I think every company should have their own Design Requirements Manual that specifies engineering and hardware requirements for the typical product design. This manual would also include theory that explains why (historically), some aspects of every design are similar or the same. For example, certain materials are FDA-approved; some materials have proven to be best for marine environments or have been thoroughly tested for UV resistance.
This type of manual is especially handy when tribal knowledge gained from years of research is not readily accessible. So, assuming this DRM has already been created, the first thing I would do is read it. If it doesn't exist, create one, yourself after obtaining/learning what needs to be in it. If you are new to the company, this may take a while and most certainly will be a result of input from many people within your organization. Change to the document will inevitably occur over time, but it's engineering fundamentals should not.
warren- got a real chuckle out of "chief technologist = old engineer". Thats the way it works around here. My boss, the "chief engineer", is a title (he is a graduate civil engineer with zero experience at anything). If asked any technical question, his standard response is always "go ask Al"!
In my experience, the customer usually does not know exactly what he wants other than he wants it cheap, fast, and good. At this point I usually explain that there is a natural law that he can have only two of the three. Something like Boyle's Law, only different. Sitting down with them and trying to see their vision is the first step. Then look at their specifications and modify it as needed. Next I simply stare outside, with a cup of coffee and a cigarette in hand, and mull it over in my mind. Many times a great solution pops in my mind while sleeping. I then sketch it out on graph paper (always graph paper for some reason!). Then at work I start filling in the blanks with all the "hows" to accomplish the task. After that the computer work starts, then debugging the new hardware/software. Midstream in this I kick myself for dropping out of medical school.
My first cut is seldom correct, chop up the prototype, mangle the microcode, and viola- a work of art that performs (usually) like a Michelangelo but built internally more like a Picasso!
I take as a given that I will be asking others for input and trying hard to learn what else of the same sort has been done.
However, the first thing I do is I start imagining. First I imagine the customer... and I may not know MUCH about that customer to start with, and I will have to learn but I have to start by imagining (and correcting the image as I go) the customer. Their experience is primal in this process.
Second I imagine a device to do what the customer needs and wants.
Third I imagine the device I have imagined working. It works to do what my "customer" wants in some fashion and I have to imagine the way it works.
Starting vague and refining and restricting the design until I have something useful or nothing is left and I decide it can't be done.
Everything that I design is a "custom" design, in that it is created in response to a request for a product. OUr best customers arrive with a list of what the designed product must accomplish, and how fast it must accomplish the task. Some customers arrive with a list of what the system must do and how it must do it. They may, or not, understand what they need. So the first step is always finding out what the customer needs.
OF course, I am often at a good advantage in that area, because to produce a price quote for a product, it must be fairly well defined, and so going over the technical proposal usually is a very good first step. But we always meet with the customer to discuss just what the product will do to benefit them, since that is sort of mandatory information.
If we are talking about consumer products and ones that will be used by individuals, we are working in a direction somewhat determined by codes and standards; i.e. UL 858 for electric cooking products, Z21.1 for gas cooking products. Jigs, fixtures, dies, tooling, robotics etc give a little room for creativity because they will be used in-house relative to the manufacturing floor. In looking at products that will ultimately be used by consumers:
Have a complete definition of the product needed and the scope of the overall project. What do the customers want and how have those needs been defined by marketing. If in doubt, obtain the necessary clarifications up front. Don't wait until the first design review to obtain additional understanding of what's needed.
Obtain an absolutely clear understanding of time-lines for the project, including design guidance, design confirmation, pre-pilot, pilot and production dates.
Obtain the LATEST codes and standards to which the product will be tested. (This is critical and includes all local codes and any national codes.)
Discuss the product and project with manufacturing to make sure there are no issues relative to the overall project. (Don't throw the design over the wall upon completion and expect manufacturing to make it. Be up front and make the design/manufacturing phase a joint venture—no surprises! )
If components now used in existing products can be "designed" into the "new "product, by all means do so thus eliminating an additional item to be purchased and manipulated by assembly.
Make plans to communicate with manufacturing, marketing and upper management on a weekly basis the status of your project. Set a time and day each week for a brief status meeting.
If needed, have legal determine if infringement in any area might occur.
If needed, research in-house and in the literature designs of a similar nature. Start with in-house.
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