Why Interdisciplinary Teams Make For Better Design

Posted by Dan Bodenstein on Apr 13, 2017 10:57:00 AM
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Imagine you are building a robot from scratch and all you’re given is a stack of raw materials, a mallet and a drill. At the end of the day, without the cables, circuit boards, and programming software, the best you’ll ever have is a nice looking piece of abstract art. Now imagine you’re building a robot and all those electronic parts are in a room on the opposite side of the country (but you don’t know what they are or how to use them). Chances are that your new robot isn’t going to be much better than your original metallic Jackson Pollock--at least without spending an exorbitant amount of time and money.


At Boulder Engineering Studio, we know that designing almost any product with only one discipline (even mechanical design without industrial design) is a fast track to failure. Multi-disciplinary teams are critical to finding the best possible solutions and doing it quicker. For electromechanical products, designs evolve much more cohesively when the mechanical engineer can understand and discuss the electronics footprint and impact on tooling. Likewise, when the software and user-interface designer is layered into the conversation, really cool things can happen, and they can happen in real-time. Waiting for a once-a-week email between the mechanical firm and a separate electrical group doesn’t really breed solutions efficiently, or sometimes at all!

Similarly, when design team and inventor review sessions are infrequent, the client only receives an intermittent glimpse into the design process with little opportunity for input. In between those meetings, there is a lot of opportunity for a design team to accidentally pursue the wrong path or simply stall out. This creates a natural cycle of increased risk having to be mitigated by increased management and resulting in increased costs and overhead. Unfortunately, this is common inside large enterprises which have more than enough brainpower and talent but have trouble innovating efficiently because parts of their brain trust are fragmented and sometimes geographically isolated. In this case, sometimes the best a larger organization can do is to reorganize, reduce team size and combine disciplines into cohesive teams. At Boulder Engineering Studio, we strive to be one of these smaller, more efficient groups, integrating our clients/inventors into our team as often as possible.

Clients often ask “what industries does BES work in” and “what type of clients does BES work with?” Our response is not the one they are expecting, but it’s key to our ability to innovate. Our answer: most of them. Having some amount of expertise and experience in most major design and engineering disciplines allows us to make better products. This multi-faceted design team allows for the easy application of aerospace disciplines to wearable devices, the use of anatomy-oriented ergonomics in industrial-grade machines, or even the integration of range-optimizing plastic enclosures around a wireless device. It is the source of innovation.


Even for more routine product integrations, having a multi-disciplinary team of designers and engineers is key. We’ve seen common applications in the following product features. Evaluating a team’s performance in tackling some of these elements can help you better understand just how well they integrate and operate together:


  • Battery compartments: This relatively straight forward area of design requires input from the electrical team for PCB layout, the mechanical group to make sure tolerances are adhered to, and the UI team (often our clients) to make sure that the batteries are intuitive to replace or recharge.  Beyond the basics of fit and finish, the teams should also be collaborating to make sure that the design is derisked and won’t present a certification or safety problem.  Can the batteries be inserted backwards? Is there reverse circuit protection? Is it cheaper to implement a solution mechanically or electrically? Are there any regulatory concerns that dictate one method over the other? Does the operation environment present additional challenges? Are the connectors too expensive or hard to source for volume manufacturing?


  • Controls: Regardless if it's a rocker switch, a micro-tactile momentary button, a keypad, or an indicator, chances are that the ideal SMD part from the electrical layout and routing is NOT going to be the mechanical designer’s first pick.  An LED indicator placed by the electrical team without mechanical insight likely won’t be in a visible or clear place for the user once it's enclosed. In order for design groups to work together cleanly, the UI group really needs to specify not the exact layout of controls and indicators but rather the ideal along with the range of what would acceptable.  The mechanical and electrical designer must discuss the best ways to implement and jointly search for components prior to formalized design.  Once prototypes are built, the UI team must use them (or try to break them) to ensure that every component has the right ‘feel.’ Even if a product is fully functional, if it feels foreign or doesn’t look right, then it’s not a complete product. Engineering in a vacuum, without input from the end user(s), is never a good idea.


  • The manufacturing process: How is a product being programmed and tested? Every team (including the assembly house) needs input here to help decide on the methods used. End-of-line fixture, bed of nails testing, programming headers, umbilical test cabling, inspection process and labeling should all be considered. If you’re going high-volume, minimizing touch time could be critical, but if you make five at a time (or less) in a garage, plugging in the USB from a laptop and using a user facing program probably isn’t a big deal. Conversely, maybe the mechanical fixturing for thousands of units is overly expensive or complicated and not worth the investment. These questions can be most quickly and effectively answered by a team that understands all aspects of a product from the raw materials to the production line.


While these certainly aren’t the only areas collaboration helps, they can serve as a good litmus test for an integrated team. If everything above was obvious to your product design team, chances are you’re doing things right.


Our Interdisciplinary Successes