In the past several months, I have been making the (more or less) smooth transition between my previous career as an engineering manager in the aerospace sector and my new role in the material handling industry with Bastian. While originally it was somewhat scary to move from one industry to another, I was pleased to discover the many connections between my previous career and my new one.
When it comes to a technical project, whether we develop a satellite or a material handling system, the basic fundamentals for success are the same. For instance, a large technical project will always involve multiple people during the development cycle, which makes optimizing project management a critical factor for success. Here is what NASA has to say about project management optimization; in summary, they state that project management optimization focuses on both human interfaces (as a group and individually) and technical aspects, such as knowledge and engineering processes.
Different industries utilize different processes and different amounts of them. For instance, aerospace engineering is known for its prolific use of processes during the project life cycle, and their implementation is fundamental for project success. These processes are oftentimes heavy in terms of resource utilization mainly because projects in this industry tend to be very long-term, strategic, and high risk.
Before I continue we should look at what it is meant by an engineering process:
“(…) act of taking something through an established and usually routine set of procedures to convert it from one form to another”
For instance, transforming customer needs into project requirements can be (should be) a process.
A project team or business unit within any industry will always have a set of processes that ensure to a certain degree that the work is being done with minimal error, within budget, and following specific regulations. Some of the processes used by aerospace engineering teams are:
- Systems Engineering
- Integrated Requirements Management
- Risk Management
- Cost Management
- Acquisition Management
- Safety and Mission Assurance
However, some of these processes are also very useful for material handling projects, particularly the complex projects that involve large teams. In these instances, processes help to minimize the overall risk of an enterprise (error = cost).
Despite the fact that all processes are important, different individuals in each team will inevitably value one process more than another. A CFO or business unit manager will most likely lean toward cost management; a quality assurance engineer toward safety; etc…
I am personally very influenced from my previous career as an engineering manager in scientific and military satellites, and therefore tend to favor two processes, both of which ensure (when fulfilled correctly) smooth technical project executions:
- Systems Engineering
- Integrated Requirements Definition Management
Systems engineering is not a process in itself, but a family of processes. Wikipedia’s definition of the role is:
[. . .] an interdisciplinary field of engineering that focuses on how complex engineering projects should be designed and managed over the life cycle of the project.
If a project is not too large, this role can be performed directly by the project manager; however, for large, complex projects it is typically better to designate an individual whose sole duty is to manage all of the technical aspects of the project.
Typical bodies of knowledge required for a systems engineer will depend on the industry. In material handling, I would expect expertise in:
- Electrical engineering
- Communications buses
Although each project is unique and will involve diverse technical knowledge (take for example Britt Calloway’s blog entry), the purpose of the system engineer is not to be a guru of all areas of knowledge but to have a broad understanding on technologies involved in each specific project.
The benefits earned by having a designated systems engineer in a project are many. The most noteworthy include requirements gathering, requirement housekeeping, and interface controls between the parts of the system. Ultimately, a system engineer should garner higher satisfaction from the client at lower development/integration costs.
Integrated Requirements Management
Integrated requirements management is a process which focuses on analyzing and eliciting customer needs and required system functionality early in the development cycle of the project and then documenting those requirements. In large projects, this role is sometimes carried by the systems engineer, or another requirement owner; although, for smaller projects it can be performed by individual field sales engineers.
A well-executed requirement definition phase allows the client to understand what will be performed, helps the project team know what to do, and most importantly, works as a road map for project verification. Ideally, each and every requirement has to be measurable, achievable, verifiable, unique, and unambiguous.
For example, a requirement should not just read:
- The system will convey 40 cartons per minute
Instead it should be absolutely unambiguous, reading something like:
- The system shall convey only boxes that are 16″ wide x 16″ long x 10″ tall
- Each box shall be 2″ apart from the previous and 2″ apart from the next
- The system shall convey 40 cartons per minute
Or perhaps, much simpler, and only in the case that this is what the client really meant:
- The system shall convey at 60 feet per minute
Confirm with your client and establish the requirements as soon as possible. Make them simple and factual, and most importantly, verifiable. You should be able to appropriately verify every requirement by means of numeric, analytic, or observational evaluations: A (analysis), T (test), D (design verification), or I (inspection).
Ideally, during the verification process, and right before handing the system to your client, you will be able to walk him or her through every, single requirement verification, proving the work was satisfactorily performed.
This process requires a lot of attention, time, and effort; however, if the project is large or complex enough, investing resources in this task will prove incredibly efficient! Particularly in R&D projects, where this process will allow greatly minimized design margins and redundancies, therefore reducing the cost of the final product.
Remember, most errors in a project are done during the first 20% of its life cycle, and the cost impact of not identifying those discrepancies on time grows exponentially as the deadline approaches.
I have been lucky in having a multidisciplinary career that allows me to bring to my projects careful and measured engineering processes like the ones described above. Is there an engineering process that you have found to work very efficiently in the past? Would you like to learn more about systems engineering or requirement gathering techniques or tools? Feel free to comment!