Design Reviews in a Digital World: A Resource for Mechanical Engineering Teams

Want to improve the way your engineering team communicates and collaborates? Find out how to create a successful design review process that helps you catch preventable mistakes and get to market faster.

Why Design Reviews Happen

In mechanical engineering, different types of design reviews happen at various stages, in various formats, for various reasons. But at their core, design reviews are the main source of collaboration in engineering design. Whether it’s between internal team members or along with external stakeholders, vendors, or suppliers—reviews are how input on a project is gathered from everyone who needs to give it. When design reviews are executed better, it leads to stronger collaboration. In turn, stronger collaboration leads to better products, better execution, and better results.

So, what is a design review? There are countless specific reasons why a design review might happen and countless specific ways that review could be executed. Overall, though, design reviews happen whenever different people involved in product development need to come together somehow and share information, engage others in providing their expertise, and decide on the next best course of action. 

Ultimately, the reasons for conducting a design review can be categorized into three main buckets. Design reviews happen in order to: 

  • provide answers to questions
  • provide clarity around assumptions made, and/or 
  • to solicit guidance from subject matter experts. 

Types of Design Reviews

Although the specific language and phrases used to describe a certain type of design review can often differ between different teams or organizations, there are some common review types that have distinct purposes and/or goals. This is by no means an exhaustive or authoritative list. Rather, it’s meant to be a helpful resource for anyone giving critical thought to the current design review processes on their own team. 

Even if all these review types are familiar to you, it can be useful to look them over in the context of evaluating how your organization works together—and where there might be room for improvement.

The review types listed here are described in the broadest terms. As with terminology, the specifics of what’s involved in different review types can also vary across different companies. And in some cases, these reviews may be conducted during the same meeting or they may happen in parallel to each other.

Here are seven common types of engineering design reviews:

  1. Requirements Review: Ensures requirements have been captured appropriately and that stakeholder needs have been adequately described.
  2. System/Conceptual Design Review: Assesses system-level tradeoffs and feasibility of design concepts, and seeks buy-in from stakeholders to proceed with detailed design.
  3. Preliminary Design Review (PDR): Focuses on technical matters, discusses strengths and weaknesses of design concepts and proposals, and leads to project updates.
  4. Critical Design Review (CDR): Includes thorough review and analysis and typically happens before handoff of design from one phase to the next.
  5. Test Readiness Review (TRR): Verifies requirements, test plans, and test apparatus designs in a specialized review prior to handoff for testing.
  6. Final Design Review (FDR): Evaluates test results and addresses any issues that arose during testing.
  7. Production Readiness Review (PRR): Includes review of first article inspection (FAI) results after initial manufacturing runs and informs revised manufacturing cost estimates.

Design Review Questions

Before kicking off a review process, it’s worth blocking 30 or 60 minutes in your calendar to ask yourself some basic engineering design review questions. This is an easy step to skip, but jumping straight into a review without mapping it out can result in wasted time and effort. The more you think things through upfront, the smoother the process will go once you get started.

When you sit down with a list of questions, it’s vital that you approach the exercise with a critical thinking mindset. It won’t do you any good to go through the motions and write down the first responses that come to mind. The point isn’t to simply answer the questions. The point is to use the questions as prompts to examine your design review process with a critical eye.

One useful framework to keep in mind is people > process > tools, in that order. 

Considering the software and technology that supports your review process is important, but it shouldn’t be where you focus first. Instead, start with people. Think about your own team but also about all the other stakeholders that need to be involved at different points and in different capacities. Then determine how all those people communicate and collaborate in the existing process(es), plus what’s working well and what’s not. Once you’re clear on the people and process as things currently stand, then you’re ready to evaluate if your current tech is up to the task of supporting your team’s needs—or if you should be researching other options.

So what are some common questions for a design review? 

The list below is meant to be a helpful starting point, but you might find there are other relevant questions that come to mind as you work through the list. You should feel free to tailor the questions to your team, or add your own. Again, the point is simply to get yourself thinking critically about your design reviews, how well they’re working, and what a more effective process might look like.

Eight design review questions you should ask before kicking off:

  1. Does a design review meeting need to happen at all?
  2. Who needs to be at the review, and who doesn’t?
  3. What is the role of the customer in the design review process?
  4. Who will lead this review?
  5. Who will capture the feedback that comes from this review and how?
  6. What is the procedure for dispute resolution?
  7. What must be done ahead of time?
  8. How will everyone connect?

Design Review Best Practices

Product development today is more complex and globally distributed than ever, with all kinds of disruptions and uncertainty adding to the growing pressures. 

So it’s no wonder many engineers and engineering leaders are growing frustrated with painful review processes that are no longer efficient, effective, or collaborative enough. And even for teams that already have a way of doing reviews digitally, it can still feel like there’s a lot of wasted time and missed opportunities.

But what can you do to make your design reviews better? 

Well, there are many types of design reviews and many types of design teams. The specific steps that work for a particular team or a particular stage of the design cycle—they’ll never be one-size-fits-all. However, no matter what your process looks like today, there are things you can do right away to start improving your design reviews.

