The Journey to Collaborative Engineering
When I started as an engineer in the late '80s, I sat at a drafting table, and when a new project was initiated, I was handed a folder with all the information needed to start the project. I would open the file and pour over the blueprints, make calculations, sketch, and write test plans. I would pull out a piece of vellum paper and begin drawing. When my drawing was complete, a checker would go over the details to make sure it was correct. I was responsible for this project from start to finish, and my name was on each drawing to prove it. It was my idea, and I was responsible for providing all the supporting documentation that was needed to manufacture the part. When I was done, it was turned over to the manufacturing engineering department to prepare it for manufacture, and if they had any questions, they called me. In the '90s, Computer Aided Design (CAD) came into the office, and we were still given a folder full of blueprints, and we still made the calculations and sketches before beginning work on the CAD system. Again, I was responsible for the project from start to finish. The process was the same and my name was still on the drawings, and I still received the calls from manufacturing when there were questions.
Many engineering departments worked this way. Each engineer was responsible for his or her work and anytime in the life of that product, if there were questions, the engineer was contacted. It created an environment where certain skills and knowledge were with an individual and not the entire department or organization. As time progressed, it became clear that there needed to be more collaboration between engineering, manufacturing, sales, marketing, and many others in the organizations involved in a stage of the product development lifecycle. Cross-functional teams and simultaneous engineering teams were formed to address the collaboration issue, but meeting in person was a challenge as team members were in many different locations, time zones, and increasingly, in different countries.
New techniques and tools were needed. The development of CAD drawings and supporting electronic files helped make this easier. But there were still problems; each group in the organization was pulling up a separate copy of the files, making changes, and saving it to their part of the database or individual file system. Whenever there was a change, a new copy was sent, and changes had to be made to each file in the file system. It was clear file sharing tools needed to advance.
Tools were needed that allowed strong document management as well as project management, process development, and documentation, with the availability to add notes and bring teams together to review and address design considerations. Everyone needed to be seeing and working on the most recent version of the engineering drawings, manufacturing process plans, and associated data such as Building Information Models (BIM). Once a drawing was checked out, the rest of the team knew it was being modified and that their documents would need to be updated if they were not updated automatically when checked back in. The process eliminated the possibility of manufacturing or purchasing making errors due to using an outdated engineering drawing.
It was not only the final drawings and processes that benefited from such a system. It also allowed the team to be involved in the design and development process. Manufacturing could make design suggestions based on the machine tool capabilities in the factory, and purchasing could be contacting potential sources to see if they had capabilities or capacity to meet the demand of the new product. These tools allowed the team to provide buy-in to the design, process, project plan, and deadlines early in the design phase, which helped eliminate costly changes once orders were placed.
As these tools evolved, dashboards were developed to bring data together from many disparate systems. Users can simplify the dashboards to see the part of the project they are working on, their assigned tasks, and related deadlines, orders, drawings, or processes. Many of these dashboards update every few minutes and show project status as red, yellow, or green which enables easy identification of problems, prioritization of projects, and resource allocation.
These collaborative tools are transformational for many organizations. In addition to reducing time to market, they reduce cost, eliminate errors, and create an environment of information sharing that is resulting in better products. The future will not only see greater improvements in cycle times but will also see a greater expansion of data analytics tools and larger teams to include suppliers and others in the organization, having an overall impact on the bottom line.