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The Freedom to Explore the Engineering Design Process

Brian Sather

Future of design | Product design

In a perfect world, there would be no deadlines.

Ideally, you would get the chance to exhaustively explore all possibilities for a design. You could develop many different alternatives, ensuring that you arrive at the best choice for all design characteristics.

Of course, it’s not a perfect world. And, like everyone, engineers can find themselves facing a looming deadline. In these frequently encountered cases, they can end up desperately exploring a couple different choices before going with the first feasible design.

In this article, we’ll delve into the big challenges that keep engineers from exploring the design space for the items they’re developing. In future articles, we’ll explore emerging technologies that will help mitigate those barriers.

Increasing Complexity, Discipline Specialization

One reason today’s deadlines have become so challenging, to engineering managers and engineers alike, is that one person’s expertise can only cover so much. As products become more complex, so do the manufacturing and technology options that can be incorporated into the product, and the number of engineers with particular specialties—mechanical, electrical, biomedical—working on the product rise. You’d like to carry out your job and pass the design to the next engineer for approval and enhancement. But of course, that round-robin cycle needs to end at some point.

Also, you, like many other engineers, may have a specialty within your discipline--you may work primarily in plastics or sheet metal, machined products or composites, for example. To exhaust all design possibilities that could result in a high-performing product requires knowledge of every aspect of your field and every other field involved in that product’s production, which isn’t usually a practical expectation.

You also need to weigh how fully you need to explore your designs. Is meeting the minimum on a project good enough? Or would further exploration, iteration, and improvement result in a justifiable ROI?

Competing Goals with a Big Mid-Range

Even if you answered that meeting the project minimum is good enough, nothing may make you happier than the freedom to fully explore your design space, even as that project’s deadline nears. As an engineer you are, by nature, a tinkerer. Left alone with a design and you’ll likely want to explore, design, iterate, and repeat the cycle until you come up with an elegant design solution for the situation at hand.

And sometimes a design really needs to be the best one, rather than the first feasible one, for example when meeting precise safety or regulatory requirements. In that case, further exploration does result in a justifiable ROI.

But too often, exploration can feel cut short.

That’s because you work within a design cycle’s competing constraints. On one hand, the design needs to be released on time. On the other hand, you need to spend time developing a design that meets all specification and requirements. Your freedom to explore their design space to varying degrees is based on these competing design-cycle demands. The demands themselves are at two extremes; between them is the huge range you have to explore.

There are many legitimate scenarios in which you do need to go with the first feasible design for a number of reasons. Likely, a deadline looms and design needs to be passed off to the manufacturing floor or sent out to a supplier, even as you’d like to explore a few other design possibilities, check out a few other results even after you’ve found a feasible design. Whatever the reason, design exploration is done sooner than you’d like.

Deadline constraints works the other way, too. Sometimes company managers or executives might need to reign you in, lest they use you exhaustively, up to, and even passing, a perfectly reasonable deadline. Today, shorter and shorter development schedules can force you, even as you pass back and forth, to make compromises that come in a few different forms. Maybe you feel the model geometry could be further perfected or maybe you’d like to run a few more analyses for virtual prototyping reasons. But time runs out.

Accelerating Exploration in the Engineering Design Process

In all, you may feel a bit doomed about your lot in the development cycle. Sometimes, you might feel like they aren’t given the room you need to truly develop real design solutions because you’re forced to go with the first feasible design.

It is in this context that the objective and associated enabler is revealed. For you to find something better than the first feasible design, your organizations must accelerate design exploration. To do that, it must enable you to be more productive in design. Today, there is a range of emerging design processes and technologies that can do just that. But, we’ll discuss that in the next article in our series.

For now, let’s end on this note. How fully are you able to explore your designs? How and when is it justified to exhaustively explore design alternatives and why is that important?

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