Here are three engineering design review best practices:

  • Have a Clear and Specific Design Review Goal: Whether it’s a formal review with many stakeholders or an informal review between two people, you need to be aligned on the ultimate objective.
  • Make the Most of Your Design Review Meetings: By finding parts of the review process that are ideal to complete asynchronously, you get to have both fewer meetings and better meetings.
  • Standardize Your Design Review Process: A repeatable method for fast and easy design reviews helps you deliver quality products, on time, with less hassle and fewer mistakes.

Design Review Process Steps

Once you start examining your own design reviews—whether you’re building a new process from scratch or thinking critically about existing processes—it helps to have a general framework to follow. 

Using a framework or a template that you can tailor to your own team can save you time. It means you don’t have to start entirely from scratch when you’re asking yourself questions about the basics, like: What should be included in design review? How do you prepare for a design review? How do you conduct a design review?

Yet since “design review” can be a broad term with many meanings and usages, the exact steps that need to be carried out during a design review process can vary widely. However, there are five general stages of a design review that all types of design reviews go through. Generally speaking, any design review process steps can be categorized into one of those five stages.

If you’re trying to map out your team’s current review process, and/or imagine the ideal future process, it might be useful to think about these stages. Looking at all the steps in the process today, where are there gaps? Where are there clusters? From there, you can identify the areas where process changes or improvements will have the biggest impact. 

What are the main phases of a design review? In general, all mechanical engineering design reviews pass through these five phases: 

  1. Plan the review. Before you even get started, make sure you know exactly what needs to be reviewed and why. Does there even need to be a review? What decisions need to be made as a result of this review, and who needs to be involved in them? If you can’t answer these questions for yourself, take some time to think about them before you start involving others or setting up meetings.
  2. Set up the review. Once you understand what the review needs to involve and accomplish, you can start preparing for it. That means gathering the materials you need  for the review (CAD models, images, supporting data), and figuring out when and how to distribute that information. It also means dealing with whatever logistics are needed—whether that’s travel bookings or finding time on everyone’s calendars for a Zoom call or creating a slide deck or spreadsheet for asynchronous review.
  3. Conduct the review. This is the collaborative part, where people come together to pool their expertise and create the best possible design. If you can present reviewers with a clear and specific purpose for the review, give them time to absorb all the relevant information, and create an environment where all voices can be equally heard—you’ll get higher quality feedback, catch more mistakes, and design better products.
  4. Act on the findings. Following up on what happens in a review is the most crucial part, but it’s often also the most frustrating part. Depending on how the review itself was documented, it can be an admin-intensive task afterwards to figure out exactly who needs to do what (and by when). That’s why it’s crucial to have a clear system for keeping track of actions and decisions that come from your review process.
  5. Create a record. For some industries, there are some very clear and specific requirements around keeping a record of design reviews and your team’s decision-making history. But beyond meeting requirements, having proper design review records is useful. It allows you to get back to the context in which a decision was made, so you understand not just what was done but why it was done.

Design Review Examples

Although many engineering teams today are still designing products the same way they did 20 years ago, there’s growing recognition among industry leaders that the status quo isn’t cutting it. An outdated design review process is an expensive bottleneck that prevents engineering companies from getting better products to market, faster. Top teams not only realize this, but they’re already taking steps to address it.

So what does a better process look like?

Here are some engineering design review examples from teams that have achieved impressive results by updating and innovating on the ways they collaborate and communicate:

JOHNSON CONTROLS: As a global engineering and manufacturing organization, Johnson Controls (JCI) understands how critical it is to have proper communication that keeps everyone on the same page. Back in 2018, teams at JCI relied on the same status quo as many engineering teams today: communicating about design using a mix of SharePoint, static files emailed back and forth, and long design review meetings. But since revamping their engineering change and design review process, reviews that used to take weeks are now completed within days—preventing costly production delays. (Read more>)

KRAKEN ROBOTICS: Quality is paramount for Kraken Robotics. However, with their rapid growth and constant product innovation, the Kraken team wasn’t satisfied with common industry practices like sticking CAD screenshots in slideshows, using Excel-based issue lists, or chasing down feedback in emails and PDFs. In 2019 they developed a new design review process and adopted a digital collaboration tool, creating a leaner review workflow with fewer steps—allowing the Kraken team to keep meeting their world-class quality standards, while moving faster and reducing administrative work. And in 2021, the new process paid off when Kraken achieved ISO 9001:2015 certification. (Read more>)

GENOA DESIGN: When the Covid pandemic caused teams all over the world to shift to working from home, Genoa Design was in the same boat as many others. With a drawing review process that hadn’t been fully digitized yet, it suddenly became urgent to find a way to match in-office productivity levels and continue to deliver for customers. But, as leaders in digital transformation, the Genoa team made a quick pivot to fully digital drawing reviews. The result? They didn’t just match in-office productivity, they doubled it!  With their new digital process, Genoa has saved thousands of hours. (Read more>)

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