Specification Creep - How “playing it safe” with machine specifications can derail a project entirely.

by Jessica White , Applications Engineering Manager

December 19, 2019

One of the challenges that continually plagues the custom capital equipment purchasing process is difficulty in establishing accurate specifications for a given piece of process machinery as potential projects move from the initial inquiry to an order, and from concept to reality. Machinery manufacturers and their customers must grapple with several issues during this process, such as uncertainty in the manufacturing process, ambiguity in product specifications or product mix, financial and commercial requirements for project approval, etc. Meanwhile, stakeholders are looking for ways to mitigate risk by covering all the bases.

All this uncertainty leads to the desire to build-in flexibility concerning a machine’s capabilities. The typical thought process is, if the machine can handle a broader range of process conditions or a wider range of products, then ROI will be more favorable. Also, the risk of a machine becoming obsolete will decrease if it can accommodate the future, and therefore uncertain, product and process needs. While well-intentioned, this thinking can result in broad equipment specifications that can lead to an over-engineered machine that is prohibitively more expensive. The probability of accurately estimating costs decreases as product/process scope increases and therefore cost overcompensation can potentially doom a project before it gets off the ground.

Think about the example of a machine’s weight capacity. A customer thinks to themselves, “today we sell a roll of material that weighs 1,000 pounds, but I want to make sure the machine can handle our future goal of 2,000 pounds.” An OEM will then take the 2,000-pound requirement and likely add in their factor of safety. When this requirement is finally passed on to vendors of individual, commercially sourced components (motors, winding shafts, etc.), they are likely to build in their own safety factors, thus compounding the issue. You can now see how it’s possible to significantly oversize the machine beyond its intended application merely by accommodating a future requirement that may sound reasonable but in fact has no known certainty of actually being required.

One way to avoid this problem is to get a clear understanding of your process. Take the time and invest the resources necessary to develop products on pilot equipment (like that found in our M&W Biax Lab) so that you can clearly define an optimal process window.

Second, fine-tune your product matrix so that you are not attempting to build a machine that can do everything you can potentially envision.  This may require doing more market research and working with planning to forecast realistic product demand. The reality is that an over-engineered machine, even if economically viable, probably doesn’t run the intended product as efficiently as one that was designed specifically around a tighter product specification.

Finally, work with your supplier to understand the engineering “factors of safety” they may already be applying to their design criteria to ensure that the machine will satisfactorily handle your specifications. Likely, they are already providing some additional flexibility.

It’s also a good idea to include all stakeholders in discussions either through conference calls or, better yet, on-site meetings both before and after the proposal stage, so that everyone is on the same page and the specification isn’t broadened when progressing from the proposal stage to placing an order.

Despite this guidance, our applications engineers observe specification creep all too often, resulting in proposals that ultimately are over-engineered and excessively costly. Not only does this waste resources in generating proposals that are unlikely to move forward, but it also results in lost business opportunities for our customers whose projects die prematurely due to unnecessarily inflated capital equipment costs. Overall, be realistic about your requirements by focusing on “must-have” objectives that are driven by current or near-term needs, then develop a separate wish list that specifies future objectives.  This way, a machinery OEM can show you separate, incremental costs to accommodate that future uncertainty without compromising the fundamental project.