Engineering is a beautiful, broad, and creative discipline; and it is becoming even more so as the demand for new and innovative products continues to grow. The fascinating and frustrating thing about new product development that jumps innovation forward is that it can’t be laid out on a Gantt chart with precisely defined activities, milestones, resources, and durations. It’s far from an exact science. Between Murphy’s Law and Hofstadter’s Law, the new technologies, components, suppliers, materials, and processes that accompany innovation often mean risk to the design’s success. But even more often they mean risk to the development schedule and budget because no one wants something on time that doesn’t work. So engineers work relentlessly to ensure the design’s success but at the expense of schedule and budget.
Of course, as engineers, we try to create realistic schedules. We never assume everything is going to go well (that never happens). We build schedules that accommodate some issues, surprises, and changes. But we can’t estimate the unknown. And when a project fails, more often than not it is because the project ran out of funding or time. This is so common that a new software movement, #NoEstimates, has risen that rebels against traditional scheduling for tasks with large unknowns.
The Role of Project Management
Does this mean that project management (PM) should be abandoned? Quite the contrary — innovation requires proactive and responsive PM that changes and evolves as the development process advances, and that can address fluctuating project risks before they cause added cost and schedule surprises. When a problem comes up for which engineering is unable to identify a solution — or even estimate when a solution will be found — it’s the PM’s role to provide the tools and resources needed to resolve the situation. Otherwise, engineers may get stuck on an unplanned problem for weeks. Techniques like Agile development embrace this reality, offering visibility into the daily fluctuations of engineering activities, but at the cost of requiring very frequent project updates.
Further complicating this is advancing innovation itself, which makes it increasingly difficult for engineers to be experts in everything. We can either know more and more about less and less as specialized engineers — experts in the narrow focus of our projects — or we can be Jacks-of-all-trades (and masters of none).
In larger companies with well-established engineering groups, the push to innovate challenges specialized engineers who have spent decades in the narrow focus historically required for the company’s products. Vast experience in the design, production, and support of a particular product is fine, but without innovation, it leads to incremental, evolutionary product improvements at best. Large companies also tend to compartmentalize tasks and specialties, which makes it difficult to take advantage of system-level design and technology change, which require engineering disciplines to work together throughout development to optimize the product. These companies are at risk of losing market share to competitors that take disruptive, revolutionary design approaches.
On the other hand, smaller companies face the challenge of requiring their limited engineering staff to be experts in everything, while also wearing training, service, and support hats. When problems come up during development – and they always do – it may cause weeks of delay while a Jack-of-all-trades engineer (and master of none) is stuck on a problem. Further, small engineering groups have to deal with higher turnover, with key engineering contributors that are difficult to replace without significant schedule and cost impacts.
PM is already acutely aware of these issues; they are often the most frustrating part of the job. Unfortunately, that frustration can lead to thinking that engineers are incompetent, inexperienced, misleading, incapable of accurate estimates, not able to see the big picture, buried in technical details, unable to communicate effectively, padding their schedules and budgets, or just not working towards the best interests of the project. That line of thinking is completely inaccurate, inappropriate, and unproductive.
So how can a company break out of these destructive cycles?
First, independent and experienced eyes, in the form of external design reviews, often identify issues, insights, risks, and opportunities missed by the primary engineering resources due to differences in background, experience, and knowledge, and due to greater distance from day-to-day project details. Commonly, the review exercise itself triggers ideas in project engineers as they talk through the design and issues. A small investment in external services for an independent design review offers significant risk reduction and insight into possible innovations. (The common concern that engineers are uncomfortable with anyone else looking at their design is unfounded. As an engineer, let me assure you that we love to show off what we’ve done and why; though the preparation and documentation for a design review can be intimidating.)
Second, for large companies, external engineering services can offer expertise that is different from that which has historically been developed in-house: expertise needed for the new technologies used to advance innovation. For small companies, external engineering services can supplement limited engineering resources. External sources extend an engineering team with additional resources to address issues beyond traditional product development contracts, giving companies the flexibility to respond to the dynamic reality of engineering and its interaction with schedules and requirements.
Interested in learning how Daedalus can extend and complement your resources?
At Daedalus, our engineers have benefitted from exposure to a wide range of applications, markets, and technologies, allowing us to learn best-in-class solutions and approaches to many engineering challenges. Our interdisciplinary approach and daily interaction with other engineers and designers provide immediate consultation to resolve questions and issues as they arise. Our extensive network of subject matter experts extends our knowledge to include world-class authorities in many different specialties. Daedalus regularly delivers prompt, efficient engineering services including:
- Detailed schematic design review for PCB designs and electrical systems
- Detailed PCB layout design review
- Component tolerance/de-rating analysis and documentation
- System design review and documentation
- Board and system-level documentation creation including:
- Block diagrams
- Theory of operation
- Functional test specifications
- Mechanical and thermal analysis
- FEMA and DFMEA facilitation
- Assembly documentation
- Quick-start, User manual, and service manual creation
- Software design review
- Interface and Human Factors review and testing
- Engineering debug assistance with complex EE/ME/SW and system challenges
- Field failure investigations
- Thermal, environmental, power, and failure testing assistance
- Software test plan development and implementation
- Supplier assessment and alternative sourcing
- Experimental prototyping with testing and data analysis
- Sensing and algorithm development, prototype, and analysis
- Data collection design, analysis, and presentation
- Obsolete component design changes