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    The Real Costs of Failed Design Collaboration

    Sam Sattel
    |  February 21, 2017

    Our design processes have failed us. All over the world, engineers are struggling every day with the simple process of communication between electrical and mechanical design teams. What plagues us is not the lack of power in our tools, but their inability to adapt to what is an entirely different product design workflow than what was required a decade ago.

    Our design processes have failed us. All over the world, engineers are struggling every day with the simple process of communication between electrical and mechanical design teams. What plagues us is not the lack of power in our tools, but their inability to adapt to what is an entirely different product design workflow than what was required a decade ago.

    The product experience has changed dramatically, while the tools that we rely on to craft these experiences are struggling to catch up. And if we don't do something fast, they might cripple the progress that we've enjoyed in the industrial era of engineering entirely.

    The Product Designs of the Future

    The products that we are challenged to design have gotten denser, smaller, and smarter in our applications. To design something that small and powerful requires a design process that is tightly aligned across all engineering domains. There are some product design trends underway, and these are just a few that are directly impacting how engineers work together:

    The emergence of sophisticated electronics in vehicles

    Look at the news any day of the week, and you're bound to see a new story about self-driving vehicle technology. With Google's aims to make self-driving vehicles a reality in the next 5 years [1], one cannot argue that the need for increasingly sophisticated electronics in vehicles is going to grow dramatically.

    This surge in advanced electronics introduces a need for a workflow that tightly integrates the electrical and mechanical sides of the design process. Because not only do we have to deliver a finished product, we need to deliver one that adheres to the strict safety requirements for human transportation.

    The growing dependency on connected products.

    We're nearing a future where every product that we interact with will transmit some form of data. What was once considered a dumb product, like a light bulb, will transmit data about its current state. Want to unlock in your house? Do it from your smartphone, while you're at work. The way we interact with the basic physical objects in our world is going to change in a big way as electronics become integrated into everyday household products.

    The introduction of wearables as a viable technology

    With the release of the Apple Watch and Fitbit, wearable technology has finally entered its course into mainstream technology. And with this surge in interest comes an even greater demand on our design processes. Not only are these devices small, but they also are flexible, and our PCBs need to accommodate this with flex and rigid-flex sections. 

    This Isn't Your Father's Engineering World Anymore

    Despite the reality of our changing product experience, we still employ the same, tired design practices day in and day out. Ones that focuses not on collaboration, but on treating everyone involved in the design process as an isolated specialist. In many ways, we are still clinging to the ideals of the industrial era of engineering, when we need quite the opposite. We're still relying on the same technology that was introduced decades ago, including:

    Traditional Interchange file formats

    We know these well. Packages of data that are tossed back and forth between electrical and mechanical design teams. In goes the intelligent and complex design intent of a PCB into a black box, and out comes a basic board shape that communicates zero design intent to the mechanical .

    This process occurs every single day, in every engineering workflow. IGES, IDF, DXF - our design intent gets crammed into these boxes and sent out to our opposing engineering teams. And what happens when they get it? They have to tweak the data before it ever works. Spending hours trying to adjust that PCB or mechanical data before it’s in a usable state.  

    Linear design processes

    We're still trying to survive on the industrial engineering era's design methods. Assembly lines worked great, back in the days when cut-throat efficiency was the mantra. We wanted more, and our design processes delivered.

    Now we're building intelligent products that communicate, but we don't. We create our particular aspect of a design with our specialized knowledge, pass it down the line, and forget about it until there's a problem.

    Unmanaged communication methods

    We love sending emails. Emails about design changes emails trying to communicate design intent. Trying to explain the complexity of a PCB without any visual or reference point. How has this ever worked?

    And worse, sometimes we don't even get the email in time. Maybe that needed revision to our component placement was buried somewhere in our inbox. All the while, we keep on designing, with our communication methods trying to catch up, but more often holding us back.

    The True Costs of Failed Design Collaboration

    We're all familiar with these design approaches, and we're all guilty of relying on them every single day. Every week, we spend countless hours patching the holes in our design workflows, fixing mistakes, working overtime, maybe even weekends.

    The engineering industry as a whole has done little to respond. Next year we might get a better interchange file parser, but that's entirely missing the point. We're all part of this problem, and we are becoming all too familiar with the real costs of our failed design collaboration processes, including:

    • Missed time to market and budgets with design revisions slipping through the cracks and prototype costs skyrocketing from failed communication processes.
    • Wasted time and productivity with designers having to manage multiple revisions that could have been solved the first time with a properly implemented collaboration system.
    • Product experiences that are compromised during the design phase based on budget and time constraints vs. being iterated to perfection.

    The pain is evident, the wasted time is ever-present, and the one thing we all want to know is - what are we going to do about it?

    We Don't Need Another Interchange File Format

    If you've been raised on the engineering tools of your father, like most of us have, then we all just have accepted interchange file formats as a part of life. But this method of design has too many holes, and it completely ignores the real needs of true design collaboration or concurrency or traceability.  

    What we need are intelligent design tools that allow us to communicate with one another. Intelligent tools that don't require us to shove our data into a box and pass it along. 

    In this collaborative engineering process, data is being shared and transmitted when we need it, between design platforms, across a diverse range of engineering domains. To achieve this collaboration, our design tools have to change first, in big ways. Here’s what we need:

    Bi-directional data synchronization

    Our tools need to share data seamlessly. What does this mean in a practical scenario? Being able to commit changes between design environments, and have those changes instantly transmitted to our fellow engineers.

    It can be as simple as if I move a component on a board it's going to affect possibly the mechanical enclosure that my MCAD engineer designed. The only way to efficiently keep him in the loop about this change is to push my change to his design environment. Allow him to see the revision in his workflow, so he can adjust his design accordingly.

    Commenting and revision systems between design environments

    Not only do we need to share data, but we also need to be able to add the human element of communication into the mix outside of the unmanaged channels that we rely on. Within our design platforms, we need a connected and universal communication environment that allows us to clearly articulate the design revisions that we've made and share those details with others involved in the design process.

    What does this look like in a practical application? Like the example above, I make a change to my component placement on my PCB, and not only do I push this change to my mechanical designer's environment, but I'm also able to include a detailed note of exactly what I changed, and most importantly, why I changed it. This is the way forward to effectively communicate design intent.

    Parallel design workflows

    As our tools evolve to provide us with the data synchronization and commenting abilities that we need, then it's time to work on our design workflows. As engineers, we need to develop a holistic understanding of the entire design process and understand how our specialized applications will affect the entire product workflow. Simply put, we need to begin working in parallel on our designs. Not only will this enhance our ability to communicate, but it will make our design process all that much more efficient.

    Will We Develop These Solutions in Time?

    We need to start developing these solutions, and we need to start now. It won't happen overnight, and it's going to be a slow transition. But the reality is, technology is just going to become more complex. Products are going to keep getting smaller, thinner, and faster than we could have ever imagined.

    At Altium, we’re constantly looking for ways to change the world of ECAD/MCAD collaboration for the better. See how easy it can be to clearly communicate design intent to your MCAD team and manufacturing with Precise 3D Measurement in the latest version of Altium Designer®.


    [1] Davies, A. (2015, May 18). Google’s Plan to Eliminate Human Driving in 5 Years. Retrieved May 22, 2015, from  google-wants-eliminate-human-driving-5-years/  

    About Author

    About Author

    Sam currently serves as the Director of Technical Marketing at Altium and has grown throughout the company in a variety of positions over the past 15 years. He started his journey in engineering at Sony as a Mechanical Engineer, and has held positions in board design, sales, and product management at various organizations.

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