Workflow automation for product design and engineering has been a linear process for many organizations. Though the design process has become more iterative through engineering project management software and agile development programs, it has remained fairly insulated from the rest of the organization, including the purveyors of the products (the sales staff) and often the end users (customers).

There are clear obstructions that have provided resistance over the years to expanding the information loop to non-engineering groups, including design and engineering formats that require proprietary software, the desire to keep intellectual property close to the vest, the lack of understanding of designs by non-technical players, and general organizational silos.

Information Workflows Expanding

Workflow automation for design needs to a greater degree, to incorporate information and input from other areas of the organization that are part of the product lifecycle. And to the extent these inputs are real-time, all the better. So by viewing the product lifecycle as a “cradle-to-grave” workflow we understand that to improve this workflow’s velocity, accuracy, efficiency, and ultimately profitability requires expanding, in all directions, the information communicated within the lifecycle. In electronics, much is this accomplished through feedback loops (i.e., inputs, as part of a chain of cause-and-effects that form a circuit or loop).

The first obstacle to overcome is the simple task of getting design information to non-engineering parts of the organization and not requiring them to have special software and being able to view and comment on drawings and documents. Companies have done a better job of moving design documents to a neutral format, specifically PDF. Though PDF readers are ubiquitous, the ability to attach comments and changes is not, and certainly not in real-time. These workflows bog down as individuals are emailed PDFs and then print them out, and then respond with input through more emails or in scheduled meetings.

Common Platforms for Input

Using a common platform that provides multi-format viewing and markup gets around this large speed-bump. By letting all relevant parties access and comment on designs, in real-time, enables the first phase of the product lifecycle, not only speeding things up but adding necessary inputs to increasingly complex designs.

By codifying these workflows, the platform can be used to provide notifications, distribute the information, gather the feedback, and provide reporting and auditing for oversight.

Timeliness of Feedback

Feedback loops are certainly less effective if they don’t provide needed input in a timely manner. Historically, this is one of the reasons workflows have developed without appropriate feedback, as the time needed to acquire the input would have substantially slowed down the workflows, so it was just easier to factor in much of the feedback after the fact, or towards the tail end of the workflow.

Now with the ability to get input within hours, if not minutes, the design and engineering workflows can, and should, incorporate the review and comment from all areas of the organization, from QA to production, to customer service, to sales, and even from finance. If reviews can be done real-time and collaboratively, the intensity of the feedback is leveraged as integrated suggestions, solutions, and hidden problems can be identified.

Getting It Done

Unfortunately, simply moving to a common platform for distributing information and gaining feedback is not enough to “juice up” the workflows, as many of the other inhibitors identified earlier still exist. But as a first step, enabling the information flow with applicable feedback can help to break down some of the silo barriers and the fear of letting intellectual property become uncontrolled while improving the design and engineering function.

Scott Brandt