Posted by: Christian Verstraete | March 22, 2010

PD&E Remote Collaboration

In my last blog entry, I discussed how design specifications can be shared amongst multiple locations. That works well in joined or directed design for example, where an ODM (Original Design Manufacturer) designs the product under the supervision of the OEM. However, when the interaction between both parties needs to be close, such as in leveraged design for example, both parties may require concurrent access to the same data items.

Latencies make the concurrent access to the same data items from two locations difficult. Typically check-out/check-in procedures, are used to avoid overwriting work done by one of the parties. However, we may like it or not, there are moments where all parties need to meet and work concurrently to make decisions and address issues. That is when collaboration tools have to be used.

Simple tools allowing people to share their desktop, have been there for quite a while, and NetMeeting from Microsoft is probably the most well known one. However, being able to share video and audio, while working in 3D on a product design is something else. Building on its telepresence experience, HP introduced earlier this year, HP SkyRoom, a desktop based product whose objective is to allow up to 4 locations to work together on a common desktop. The design software is running in one location, but all 4 people have full access to its capabilities and can debate amongst themselves what the best designs are. Having the video allows to see the people, understanding their facial expressions, and facilitating the collaboration.Yes, higher end machines are needed to run the software efficiently, but at the cost of travel, the additional investment is quickly recovered.

That leaves us with one aspect to look at, and this is the management of engineering changes. This process is simpler as it is asynchronous by nature. We have used the CMII processes for quite a while now, as they differentiate between fast track, notification of small changes that do not require the approval of all parties, and full track. In our experience, 80% of changes go through the fast track, leaving only 20% of them to be managed carefully at all levels. This ensures an appropriate focus on critical engineering changes. Any good workflow management software can be used here, and most PDM software have such embedded.

Technology definitely helps developing products in a collaborative way around the globe. Combined with cloud computing (public or most often private), which facilitates the provisioning of appropriate development/test environments, it speeds-up the development process, allowing products to be brought faster to market. This however requires a thorough management of the engineering IT environment, which may not be there. To address this, we put the engineering IT under the responsibility of the CIO. After initial hurdles (we asked people to be creative in product design, but follow stringent rules from an IT perspective, not always obvious), our engineers realized they gained time by no longer having to worry about IT. Turned out great.

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