These Guns For Hire

DN Staff

April 21, 1997

16 Min Read
These Guns For Hire

Some engineers just weren't meant to settle down. These engineers often start their own consulting companies--or join already established engineering services firms. The payoff for the rebel engineer: escape from a rigid corporate environment and the ability to work on many different products for various clients. The payoff for corporate engineering departments: getting jobs done that they don't have the resources or freedom to do efficiently. Design News visited three engineering firms and profiles them here. Most striking was the high level of job satisfaction--after leaving their corporate niche, few engineers ever look back.

Variety is the spice of design

by Mark A. Gottschalk Western Technical Editor..

San Jose, CA--In 1982, when Bob Lathrop founded the engineering firm that bears his name, his goal was to "spend more time doing stuff that's fun." He'd worked his early years in capital-intensive industries that were inherently slow moving. "But what I really wanted was to do new stuff all the time," he says.

It looks like he got his wish. Lathrop Engineering takes on about 50 new projects a year--about 15 were underway when Design News stopped by to chat. Since its inception, the company has partnered with more than 150 clients ranging from startups to major players such as National Semiconductor, Hewlett-Packard, Raychem, Schlumberger, Varian Associates, and Apple Computer. Projects are handled by teams of 20 to 25 engineers--mostly mechanical engineers and designers, plus two industrial designers--and at any given point the company employs about 30 to 35 people.

Besides being "fun," working on a variety of projects keeps the staff sharp and continually learning new skills; there is little risk of becoming pigeonholed. "At another job you might work the same issue for years," says Chris Todd, senior mechanical engineer. "Here, each job may last just a few months, and then you move on to something different."

Such diversity contributes greatly to the engineers' personal security. "We work on so many different things--medical, computer, semiconductor, telecommunications, consumer products," says Lathrop, "and apply such a variety of processes--plastics, machining, die casting, stamping, optics--and use so many different computer tools that our engineers could easily go anywhere they wanted." But they don't. Rick Cameron, marketing manager, says that except for retirees, he can't recall the last time someone left the company.

From the customer's perspective, choosing a firm that can cross-pollinate ideas from different industries improves the final design. Engineers who have little plastics experience might find themselves on a team developing a plastic product. "They often bring in ideas and a different point of view that proves useful to the other disciplines," says Bruce Richardson, vice president of engineering. Case in point: On a current high-end electronics project, engineers are looking to apply an inexpensive shielding technique commonly found in consumer products and which they'd used previously.

The company keeps its staff well armed, too. Like a high-tech army outfitted with the latest weapons, the engineers' arsenal of design tools includes 20 Silicon Graphics workstations running Parametric Technologies' Pro/ENGINEER CAD/CAM/CAE package, COSMOS/M for FEA analysis, Pro/MECHANICA for design optimization, CDRS for photorealistic rendering, Adobe Illustrator and Micrographics Designer for creating illustrations, Ashlar's Vellum to produce ID control drawings, and a few seats of AutoCAD for layouts and data translation.

A recent project of particular interest is a portable pacemaker programmer. Clinicians use it to set a pacemaker's operating parameters by transmitting commands via an electromagnetic coupling through the patient's skin. With their client under competitive pressure, Lathrop engineers took the project from concept to production in six months.

The programmer consists of gutted Toshiba laptop computers, a thermal printer, CD-ROM drive, modem, acoustic touch screen, and various inputs for defibrillators and EKG, all packaged snugly--very snugly, say engineers--in a rugged plastic case.

Conventional top-down assembly wasn't possible. "The multiple layers of boards would prevent access to items on the bottom," says Richardson. So he conceived a design with a central subframe to which the components mount on both sides. "You can get to anything inside just by taking the covers off," says Project Engineer Steve Wilson.

The unit's design is punctuated by several unique features. To prevent fluid intrusion, the keyboard is sealed from behind and all top-facing openings have drain paths that direct spills away from the electronics. The hinge is designed with a hard stop that prevents stress from passing through the pivot. And engineers developed a grounding scheme to minimize EMI from each of the various modems needed for foreign countries.

