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 Daniel Wright-Miller, Co-Founder & Principal Engineer at IDTech, LLC
Why did you choose mechanical engineering as a profession?
I believe it all started with Legos; a toy that lets you build from the ground up; either by following the detailed assembly instructions (like an MPI) or being creative and building whatever you could imagine. My interest in mechanics and design was further solidified by working on cars with my Dad, hand drafting in middle school, auto shop and basic robotics courses in high school, as well as getting into AutoCAD on the computer. I also had a few relatives who were engineers, specifically my Grandfather who worked on everything from boats to water slides; and prosthetic arms to vacuum formed packaging. It was not just nurture but in my nature as well. I feel I was fated to be an engineer, but it was ultimately my choice to focus on mechanical engineering so that I could keep my wide range of interests and industry options open.
What excites you most about your work as a mechanical engineer?
I think the most exciting part of being a mechanical engineer is simply making something out of nothing. A vague whisper of an idea can turn into a sketch, then a 3D CAD model, run some initial analysis if necessary, and then these days it can go right into a laser cut or 3D printed prototype! It is a process that I don’t think I could ever get tired of – whether for clients or personal projects, every time it is slightly different but just as exciting. With modern software and technologies, the design process is getting easier and more interesting all the time (e.g. generative design, Design for Additive Manufacturing), and the same is true when it comes to prototyping and production of parts with great leaps in 3D printing technologies. I have been using all of these tools in my home and business for many years now, and they are only getting better.
How have you seen the way engineers collaborate evolve over the past few years?
When it comes to cross-discipline collaboration I think things have been very slow to change over the decades (imagine having to hand a piece of paper from one coworker to another!), but with the advent of CAD that obviously helped the process, and now in the last few years that pace has really changed again. The biggest jump in collaboration I see comes from cloud computing and cloud-based storage because it allows not only the ability to work from almost any machine and anywhere using web-based software, but also the instant sharing or concurrent working of files. This can be best seen with Autodesk’s Fusion360 software which allows both browser-based design matched with cloud-based data storage and sharing. Plus, it also comes with other tool add-ins such as Finite Element Analysis, Computation Fluid Dynamics, generative design, direct 3D printed part ordering, and other very useful and constantly changing tools.
What are the top challenges you face when it comes to design review?
The biggest issues I see when reviewing a coworker’s designs are around file compatibility, as well as providing feedback and making edits. On file compatibility, say your coworker has an electrical add-in you do not, and created wiring over you model, then it may be impossible to view what they have created. In our new normal with remote work, communication and feedback on design has also presented some challenges. Normally in the office you can call someone to your desk to talk through each point and provide feedback in the moment. Now, scheduling calls, whether phone or video, can require more time to set up, as well as thinking through how the notes discussed during the call will be recorded and shared for execution. There are also an increasing number of scenarios where a live video call not an option (such as international collaboration); and the alternative is communication via, notes, screenshots, and redlines which can prolong the review process. Building in a buffer during design review to account for these potential challenges is a solution, but comes at a cost for the schedule and wasted engineering effort.
What are the top 3-5 mistakes companies make when it comes to making it easy for their engineers to collaborate?
The biggest deterrents to collaboration I have seen are lack of proper software/tools, management’s aversion to change, and antiquated company structure. To drill down a little into each – without the kind of software I mentioned above for file sharing and data management it can very difficult to share work between engineers and can lead to wasted effort (on work that has already been done), project delays (if a file cannot be found when needed), or prototyping problems and actual wasted money (if the wrong part version is made on accident). When it comes to management there are often fears to make change that would actually improve engineering collaboration (some warranted and others not). And lastly, in terms of company structure, it is often the case that different departments were originally strongly siloed apart, and remained that way for years or decades. A company may have always kept electrical engineers separate from mechanical; but as more and more projects become “smart & enabled”, and the lines blur between disciplines, it is even more important that we all work together.
What are 5 best practices you’d recommend companies adopt to improve the way their engineers collaborate?
To improve engineering collaboration I would recommend trying these things first: increase communication, share tools across all disciplines, improve file and data access, make prototyping possible for everyone, and refine the design review process. In terms of communication, it helps to have more access to each other (especially when not co-located) so that ideas and updates can be shared across the team. It does not necessarily need to be an instant messenger like Slack, but at least having and “open door” policy to outreach can certainly help. For tool and file sharing, make sure all engineers have a seat to Fusion360 or SolidWorks and PDM (or for electrical or molding try to have those add-in tools available). Prototyping is an important part of progress and understanding across engineers and disciplines so if everyone can make and/or hold the newest design prototype it allows teams to progress faster and more efficiently. Lastly, for design reviews, make sure that all of the necessary parties are included (but no more) and come out with a strong plan for everything that works and needs to be changed.
What are the top 3 trends you see shaping the future of mechanical engineering? How can engineers prepare for this future?
In terms of the future of mechanical engineering, I see us taking generative design and similar tools (utilizing artificial intelligence, machine learning), cloud computing and storage for ease of work and collaboration, and next generation 3D printing and Additive Manufacturing to the next level. The use of AI/ML for generative design and topology optimization (like Ntopology for example) has just really started to take off and that will allow us to create previously painstaking or impossible designs and use those for lighter, stronger, cheaper, more interesting looking parts and products. Again the use of the cloud for software and file sharing will only get more advanced and allow for quicker, easier, and better outcomes when working together in local or distributed teams. And last but not least, the things that are possible now with 3D printing are incredible and they will only advance at an exponential rate going forward. The combination of these trends will allow for the most advanced 3D designs to be created by mechanical engineers of the future, collaborated on and shared instantly anywhere in the world, and then 3D printed local using the latest technology. So what can engineers do to prepare for this future? Be a part of it, use these tools and technologies however and whenever one can, and if not simply using them be someone who helps create the newest versions and make the future possible now!