making a propulsion unit to fit in a pre-ordained space.

The trouble with this conventional approach (and plane design is essentially no different) is that noise is very ‘cheap’ in efficiency terms: it’s easy to design a lot of noise into a blueprint for a machine without even noticing. That’s because, as Dowling explains, ‘the energy in sound is trifling. An entire Cup Final crowd, cheering and shouting for ninety minutes, generates about enough energy to boil a kettle.’ But integrated design can take accidental noise into account, and car manufacturers are starting to sit up and take notice.

What does an engineering design story have to do with procurement? How about switching out “noise” for “cost” so you have a sentence that reads something like this: “it is easy to design a lot of cost into a blueprint for a machine without even noticing.”

It is a commonplace amongst procurement circles that procurement needs to be involved earlier on in projects in order to add the most value. So it’s heartening to see how other areas, like engineering, are proving that integrated teams deliver better results.



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3 responses to “Better procurement and integrated design”

  1. Hi Alan,

    You are spot on about the integrated cross-functional team approach. A 2007 McKinsey study determined that,

    “Cross-functional teams can nearly double the impact of a savings initiative.”

    The full report is here:

    But how many procurement professionals excel at leading cross-functional teams?

    Indeed, how many simply wait for an invitation to be involved, rather than selling their case internally and ensuring they are brought in at the inception stages of internal projects?

    Keen to hear what others think.


  2. It goes beyond being involved in the team. A purchasing person should have the technical knowledge to be able to add value and make non purchasing related decisions. This would mean being able to drive operational improvements and not just a negotiator or owner of supplier relationships.

    Being able to do this helps greatly to purchasings ability to integrate early and remove the perception of being focussed only on the money…

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