State of Engineering Collaboration - Insights from Alison Olechowski , Assistant Professor, Mechanical Engineering
October 30, 2020
This article is part of CoLab's new State of Engineering Collaboration Series which will interview a diverse mix of mechanical engineering professionals and industry thought leaders with a goal of better understanding the day to day challenges engineers face and to keep a pulse on the trends that will shape the profession in the years ahead.
Our team sat down with Alison Olechowski and here is what she had to say:
Why Mechanical Engineering?
1. Why did you choose mechanical engineering as a profession?
I decided to pursue mechanical engineering for my undergrad because I was fascinated by how math can predict the way objects move in the real world. But then, I was very inspired by an early internship at Research In Motion (BlackBerry) in Waterloo. I was struck by how many decisions must be made in order for a mass-produced product to be designed and manufactured. I became very interested in design, and how to do it better. I followed my curiosities in mechanical engineering design in grad school, and now as a professor.
2. What excites you most about your work as a mechanical engineer and your current role in helping mechanical engineers?
I get excited about working with my team to research industry-driven problems. It’s super motivating to dig deep into a problem, and then share our findings with curious members of the engineering community. For example, my research group, Ready Lab, has been studying tools for distributed engineering work, such as collaborative CAD and communication platforms. Sometimes, my research group helps improve mechanical engineering design by applying concepts from other fields, like software development or psychology.
Since COVID-19 has forced mechanical engineers across the country and world to work from home, we’ve been able to share our learnings and start projects to generate new insights. It’s always fascinating to talk to a mechanical engineer who is being held back by the process or tools they use. My students’ and my research aims to help!
Future of Engineering Collaboration
Your research is focused on processes and tools that teams of engineers use in industry as they design innovative new products. In the context of your research:
3. How have you seen the way engineers collaborate evolve over the past few years?
Well COVID has forced a big fast forward in terms of modernizing out-of-date collaboration tools at a lot of engineering organizations. Before COVID, many organizations had under-utilized, or disorganized, or redundant online collaboration tools, in particular for communicating. Unfortunately many technical engineering tools are still used in an old-fashioned way. However I think this has been shifting in the past few years, as teams look to really push for productivity and efficiency. An example is of course CAD, where streamlined collaboration has become an increasingly important feature.
4. What are the top mistakes companies make when it comes to making it easy for their engineers to collaborate?
Often collaboration is either end of a spectrum; either it’s very informal but undocumented, or it’s formal and highly documented. Informally, it involves engineers peeking over each others’ cubicle, tapping each other on the shoulder, or overhearing useful information in the hallway. Formally it is large meetings where the dynamics make it hard for all voices to be heard. I think there is a middle ground, where collaboration is organic, but allows for documentation and traceability.
Another missed opportunity is when collaboration is highly encouraged at the early phases of product development, but later, detailed design stages become independent and solitary. Collaboration during detailed design and analysis can lead to creative problem solving and enhanced learning.
Organizations can forget that engineers are human, and collaboration works better when there’s trust. Trust can’t be developed overnight.
5. What are best practices you’d recommend companies adopt to improve the way their engineers collaborate?
We recently did a couple of studies where we explored the software engineering technique of pair programming in CAD; designers were partnered, and worked on one CAD model together. This can be enabled via screen sharing. We then analyzed the designers’ models, their interactions with software, and video of their faces (from which we extracted signals of their emotion). What we found: This mode of collaboration led to higher quality models, and more highly engaged designers. We think paired work is a creative way to open engineers’ minds to new ways of solving problems; it’s a way to have engineers engage with each other and build relationships; and it has a lot of potential for onboarding and training.
Collaboration is effective when teams have trust and psychological safety (this means they are willing to take interpersonal risks on the team, like bring up a wild idea, or admit to their team when they’ve made a mistake). Building a culture where this type of behaviour happens requires a big time investment in having your team get to know each other, and feel like everyone’s voice is worthy of contribution. It requires reflection and intention and leader role-modeling. Here are some more tips. My research group has preliminary insights from a new project where we’ve seen that teams where there was more evidence of psychological safety had an easier time solving problems as they transitioned to COVID-driven remote work.
Make your collaboration practices explicit. When do you collaborate? How? What are the collaboration norms that you follow but haven’t documented - Naming conventions? Timeline for feedback? When you make your process explicit, you can start to observe, evaluate, and improve.
6. What are the top trends you see shaping the future of mechanical engineering?
Computers are getting better at a ton of tasks that were once the specialty of engineers. But there are tasks that I think humans will perform better than computers for a while, especially tasks that involve creativity and interpersonal empathy. Both of these are key elements of design! Therefore I see design continuing to be a major way in which mechanical engineers contribute to industry and better the world.
7. We love the work you are doing at UofT, so we are happy to share any other interesting insights you would like. Is there anything else you’d like to share with us about your program, research or helpful information for the industry?
The best place to stay up to date on my lab’s research is at our website: readylab.mie.utoronto.ca! We have lots of new work coming out soon on model-based systems engineering, CAD education, and lessons of remote work for product designers and systems engineers.