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Why are hardware development engineers losing time?

In our series of articles about the hardware development industry, we’ve touched on the problems plaguing engineers across companies. The biggest of these problems is wasted time. Hardware teams feel that non-engineering tasks like managing product data, resolving IT issues, and communicating with colleagues eat too much time that should be spent designing. 

In a 2021 study on hardware product development teams, Onshape found that reducing time not spent on design tasks was the most immediate concern for companies. As seen in the graph below, engineers perceived this engineering time to be lost when attempting to locate and access correct design data, attending unnecessary meetings, dealing with data loss, and maintaining technology. 

Source: Onshape

Over 80% of hardware development teams participating in the study saw high importance in reducing time spent locating and accessing correct design data. That’s a shockingly high number in an industry that relies so heavily on precise measurements and cross-functional engineering collaboration! This shows that engineering teams face troubles with version control, document control, and enabling efficient workflows. 

The access and location of design data has much to do with Product Data Management (PDM) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems, which engineers often find themselves in a love-hate relationship with. While traditional PDM and PLM systems offer their users a host of useful capabilities, they’re often clunky and difficult to use. 

For example, on-premise PDM and PLM systems only allow design files to be checked out by a single engineer at a time. This means that a file must be checked back in before another engineer can access it, siloing information and slowing down hardware development. This process ensures a single source of truth and prevents version control errors, but it definitely comes with the cost of time. And engineers recognize that, with 63% of participants stating dissatisfaction with how user-friendly their PDM/PLM systems are, ~49% finding their system to delay their design process, and 45% saw their systems as a problem.

Source: Onshape

But problems with traditional, on-premise PDM/PLM systems that lead to wasted time locating and accessing design data are not the only issue on engineers’ minds. 73% of hardware development teams also identified the need to reduce time spent in unproductive meetings. Unlike earlier, this statistic isn’t so surprising—it’s no secret that meetings are the bane of many workers’ existences. It is interesting to note, however, that problems with the access and locating of design data were more slightly more prioritized than unproductive meetings. 

This is likely due to the fact that unproductive meetings can be reduced with improvements to processes surrounding design data access and location. In particular, cloud-based PDM and PLM systems can provide engineers with reliable version control that allows constant access to important design data. In turn, team members can easily and quickly locate and access the information they need, making communication in meetings more effective. The number of meetings needed could even be reduced, since everyone can get the information they need instantly instead of relying on other team members. 

Why is this a problem? 

It’s clear that engineering teams see the scale of time spent on non-engineering tasks to be an area of improvement. We’ve explored the causes and solutions to this dilemma, but why exactly are hardware development teams so focused on the concept of time?

It all boils down to the phrase “time is money,” which is spot-on in hardware development. The industry is all about coming up with innovative products as quickly as possible. With fierce competition, hardware teams are focused on pushing out improvements and original products to an eager (if often impatient) market. As the Harvard Business Review clearly explains, “Product-development work is highly perishable: Assumptions about technologies and the market can quickly become obsolete. The slower a project progresses, the greater the likelihood it will have to be redirected.” When hardware teams take longer to bring a new product to market, it becomes more likely that a competitor catches up to them or even passes them. 

Additionally, hardware iteration is already a long, long process that involves multiple different stages (design review, EVT, DVT, PVT, and much more!). The graphic below shows the ideal iterative process in hardware development, and even without any complications, the timeline is many times longer than one in software engineering. 

Source: Instrumental

As such, time is of the essence for hardware development teams. Instrumental clearly explains how the effect of a delay is compounded as teams move through each stage: “When even a single part is delayed, the testing, learning and redesign of every component can be delayed, too. In many cases, this leads to overall schedule slip, which has a chain reaction to future part manufacturing, product assembly, and even shipment to customers.” We’ve similarly explored how design delays wreak havoc on design cycles, schedules, brand reputation, and budgets. 

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