A decided advantage was the use of Pro/ENGINEER. It not only helped speed development, it let engineers optimally locate the unit's center of gravity by simply inputting the average density for each material used. "If we didn't use solid modeling on this, we could never have met the time schedule," says Richardson.

The final design was pulled from ideas demonstrated in more than a dozen preliminary concepts that were narrowed to three foam-core mockups. Four months after kickoff, engineers created first-article stereolithography models, and SLA-to-urethane castings were completed in parallel with the construction of the final tools.

"Previously, the customer had worked with industrial design firms that gave them sexy consumer-product designs, but that's not what they wanted," says Richardson. "We listened to what they wanted and worked with them to achieve it. That's what we do best."

The auto industry's invisible helper

by Charles J. Murray Senior Regional Editor

Warren, MI--When Ford Motor Co. recently needed help re-designing its Econoline van, the giant automaker didn't place ads in the engineering section of its local newspapers. Instead, it did what automakers in this area have been doing for the past half century: It hired an engineering services firm.

For automakers, these firms are a form of instant expertise. Traditionally, services firms have tackled special projects, such as the design and construction of concept vehicles or right-hand-drive cars for foreign markets.

But on occasion Big Three automakers and others engage these firms for larger projects, such as the Econoline re-design. For the Econoline program, Ford called on Modern Engineering to provide 250 engineers for tasks ranging from computer-aided design to noise, vibration, and harshness control. One of the largest of Detroit's engineering services firms, Modern Engineering employs 2,800, most of whom are engineers. The company maintains offices in Dearborn, Auburn Hills, and Warren, MI, for the expressed purpose of supporting Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, respectively.

In the Econoline project, Modern's engineers worked elbow-to-elbow with their Ford counterparts in Dearborn and, in some cases, even filled program management roles. "In the co-located team, our people made up about half the group at any given time," notes Albert Hamilton, executive program manager for Modern Engineering.

Modern Engineering joined the Econoline program late in 1991, while Ford was gearing up for the planned changes to the vehicle. The company's engineers understood from the outset that their role was to work within the goals and objectives set forth by Ford. They were not expected to change the goals of the program. Within that context, however, they played a broad role.

On the van's cooling system, for example, they participated in the initial design and packaging, as well as in the release and implementation of such things as the radiator, hoses, and coolant. They also helped with the powertrain packaging, accelerator controls, engine mounts, chassis configuration, instrument panel, exhaust, brakes, and steering. They even ran crash analyses on Ford's supercomputers.

Modern's engineers remained with the project until Ford rolled out the new vehicle in the fall of 1996. Their work included the first phase of prototyping early in 1993, the second phase late in 1993, and the final phase late in 1994. They helped run vehicles on test tracks, on test simulators, and in wind tunnels. During various stages of the program, they proved out the cooling system in Bemidji, MN, in winter and in the arid climate of Arizona in summer.

For Modern engineers, such tasks are not out of the ordinary. In recent projects, they have helped with the re-design of the Buick Park Avenue, Buick LeSabre, and Pontiac Bonneville. They've also helped build a long-wheel-base prototype for Chrysler and a limousine for Ford.

The main difference between working for Ford and for Modern Engineering is that the Ford managers set the tone for the project, and Modern's engineers work within those guidelines, says Frank Mei, executive vice president for Modern. "Ford tells us what their goals and objective are," Mei says. "Our role is to be invisible to the customer, so that we can help them reach those goals."

Creating innovative products is par for the course

by Julie Anne Schofield Senior Editor

Austin, TX--Since its founding in 1986, Design Edge has created hundreds of products for a roster of Fortune 500 clients including 3M, AT&T, Casio, Compaq, Dell Computer, IBM, Motorola, Texas Instruments, and Toshiba. Although its award-winning portfolio includes products ranging from teapots to hospital beds, the firm specializes in developing high-tech consumer goods, such as computer equipment, personal electronics, and communications devices.

