Surfing ain’t enough: Engineers have to see, touch and talk

13th August 2018
Alex Lynn

In this article Adam Fletcher, Chairman of the Electronic Components Supply Network (ecsn) acknowledges the importance of the engineering team and explains why letting engineers out of the office or lab occasionally might well assist in the development process.

New product ideas and incremental innovations that resolve a particular problem don’t just happen. They are almost always the result of a mix of knowledge and experience plus a touch of good fortune. But ideas must evolve, often with subtle inputs from wider experience and be thought through with great care before the focused effort of an engineering team diligently apply their particular areas of expertise to migrate an idea into a product.

Today all organisations are finding themselves resource constrained to one degree or another and it’s not unusual for engineering departments to be expected to achieve more with less. Design engineers are under relentless pressure to perform a wider variety of tasks quickly and accurately, be it a new design, updating an existing product, firefighting a production issue or resolving a silly problem with their department’s computer network.

The arrival of the internet has provided design engineers with the means to quickly access vast amounts of information about their industry, the market and competing products, together with a plethora of other less than productive time-sapping activities. At the electronic components level manufacturers and their authorised distributors have invested heavily in streamlining the way engineers are able to find useful information about available products and make it quick and easy to order samples or small quantities for next day delivery. 

They’ve made enormous investments in wonderful parametric search engines on their websites but currently these ‘engines’ are only able to provide information based on what is asked of them. Engineers have to know the right questions (search criteria) to input in order to have any hope of getting the information they need. It’s not difficult to find every available switch with a ‘red toggle’ but it’s much harder to accurately source comparative electrical and reliability performance, size details and prices. 

Engineers are also reliant on the provider to include this level of information and detail in their web pages and it’s costly both in terms of time and effort if they have to source the missing important information elsewhere. 

UK lagging behind?

It’s very concerning that the level of time pressure on design engineers employed by UK companies appears to be greater than in other economies and therefore their ability to engage outside of their office or laboratory is severely constrained. This may be a result of management practice, particularly in small medium sized enterprises (SMEs) where the physical presence and availability of a particular staff member is rated as highly desirable. But over-zealously restricting the movements of their engineers may result in these UK organisations risking future gains in their competitive advantage. 

Design engineers at comparable organisations in for instance, Germany and California are under the same pressures as their UK colleagues but in my observation their organisations make much greater investment in enabling them to visit with their customers and suppliers and in attending trade exhibitions and seminars. And that’s a great shame because even in a highly pressurised business environment such as ours people need to see, touch and talk, all activities that form a fundamental part of human nature. Whilst the web is undoubtedly a great source of information for design engineers they gain real knowledge by holding a product, examining it, possibly attending an informative presentation and by asking questions. No surprise then that at trade shows or seminars, displays (be they cars, components or even software) are almost always arranged to enable attendees to handle and examine the offering and easily interact or engage with the knowledgeable people manning the Stand. 

What questions these folks can’t instantly answer will surely be provided by their office within a very short time-frame. Engineers are then able to apply the knowledge gained appropriately to solve a current or future problem or equally valuable, dismiss it from their deliberations. It’s often this generally wider vision and in particular, the boost to ‘peripheral knowledge’ that leads to a ‘light bulb moment’ for new product ideas and innovation.

Electronics trade exhibitions and seminars

There is a wide recognition in Europe (sadly not apparently including the UK) that exposure to other organisations and environments enables design engineers to gain a better understanding of the real world needs of their customers, about availability of new products and importantly, generally increasing their ‘wider vision and knowledge’. 

The last Electronica Trade Fair held in Munich, Germany welcomed 2,900 exhibitors and over 72,000 trade visitors in four days, of which more than 40% described themselves as design engineers. But the UK can also boast of excellent electronics trade exhibitions and associated seminars. For instance, the next few months will see WNIE LIVE in Birmingham; the Electronics Design Show in Coventry and Southern Manufacturing Show in Farnborough. I encourage engineering managers or SME leaders to motivate their design engineers by encouraging them to get out of the office and visit at least one of these trade shows, attend a technical seminar and importantly, arrange on-site visits with their customers’ engineering teams. 

A little planning and ‘white space’ will feed the curiosity and interest necessary for engineers to find new or unplanned outcomes and might well enable specific objectives to be achieved. The cost of these out-of-office activities is negligible and the positive potential upside outcome for a business and its people from ‘Not Just Surfing – Seeing Touching and Talking’ could well be enormous.

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