How to Solve the 5 Top Engineering Design Challenges

engineering design challenges

In 2012, the Aberdeen Group published a ground-breaking study on product design and CAD usage.

The top five design challenges cited by engineers were:

  1. Frequent design changes (39%)
  2. Changing design requirements (34%)
  3. Projects are understaffed (29%)
  4. Increased product complexity (25%)
  5. Problems/errors are found too late (19%)

Although the data are a few years old, from our discussions with engineers, we know that these issues are still top-of-mind. Some — such as increasing complexity — are only becoming more challenging with time.

Here are some strategies you can use to start solving these challenges in your firm.

Challenge #1: Frequent design changes

It would be nice to think we could eliminate change orders entirely. But let’s face it, that’s a pipe dream.

Things change. And if you’re working on a project with multiple stakeholders — for example, designing a plant that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and will take five years from start to finish — things can change a lot.

And that’s a good thing.

Engineering is an iterative process, not a linear one. As your engineers dive deeper into the design work, some of the earlier decisions may no longer be the best solutions. You may find that the parts you specified are no longer available or won’t work as you’d expected. Anything can happen, so you should anticipate design changes in every single project you plan.

The problem arises when those changes get out of hand. One seminal study found that that engineering change orders (ECOs) can take up one-third to one-half of engineering capacity and 20 to 50% of tool costs. For most firms, that’s too much — and it often leads to missed deadlines and budget overruns.

Fortunately, there are several things you can do to prevent certain types of change orders from occurring and to reduce the impact changes have on the success of your overall project.

Avoiding preventable change orders

Many types of change are inevitable, but changes due to miscommunications and mistakes are not. Here are three ways you can prevent these kinds of change orders from coming in.

  • Frontload your decision-making. This piece of advice comes from product and market strategist Joe Barkai. He’s referring to the product design process, but it’s equally applicable to plant and process design.

Barkai recommends evaluating and optimizing all product lifecycle decisions at the beginning of the design process. This will help you avoid downstream delays as well as reduce the chances that you’ll overlook something crucial.

  • Prioritize communication among all members of the design team. Design teams for engineering projects can be huge and include many different types of engineers on different teams. There may also be also architects, project managers, consultants, and third-party vendors, as well as various members of the client’s organization.

Most preventable engineering changes arise from miscommunications between different members of this team. To facilitate communication, ensure every member of your team is updated and informed about plans, progress, and latest developments. Depending on the size of your project and your team, this could be as simple as sending a weekly email update to everyone involved.

Also, be sure to document everything, so team members always have access to the most updated information.

  • Unify your methods and tools. This is another suggestion from Joe Barkai. He writes: “The complexity and multidisciplinary nature of product design today demands the use of several design and analysis tools to help product engineers assess the design from multiple perspectives simultaneously….These should be synthesized into a single decision-making framework to create a complete, accurate, and up-to-date context for higher-fidelity design decisions.”

Many different tools are also used in plant and process design, depending on the team and the phase of the design process. Synthesizing all of them into one application ensures that every member of the team has the information they need to make the best decisions at all times.

Making sure change orders don’t ruin your schedule or budget

Implementing procedures to avoid preventable change orders is a good first step toward making sure changes don’t set your schedule or budget off course. Here are two other ways you can mitigate your risks:

  • Build likely changes into your original estimate. Use your data to predict what changes are likely to occur and plan for them in advance. For example, if your projects typically take 10% longer and cost 20% more than you’ve planned, boost your estimates by 10% and 20%, respectively. If you’ve worked with a particular client before, use what happened last time to make an educated guess about what will happen this time.
  • Use a cost management tool to evaluate the cost of changes before you make them. Every design change you make will affect the final cost associated with your project.

Several vendors now offer cost management platforms that will integrate directly with your design software so you can instantly see the impact of changes on your budget.

Challenge #2: Changing design requirements

The second most commonly cited challenge was changing design requirements. Design requirements are the specifications of your process, product, or project.

In some cases, design requirements are a matter of regulatory compliance. For example, nuclear pattern plants have strict structural design requirements. However, design requirements can also change as a project advances.

You can’t always prevent design requirement changes from happening. But, as with change orders, you can keep their impact to a minimum.

  • Plan ahead. As with handling change orders, you can give yourself an advantage by planning ahead.
  • Develop a requirements management plan. The most important tool in your requirements management process is your plan. This plan should detail the exact steps every design requirements change must go through before becoming final. Make sure your entire team is aware of this plan and understands how it works.
  • Establish a system for version control. Version control in general is one of the top engineering document and data management challenges. Without a system, you can find yourself with multiple engineering teams working on different versions of a project. At the very least, you should define a naming system for version identification and store your requirements documents in a database that provides your entire team with access to the most current versions.
  • Understand how different requirements are related. A change in one requirement can often trigger changes in others or otherwise affect downstream work. By facilitating cross-team communication and collaboration, you can ensure that all new requirements are accounted for across the entire design process.

Challenge #3: Projects are understaffed

Understaffing is a persistent problem in engineering departments and a topic that arises frequently on engineering forums and blogs.

Understaffing is risky business. And it’s often a false economy because understaffed companies must often pay overtime to their employees to get a job done, or pay concessions to the customer if a job isn’t done well.

Here are a few more risks associated with understaffing engineering projects:

  • Failure to complete projects on time
  • Low design quality
  • High levels of stress and employee turnover
  • The inability to retain customers
  • A competitive disadvantage

One way engineering firms can reduce workload without hiring additional engineers is to adopt software that provides design automation. This makes the design process faster without sacrificing quality or employee happiness. As an example, check out our video on how you can go from P&ID to PLC in just 10 minutes.