Time to market and product innovation have become driving forces in the fast-moving, consumer-driven industries, where new technologies, materials, and product capabilities debut at a breakneck pace. Being the first to incorporate new technology into a product gains clients a competitive advantage. As a result, Design Edge focuses on accelerating product development. In fact, the company recently developed a series of award-winning Pentium- and 486-based notebook computers--from initial industrial design and engineering concepts to functional prototypes--in just 12 weeks.

Design Edge can trace its success to teamwork, CAD tools, and autonomy, says Lisa Sura, a senior mechanical engineer at the 45-person firm. "We've found that small, interdisciplinary teams armed with the right CAD tools can be far more productive than the large, functionally segregated product development groups found in traditional corporations," she says.

Sura speaks from experience, having worked at a Fortune 500 manufacturing corporation, where, she says, an inflexible hierarchy, bureaucracy, and constant political infighting stifled creativity. Now she's celebrating the completion of a turn-key development project, along with Design Edge colleagues Julie Heard, an industrial designer, and Carrie Bader, a mechanical engineer. The three women developed the PinMark Course Management System, a GPS-based product that measures yardage to holes and tracks golf course activity, for the Dallas, TX-based company PinMark. Total project time: about two months.

The system comprises a base-station computer and multiple display units mounted on golf carts and other club vehicles. The GPS-receiver-equipped mobile units display course layout, automatically zooming in on area views of each hole as the game progresses. The units' monochrome LCD also displays distances to approach shots and hazards--such as sand traps--plus interactive electronic score cards. A radio link provides two-way voice communication between the base station and the mobile units.

Sura, Bader, and Heard designed the PinMark System to appeal to the high-end clientele of exclusive golf resorts. "Because many of these upscale users aren't computer-savvy, the product's 'look and feel' needed to communicate quality and elegance with a simple non-techie interface," explains Heard.

To this end, the designers got the cables out of the way, made the unit compact, and worked out a friendly user interface. "It doesn't look like much from the outside, but that's part of the beauty of it," says Sura.

Due to the limited target market, the product design--including materials, components, and assembly strategy--needed to be geared for low-volume production. Pro/ENGINEER, a 3-D solid modeling and mechanical engineeringsystem, was used throughout the project todevelop, model, and analyze multiple design concepts, and to create plans and assembly for the final unit.

One of the most challenging aspects of the design was combining a cooling system with the need for waterproofing--all within a small, highly integrated package. The mobile unit's svelte enclosure appears simple, yet it is packed with components including pc boards, telecommunications hardware, shielding, an audio speaker, and an LCD.

The components themselves generate enough heat, but combined with the anticipated environmental conditions--110-degree heat on a sunny Arizona golf course--heat dissipation became a critical issue. To complicate matters further, the unit's venting had to be minimized and strategically placed to ensure effective waterproofing. In addition to being exposed to normal precipitation, the mobile units would be sprayed daily with high-pressure water hoses by employees cleaning the golf carts.

Sura used Pro/ENGINEER to devise a forced-air cooling system for the mobile unit. In Sura's thermal design, a fan draws air into the unit through its mounting tube and directs it around internal components. The air is exhausted through a vent pattern on the underside of the unit. The design allows for an effective, complete airflow path yet minimizes venting requirements to ensure the enclosure remains waterproof.

Although Design Edge uses multiple applications for mechanical engineering and analysis, the firm's system of choice is Parametric Technology's suite, including Pro/ENGINEER, Pro/MECHANICA, Pro/DESIGNER, and Pro/ASSEMBLY. Running on Silicon Graphics Indy workstations, Design Edge's 18 Pro/E seats represent an almost 1:1 engineer-to-workstation ratio, which "is unheard of in our industry," claims Sura. But, then, so is designing notebook computers in 12 weeks.

