Navigating the New Frontier of Product Complexity




Complexity is the new normal for most engineers. From the sensors and embedded software now liberally baked into smarter products to the new materials and freeform shapes associated with light weighting efforts, engineers are faced with daily challenges that call for deeper, more thoughtful design exploration.

It wasn’t long ago when cranking out a couple of design alternatives for a gear shaft or enclosure was enough, but today, in the face of mounting product complexity, that’s no longer the case. There are so many variables entering the picture that even when a component appears to be a relatively obscure piece of the greater design, it can have major ramifications on the end product.

Beyond the actual product design, there are other new wrinkles, some related to advanced manufacturing techniques and others associated with the global nature of engineering. Therefore to thrive in the new normal, engineers need to recalibrate their processes and adopt new technologies to support more iterative design studies, helping them arrive at the optimal concept in a timely manner.

Technology-Guided Innovation

As luck would have it, technology marches at an equally feverish pace presenting engineers with a varied and compelling set of options to support more aggressive design exploration. Here are four technologies that can help move the needle on complexity and make more robust design exploration an on-going best practice:

Pushing the limits of CAD software. The evolving feature set of CAD software easily reflects the need to address increasing product complexity. Though every vendor and each CAD tool promote a different function, the goals are universal: To help design teams more easily investigate options and collaborate on designs without the constraints of traditional engineering silos.

In some tools, it’s the introduction of direct editing capabilities; in others, it’s tight integration with CAE software or materials databases, and in many tools, it’s doing all of the above and then some.


That’s certainly the case with PTC Creo. In addition to those capabilities just mentioned, the latest release has a new dedicated PTC Creo Design Exploration Extension (DEX) tool, which enables quick and easy investigation of alternative concepts within PTC Creo’s parametric environment—something that has historically been hard to do for most engineers. According to a PTC survey, 92% of responding customers said their business would benefit financially by having a better platform for design exploration, and PTC Creo DEX is the latest salvo to meet this requirement.


Optimization software. Sure it’s complex and not a typical component in the standard engineering toolbox, but this is an emerging category that can really be a game changer in addressing design complexity. Optimization software automates the process of considering design tradeoffs (and in this complex world, there are many), helping engineers balance factors such as cost, weight, manufacturability, quality, and performance when evaluating potential designs early in the development cycle and leading to the best overall design with minimal sacrifices.

Topology optimization software, a specific kind of tool in this category, is particularly well suited for light weighting exercises in early concept design. It can be harnessed to reduce weight in a specified space by considering the material properties and fixed set of loads on the particular design space.

3D printing. Now that the cost and complexity of these machines has come down, they are accessible to nearly any size engineering organization and should play a regular supporting role in most design workflows. If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine how forceful a physical component can be in communicating design intent between members of a team and across the different engineering disciplines. The idea is to produce quick and inexpensive physical models of potential designs continuously throughout the cycle so team members can wade in with feedback, suggest changes, and actively participate in how a concept evolves. That’s a far more effective approach to development then creating a physical prototype only when a design is locked down—a time when it is far more challenging and expensive to make changes.

PLM. It’s been over a decade of talk about how PLM will streamline the design process and help organizations deal with growing product complexity. In recent years, this has actually become the case.

With its emphasis on cross-functional collaboration, streamlined workflows, and a product’s full lifecycle, PLM helps manage the chaos that accompanies the near constant change of product design, and particularly, the design of complex products. Factor in the latest PLM innovations in areas like system engineering, visualization, integration with everything from CAE tools to social platforms, and cloud-based solutions and PLM is well positioned as a bedrock tool to help engineering organization get a handle on mounting product complexity.

Ed – Given the complexity of its medical products, Medtronic not only has to adhere to strict FDA requirements, but it has to manage mechanical, electrical, and software components of those products. Explore how PTC Solutions are helping address the challenge of increasing product complexity.


In this day and age of technological innovation, it’s highly unlikely for product design to become any less complex. Rather than be defeated by the challenges, engineering organizations should wrap themselves in the right tools, channeling their inner “Lewis & Clark” and embracing exploration as a way to conquer the new frontier.