4 Rules for Better Electrical and Mechanical Design Collaboration

How to improve collaboration on interdisciplinary design teams.

SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer working on the same component with unified component data. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer working on the same component with unified component data. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

The nature of design tools is changing, and not on a whim. CAD software is starting to adapt to the fact that design itself is becoming more complex and more convergent. This is happening in many ways, but one of the biggest is in the marriage of electrical and mechanical design.

More so than ever before, electrical and mechanical designers must work together. The barrier between these two disciplines is eroding as products demand greater integration of electrical components, higher mechanical durability, and to tie it all together, seamless industrial design. Alice the electrical engineer and Bob the mechanical engineer can no longer glare at each other from across the office; now, they must both work together closely if they hope to develop a strong, marketable product.

But there’s a difference between simply working together and working together well. How can electrical and mechanical teams ensure that their collaboration is a success, and not just a series of stumbling blocks peppering the design landscape?

Engineering.com has published are search report addressing this exact question: Why Can’t We All Get Along? Rules for Cooperative Electrical and Mechanical Product Design. In this report, we discuss nine rules that product design teams should follow in order to achieve the best collaborative results.

In this article, we’ll discuss four of the rules to set your design team on the right path.However, these rules can’t guarantee success in collaboration. One of the most important factors for success in electromechanical design is the individuals on a given design team. If stubborn egos enter the fray, cooperative design can become nigh on impossible (I’m looking at you, Bob). But nonetheless, the rules serve as an excellent starting point for success in electromechanical design collaboration.

Rule 1: Ensure That Design Teams Can Communicate with Universally Shared Data

Illustration of a data silo. (Image courtesy of Theodixxi.)

Illustration of a data silo. (Image courtesy of Theodixxi.)

Design data can be a nightmare if more than one design application is involved. If your team has to shuffle data back and forth between applications on a regular basis, the data can become duplicated, corrupted and generally unwieldly. Did I send the right version of that part? Is this assembly up to date? Didn’t I already fix this misplaced component? These and other frustrations can plague any design team working within data silos.

Data silos occur when electrical and mechanical designers can’t (or won’t) share data effectively. Data is then forced to flow inefficiently through limited channels, with one side seeing only privileged glances at the other side, and vice versa. How can collaboration hope to be effective if each side holds their cards so close to the chest?

A far better approach is to break down these data silos entirely. With this approach, each team, both electrical and mechanical, should have access to the same universal data. A mechanical designer should be able to see the real-time, up-to-date version of the PCB he’s designing an enclosure for. An electrical engineer should be able to see exactly when her components conflict with a mechanical design change. By breaking down data silos, both teams can perform their work better and faster.

Rule 2: Close the Gap Between ECAD and MCAD

Just as important as breaking down data silos is doing so effectively. Sure, you can throw all the data into a Dropbox folder and let each team figure out what’s what. But it would be far more effective to open up the data in a way that’s pertinent to each design team.

Specifically, neither electrical nor mechanical designers should need expertise with the other team’s software to access the relevant data. This is one of the important ways in which design software is adapting to accommodate multidisciplinary collaboration. For example, the mechanical designer using SOLIDWORKS and the electrical designer using Altium Designer can see real-time changes to their interlinked designs without ever leaving their working environment.

A bidirectional workflow makes each team’s data accessible to the other, but in a way that both teams can easily digest. It presents the idea of a single, universal model, just with different ways of looking at it. That is, you can view the model from an MCAD perspective here in SOLIDWORKS, and from an ECAD perspective here in Altium Designer. It’s the same model and the same data, but presented from a different perspective.

Rule 3: Digital Tools Must Be Compatible Across Engineering Disciplines

SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer with comment and revision history tracked in the design process. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer with comment and revision history tracked in the design process. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

A bidirectional flow of data across design software is a great starting point for collaboration, but it can be taken a step further. ECAD and MCAD tools should constitute a cohesive design environment. The software should enable collaborative features like comments and revision history, and these features should be accessible from any application. This is another trend becoming prevalent in design software: applications are increasingly woven together in the pursuit of a unified design platform.

This advantage can only properly be realized by using applications from the same software provider. Unless compatibility is baked into the application from the start, the old problems of data silos and ineffective communication tools will continue to affect design teams. Applications without this foresight become islands of specialized data and specific representations. The bridges between them take the form of additional applications dedicated to data translation, which are often tedious and, worse yet, unreliable.

Using a single software vendor enables designers to access a suite of applications that are increasingly being designed for compatibility. Large software vendors have the upper hand in this domain, as their multitude of products and acquisitions enable them to stitch together a quilt of compatible software. Sticking with a single vendor like SOLIDWORKS provides the best bet for having compatible design tools across multiple disciplines.

Rule 4: Minimize Data Translation Overhead and maximize Results

Let’s return to those shaky bridges between disparate design applications: CAD translation software. When a design team is using more than one application—both an ECAD and MCAD tool, for example—and they weren’t designed for data interoperability, it’s inevitable that a data translation program must be used.

As most designers can attest, data translation is a hit and miss procedure. It’s success or failure is dependant on the complexity of the model and the data formats in question. At worst, data translation could fail completely, forcing designers to remodel parts from scratch. And even where it succeeds, data translation can be a tedious task that devours time that would be better spent designing the product.

Clearly, data translation is mere overhead that doesn’t contribute any value to a product design team. By eliminating the need for this aspect of a workflow, designers can use their time more effectively and their products can get to market quicker. Interoperable ECAD and MCAD software obviates the need for data translation, saving time and allowing more effective communication between electrical and mechanical designers. Even if your software isn’t as interoperable as rules 1, 2, and 3 dictate, finding a way to minimize data translation will provide a huge boon to electromechanical design teams.

More Rules for Cooperative Electromechanical Design

We’ve discussed four key rules to facilitate better electrical and mechanical collaboration: eliminate information silos, ensure bidirectional data flow between ECAD/MCAD applications, use applications that are designed for interdisciplinary communication, and minimize data translation. You can accommodate all of these rules by simply using the right design software. Look for software from a single vendor, like SOLIDWORKS, that uses unified model data across applications and includes specific collaboration tools.

If you want to learn more about how to improve collaboration among interdisciplinary design teams, including the full list of nine rules, read our research report Why Can’t We All Get Along? Rules for Cooperative Electrical and Mechanical Product Design.

SOLIDWORKS sponsored this article but had no influence on its content. All opinions are mine, except where stated otherwise. —Michael Alba

Written by

Michael Alba

Michael is a senior editor at engineering.com. He covers computer hardware, design software, electronics, and more. Michael holds a degree in Engineering Physics from the University of Alberta.