Case Study

Design in business | Alps Electric (Ireland) Ltd.

The company

ALPS Electric (Ireland) Ltd., a division of Japanese public company ALPS Electric Co. Ltd., develops, produces and markets electromechanical components.

The Irish division of the company was established in Millstreet Town, County Cork in 1988 as a manufacturing base for ALPS customers in Europe. Manufacturing has evolved over this period from computer peripheral products (keyboard, mouse, floppy disc drives) to the supply of automotive electronics system and medical devices. Its products are exported to other countries, principally in other parts of Europe and its key customer groups include Volvo, BMW, Jaguar, Land Rover, Citroen, Honda and Renault. It primarily acts as a tier 1 or 2 supplier, with a focus on sophisticated electronic modules.

The Facility has world class manufacturing capabilities in SMT, moulding, decorative parts painting and laser marking.

Since 2011 Alps have been seeking to diversify its core manufacturing activity through the addition of a design for manufacturing capability. The main driver for these developments was the need to respond to the severe downturn in its automotive business in 2008/09. The company was forced to shed workforce, and explore strategies to reduce risk and its dependence on the sector. Design for manufacture was identified as an important strategic priority through this review process and has been approached incrementally and cautiously.

Design activity in Ireland

Alps has now worked on a number of design-led projects with manufacturers outside of its automotive sector which resulted in the creation of a new business unit within the company. This unit employs a team of five design and engineering staff, all of whom have degrees in electrical or mechanical software engineering. Each member of staff is also able to draw on specialist equipment such as CAD stations, prototype building, moulding, painting and so on. In recent years, the company occasionally draw on expertise from the university sector to assist in the testing of concept feasibility and development of software.

The design activities of the unit are largely focused on the design and development of new products. It views design as a process that begins with determining customer needs. In doing this it sees the design for manufacture process as one that involves close cooperation with the customer who typically brings expert knowledge of the market.

In developing the company’s design for manufacture capability the main challenge faced has been promoting the service to its customers. This has required Alps to work closely with its sales partners in Europe to develop a joint understanding of its new design-led offering.

Design in focus

The first project undertaken by Alps was a collaboration with a golf cart manufacturer to develop an electronic control module for a golf cart. Alps was chosen for this project because of pre-existing, high end control modules used in the automotive sector. The inspiration for the module was the need to heighten functionality to improve users’ experiences of the product.

Discussions between the golf cart manufacturer and Alps engineers focused on the needs of the customer and golfers as the users of the product. Primary concerns were the importance of ensuring the right look and feel of the controller, its ability to operate in outdoor conditions, and its responsiveness to golfers wearing a glove. Initial prototypes were subsequently developed and the interface designed to provide multiple data categories (time, battery status etc.)

“While we had a similar controller in production for one of our customers in the premium car manufacturing market we were challenged by the golf cart company to make this work in a completely different environment, making it both usable and attractive to users”.

This project provided important lessons for the company’s subsequent design for manufacture projects. This includes the importance of working closely with the customer, in agreeing an early specification, including expectations, quality standards, project management milestones and so on.

Alps has since worked with a major food processor manufacturer on the development of a small scale electronic module for a high end food processor product. This enhanced the company’s small component, moulding and electronic design competences. Again, this project drew on a strong understanding of customer and end user needs, prioritising quality and the feel and touch of the product’s buttons. Other key considerations in the design were the need for cost control, subsequent high volume production, and the need for appropriate materials to achieve the luxury feel.

Impacts from design

The company achieved success from its early design for manufacture activities as both of the projects noted above are currently in production. While the golf cart module is being produced in modest volumes, the food processor module is being produced at a rate of 30,000 units per week. This accounts for a large proportion of sales achieved by the new business group suggesting strong synergies with the core manufacturing offer of the company.

Alps believe that this capability has the potential to grow into an important business unit within the company with the potential to diversify its product / service offering to customers. It also enables the company to enter new premium markets user experience and aesthetics are important.