Innovation and new technology insertion

Ora_Innovation-sourcesFor engineering organizations, where does innovation come from?

When we put that question to EPC firms serving the process and power industries, the most frequent answer was “our projects” and the people working directly in project execution. Forty percent of respondents said their firms’ most important source of innovation is the discovery and application of new technologies and approaches by discipline leads, engineers and managers seeking solutions to pressures and exigencies in a specific project or program.

In second place was “anywhere and everywhere”—27% said innovation at base is a function of their organizations’ culture, and thus can arise from any area in the firm.

In third place was the IT department, named as the top source of innovation by 17% of respondents. While not quite the picture painted in some CIO-oriented publications, these findings align with what our research and others’ suggests is an evolving role for the CIO’s office: to provide enabling infrastructure in support of digital technology initiatives that, more and more, originate from the project execution centers of engineering, manufacturing and construction enterprises.

Technology insertion → work process adaptation → culture change → innovation

The linkage among technology, work process, culture and innovation in engineering organizations is fundamental. Far beyond the necessity to adapt work processes to take best advantage of a new tool, insertion of the right technology in the right manner can foster and enable step-change improvement and innovation in how engineers, project teams, departments and organizations conceive, structure and execute their work.

A powerful example surfaced in our case study of how American Axle & Manufacturing (AAM) implemented Comet Solutions’ NVH Driveline SimApp—a software application that lets users set up and utilize libraries of parameterized 3D, 2D, 1D and 0D (mixed-fidelity) representations of propshafts, axles and related components to fully automate the configuration and NVH analysis of driveline systems. The result is a single environment for driveline NVH analysis that allows quick and easy evaluation of any geometry, without the manual effort of traditional approaches.

Glen Steyer, AAM’s Executive Director of Product Engineering, reports major benefits from the new tool: average 75% time reduction for each analysis iteration; approximately $130,000 in annual cost savings at a single engineering site; improved quality through globally enforced standards and practices which remove human error; ability to run many more NVH analysis iterations, leading to more design decisions, earlier; and ability to redeploy resources as less experienced engineers are now able to safely run simulations.

AAM was so impressed that it decided to deploy the NVH Driveline SimApp at its China and India engineering sites, then implement additional Comet Driveline SimApps to cover its entire CAE process including gear systems analysis and strength/stiffness calculations. Beyond the time reduction in analysis iterations, Steyer sees great strategic benefit in using Comet SimApps to make simulation experts’ knowledge more broadly available across engineering teams—as well as to help “forward-deploy” simulation to the earliest stages of product development, where it can have deep impact on innovation at the product architecture level.

Implementation: cultural and organizational considerations

Were there cultural and organizational factors to consider in adopting the new technology and work processes? “It’s exactly those cultural barriers,” Steyer observes, “that get in the way for a lot of organizations. Like many companies, we have highly knowledgeable experts in individual silos, and they take great pride in what they do and the quality of their work—rightly so. Staff like that have traditionally been rewarded or compensated for the degree to which each one gives his or her individual knowledge and capability to the organization—what each one personally contributes.”

What’s different with the new SimApp-enabled work process? “With this approach,” Steyer says, “you need to tell those experts that they are going to define these templates, in order to simplify what others can do with the analysis tools. So that will raise reservations about the ways the tools could conceivably be misused. And there is some validity to those concerns.” How to address this? “You need to implement this capability with the SimApp to capture and forward-deploy this expertise, but at the same time have processes in place for experts to monitor how the tool is being used—for keeping the experts involved to address their concern that ‘somebody’s going to take my baby and misuse it in some way.’”

Enabling systems thinking across the project team

Beyond the dramatic cycle-time reduction in analysis iterations, Steyer sees great strategic benefit in the Comet SimApps’ power to help “forward-deploy” simulation to the earliest stages of product development—and, in so doing, empower discipline experts to look beyond their own silos and work more collaboratively as a team, by gaining a system-level understanding of the project and their role in it.

“We have a lot of experts focused on simulation technology in specific areas of application—gear design, NVH, durability, etc.—and each one is very effective in his or her area,” Steyer explains. “But where they have less appreciation is the need to spend less time playing around with the tools tweaking a specific analysis, and instead find ways to put that information out there so that the broader engineering staff can spend more time innovating and creating. Traditional analysis processes spend too much time down in the mechanics of their specific disciplines, rather than innovating and creating at the product level.”

A key capability of Comet’s new SimApp, he believes, is that “by using a tool like this and forward-deploying it, you can move much more deeply into innovating product architectural dynamics up front in the design process.” In the automotive industry, for example, “it’s amazing the high level of analytical results and refinement that the customer demands at the up-front contract award stage. Because of that, suppliers have to set designs in concrete way earlier in the process—that forces us to freeze in extra manufacturing costs and other mistakes that can’t be backed out of the design later. So starting the design at a system level and doing high-level design studies early lets you get the architecture right. Then later you deep-dive in and do detailed optimization and refinement. To find that system-level architectural definition early on is very important. And when you do that, you’re dealing with a broader range of application engineers, so they need these multi-functional models available and offered up to them.”


Does AAM’s experience with Comet’s SimApp show promise for achieving this goal? Absolutely, Steyer says. “After the initial Comet pilot, I pulled together three different teams whose analyses go back and forth and support one another—gear engineering, our NVH group, and our CAE group focused on durability and bearing simulation. I got a kick out of the reaction of almost everyone in those departments, when each one looked at the work done by the other groups and said, ‘That’s more detailed than I imagined!’ The reactions back and forth—‘If you have that information at that point, I can use it over here!’—made it an eye-opening experience when all those disciplines finally had this tool that let them come together.”

Read the full case study.

A future post will explore the dynamics for engineering organizations working to insert new technology from outside their enterprise PLM provider ecosystem.