Challenge #4: Increased product complexity

Complexity is increasing. This is happening in biological systems, in social systems, and definitely in engineering systems. And it’s not limited to products — engineering projects of all types are more complex than they’ve ever been, and this upward trend isn’t likely to reverse anytime soon.

There are two approaches to handling the challenge of complexity: reducing it and learning how to deal with it.

Reducing complexity

Complexity can be reduced through optimizing your design practices.

  • Reduce dependencies. In large systems, complexity is compounded by the dependencies that exist between various system components. This means if you change the attributes of one component, you disrupt many other components down the line. Some of these dependencies may be inevitable, but not all of them are.

Axiomatic design is an approach to systems design that focuses on minimizing avoidable dependencies by maintaining the independence of functional requirements. In fact, this is the Independence Axiom, which is first of two axioms on which the methodology is based.

The Design Structure Matrix is a tool you can use to identify and analyze dependencies in your system.

  • Standardize, modularize, and reuse. Standardizing your design process by using predefined templates and modules will not only reduce complexity but also save you time and money. Modular design will also help you reduce complexity by increasing the interchangeability between components and getting rid of unnecessary dependencies. Finally, implementing standard part and model libraries will simplify your process by enabling you to reuse design components across multiple projects.

Dealing with unavoidable complexity

Complexity can’t always be reduced. We live in a complex world, which requires complex processes and systems. In these cases, it’s how you deal with the complexity that counts.

  • Use checklists. If this seems like a very simplistic situation to a very complex problem, well, that’s the beauty of it. In his best-selling book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, Atul Gawande uses examples from medicine, construction, aviation, and more to show how checklists can help people — even experts — work through complex processes and arrive at the desired results.

Using a checklist may not make the actual project any simpler, but it will help you move more easily through the phases of the design process, including the change orders and requirements changes discussed earlier.

  • Facilitate communication and collaboration. In his book, Gawande quotes a structural engineer as saying “the major advance in the science of construction over the last few decades has been the perfection of tracking and communication.” The last few decades have seen improvements in materials, equipment, and technology for construction. So the fact that communication trumps all is significant.

Communication is key to the effectiveness of any team. Whether it’s via phone calls, video conferencing, or Slack, make sure that your team has the communication support they need.  

  • Use a centralized system to manage your data and documentation. As engineering projects become more complex, so do the data and documentation that go along with them. Managing these items is a major challenge, especially in multi-user environments. A platform like Engineering Base takes the pain out of engineering data and documentation management by storing all of the information related to your project in the same centralized database.

Challenge #5: Problems/errors are found too late

Finding errors too late in the game can be costly, for the project and for your firm’s reputation. Most of the strategies outlined for solving the previous challenges will also help you with this one.

For example:

  • Planning ahead and frontloading decision-making
  • Using a unified tool that encompasses all phases of the design process
  • Standardizing and modularizing
  • Facilitating communication and collaboration

But even on the most well-managed projects, mistakes still sometimes sneak in. Depending on the projects, these mistakes may be innocuous, or they can have tragic results. In either case, the trick is finding and fixing them as soon as possible.

This 2010 article in the Journal of Performance of Constructed Facilities analyzed the major causes of design errors in construction engineering. Here’s are some of the top causes they identified:

  • Loss of biorhythm. Biorhythm refers to a person’s “physical, emotional, and intellectual mental states.” The study authors note that “designers are often required to meet unrealistic schedules to complete design documentation, which can result in them being subjected to stress and experiencing fatigue. In particular, cognitive overload from excessive workload can contribute to the recurrence of errors being committed.” This is an excellent reason to focus on solving challenge #3: understaffing.
  • Adverse behavior. This factor relates to how individuals handle their own errors, which is grounded in the culture in which they work. For example, do they admit to them and work to fix them, or do they try to conceal them? Having a documented error management system that focuses on solutions rather than blame is key to ensuring the behavior of your engineers aligns with the goals of your organization as a whole.
  • Inadequate training of design consultants/competitive fees. This challenge is an interesting one. The authors suggest that the external problem is inexperienced engineers, while the root cause is a desire to keep costs down so that firms can make the most competitive bid. Like understaffing, this seems a false economy, as mistakes often cost much more than doing it right the first time.
  • Ineffective utilization of computer-aided automation. The core problem here is inconsistencies and discrepancies in design documentation. This often results from using incompatible software applications across the design process. Engineering Base solves this problem by virtue of its object-oriented architecture. In this architecture, each piece of information is represented as an object that has relationships with drawings and reports, attributes and specifications, rules, and other objects in the database.

For more information about CAD mistakes in particular, check out this article from Machine Design: 8 Common Drawing Mistakes to Avoid.

  • Inadequate quality assurance. The authors’ previous research has revealed that design firms often don’t have quality assurance systems in place and, even when they do, they don’t always perform the necessary quality audits. Again, this is a false economy — design documentation quality is related not only to the cost of the project, but also to the profitability of the design firm.

Learn more about building quality into design engineering from Quality Digest.

  • Unreasonable client and end user expectations. These problems often arise because of a failure of communication between designers and clients surrounding expectations. Spending more time upfront understanding clients’ needs and educating them about the available options can go a long way toward reducing these errors downstream.
  • Ineffective coordination and integration of the design team. The underlying issue here — a lack of communication and collaboration among stakeholders — has come up again and again. The solution is to use tools that enable coordination among all involved.

There you have it — the top 5 design challenges engineers face and some tools to start attacking them. Learn more about how Engineering Base addresses many of these challenges by providing a single platform that supports engineers throughout the entire design process.

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