Working Together for Better Electromechanical Design
Michael Alba posted on March 12, 2019 |
Computer-aided design applications like SOLIDWORKS are trending towards increased integration with electrical design tools. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)
Computer-aided design applications like SOLIDWORKS are trending towards increased integration with electrical design tools. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

The gap between electrical and mechanical design is becoming increasingly narrow. Many products developed today require elements of both, and design teams are responding accordingly. According to a recent survey from engineering.com, the average design team now includes an equal number of electrical and mechanical engineers.

The ability for these disparate engineers to work together effectively is therefore crucial for product success. However, the same survey found that there’s definite room for improvement. The tools and tactics of product design teams have not caught up with the trend towards electromechanical design, and survey respondents overwhelmingly indicated that more integrated design software could help.

A new research report from engineering.com, Working Together for Developing Innovative Electromechanical Products: Integrating Best Electrical and Mechanical Design Practices, delves into the problems faced by electromechanical design teams and the ways in which these problems could be addressed. Specifically, design software that provides seamless integration between mechanical computer-aided design (MCAD) and electrical computer-aided design (ECAD) would offer solutions to many of the problems reported in the survey.

The Problems of Poor Collaboration

In days gone by, electrical and mechanical designers could have gone practically the entire product development cycle without seeing one another. The electrical engineers could focus on their PCBs while the mechanical engineers focused on their 3D models and, as long as there was enough space in one for the other, the product would succeed. Today, as the need for electrical systems increases and industrial design demands beautiful, cohesive forms, this silo mentality and lack of communication is no longer an option.

However, effective communication among design teams is easier said than done. Poor communication is a problem that affects practically everyone, but it can be especially disruptive between electrical and mechanical designers whose work is often closely intertwined. A sobering 79 percent of survey respondents indicated that their team loses time due to a lack of communication between electrical and mechanical team members. The lack of communication could result in an inability to properly identify problems with a design, difficulty finding cohesive solutions to problems that have been identified, and ultimately, an under performing product.

The problem of improper communication between design team members is compounded by software tools that likewise don’t communicate. If the software used by mechanical and electrical engineers isn’t designed for the same workflow, complications arise. CAD data conversion tools help to bridge the gap but can end up introducing errors and complications of their own. Teams may also accidentally send or receive outdated versions of designs or parts, leading to further problems down the line. What should be a relatively simple design change may wind up costing hours of lost productivity.

Though a cornerstone of the entire design process, if design software is not created with collaboration in mind, it may put up inadvertent barriers between designers of different domains. That’s why it’s essential to evaluate design software from the collaboration perspective. Even tools created by the same software developer can get in the way of teamwork if not designed for integration. And tools from completely different developers might not even pretend to play nice with others, causing designers to spend less time designing and more time shuffling data back and forth. Design teams that rely on multiple CAD systems are often hindered by non-integrated software and the hidden costs that accrue from lost productivity.

Together, improper communication and disparate design tools can lead to costly product delays. Accommodating shape changes, repeated testing and prototyping, and physical interference between components are just some of the problems that design team members report losing time on.

A more integrated approach to design software promises to alleviate many of these problems. Of course, integrated design software tools are not the holy grail solution to all design woes. However, 72 percent of survey respondents believe that more increased integration between ECAD and MCAD tools would reduce their product development time, with some suspecting time savings in excess of 25 percent.

72 percent of survey respondents indicated that integrated electrical and mechanical design tools could reduce product development time.
72 percent of survey respondents indicated that integrated electrical and mechanical design tools could reduce product development time.

The Solutions and Benefits of Integrated Design Software

These problems have not gone unnoticed by design software developers, and CAD applications such as SOLIDWORKS are doubling down on efforts to produce a more seamless electrical and mechanical design experience. As the survey indicates, most design team members believe their software tools could save them time on product development if they had better integration. Clearly, a reduction in product development time, and the ability to get to market more quickly, is a potentially huge advantage for any product.

But how exactly can software tools improve the collaboration between electrical and mechanical designers? There are many ways, but chief among them is data. If ECAD and MCAD tools are designed to work together, they can make use of a unified database, eliminating the need for disruptive and potentially error-prone data conversion. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. With a common database acting as a single source of truth, updates to the mechanical design can be automatically reflected in the electrical design, and vice versa. Forget about fretting over which version of the design is most up-to-date; with a bi-directional linking of data, there would be no need to swap files back and forth. Designers on both sides could see instantly when a change they make clashes with the other team’s design. The advantages of unified ECAD and MCAD data go on and on.

With data synchronized in this way, many of the problems of miscommunication between designers are cut off at the foot. The data simply speaks for itself. In fact, a more integrated approach to design software would save time merely by cutting down the number of meetings designers must begrudgingly attend. According to the survey, 70 percent of design team members have meetings as least once a week. But with more integrated electromechanical design tools, 83 percent of respondents believe they could cut down on this chore.

83 percent of survey respondents believe integrated electrical and mechanical design could save them meeting and rework time.
83 percent of survey respondents believe integrated electrical and mechanical design could save them meeting and rework time.

Of course, integration between electrical and mechanical design software are simply the pillars on which further integration can rest. Product teams today use a full set of design tools, from the ECAD and MCAD applications where they do design work, to the computer-aided engineering (CAE) and manufacturing (CAM) applications in which they verify and build their designs, and finally to the recording applications that keep track of bills of material (BOMs) and other project information. Ultimately, the most benefit will be realized when both electrical and mechanical designers have access to the same shared tool set.

The integration of these different applications is now one of the main thrusts in engineering software development. Many ECAD, MCAD, CAE, and CAM applications have been refined over decades; now, the most important refinement is to tie them together seamlessly. Software developers with broad portfolios of engineering software have the best shot at achieving this integration, and they’re working hard on the problem. Dassault Systèmes, for instance, is aiming at this target with the 3DEXPERIENCE platform. More narrowly, the latest releases of MCAD applications like SOLIDWORKS have touted increased electrical integration as a major update.

The ability for electrical and mechanical designers to effectively collaborate is only becoming more important. Design teams that fail to work together will produce products that lag behind the competition in quality and time to market. Working to implement the best practices necessary for this collaboration should therefore be a top priority for electromechanical design teams.

To learn more about these best practices, be sure to download engineering.com’s latest research report: Working Together for Developing Innovative Electromechanical Products: Integrating Best Electrical and Mechanical Design Practices.

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

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