Collaborative Engineering 101: What is Co-Design and Why Does it Matter?

CoLab Team

July 7, 2021


min read

In simplest terms, co-design is about bringing everyone into the design process so that the final result best meets the needs of its users. But it doesn’t take long for that simple concept to start feeling complicated. After all, “everyone” can be a large and varied group — and “the design process” can be a long and iterative series of steps.

Co-design (also known as participatory design, or cooperative design) is one of those concepts that makes complete sense in theory: get input early and often, from everyone who needs to be involved, so you end up with the best possible design. Yet it hasn’t always been easy or feasible for hardware teams to put this concept into practice effectively. Taking a co-design approach has often revolved around large meetings and inefficient communication tools like emails, spreadsheets, and slide decks.

Digital transformation has ramped up fast across the industry, though, and the conversation around co-design is changing, too. New tools and collaborative capabilities come with new possibilities — as well as new challenges. Many traditional barriers to co-design are no longer standing in the way. But teams still need to move fast and make strategic decisions if they want to shift toward new ways of working together, with stronger collaboration and ultimately more innovative design outcomes.

How Does Co-Design Work in Design and Manufacturing?

You might not have used the term co-design before, but you likely have tried to incorporate a co-design approach into your engineering design process. If you’ve ever been part of a design team, you’ve probably participated in a kickoff meeting where as many stakeholders as possible come together at the start of a project as a way to make the design process a collaborative one. You’ve probably also had the experience of leaving the kickoff meeting, knowing that you might not all come together again until the project post-mortem.

There’s more than one way that co-design can happen in hardware development, but there are common ways it has manifested in the industry to date — largely based on the tools, time, and resources available on any given project. Bringing stakeholders together for a large kickoff is fairly standard, but it’s typically been difficult to keep everyone properly engaged throughout the evolving design process. After the kickoff, co-design has largely happened by exchanging emails (or messages in Teams or Slack) and sending documents back and forth between stakeholders. Big “reply-all” threads quickly become easy, or even necessary, to tune out. “Action Lists” sit in static documents where they aren’t reviewed until just before the next meeting, weeks or months later. 

It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that more collaboration on a design project has typically meant more bureaucracy, too. Hardware teams have had to weigh the benefits of co-design against the costs of its administration. Working collaboratively with diverse sets of stakeholders, keeping everything in context, finding ways to communicate meaningfully — it all takes a logistical toll on design teams. That’s true internally, but the effect is only compounded when you consider external stakeholders who may be working with completely different applications and systems. When workloads are heavy, people naturally revert to the path of least resistance.

The New Cost-Benefit Equation for Co-Design

What industry leaders are already figuring out, though, is that the cost-benefit equation for co-design has changed. Bringing stakeholders together, and keeping people engaged throughout the process, no longer needs to involve expensive physical travel or tedious, time-consuming admin work. Technology and software are continuously advancing and modern collaboration tools are already transforming what’s possible for hardware teams who want to take a co-design approach to their processes.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated digitalization and caused a massive shift to remote ways of working, many organizations have already saved thousands or millions of dollars in travel costs. While some in-person meetings and events will resume, there are other cases where virtual methods of communication will become permanent replacements for what previously required physical travel. This shift alone represents a significant change to the traditional co-design cost-benefit analysis.

Yet perhaps a more significant change (though potentially harder to quantify) is the difference technology makes to the administrative costs that typically come along with co-design processes. While email has been around for decades, enabling quick and asynchronous global communication, it hasn’t enabled the meaningful communication required to facilitate effective co-design. New tools and software make it possible for all stakeholders in a design process to have access to all the needed information, in a way that’s contextually relevant. Your “Action List” can become a living thing, instead of sitting unchecked in a document buried in your inbox. Info can now be presented and shared more meaningfully so that everyone can see exactly what they need to see, when they need to see it—without requiring hours of admin work to do so.

Removing the Roadblocks to Collaborative Momentum

Cumbersome tools break collaborative flow. Creativity and innovation are momentum-based. When there’s friction in the processes available for sharing feedback, it kills the creative energy. Collaboration can’t be simply “scheduled” or expected to happen at set times, just because that’s the only chance to get everyone together. The teams that are creating the most momentum are finding that success by building collaboration into their processes and making space for it to happen organically.

No technology or tool takes away the need to do the work. But when feedback can be quickly given, easily captured, and widely shared—momentum can build. When the roadblocks to collaborative momentum are removed, innovation can flourish. You don’t become an engineer because you dislike solving problems… but you don’t become an engineer to solve administrative problems, either. Modern collaborative tools don’t create innovation. Rather they create the environment necessary for innovation to happen, by taking away the barriers to efficient co-design and getting the bureaucracy out of the way.

That’s the real potential of embracing new tools and technologies: the ability to focus on the work that truly matters, instead of drowning in tasks that can be automated or executed more effectively. The Covid-19 pandemic may have accelerated innovation across the industry, but the changes were already in motion. From best-of-breed technologies to the rise of remote work to advances in AI and other fields, multiple digital trends are converging and transforming the way humans work together in every industry. Tech solutions that present roadblocks, instead of removing them, will fall out of favour. It’s no longer desirable to implement digital transformation via software megasuites or applications that don’t easily integrate or pass data. (That’s why, here at CoLab, we’ve always been CAD-agnostic.)

The future is here. The internet has moved beyond its infancy stage. Technology isn’t slowing down. Co-design will be key in continuing to push innovation further because collaboration is how innovation happens. The teams that embrace a co-design approach now, and make smart technology decisions to back it up, will be the innovators that lead the way forward.

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