Concurrent Engineering -The State of the Art




Remember a few years back, probably 15 or so now, when the design technology world got interested in the term concurrent or simultaneous engineering? As we moved from the drawing board to the workstation, the idea that you could have two or more folks working on the same data, at the same time, suddenly seemed feasible.

After all, before the introduction of computer-based design and engineering tools, the efficacy of having three people working on the same piece of vellum was not really there, was it? Particularly when it’s Big Kenny and his elbows.*

Of course, this is concurrent engineering from the perspective of digital design and engineering tools. The concept of concurrent or simultaneous engineering as industry practice has been around for much longer. The goal being to compress the length of the whole process by running some stages in parallel, rather than sequentially in a serial manner.

That said, this was a big thing two decades ago. Where are we at now? I think the truth of the matter is that given today’s pressures (of time, finance and market opportunity), almost everyone is working in this way.

Engineering starts, often before the final A surfaces are frozen. Detail engineering work is done alongside the electronic systems development and manufacturing preparation (rather than execution) is under way. I’d be very surprised if there’s a company that’s out there that can say that their entire process works serially, one stage after the other as standard. If you know of one, I’d love to have a chat and find out why!

And how have the tools that we used to carry out this work changed? The idea we can make an engineering lead organization work more efficiently by centralizing our data, implementing change control, and signing off workflows, is an established one and for many, a reality.

[Ed. PTC Creo Advanced Assembly Extension is also an example of tools that support concurrent engineering]

Others have gone down this route and have experienced issues – often more to do with wrangling an organization’s often undocumented or standardized processes into a more rigid business software system, rather than actual implementation of code.

Of course, the internet also changed things and will continue to do so in the future. For many years, the software industry has discussed the idea that you could have multiple folks working on the same part, at the same time. The reality is that this hasn’t been achieved or adopted in any great way. The reason being that for the most part, we simply don’t need it.

Yes, there are occasions where you might have multiple engineers working on the same component or sub-assembly in the automotive or ship building industry, but outside these rarefied confines, probably not. It’s most likely to be a team working on a single product with different folks working on different parts.

If there’s a point where you do have two or more team members working on the same part, it’s more likely to be led by a single user, with others observing and commenting. Again, there’s a wealth of technology out there now of all flavors and complexity (Skype screen sharing as an example) and more coming on line soon (the inherently centralized and connected nature of cloud-based systems makes this more feasible).

Vendors always come up with fancier versions of these types of tools, but often what sticks is the easiest to get up and running and is most accessible. After all, if you consider both the dispersed nature of many project teams these days and the move to a supply-chain model, then you understand why. That’s why Skype or Dropbox works so well for many. It might not be the ideal, it might not support all of the specialized processes, but when you need to jump on a call with your packaging design team in Hong Kong, and they’ve not got the latest software update, then Skype always works.

I guess ultimately, if an organization is used to working in a simultaneous/concurrent manner, and that organization has been using the tools to support in both formal and informal ways, do we even think about Concurrent Engineering anymore? Perhaps the state of the art is just that. It’s becoming invisible. And as we all know, invisibility is the coolest.

* I used to work at a tool makers with Big Kenny, so I know how lethal they were.