Balancing creativity and pragmatism with product line engineering

Marketing Manager, Continuous Engineering in IoT, IBM

Face it, engineers can be a curious bunch, and that characteristic can be problematic when personal idiosyncrasies migrate into engineering processes. On the one hand, engineers like to be creative. After all, the process of design combines existing things in ways that ultimately create new things. We often equate the popular term innovation with this creative aspect of engineering. Companies that best support innovation are likely those that solve problems in new and better ways than were used previously, giving those companies preference in the marketplace, leading to higher revenues and…you know the story.

On the other hand, engineers are pragmatic, often acknowledging that reusing something that is known to work is easier than creating it from scratch. I’m not a hoarder, but I have to admit that I keep lots of stuff around in my garage just in case I can use it again. My wife thinks I’m nuts, but that’s just part of the engineer in me.

A question of balance’s nothing inherently right or wrong about either of these characteristics—as long as they stay in balance. To understand this equilibrium, consider the engineering process. After a certain point, creativity can run amok when engineers forge ahead to create a new design where an existing design could be easily modified to suit the task. And forging ahead is a temptation for someone in complete control of a new design, and not dependent on anyone else’s previous decisions. Moreover, in many organizations, unfortunately, creating something from scratch may be simpler and quicker than finding all the support engineering data for an existing design. But problems arise when the number of similar designs starts becoming overwhelming, with each design having no history or any relationship to other designs.

But reusing designs brings pitfalls as well. The easiest way to reuse is to start with a design that is known to work, then to copy it and start tweaking it. This process works fine until the need for change arises. A change made to one copy should ideally be made to the other—assuming that you can find the other copy and that you know that the change will work with that version of the design. Accordingly, when the number of designs increases linearly, the scope of this challenge increases exponentially.

So where’s the balance? Not surprisingly, the key to achieving balance requires both creativity and pragmatism—fortunately, engineers have both. Creativity is required for thinking ahead about what aspects of designs could be common to many product variations, as well as what aspects might be variable among them. This challenge is nontrivial and involves not only pure design decisions, but also business decisions about what product features will best and most economically meet the needs of multiple markets.

A measure of pragmatism

But pragmatism is also required for adherence to earlier creative decisions. Linkages between related designs must be maintained, and changes need to be applied to the right variations. And design simulation and testing—as well as all the other aspects of good engineering design—must use the right design data to ensure product safety, quality and efficiency in the engineering process.

Fortunately, this balance is easily achieved through product line engineering (PLE), a way of specifying the commonality and variation within the designs that make up multiple product lines. PLE automates much of the relationship management required by the pragmatic aspect of engineering. It frees engineers to use their creative side not to create redundant designs, but to also come up with products for their companies to make money on the outside and to engineer those products cost-effectively on the inside.

To learn more about PLE, download a complimentary PLE e-book that explains how PLE helps organizations balance creativity and pragmatism to maximize profitability.