Communication Is Key in Consumer Electronics Product Design
Michael Alba posted on March 14, 2019 |
Screenshot from SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer modeling a PCB. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)
Screenshot from SOLIDWORKS and Altium Designer modeling a PCB. (Image courtesy of SOLIDWORKS.)

Why can’t we all get along? No, I’m not referring to the fraught political landscape crumbling beneath us. I’m talking about electrical and mechanical engineers, and the multidisciplinary product design teams they share.

We all know what it’s like when collaboration goes awry: missed deadlines, needless mistakes and flared frustrations plague the workplace. Ensuring a friction-free collaborative environment is imperative for success, and this lesson is being learned more frequently by electrical and mechanical designers alike as electromechanical products become more common. Each discipline has its own tools and ways of working, and these workflows don’t always mesh seamlessly.

In engineering.com’s latest eBook, Why Can’t We All Get Along? Rules for Cooperative Electrical and Mechanical Product Design, we describe some concrete steps that electromechanical design teams can take to help ensure collaborative success. Many of these steps involve evaluating the software tools your team uses. For instance, do these tools aid in information flow between the two disciplines, or do they require tedious and error-prone data translations?

Choosing effective multidisciplinary software is an important aspect of electromechanical collaboration, but it’s not the whole story. We spoke with Chad Errett, a mechanical engineer with over two decades of experience working on consumer electronics products, for his take on what makes a design team tick.

Collaboration in Consumer Electronics

Errett is the COO of SurfaceInk, a consumer electronics product design firm. He joined the company in 1999 after serving five years aboard the USS Enterprise (the U.S. Navyaircraft carrier, not the starship in the United Federation of Planets). Errett was immediately thrown in the deep end of product design with a consulting project for Apple, in which he worked on the PowerBook G4 titanium laptop.

“I was responsible for the 3D design of the circuit board, representing it in the CAD assembly,” Errett recalled. “So, I worked very closely with the board designers and electrical engineers on that project. And it was definitely a challenge. We had to work very closely as a team to make sure that went smoothly.”

The Apple PowerBook G4 Titanium. (Image courtesy of Ashley Pomeroy.)
The Apple PowerBook G4 Titanium. (Image courtesy of Ashley Pomeroy.)

One of the biggest challenges of that project was Apple’s tight design standards. Even back in the early ’00s, Apple was all about slim.

“Apple had the goal of making sure that product was less than one inch thick on the table, and so that required us to make it as thin as possible,” Errett explained. “I was trying to communicate where the circuit board would be in the overall layout of the product, and the heights available on the top and bottom of the circuit board. And because we had so many other components overlapping the circuit board, there were many different places where we had to negotiate for space to put components on the board. And this has been true in every product we’ve worked on since.”

In the consumer electronics arena, where space is at a premium, there are always trade-offs between the electrical requirements and the mechanical limitations. Clearly, neither design team can turn a blind eye to the other. Only by working together can these trade-offs be, well, traded off.

“In consumer electronics, we’re often times working with a very small form factor. Every tenth of a cubic millimeter of space ends up getting accounted for. The mechanical engineers may need it for pieces of the enclosure or parts of a mechanism, and obviously the circuit board needs enough space to get all the circuitry and all those components placed. We have to figure out a way to define who's using that space.”

In Errett’s estimation, there’s no better way to balance those compromises than clear, direct communication among the designers.

“You have to have the mechanical engineer and the layout engineer working very closely together with the electrical engineer in charge of the design,” Errett said. “The three of those people have to communicate how they're achieving overall product goals and adjust for different trade-offs that have to happen. So, it's really all about the communication as well as the tools that you have to do that communicating.”

Communication Is Key

Clear communication among designers is critical, Errett explains. Often, mechanical engineers won’t be able to understand the full ramifications of a design change until they present it to the electrical team, and vice versa.Sometimes Errett has requested a small change to a product’s circuitry, like moving a component a few millimeters to the left, only to be told that the change would require a week’s worth of effort from the electrical team. Other times Errett has assumed a change would be time intensive, and then found out it would only take five minutes.

“I often didn't know what the impact of my request would be,” he explained. “It’s really hard to know because the circuit board is so complex. Unless you're an expert in that and looking at it all the time, you really don't know. You just have to build up good teamwork with the people you're working with and be willing to give and take to make the overall product successful.”

So, what’s the most effective way for designers to communicate with one another? A recent engineering.com research report, Integrating Electrical and Mechanical Design. Do Product Teams see Value?, found that 70 percent of electromechanical design teams have meetings at least once a week, with 20 percent meeting on a daily basis.

“I think there's certainly a role for regular meetings, where the team gets together to review the open issues that they're trying to resolve and to track the overall progress on closing those issues,” Errett said.

Even though meetings have their role in the design process, Errett finds that a different style of communication is just as important for collaborative success: ad hoc talk between designers.

“If either side feels they're making a change that could impact the other, it definitely works most effectively if they go talk to that person as soon as possible and work directly,” Errett said. “If we tried to run every interaction like that up though a team lead, it would take everything twice as long to do. I would expect any of my engineers now, if there were any issues, to just get up and go talk to the layout engineer and work through that issue.”

When electrical and mechanical designers communicate effectively, it opens up the inherent creativity of product design.

“I'm interested in gelling as a team, working well together, and quickly communicating about any issues and resolving them as quickly as I can,” Errett said. “I find this to be one of the more enjoyable aspects of working on projects—just working really well with your team members.”

For more information on how to effectively collaborate on electromechanical product design, read 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

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