How Agile Methods Work in Mechanical Engineering

Agile engineering makes us think of Elon Musk and his remarkably fast production flow of extreme engineering products - self-driving cars and spaceships. But whether you’re producing space rockets, gearboxes, or household appliances - in a highly competitive market, it's important to be fast. With the evolution of software technologies and changing market demands, the conventional approach to product development in mechanical engineering can be slow. Upon market readiness, the product can be obsolete because the technology is outdated or the features don’t meet the market’s rapidly changing demands. Elon Musk is famously agile. “SpaceX is an Agile company. That is one reason why they can do things faster, cheaper, and better,” writes agile consultant Cliff Berg. Below, we explain how agile is here to stay and why all engineering teams need to get on board this rocket ship - launching in 3, 2, 1.

What Is Agile Anyway?

Agile project management is an iterative approach to managing product development that focuses on continuous releases and incorporating customer feedback with every iteration. The concept of agile dates back to the beginning of the century when a group created the Agile Manifesto. The common frustration was that software companies focused on excessively planning and documenting their development cycles that they lost sight of what really mattered - pleasing their customers. Since then, agile methods have soared in popularity as a project management method - within and beyond software industries.

The Benefits of Agile Project Management

Teams that embrace agile project management increase their development speed, expand collaboration, and foster the ability to better respond to market trends. Testaments to agile methods across industries are extensively documented by McKinsey & Co., the Harvard Business Review, and Boston Consulting Group, among others. An international BCG study showed that agile companies are up to five times more likely to reach above-average margins and grow faster than the competition, a German press release reports. With agile, teams quickly iterate, test, and gather feedback on product design. It divides big challenges into measurable chunks of work and promises more accurate and faster product development cycles. Teams are self-managed and often work in short two-week cycles driven by user feedback. This feedback guides them to build a product that meets market demands.

Agile Method
An example of a product development process based on agile

Higher Efficiency and Minimized Risks with Agile Engineering

Elon Musk says that “agile engineering acknowledges that it’s extremely difficult to foresee all risks in complex systems, and that time is better spent learning through iterations of yet unperfect parts than on long upfront planning”. By applying agile methods, like fast iteration cycles, Tesla can stay way ahead of its competitors.

The major benefits of agile engineering are:

  • higher efficiency and productivity
  • minimized risks of product failure
  • minimized risk of not meeting the market demand

The Importance of Software in Agile

For most industries, including engineering, software solutions are crucial for the agile method to work. Being agile means dividing a complex project into several sub-projects. Instead of prototyping and delivering a final product in months or years, the development team can iterate faster and deliver smaller components more frequently. Between each iteration cycle, the development team is in contact with the customer to define what needs to adopt. This ‘agility’ allows the designer to react quickly to deviations. This iterative process works best with modern and collaborative software. A software-based agile method enables engineers to shorten their development cycle and improve their time-to-market. Engineers can develop reliable products much faster with computer-aided engineering software than with traditional methods like experiments and prototype development.

Simulation Software is a Solution

One success story on how agile meets mechanical engineering comes from the car manufacturer WikiSpeed. Its founder, and agile expert, Joe Justice, explains how they replaced manual testing with simulation software:

We started with manual testing - but that was slow, inconsistent, and expensive. What the modern software teams do to be faster than manual testing: automate the testing! We made simulations of the crash tests, and we iterated the simulations until they were within 1% accuracy of the physical tests. In the USA now, we’re no longer required to physically crash-test cars. The simulations are so accurate and take around 3 min.

Agile has come a long way since its foundation two decades ago. By combining agile with the right software, engineering companies will be able to do what Elon Musk and others are doing - increase development speed and respond better to changing market demands.

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