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 Matt Bailey, Vice President, Mechanical Engineering at Design 1st.
1. Why did you choose mechanical engineering as a profession?
Ever since I was a young kid, I was always fascinated and drawn to challenges when it came to building things. It started with playing with Legos, moved to typewriters, and then motors as I had a passion for taking things apart and rebuilding them. Product design is in my blood as my dad has been in the industry for years so my keen interest in how things are built and the fine details of how they work started at a very young age and progressed through the years. There are several avenues of engineering I studied in university. I initially enrolled in civil engineering at the University of Waterloo then transitioned into mechanical engineering and never looked back. Currently, I am fortunate to consult and work for a very successful product design firm in North America where I can feed my passion every day and analyze all elements that contribute to building a successful product, from the bits and bytes of the electrical element, to software, cost engineering and more.
2. What excites you most about your work as a mechanical engineer?
What excites me most about where I work as a mechanical engineer is the opportunity to look both holistically and analytically at all aspects that contribute to how things work, how they are built, and how they are used. I typically take and encourage a first principles approach to a design. When you understand the base physics of how a product works the perspective of its users and the processes that it will be manufactured with you can then target the areas that have the most opportunity. It’s exciting to look at a design from the inception point and then get to see its impact on customers in the real-world.
3. How have you seen the way engineers collaborate evolve over the past few years?
In the past, the perception and reality among big corporations is that engineers are hired to solve problems. An engineer would be given a product requirements document, say thank you, talk to like- minded engineering co-workers, spend a few weeks working on the design, and come back with a completed design for the full team to review. This is not a recipe for business success. In my experience, and what I foster in leading a team of engineers, is that the team of people working on a project - engineers, designers, marketers and business decision makers - must be able to have open conversations and bring experience from all areas at the beginning of a design to facilitate a wide initial look at solving the design problem. A successful collaboration at the outset, followed by good team communication during the implementation process, is fundamentally at the core of any successful project. The value and constant insight gleaned from business and marketing helps keep the right objectives at the forefront of everyone’s mind and teams talking together to solve problems gives the team a larger toolbox to solve problems with than one discipline on its own. Teams that can achieve this typically will move faster, make smarter decisions, and have much higher chances of success.
In addition to instilling a clear line-of-sight across functional areas, I’ve also seen the benefit software tools provide in supporting better collaboration among engineering teams. There are many different tools in the market that bring teams together, from the software tools that allow storage and easy retrieval of relevant project information, to the hardware tools that help facilitate the real discussions between groups during the development process. Engineering teams should take advantage of these technologies. However, whatever technology you choose to adopt, make sure all team members can leverage it so everyone can access files and programs to support a true collaboration. This will ensure that every team member is able to bring their experience and voice to the table.
4. What are the top 3-5 mistakes companies make when it comes to making it easy for their engineers to collaborate?
The first mistake companies make when it comes to making it easy for their engineers to collaborate is letting team members select which tool they’d like to use instead of standardizing on a tool that the entire project team supports. Teams using different collaboration tools may seem like a small barrier, but in the long term, the smallest impedances may impact productivity or in the worst case add up to a death by a thousand cuts of the project. With today’s global remote staff, the idea of digital paper is now ubiquitous. Teams can be most successful if they standardize on a software that makes it as easy as possible for all team members to transfer ideas between each other in a form they can all use and understand. The ubiquity of the tool is a major aspect of allowing this to happen as they have less different software tools to learn to use to be truly effective on the project. The other mistake companies make is supporting a “design in a bubble” mantra for engineers. Pushing teams to communicate and interact through open project meetings, agile process and also through company culture where people build the bonds that allow them to ask silly questions are some of the best ways to foster communication leading to collaboration between groups. Mechanical engineers and many other disciplines can desire to work independently and it’s important that organizations break down these silos, and allow the team members some visibility into other functional areas across the business, and support cross-collaboration that will support smart decisions rather than ones that make it a bit easier to get the day to day tasks done. I love solving problems, and as an engineer I’ll take the easiest road to come to an acceptable solution based on my experience, the more areas of the problem that I understand the better the solution will be.
5.What are 5 best practices you'd recommend companies adopt to improve the way their engineers collaborate?
1. Foster a culture of openness and inclusion. A successful collaboration brings a wide range of information, personalities, and diverse expertise to the table. A successful team leaves their ego’s at the door, is open to new ideas and ways of addressing the challenges of a project, and has the self- awareness as to what they don’t know, identifies areas where help is needed, and takes action to address those areas.
2. Encourage social interactions between team members so people feel comfortable getting to know each other and minimize the barriers to communication.
3. Standardize on a software collaboration tool across the team and the business.
4. Have a strong understanding of the skillset among each team member you are collaborating with.
5. Don’t bring business challenges to a technical conversation. Also, don’t bring technical details to a product/feature conversation. When having conversations between team members with different experiences, they need to be at a level that all members of the conversation can grasp and participate in. One way I think of it is the level of the conversation needs to fit the group that is participating / the problem that is trying to be solved. So if it is a business challenge, and the business / decision makers can frame the conversation in a way that is relevant to the engineers or marketers, more experience and knowledge can be brought to bear on potential solutions. The same goes for technical problems, if the technical team can frame a problem to the business decision makers in a way that takes their experience into account.
6.What are the top 3 trends you see shaping the future of mechanical engineering?
How can engineers prepare for this future? Mechanical Engineering is an extremely broad topic. With a mechanical engineering background and a thirst for knowledge, I’ve been involved with everything from waterproofing and assembly of cell phones, , design of the machines behind solar and hydro power capture, robotics for inspection, care, and destruction, sensors that detect people's vital signs and motion, to sensors and communications systems that detect the movement and vibration of rock in underground mines. In the past, mechanical engineers were directly responsible for the layer of technology and machines that serve as the interface between the world and the people in it. As we progress into a future that is more and more connected, an invaluable skill for mechanical engineers is understanding more about the digitalization of these industries as people connect to them to gain control or feedback from greater distances. Therefore, the top three trends I see shaping the future of mechanical engineering include:
1. Mechanical engineers will start to get behind the eight ball and see that what they create must support the digitalization of today’s world. Mechanical engineering is the interface between the digital and physical realms. The more knowledge we have about the emerging fields of robotics, AI, voice control, big data, and sensor integration, the more value we can bring when those areas start to integrate with more and more of the devices and machines we have and use today. This level of knowledge among mechanical engineers will position them more competitively among hiring companies.
2. Products will become more automated and some even autonomous. Therefore, mechanical engineering teams will begin to look beyond the ideas of physics and delve deeper into what the new types of capabilities machines can take on with more data, more types of control, and more feedback. We are living at the inflection point as to where we are seeing fewer and fewer purely physical machines in the world and more elements take on digitally controlled, connected and autonomous elements.
3. Emergency of intelligent software tools. Mechanical engineering is about developing things that people interact with. I see more intelligent software tools emerging to support this level of easy interaction. This emergence will be supported as more and more machines connect to the Internet. I will say, there will still be products that are successful that don’t connect to the internet, however, mechanical engineers will only benefit from adopting a wider lens in how they think about product development. The bigger your toolbox of knowledge and people is the more challenging problems you will be able to solve.