It’s High Time To Get Multidisciplinary Collaboration Right in 2015

The New Year is always a time of reflection with promises made to set the bar high and readily embrace change. If the start of 2015 is any indication, engineers should gear up for some pretty serious transformation as fast-moving trends like increasingly smarter products and the ubiquity of mobile devices shake up traditional design practices and usher in new paradigms for innovation.

Two of this year’s biggest influences on product design will be sustainability and the Internet of Things (IoT), that emerging area where products are smart and connected and inextricably tied to new services. Engineers accustomed to taking a heads-down approach will be forced to look up and embrace more collaborative workflows if they have any prayer of designing products that will satisfy new requirements while meeting aggressive time-to-market schedules.

If you think the talk about multidisciplinary collaboration is just a bunch of lip service heading into 2015, consider sustainability, a core design objective cited by three-quarters of engineers responding to a survey conducted jointly by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and Autodesk. Nearly 70 percent of respondents said their companies were actively pursuing projects aimed at reducing energy or emissions and ensuring compliance with new environmental standards and regulations. Yet in order to reach sustainability milestones, mechanical engineers need to be interacting right out of the gate with materials experts, electrical engineers, and embedded software specialists, iterating and optimizing potential design alternatives and negotiating possible tradeoffs.

It’s the same story with light weighting, an approach heavily employed in the automotive and aerospace sectors as part of sustainability efforts. In DuPont Co. and WardsAuto’s fourth annual survey of automotive insiders, nearly half of participants identified light weighting as the preferred method for meeting fuel efficiency standards, beating out engine efficiency programs for the first time. Yet reducing the weight of a vehicle or a consumer appliance is not a solitary exercise solved by any one engineering discipline or any single design change. It takes a village of engineers, with representation from mechanical, electrical, and materials domains to come up with optimal designs that don’t sacrifice performance or dramatically inflate costs.

[Ed – KTM Motorbikes is a company constantly “light weighting” products, the company optimizes designs to maximize strength and lower weight with PTC’s solutions – watch the video below to see how]

Get Ready for IoT

Developing products for the Internet of Things hits on the same themes around cross-disciplinary collaboration. Regardless of whether the product is a smart thermostat or an industrial robot, the foundation is built on a mix of sensors, embedded software, networking hardware, and traditional enterprise software. To ensure a product is properly sensored, highly secure, and able to communicate with other “things” over open network protocols, organizations need to spend time this year fostering multidisciplinary teams that work together from the get go, instead of trying to integrate components at the tail end of the development cycle.

Along with systems engineering and multidisciplinary collaboration, the brave new world of IoT design will require additional skills, some of which are not staples of traditional engineering groups. Engineering organizations charged with building IoT products will need to ramp up competencies in areas such as high-level software architecture, instrumentation, proprietary and standard communications protocols, data, and security in addition to mastering the basics of structural, electrical, and embedded software engineering.

Technology to the Rescue

While IoT and sustainability top organizations’ design objectives for 2015, there are a few technology trends that will facilitate these complex development efforts and make multidisciplinary collaboration more effective. Systems engineering practices, long a staple in large-scale system design in industries like aerospace and automotive, will begin to take root in engineering organizations across vertical sectors as embedded software and electronics constitute a greater portion of a product’s makeup.

New systems engineering tools, many released as part of Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) platforms, will be a break out category this year, helping engineering organizations adopt system engineering best practices and integrate multidisciplinary collaboration into their core design workflows. These tools will help organizations leverage model-based design to define a holistic system, manage requirements from cradle to grave, and create strategic product advantage from the earliest stages of design.

In other developments, 3D printing will continue to hit it big this year as increasing numbers of engineering teams gain access to lower cost units and employ the technology throughout the various stages of the design cycle. Being able to cost effectively produce a physical mock-up of an early stage concept facilitates improved collaboration between the various disciplines earlier in the process when it’s easier and less expensive to initiate design changes.

Even the rise of mobile devices and the cloud will have a huge impact on how different engineering disciplines collaborate. New mobile apps and engineering tools delivered as Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) will flood the market this year making it easier than ever for dispersed, multidisciplinary teams to share and collaborate on systems-level designs regardless of their location.

With 2015 set to be a year of major transformation, multidisciplinary collaboration may be the one constant for engineering organizations today and for years to come.

Ed – What do you see as the major trends for 2015? Why not share your thoughts by adding your comments to this post?