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COVID-19 Three Areas of Focus to Engineer and Design Remotely in Crisis

An immediate shift to a remote work status can be a significant strain on any design team. In an emergency situation, confusion is likely already in the air and typical procedure and protocol is out the window.  Quick, concise decisions need to be made by your leadership team to bring everyone back on the right track so that productivity can resume.  Success will require more than simply sending employees home with files and laptops in hand.  We have found that three major areas of focus need to be addressed in order to adequately get your bases covered for moving forward.

Communication is the obvious first area of focus.  Anyone not already using an inner office communication tool such as Slack or Microsoft Teams may want to quickly put one into place.  Documentation of new procedure is important for employees to be able to quickly refer.  Now is not the time for employees to be saying “I didn’t get the memo!”  Setting up a crisis specific channel will allow conversations to occur and questions to get asked without burdening already full inboxes.

My suggestion for those not already using a tool is Slack.  It has a very quick interface that gets you up and running in as long as it takes to import email addresses for your team.  It has a free option that is quite adequate for most companies especially if this is an interim tool for communication during a crisis.

Microsoft Teams is our current new inner office communication tool and we like it very much,  especially the easy video conferencing option (that’s a perk for paid tiers of Slack).  There are others however my experience lies with these two.  Slack being the quickest and most intuitive.

 

File Management is probably the most critical area of focus particularly in the engineering and design sector.  As any engineering or design firm knows working with complex assemblies and multiple parts in a CAD program can require lots of loading time and strain less than optimal wifi connections.  Additionally making changes to a part can have a domino effect on all other parts and assemblies making it tough to collaborate on a design without having close proximity to other teammates and knowledge of who’s doing what.  For this reason many firms have product data management systems (PDM) already in place.

Windchill, Solidworks PDM, Ennovia, or Team Center…anyone having these systems are already in a great position.  Leverage this and make sure your team is using it appropriately.  For those managers who already are loathing the potential wifi connection issues for home use remember that most PDMs are built for offline use.  Check your drawings out via internet connection and disconnect.  Do the work, log back on and check them back in.  It’s a feature that often gets forgotten when working in your office with a lightning speed connection.

For those of you without a PDM: Dropbox, and setting up a VPN to your current server are both decent options.  Be warned, they are manual, and everyone must be on their toes to ensure files aren’t overwritten or edited simultaneously.  This is where those channels in Slack or your inner office communication tool of choice come back into play.  Set up channels for individual projects and document and communicate who is working on what so as not to override each other and do unnecessary work.

Anyone wanting to set up a free PDM system, GrabCAD has worked for us on smaller projects with significant success.

 

And finally we come to Planning.  Likely your organization is already using some type of planning software for engineering design projects.  There are a myriad of options out there, Microsoft Project, MS Excel, Email Etc… In a crisis or purely at home work environment we find the best option are web based planning tools the entire team can see simultaneously.  In these programs, tasks and progress can be real time, which ensures your team is focused on the correct tasks, and you can communicate to the shareholders appropriately.

In the event you are without any planning software accessible to your entire team here are 2 options (out of many), in ease of set-up:

Wrike, a great tool for planning tasks for your team with a Gantt chart and tracking hours per task.  It’s quite easy to setup and has a great feature where you can email someone and put the task in the subject line, and they are immediately assigned the task.

And Trello.  This one is great if Gantt charts aren’t your language.  It is a great tool for using Kanban, a Japanese method of handling tasks per projecthe key is to grouping them on multiple boards as Done, Current Sprint, In Progress and On Hold.  This way the team sees the progress as the tasks move from board to board.

Make no mistake that a company shift to a home work environment will not be without its hiccups.  It will require hopefully several hours to a few work days to get everyone moving in the right direction.  Adopting some of these tools and practices however will allow your firm in the future to be able to switch to mobile work mode much quicker.  While it isn’t for everyone you may realize that productivity increases, communication becomes clearer and organization is improved allowing home work giving you some significant insight into your workforce.  And at a minimum learning something new out of a major emergency is something we can be thankful for.

 

About the Author:  Willem Mast is the owner and operator of WMD Squared.  He loves mechanical design of all types, optimizing engineering systems, and bicycles.