Ask a team of design engineers to hit a moving target 35 million miles across
the solar system with a space probe and it's done. Ask them to design a car that
runs on hydrogen, emits almost no pollutants, and requires little maintenance,
and they're all over the challenge. Then ask the same team to change the way
they work their product-development process and just listen to the response
"But we've always done it this way." "We're too busy to learn new technology." "Why mess with what works?"
I've heard variations on these objections for years. They usually rain down most heavily on ideas that require an engineering organization to do something differently. Often, that something has to do with suggestions for adopting new technology that can improve the design process. I'll use design analysis software as my case in point because it's what I know best.
Given the ability to simulate and analyze their designs before they go to prototype or production, engineers can eliminate flaws that would cost much more time and money to resolve later down the line in the product-development process. I've seen front-line engineers at one of our customer sites perform analyses in one day that took analysts a week to do on a much more complicated software platform. Yet many companies balk at the process changes required to adopt analysis software in design groups. Even when an individual gets enthusiastic about the technology, he/she often has to fight the corporate culture in their company. Certainly, engineering cultures are built around legitimate quality control issues. Engineering managers have to be concerned about junior engineers misusing the technology, arriving at wrong conclusions, then passing the information up the line, where it might taint an important decision.
But the engineering soul is based on innovation and risk taking. Why is innovation accepted everywhere but not in our own offices? Concerns about changing processes to accommodate new technologies are too often excuses to stick with the familiar. True, you don't want junior engineers analyzing critical parts or assemblies. You also don't want them to have the final word on an important project.
But good companies solve issues like these with good management practices that cost little but yield big returns. How do they do that? They delineate specific areas of responsibility to engineers of varying experience so junior engineers don't get in over their heads. They invest in master users who serve as front-line resources for the rank and file. In other words, they apply innovation in their work habits as aggressively as they do their work and it pays off.
As a community, engineering has to be more open to innovation in our work processes. Engineering can't be indifferent to business concerns like quality, cost, and time-to-market when the tools to improve them are everywhere. Desktop design analysis is one of the tools companies can use to infuse better quality control into their engineering processes while shortening cost and time to market. Companies that use analysis and similar tools won't just hit the moving target 35 million miles away, they'll hit it first and won't spend as much taking the shot.
Reach Suchit Jain at firstname.lastname@example.org