In the bad old days, engineers, often by choice or circumstance, worked alone on their designs and got little feedback from anyone other than their cubicle mates until the eleventh hour of a design project, when it was too late or too expensive to make changes.
Not so true anymore.
Thanks to the Internet—and the twin pressures of intensified competition and shorter time to market—today's engineers are brainstorming early and often with colleagues and vendors across the hall and across the continent.
Collaboration has become one of the biggest buzzwords in engineering, and for good reason: it saves time and money, and actually improves product designs. Virtually every supplier of engineering software touts their products' features that enhance collaboration. And, recent Design News surveys show that engineers are increasingly networking their CAD software with other engineers inside and outside their companies, as well as with suppliers.
"[Internet] technology gives people an opportunity to collaborate in new product design," says Bruce McIntosh, director of client/service applications for fluid-handling-systems manufacturer Graco (Minneapolis, MN). "They don't have to worry about the time delays associated with other media."
Here are two cases that show how engineers collaborated to solve design problems and speed product development:
Early warning on design problems. Acton, MA-based engineering firm Product Insight's initial involvement in the design of the new OptiGo portable cardiac ultrasound system was simple. "We were just to design the user interface graphics," says Project Leader Jon Rossman. But when they finished their work, the engineers also suggested changes to the already-designed enclosure that would aid the portability. Phillips Medical Systems, the systems's manufacturer, liked the suggestions, which included the addition of a handle and a way to store the power cord, and asked them to redesign the enclosure to incorporate those added features.
The deadline was six weeks.
Wasting no time, Rossman and his team began to design plastic and diecast magnesium parts in Pro/ENGINEER (PTC). But to avoid slipups that could have affected manufacturing, they immediately started collaborating with molders and other critical vendors.
"One side of the device has openings for a memory card and an ac adapter," says Rossman, "but each vendor has a different way to do the mold details. We wanted advice from the vendors early on the design that was best for them."
So, Rossman et al. sent their Pro/ENGINEER models to Mack Molding (Arlington, VT) and Chicago White Metal (Chicago, IL) on CDs and over the Internet for their review. "We wanted Mack to see our knit lines and gate locations, and we wanted to discuss tooling with them," Rossman recalls. "They asked us to make some changes that sped up the process."
Product Insight also shared design files with Phillips to keep them informed of the design progress—and to get feedback early. Result: Deadline met.
"Early involvement through collaboration makes projects go faster and cures the headache of someone making changes at the end of the project that you weren't expecting," Rossman says.
Timesaver. For engineer Bill Hasbrook of speaker manufacturer Phoenix Gold, time is always of the essence. The company calls its automotive sound systems "jewelry for cars," and spends a lot of effort designing their own tooling for parts. It can be a three-year project for a new set of speakers, a major problem in a market where competitors are constantly introducing new products and customers are looking for the most sophisticated equipment.
Collaboration with tooling and other vendors helped Hasbrook and his team cut the production cycle by more than two-thirds for their recently introduced Titanium 12D Elite Speakers.
Hasbrook used Autodesk Inventor to design the speakers, then shared his CAD files with internal marketing, purchasing, and manufacturing departments to get comments. He also sent the files to tooling vendors, who suggested modifications in the design that avoided last-minute problem surprises.
"By collaborating with vendors and internal departments, we found out about needed changes early and didn't have to tweak designs repeatedly," Hasbrook says. "We knew the end result before we made the parts."
When you think of it, is one of the biggest benefits of collaborating with vendors and others at an early stage.