Product development is a team sport, but most companies practice it solo. Companies could draw on the creativity of engaged customers. Instead they go back to the same small group of internal experts for new ideas that aren’t new at all. Designers and engineers could be connecting with marketing, sales, customer support, suppliers, and most importantly, customers. But they sit in cubicles and occasionally try to convey their ideas to outsiders by way of slides. According to Hardi Meybaum, this needs to change.
In his new book, The Art of Product Design, Meybaum argues that product design doesn’t have to be so isolated, and for an increasing number of companies, it isn’t. How are these companies different? They’ve opened up their product development process, embracing what Meybaum calls “open engineering.”
Meybaum runs the CAD sharing service, GrabCAD, so he has plenty of experience in helping engineers share product development activities. He believes connectivity is the single most important recent change in design and development. He told Design News:
In the past we had to be physically co-located to have any hope of designing together. I had to be able to show you what I was working on, and the easiest way to do that was to show you my screen. When we got to prototyping it was even worse. Physical prototypes were expensive, fragile, and hard to move around. Digital communication and modeling makes it much easier to get feedback from other engineers and stakeholders. That’s all driven by connectivity.
Design collaboration has been around for more than a decade, pioneered primarily in aerospace by Boeing and its suppliers. These days, tools to support design collaboration are proliferating and are widely available. The only barrier is willingness. According to Meybaum, some design engineers are more willing than others.
He sees willingness breaking along generational lines, and he expects these young engineers to force change at companies that are not quickly adopting new technology.
Young engineers assume that their work tools should be as easy to use as their favorite websites. They expect to use the hardware they want, the software they want, and to be measured on their results. These young engineers can be hard to manage for more traditional companies, but it’s pretty clear that the consumerization of IT is more than just a fad among the youngsters.
One of the trends Meybaum holds responsible for changes in product design is outsourced manufacturing:
I realize this is becoming a cliché, but I think the change in product design comes from globalization, or more specifically, the distribution of manufacturing. The designer, the engineer, the manufacturing engineer, and the manufacturer are getting farther and farther away from each other physically. Tossing the design over the wall is now tossing it 8,000 miles. Old processes just don’t work in this environment.
As for future trends in product engineering, Meybaum points to the cloud. “I think the cloud has the potential for changing hardware engineering the way it’s changed software engineering, but that hasn’t happened yet.”
He noted that software engineers get help from online communities, they use open-source components, and they use online tools that allow multiple engineers to work on the same code at the same time without getting in each other’s way. “All of these changes can happen in hardware engineering, but the change is just starting,” says Meybaum. “I’m very optimistic about this. It’s amazing how much easier it is to create great software today than it was 20 years ago, and it’s mostly due to tools that are in the cloud.”