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.
The following is an interview we recently had with Christian Ruiz, Founder & Owner Ruiz Consulting Co.
Why did you choose mechanical engineering as a profession?
There are countless reasons why I chose mechanical engineering as my profession, but the primary reasons are the vastness of the field, the never-ending need, and the opportunity to work at the forefront of innovative technologies. Mechanical engineers are fortunate enough to have a wide array of sectors to explore and develop expertise in including energy, aeronautics, manufacturing, robotics, computer aided engineering--the list goes on. It is due to the breadth of the field that mechanical engineers will never become obsolete, as long as humans continue to develop products, mechanical engineers will always be sought out. Similarly, since mechanical engineers are needed to develop new products, we will always be working on the forefront of innovation--and those are reasons enough for anyone to want to be a mechanical engineer.
What excites you most about your work as a mechanical engineer?
The most exciting part of the work I do as the owner of a mechanical design consultancy is the wide array of projects I am able to be a part of--in the morning I could be working on designing a custom fitting and by midafternoon I am simulating real world loads on an aircraft wing. It is genuinely exciting waking up every morning knowing that the day’s work will be completely different than the day before. At the root of this excitement is the confidence that my understanding of fundamental mechanical engineering concepts, theories, and practices allow me to work on completely different projects, but still be able to deliver value.
Have you seen the way engineers collaborate evolve over the past few years?
Absolutely, as technology continues to rapidly evolve so has the way engineers collaborate. When I first started out as mechanical engineering intern in 2013 the primary method of communicating between engineering teams was email and screenshots. I distinctly remember how difficult it could sometimes be to explain the simplest mechanical issues to another team member with only email text and a screenshot of the issue. Fast forward seven years to 2020, communication has been extremely streamlined in a lot of the firms I have worked at. Although email has by no means become an obsolete form of communication it has taken a back seat to platforms like Zoom which offer powerful screen sharing technologies.
What are the top challenges you face when it comes to design review?
From my experience, the biggest challenges when completing a successful design review are one--communicating problems thoroughly, two--streamlining the approval workflow, and three-- maintaining good documentation/control of design changes.
It is often challenging and time-consuming ensuring that everyone on the team is made aware of and agrees to the solution(s) for the problem(s) identified in the design. This is mainly a function of two issues miscommunication and misinterpretation. In other words, not enough time and/or effort dedicated to explaining the problem, documenting why that solution was chosen, and what other solutions were considered.
Another challenge in any design review is streamlining the approval workflow. Most firm’s design review process involves various departments not only engineering. This is especially true if the firm doubles as a prototype lab or manufacturer. As a result if an effort is not made to streamline the approval process it is very easy for a design or drawing to get “stuck” along the approval process causing further delays.
The final major contributor to design review challenges stems from not maintaining good documentation of design changes. It is arguably the most important part of the design review process. If changes are not well documented and controlled it can lead to engineers working on an outdated design, team members being unaware of changes made during the design review and rolling back to a previous version of the design almost impossible. All these problems can culminate to awfully expensive costs due to time delays.
What are the top 3-5 mistakes companies make when it comes to making it easy for their engineers to collaborate?
The biggest mistakes I see companies make when it comes to engineers collaborating are skimping out on collaboration tools, lacking well developed/documented internal processes, and refusing to invest time or money in targeted training,
I have been a part of far too many companies that purchase the cheapest tools possible to collaborate or worse--rely on free software. Although this is in line with popular trends of lean operations, it has become truly clear through my experience that this is an area where that thinking should not apply. A good example of this would be the product data management (PDM) software a company relies on. It is of the highest important that the solution a company chooses be the most reliable and versatile tool they can afford as this will dictate--to name a few-- how easily engineers can collaborate, how quickly or smoothly design reviews are performed, and how well design changes are documented.
It is also quite common to see companies have the best collaboration tools on the market, yet collaboration has not been streamlined because of a lack of well developed and documented internal processes. It matters not if a company has the best tools, but no underlying infrastructure to trigger collaboration. A company with well developed and documented internal processes should never have an engineer that is unaware what to do or who to talk to the instant he/she notices an issue.
Probably the worst mistake a company can make is refusing to invest time or money in targeted training. Targeted is important to note here because not every engineer needs to be trained on all company collaboration tools. It is far better to have very in-depth training on tools pertinent to that engineer’s role than surface training on all software.
What are 5 best practices you would recommend companies adopt to improve the way their engineers collaborate?
I recommend that all companies adopt the follow five practices in order to improve the way their engineers collaborate:
- Research and purchase the most versatile collaboration tools available on the market, regardless of price.
- Develop, document, and distribute well defined internal processes that trigger collaboration.
- Implement mandatory collaboration tool leaning paths specific to each engineer’s role.
- Create and invest in areas specifically to be used for team collaboration
- Request feedback from the team on how they view collaboration tools and internal processes.
What are the top 3 trends you see shaping the future of mechanical engineering? How can engineers prepare for this future?
The top three (3) trends I see shaping the future of mechanical engineering are continued digitization, interdisciplinary roles becoming the standard, and full-time freelancing becoming more commonplace.
With new disruptive technology such as 3D printers, 3D scanners, and AR/VR becoming more affordable for companies, it will one day become paramount that engineers learn how to use these technologies with ease. It is important that engineers today invest in expanding their practical knowledge and experience with these technologies and their software to remain competitive in the job market. This would mean purchasing consumer grade counterparts to practice with or enrolling in trade schools that have access to top of the line equipment.
The rise of automation has had an interesting effect on the mechanical engineering industry as most products today contain some sort of smart component. This has led many companies to seek mechanical engineering candidates that are not just experts in their field but also have knowledge of robotics or some sort of coding aptitude. One day this will no longer be desired but the standard. To prepare for this trend, mechanical engineers should be taking more interdisciplinary courses in their formative years of college than ever. For those that have been working in the industry it would beseech them to enroll in community college and take a couple courses.
Another trend that has seen a lot of uptick in the past few years is the amount of mechanical engineers taking to the gig industry. The continued situation in the world with COVID-19 has only increased this trend and I can see it continuing now that companies are realizing how easy it is to find competent freelancers with sites like Upwork and Freelancer. To prepare for this trend mechanical engineers should be actively investing in their gig skills such as CAD, CAE, and CAM. This should be a combination of learning and investing in their own licenses of relevant software.