Engineering in the fast lane

Time, it seems, functions differently inside the walls of Lathrop Engineering. Like some sort of Einsteinian relativity study gone awry, hours become minutes, days change to hours, and weeks turn into days. Engineering occurs at, literally, a higher frequency than at most normal companies. "It's very intense," says Project Engineer Steve Wilson. "You have to know your stuff and come up with ideas quickly, then quickly put them into conceptual form for the customer."

Wilson started his career at Lathrop as a contractor after earning an engineering degree from Brigham Young and spending his early years with big firms such as Ford Aerospace and Varian Associates. "I wanted more variety and more responsibility," he says. Bruce Richardson, Lathrop's VP of engineering, granted his wish immediately, putting Wilson in charge of the pacemaker-programmer project that went from concept to first article in six months.

"At another job you might work the same issue for years," says Senior Mechanical Engineer Chris Todd. At Lathrop, Todd works six to ten different projects a year, with many lasting just a few months. "You are always getting to learn something different," he says.

Both engineers emphasize that the diversity of projects and the continual learning are two of the biggest attractions at an engineering services firm. The companies run lean and hire multi-talented personnel who can work across a number of different engineering disciplines. "You get lots of opportunities to delve into technologies that are not used commonly," says Wilson.

Though he loves his work now, Todd hadn't really thought of joining a contract engineering firm before looking into Lathrop. He had the impression that they concentrated on cosmetic design and minor components. "I was really surprised to find out just how many interesting, solid, technical projects they do," he says.

Calling automotive wannabees

For many, the job of a Big Three automotive engineer is an almost unattainable dream. Those who make it are often plucked from universities near Detroit--University of Michigan, Michigan State, General Motors Institute, Michigan Tech, and a few others. For the rest, it's a difficult road to the labs at Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors.

Still, it's not impossible. Every year, engineering services firms around Detroit hire hundreds of engineers to design cars for the Big Three automakers. Many of those engineers later go on to work directly for the Big Three. "Probably one-third of our turnover is people who are hired by the OEMs," notes Frank Mei, executive vice president for Modern Engineering, one of Detroit's biggest engineering services firms. But even more stay with the firms because they enjoy the diversity.

Mei and Modern Engineering colleague Albert Hamilton understand that diversity as well as anyone. Mei worked 22 years as a Ford engineer; Hamilton spent 15 years with Ford, GM, and American Motors. Together, the two have spent approximately the same number of years with services firms. "At Modern, you may work on a van in one month and a compact car the next," Mei says.

Both engineers agree that the key to survival in the services engineering field is flexibility. Their engineers need to apply their engineering training to a variety of components, from steering systems to antennas. "The majority of our people are seasoned engineers with experience in more than one discipline," Hamilton says.

For engineers who are unintimidated by such a variety of tasks, services firms are often a welcome change. "A lot of our people really like the diversity," Mei says. "Those people tend to stay right here and continue to work for us."

Shoes are optional

Because her eyesight prevented her from becoming a commercial pilot, Lisa Sura, senior mechanical engineer at Design Edge, did the next best thing--she earned a degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Minnesota. Having worked for a military contractor and a multinational technology corporation, she doesn't miss their dress codes, rigid schedules, or hierarchy.

"There are only two rules at Design Edge," says Sura, "Do killer product design and meet your deadlines." As a single mother of three, Sura appreciates Design Edge's flexible work hours and self-directed management model. "Those are the only rules the employees follow. We can come and go whenever we want. We can take any time off we want--as long as we follow those two rules."

At Sura's previous job designing military computers, each project lasted about two years. At Design Edge, a conceptual design project can be as short as two months, and engineers are usually working on one to five projects at a time. But while juggling multiple projects, she's managed to find the time to get her private pilot's license.

"Our dress code is that shoes are optional," she continues, "and we're really proud of that fact. People come to work here and stay."

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