The Human Element of Electromechanical Collaboration
Michael Alba posted on March 01, 2019 |
An expert’s advice on what’s important in electrical and mechanical design collaboration.
ECAD/MCAD integration in SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)
ECAD/MCAD integration in SOLIDWORKS. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Consumers today expect that the products they buy will be smarter than the products of the past. If that garden hose doesn’t connect to Wi-Fi, forget about it. That dog collar? It had better send you a text every time a squirrel runs by. And if that frying pan doesn’t come with a companion app, toss it in the garbage where it belongs.

While the necessity of some of these products is debatable, there’s no question that products that were once purely mechanical are increasingly requiring electrical components. Of course, this means that product design teams must adapt. In a recent survey of 265 cross-industry design team members, we found that the average design team now containsan equal number of electrical and mechanical engineers (3 of each, plus 2 systems engineers, 2 software engineers, and an industrial designer).

The same survey also found that there are difficulties to be found in these cross-disciplinary teams. Survey respondents indicated a high occurrence of problems arising from ineffective collaboration between the mechanical and electrical teams.In a recent research report, Working Together for Developing Innovative Electromechanical Products: Integrating Best Electrical and Mechanical Design Practices, we dive deeper into these problems and some of their potential solutions.

In this article, we’ll cover one aspect of electromechanical collaboration that is as crucial as it is self-evident: the human factor.

Collaboration Walls

Roland Schwarz knows his way around the engineering game. As the Senior Product Design Engineer for Surfaceink, a consumer electronics product design firm, Schwarz has been a part of countless electromechanical design teams.

“I'm mechanical, so my domain is mostly in packaging and structure,” Schwarz said.“But everything's electrical.There's always circuit boards to fit in and power requirements and thermal requirements and performance and UI. Some jobs I've had are a lot more mechanical than others. It varies by project and by client needs,but there's always crossover of one kind or another.”

That crossover is where the collaboration factor creeps in. Collaboration between electrical and mechanical designers can go well, or it can go poorly, but it can’t be ignored. However, in Schwarz’s experience, not only can this aspect of design be ignored, it can be actively suppressed.

“Engineers don't get to talk to each other across vendor lines,” he said. “It's the hardest wall to break. It's the best wall to break.”

The vendor wall is a problem that Schwarz expects every engineer had to endure at one point or another. The problem is this: design teams are split across two companies, one taking care of the mechanical side and the other taking care of electrical. When the engineers need to discuss the design, they’re forced to do so through a convoluted chain of command.

“If I'm working with a vendor and I end up talking to their point man, their sales person or whoever, then you get the telephone game going back and forth through two or three degrees of removal,” Schwarz explained.

Schwarz described a time when he played this telephone game for two weeks until, eventually, he managed to get in direct contact with his counterpart.

“Finally somebody gives up and lets the engineers talk to each other,” he said.“That's when it's almost magical, and the other guy says, oh, all we have to do is this and we're good to go. That's all it took. It took two weeks of wrestling to get me to talk to this engineer, and it took him two minutes of consideration and going oh yeah all we’ve got to do is this. That's a scene that's been repeated many, many times.”

One of the main reasons for the vendor wall is simply an attempt by each company to protect its intellectual property. This is an understandable concern, but one that Schwarz believes is an unfortunate barrier to design.

“Secrecy slows things down exponentially,” he said.“The more secrets you try to keep, the harder it is to get work done.”

Even worse than the vendor wall is when companies set up barriers internally.Schwarz recounts an experience working for a company that was just foraying into product design. This engendered a cultural clash and what Schwarz described as “uber-territorial managers.” Schwarz was handed a project, a small circuit board, that he needed some help with.

“My electrical guy, I had a great relationship with him, but he was in an office fifty miles away,” Schwarz recalled.“Most of the time that's not a problem. I happened to be in that guy's building,and I just walked by his desk and I wanted to talk to him for a second. I said we're having this problem with this board, and just like any other engineer to engineer conversation, he saidoh yeah, sure that sounds like something we can fix right away. Blah blah blah. And I talked to him for maybe 90 seconds.”

