How to Eliminate Digital Design Problems

A study has found that digital design needs to be supported with strong management processes. Otherwise, unintended and negative consequences could arise.

An article titled “The Problem with Digital Design” caught my eye. Three professors, Marion Tucker, Sebastian Fixson, and Marc H. Mayer have written in MIT Sloan Management Review about the contribution of digital tools to R&D effectiveness and efficiency.

The authors undertook a study from 2008 to 2011using an Internet survey and an in-depth multiple case investigation. Some 145 multinational companies participated in the survey segment. Participants from a cross section of industries, from aerospace to robotics, were interviewed.

The study report sums up the key findings:

1. Digital design tools can make the work appear complete before it actually is;
2. The use of fast and easy tools promote endless tinkering;
3. Digital design requires strong managers and well-defined management processes.

Not every aspect of the study is pertinent to the AEC industry. However, the following approaches to eliminating digital design problems are relevant:

No points for finishing first

Your biggest challenge as a manager is to keep teams from settling prematurely on detailed designs. Encourage teams to create a large variety of designs upfront and create clear processes for selecting the winning design. Show the designs to target users. Create detailed cost estimates from the more detailed designs.

Supplement the tools with process discipline

The power of digital design is truly realized when CAD is combined with communications and information management (BIM in AEC) tools and applications. The article’s authors mention Skype calls, project management and team collaboration tools, and Product Life Cycle Management software. The maintenance and storage of data also require discipline.

Ensure compatibility across the workforce and among partners

Two more challenges faced are software revisions and data commonality throughout the value chain. When firms use different versions of the same software tool, for example, some information may not transfer at all, or it could become corrupted.

Manage expectations of executives and clients

Visualizations and virtual models can improve senior management’s understanding of new concepts. Unfortunately, some executives may perceive the project as complete or close to complete when shown dazzling visualizations. Senior management needs to be educated about the difference between a photorealistic rendering and a completed design.

Training and proficiency are critical success factors

One more interesting issue to note concerns how digitally savvy but professionally less-experienced engineers behave. According to the interviews, these engineers jump straight to solving a problem digitally without fully defining and exploring the problem first. This is due to insufficient training in engineering methodology and heavy reliance on digital design tools.