Emily Plumb
Mechanical Engineer Tech Lead

The ME Team Goes Virtual: 4 Ways We’ve Tackled the Challenge of Making Things in a Virtual World

Earlier this year, our Vice President of Engineering in San Francisco, Ann Torres, had a great virtual discussion with Fictiv and Cooper Perkins on How to Build a Physical Product in the Virtual New World. I want to get specific about how our mechanical engineering department tackled these challenges and came up with unique solutions that will outlast the Stay At Home Order. 

Before mid-March, there were very few physical barriers to doing my job and collaborating with my peers. COVID-19 and Washington’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order upended all of that. As we all moved our work into our homes, the tools and methods of collaboration we took for granted had to drastically change if we were going to keep our projects on schedule. 

We were lucky that Synapse already had some great remote tools in place: VPNs to access all internal Synapse content, SolidWorks servers, and the now-ubiquitous Zoom, among others. But the ME group still needed to reimagine the tools specific to designing and building products.

As I reflect on the past six months of remote work, I can tell which of these new tools and methods are merely here to get us through this phase, and which tools have proved powerful enough to become new Synapse standards. 

Here are four tools or methods that our group has developed over the last few months. Each one addresses a different stage of product maturity. Not every tool is the peak of innovation, but we’ve learned that the simplest solution is sometimes the best way to keep teams moving, collaborating, and having fun.

1) Prototyping Physical Parts

Creating physical prototypes and de-risking subsystem components are incredibly important steps in early-stage product development. As Ann said aptly in her talk, “You don’t want to theorize away your best ideas; especially as MEs, you want to quickly test early ideas, hands on.” 

With the Synapse machine shop unavailable, we had to get  creative about proving physical concepts and building prototypes. While there are some team members who have a fully stocked machine shop in their garage, many of us are not so lucky. I, for one, live in an 850 square foot apartment. However, we were able to use a prototyping solution that fits even in the coziest of studio apartments: desktop 3D printers. We purchased a few more printers, sanitized between use, and redistributed amongst the team as needed, giving individual MEs the ability to quickly evaluate early concepts.

We also leveraged the capabilities, speed, and availability of our 3rd party rapid prototyping sources. This is particularly helpful when multiple people need to evaluate a part: the vendor builds multiple units and ships to the team from a single source, giving us a quick and cost-effective way to collaborate. Before going completely remote, engaging third party vendors was a normal cost/time/effort tradeoff we had to consider, but we find ourselves turning to these vendors more frequently than before due to limited options.

2) Virtual Redline Drawings

Before parts go out for quote or mold fabrication begins, we hold a detailed drawing review. Traditional paper, pen, and highlighter have always been our redlining standard: multiple reviewers in a room go over the drawings and iterate, resulting in a giant stack of redlines as a trophy for the designer. 

How can we replicate this at home? Who has a printer or sufficient space to stack lots of paper? What is the easiest way to share drawings after review and iterate?

We could have purchased an online tool, or upgraded earlier to SW 2019, but we wanted to leverage our current tools instead of paying for another subscription. We didn’t know if we’d be using this tool for a few weeks or several months, but we knew we needed a quick solution. 

We developed an online, collaborative powerpoint template that captures each drawing sheet and marks drawings up the same way we would in person. We can annotate drawings with comments, see responses in real time, archive drafts and quickly iterate. This tool is very simple, but it swiftly met the needs of our mechanical engineers. 

Another benefit is the ease of collaboration with our San Francisco, Boston, UK offices. We’re able to rope in experts from different branches of our organization easily and maximize the benefit for the client.

In addition to making drawing reviews easy, collaborative and incredibly fast, we added some fun by creating personalized approval stamps—Microsoft’s Galaxy color has been a particular favorite.

On a recent project, 9 MEs generated and reviewed 141 drawings for an Alpha build using this method!

3) Unboxing and Inspecting Molded Parts

Victory! The molded parts are finished, shipped and there are three people on the team who need to to evaluate the parts. There are also some post-process steps that need to be done before the first ME assemblies can be reviewed. Traditionally, the fun unboxing and careful review of parts with the team happens at this point—one of my favorite parts of being a mechanical engineer. But since we can’t all crowd around the parts together in the lab, we devised an approach that mostly recreates the experience and keeps the unboxing as fun as possible:

  1. All parts ship to one, centralized location: a lucky teammate’s house!
  2. This teammate does the assemblies either at their home shop or, on a very limited basis, in the Synapse shop. 
  3. Don’t forget to sanitize every part you touch!
  4. Teammate packages components into separate sets of assemblies. 
  5. Teammate drops off assemblies on a porch or ships directly to other teammates.
  6. Virtually unbox together over a conference call! We’ve also reviewed individually, then shared the biggest wins and fails of the parts. A recent unboxing my team inspired comments such as: “Glass-filled was the way to go!” “Agreed. The parts almost look pearlescent. And the strength is welcome.”
  7. Document! Take pictures as you unbox, record the excitement. Share these with the broader team and savor those initial wow moments later.

Unboxing has always been a challenge with cross-site projects, even if just one ME is separated from the rest of the team. But now we’ve all gotten a taste for remote work—we’re all the remote ME! This new virtual method of unboxing has helped us figure out how to keep this part of the work fun and connected, and I know we’ll continue to use this method in the future.

4) System Tests

We may not be able to access our labs, but testing doesn’t stop! Some lower priority items have been put on hold or delayed, but many critical system components need to keep running. 

What happens next? The lab comes home! Here are a few examples from current projects:

  • A button tester requiring 30 Million + cycles came home with one engineer. The pneumatics and air compressor located in the basement create a sweet white noise upstairs.
Button Tester
  • Another project required a system proof of concept to dispense precision amounts of water. This system took up the entire hallway of a small San Francisco apartment. Luckily, the system came with tech support: a FW engineer on speed dial and an ME teammate ready to consult on structural support.
System Proof of Concept in a San Francisco Apartment
  • For those sharing apartments with other people, sometimes the only available space is right in your bedroom. One ME went wild in soundproofing a motor tester with thick insulation foam, which also helped drown out the whir of the motor on client calls.

When offices reopen, I suspect that dedicated lab and testing space will replace the at home lab setups. On the other hand, I expect that creative fixture design and sound proofing awareness  will have lasting effects. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see a trend of purchasing white noise machines once engineers are back in the office to replace the steady hum of the missing fixtures.

The New Standard Work Model

Seattle and San Francisco we will remain remote for the foreseeable future. Ultimately, I expect the new standard work model to land somewhere between entirely in office and entirely remote work. Many of my colleagues have enjoyed increased productivity from not having to commute, in some cases saving hours of time (and sanity). 

Still, many of us crave the interactions with our colleagues that we used to take for granted: casually touching base, sharing ideas, and having chance encounters with colleagues. In the future, this will be balanced with days where we can simply dive into CAD and analysis from the commute-free comfort of our homes. Nothing will replace the sheer delight of getting to sit next to your peers digging through CAD or evaluating the first shots of molded parts together, but when we have to keep projects moving, we get creative and expand our capabilities. I don’t know where we’ll land, but I know that many of the new tools and methods we have successfully implemented on our team will continue to support our ongoing success.

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