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Understanding the Pressures of An Engineer

11 January 2002

Austen Miller interviewed by TCT. Engineers need to balance performance, cost, size and time-to-market.

Article From: Time Compression, John Connolly 

In the modern marketplace of ideas, engineers are the innovators, the ones pressing forward, always drawn to new technology, spending inordinate amounts of time in front of CAD files - the very people likely to grasp the implications of any new technology.

Engineering for industry demands thorough knowledge of all its disciplines, with the successful engineer understanding markets, immediately grasping a client's corporate strategy, and at the same time working within incredibly tight timetables for product development.

As various industries continue growing in size and complexity, engineers who design products for the market need to balance performance, cost, size and time-to-market. Both designers and engineers have been forced by necessity to go beyond the mere creation of concepts; they are now developing products. It's necessary for those who design and engineer these products to be aware of the entire production chain because the times when industrial design and production were separate have long since past. Because time-to-market has become so critical, design and production can no longer be separate. So, for engineers, the pressure is always on.

"If you talk to engineers, most will tell you that they always seem to be robbing Peter to pay Paul when trying to finish a project," says Austen Miller, consultant for 3form Design, Inc. (Andover, England) - an industrial design company. "They juggle time from one design task in order to complete another. Engineers are measured by how well they meet management expectations. The rewards for this success can be very attractive - but also very stressful.

"An Engineer's Definition of "Fast"

When engineers talk about doing things faster, does it necessarily mean there are faster ways of doing it? Most of the time what "quicker" really means is the engineer working longer hours to develop a product. Designers still have to design it, manufacturers have to manufacture it and the engineer still has to engineer it. They all work hard to be "faster," but the bottom line is that there has yet to be a real breakthrough design tool that helps save time for the engineer. Therefore, the engineer is faced with working longer hours instead of having a process that would help take the pressure off. To be sure, CAD has helped in the quest to be quicker, but engineers will tell you it can only take them so far.

"When we reach the limit of the CAD tool, there are few places any of us can go," says Michael Conroy, lead engineer for SurfaceLine Engineering Design, Inc. (Cupertino, CA) - an engineering design consulting company. "The perfect software tool would be one that everyone could collaborate on - industrial engineers, customers and tooling houses - with everyone looking at the product the whole time and making their comments. What that would do is free up the engineer to work on components or something that would help actually quicken the product's development or free up engineers to work in parallel with designers and toolers."

Management Pressure

Management can sometimes put tech-nical constraints on the engineer; vacillating on a part's thickness, shape, size and material, or imposing constraints as to how it should be made. When this occurs, a good engineer will go to management and tell them that the constraints they imposed just can't be done. When an engineer can do that effectively, he or she becomes a great tool of clarification. On the flip side, management may not understand the details of a design, at which point it is up to the engineer to make them understand. If the higher-ups can be presented with the details in such a way that they can make the important technical decision for the engineer, product design becomes much clearer and quicker. The key of course is to show management where they are unrealistic. Oftentimes when management comes to an engineer with a product development project, they will try to slip in a technology development as well - we want the new product, but we can't make it with the old technology because it does not make it as small as we want it. This is where the engineer must step forward and tell management, "I'll develop it, but you'll have to tell me what goes inside." The project's schedule should be dependent upon what technology is available to make it a reality and how the engineer can package it into a product.

"I was approached to do a new product and the company wanted it smaller and with a definite size. I showed them the stack up of parts and how big their part would be," says Conroy. "I said, 'You guys decide if that's good enough or decide where to cut back.' As an engineer, I can't change company policy, but I have to put reality in front of management and say what we are going to ignore and what we are going to accept. The engineer has to disassociate technology development from project development."

Other Engineering Challenges

Perhaps the most dramatic change in the development of a company's product is its ability to outsource various aspects of design engineering. This type of design team has to be "commercially driven" - offering a well-functioning engineering structure to win business. Time becomes a valuable commodity here and all of a company's decisions become wedded to it.

The most time-consuming area of the development cycle for the engineer is still at the beginning of a project; from the point where a product need is identified and a plan is agreed upon, to when the designs are put in the hands of the engineer. There are no performance objectives, budgets or schedules for the engineer at the start, which is why it is so important for the engineer to make clear what his or her needs are to keep costs down.

From the moment a company plans a product, the window has already begun to shrink for the engineer. Time becomes his or her first challenge. In many cases, sudden product development plans can be triggered by sales performance or a reaction to what a competitor is introducing.

Some engineering challenges are part-driven while others are process-driven. Many companies tackle a lot of feasibility and development work at the beginning of the program to ensure that their engineers clearly understand the project's goals. Innovation is driven by a need. Sitting down with the customer and going through a process of open-ended questions to determine exactly what the needs of the program are - such as downstream process requirements - the in-house engineering design team can then determine the solutions to reduce the problems that may occur during the design phase of the project.

"The greatest pressure engineers face today is that of change," says Joel Orr, co-founder of Cyon Research, Inc. (Bethesda, MD) - a CAD engineering consulting company. "They learned how to design one way and technology is taking their jobs in a new direction, making many of their skills meaningless now. For example, there was a time when hand lettering was a highly rewarded skill - templates changed all that. So if your strength as an engineer is in building and refining physical prototypes, you're going to be in for some major learning - now that's pressure."

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