By Leslie Langnau,
In an ideal world, if top management had its way, product design and development time would be seconds, (maybe minutes) rather than weeks. Such an idea is reminiscent of the “replicators” from the fictional TV series Star Trek. You simply asked for what you wanted, perhaps specified a few details, and the part or device appeared in seconds.
Even though we are at least a few years away from that scenario designers must still find ways to reduce the time it takes to develop mechatronic products. A recent survey from Aberdeen Research discussed the important habits displayed by successful engineering teams. The most successful trait was not multidisciplinary understanding, although that trait is important. Nor was the best trait a particular design or development program. No, the key trait any successful engineering team needs is the ability to communicate with each other.
The best teams formally communicate regularly. Whether or not the individual engineers thoroughly understand more than one specific engineering discipline, they need to understand the consequences of any design change on the parts being developed through that discipline. That is, if an electronics engineer makes a decision, she/he needs to understand how that decision will affect the parts that are the responsibility of the controls engineer or the mechanical engineer.
Regular, structured, and documented communication, such as design reviews and documentation of cross-discipline integration issues tend to overcome any lack in cross-functional knowledge. Regular communication ensures these issues receive appropriate attention and shorten product development time. It does so by catching any issues early, before parts of a design are final, or even sent to prototype.
This assumes, of course, that the design has been well defined before work begins. Thorough planning is also a critical task required for a successful mechatronic product. The research report noted that the use of block diagrams was an excellent tool for defining functions and assuring ownership of each part.
Another trait deemed critical to faster development was the ability to pursue a concurrent development approach rather than a serial one. Once a design has been well defined, then it can be separated into segments and each executed concurrently. To follow such an approach, however, relies on excellent communication skills.
Successful mechactronic design teams also tend to focus early on identifying system level problems. The group needs the ability to predict or model product behavior before they develop a physical prototype, which contrasts with the usual approach of identifying problems after the physical prototype. Once you’ve built a prototype, the design tends to be set and your options to change any of the mechanical components are limited. Such a situation often means that any fixes must be handled on the control side.
Thus, successful teams use virtual prototyping extensively. Virtual prototyping is turning into a critical technique. Not only does it help control costs, it helps reduce product development time.
The report concluded that successful mechatronic teams devoted a lot of energy to communication above their use of collaboration software tools and data management systems. Successful engineers used collaboration tools to support communication efforts, not substitute for them.