Later that day, Schwarz was “read the Riot Act” for that 90 second conversation. The electrical engineer’s boss was furious that Schwarz had had an unscheduled meeting with his engineer.

“You had somebody actively fighting open communication,” Schwarz summarized.

Though Schwarz’s tale is an extreme example of how collaboration can be impeded, almost every engineer can relate to the feeling. Engineers aren’t solitary creatures, and the best engineering is the result of direct communication.

“More often than not working remote is great, but there's nothing like two minutes of face time. Or even phone time, or just having access to the right person,” Schwarz said.

Committed to Collaboration

Just as organizations can inadvertently erect barriers for their engineers, so too can engineers be the source of their own collaboration woes. Electrical and mechanical engineers must actively commit to working together to find solutions to problems.

“Usually communication among team members is almost always either the single biggest problem or solution depending on what's happening,” Schwarz explained.“Sometimes the less desirable teams are when you have one side or the other disengaged and not really invested in a solution. I've been lucky lately as far as team structure and team members go. I've been working with a lot of guys who are really good to work with. They understand that they're part of a product development team that's trying to get something done, and we rely on each other and we can communicate.”

When the commitment to collaboration isn’t there, electromechanical product design can be one long source of exasperation. Schwarz recalls one project where he was digging through the specs of a processor, looking to see if it was possible to use pulse width modulation on a motor. Eventually, he discovered the solution to his problem was already built into the processor, waiting just to be turned on.Would you look at that, said the electrical engineer who designed the board.

“Sometimes you have to reach out further depending on who's engaged and who cares about the solution or not. So personalities more than technology are usually the biggest problem,” Schwarz said.

The Role of Design Software

Screenshot of SOLIDWORKS eDrawings. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)
Screenshot of SOLIDWORKS eDrawings. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

In the survey, 83 percent of design team members claimed that more integrated design software would help them save time on electromechanical design projects. Schwarz also attests that if different team members are using non-integrated software, files translation can be a hindrance.

“The import and export is always a roll of the dice of whether it actually looks and acts the way it should,” he said.

However, Schwarz has observed that even software tools designed to facilitate collaboration are only as good as the commitment of the engineers who use them. For example, he spoke about using SOLIDWORKS eDrawings to annotate and communicate data between engineers.

“eDrawings is a great example where you can annotate the eDrawings and put comments on them,” Schwarz explained.“And if you send it to another guy who knows his way around eDrawings, it's great. But if a person doesn't have the tool or they’re not familiar with it and don't know how to navigate through it, then you get the phone call. How does this work? How do I look at these comments? And then it almost always comes around to can you throw these on a PowerPoint slide?

Schwarz believes a solution to this problem again comes down to reinforcing the commitment to collaborate with other engineers.All design team members should invest in learning the software tools that will allow them to work together effectively, at least to the point that they’re not resorting to PowerPoint for every problem.

“Not everybody has to be a wizard at it, but everybody has to be on board and committed enough to make that system work,” Schwarz said.“We're going to communicate through this channel, and you should be adept at communicating through this channel. And if you find yourself reverting to PowerPoint and screenshots and emails, that could get you through your immediate problem, but you should address that. You should be committed to making the system work.”

Bridging the Gap Between Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

Electromechanical product design is not going away, but perhaps the barriers to electromechanical collaboration can. Though there are many such barriers, ultimately, the first step to scaling them lies with the individual engineers, designers, and managers that comprise a design team. A commitment to collaboration must be made. Electrical and mechanical engineers should, at the very least, make more of an effort to understand one another and help bridge the gap between them.

“That's a good way to start,” Schwarz advises.

To learn more about collaboration in electromechanical design, read the 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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