Engineering Engagement Patterns and Human Inertia

Frugal engineering is the ability of the engineer to innovate quickly and to the point at low cost, under tied schedules, and financial resource constraints. At this point, I will examine what are the tools and techniques for implementing a frugal engineering strategy.
Several profound economic and engineering changes account for the rise of frugal engineering. At first, let us consider that the advanced economies have begun entering an age of austerity in which the notion of frugal living, consuming and low budgeting is becoming mainstream. According to Thomas Pikketty, a French economist, predicts that income inequality in developed economies will widen in the coming decades, as long-term annual growth rates will remain stuck below 2%. With inflation outpacing people’s incomes, there is a substantial percentage of approximately 75% of US adults now believe their children will be financially worse off than them in the future. Thus, from New York to Paris to Tokyo consumers now view frugality to increase not decrease their quality of life. In parallel, the advancement of various engineering and computational applications and tools provide additional flexibility to project engineers which have a positive impact with regards to the use of fewer resources, early identification of contractual gray areas regarding the deliverables, immediate communication independently of geographical latitudes and longitudes, implementation of further accurate prerequisites for achieving successful monitoring and auditing of the engineering issues and team members in order to meet deliverables. Thus, to produce cost effective and sustainable engineering products and services, companies must develop a faster, better, and cheaper engineering systems. The intensity of frugal engineering within a frugal economic environment can be measured in terms of the following simple formula:

This requires companies and project engineers simultaneously to maximize value for all the identified project stakeholders while minimizing the use of resources. Frugal engineering initiatives are not altruistic but simply common sense. Frugal engineering innovation is not a management technique like Six Sigma and total quality management (TQM), which aim to reduce cost and waste. Rather, cost efficiency is a means to achieve the larger goal of greater client and project value. Client and project value mean that project engineers strive to create engineering products and services that score high on three attributes that are increased valued by Western clients: affordability, quality, and sustainability. A high-quality engineering product is generally expensive and not always sustainable. Rather than seeking a trade-off or dealing with each of the three attributes independently, frugal engineering seeks to integrate them. For example, over 70% of a product’s life-cycle costs and environmental footprint is determined during its design phase. Hence, rather than tackling quality and sustainability later in the manufacturing or distribution process, when doing so becomes more costly, frugal engineering factors in these aspects earlier in the R&D phase. For example, when Renault developed its $6,000 Logan car, its R&D team incorporated elegant design, reliability, safety, comfort, and fuel efficiency early in the development phase. The result was a best-selling attractive, dependable, energy-efficient, and affordable vehicle. Frugal engineering practices can coexist with, and even enhance, high-end brands. For example, Fujitsu, a Japanese technology conglomerate, has applied frugal economics and engineering in its manufacturing processes to build one of the world’s most advanced supercomputers. This also differentiates frugal engineering from low-cost innovation – an approach that enables a company to develop and market engineering products and services of average quality at low prices. Frugal engineering yields products that are not necessarily cheap or of the highest quality. Rather, they are well-designed, good quality products that are developed cost effectively and sold at affordable prices to deliver best client and project value.

Every project engineer is ought to perform sophisticated engagement and iteration on issues such as: time consuming and inflexible engineering, adaptation to unexpected changes and new requirements by the client, seek cheaper and yet good-enough solutions, involve customers from the outset, make use of big data analytics, improve execution agility, align engineering strategy with contract strategy, break out of silos and reduce bureaucracy, integrate technical and business design, and create global engineering networks while seek inspiration from start-ups. 
Time consuming and inflexible engineering. One of the major problems in engineering projects is time consuming and inflexible engineering. This is because of linear and sequential engineering processes that fail to collaborate across business functions. Unfortunately, the longer a company takes to complete an engineering project or to develop a new product, the more money it wastes. Furthermore, inflexible processes are unable to accommodate changing customer requirements, further undermining the value of the agreed deliverable or new product. For example, the InnoCar project and the development of a chip for the automobile of the future lost the contract because its engineering department took too long to develop the agreed system. As it was several months late and millions over budget, the project was cancelled.

Today, the engineering teams and their rigid, time-consuming design and development processes, are ill equipped to deal with the unexpected. Thus, engineering teams face daily challenges with regards to the adaptation of unexpected changes and new requirements by the client. But by undertaking a dynamic portfolio of engineering management techniques (e.g. application of the Kanban board system) and agile design processes, they can reprioritize projects and reallocate resources frequently, and therefore better anticipate and respond to project changes. With faster innovation and improvisation, a new nimble approach will also help companies to constantly improve existing solutions as well as develop new solutions.

Engineering teams too often reinvent the wheel and end up with over engineered products, at great cost to the company, that are too complex for the clients. Yet, clients are more likely to be impressed by products that solve their problems than by mere technological prowess. Engineering should be guided first and foremost by client insight and produce easy-to-use offerings that may lack bells and whistles but are good enough, especially if they come at a lower price. Moreover, the good enough approach will be simpler and cheaper for companies too. To achieve such transition companies will need to reorganize their entire innovation process at both the front end (where the market opportunities are identified and products are conceived, funded and tested), and the back end, where promising ideas are developed and tested in the market. According to 2013 research by Booz & Company, the developed world’s largest R&D spenders tend to underinvest in the front end, and spend too much time, effort and money on the more structured, measurable back end of the innovation process. As a result, big companies have become highly efficient at executing the wrong ideas faster, better, and cheaper, and launching products that customers neither want nor to need. Thus, to seek cheaper and yet good-enough solutions companies must first recognize the strategic nature of the front end of their innovation process and actively engaging clients at the front end of innovation.  

Through the Internet of things and mobile phones (identifiers for different physical objects) allow researchers to collect large amounts of detailed physical data to predict client and project needs and respond with tailored solutions. This approach is called predictive analytics, has power in engineering and industrial contexts. Predictive analytics can also assist service companies in anticipating and mitigating risks.

Engineering teams must be capable to apply both the pursuit of efficiency and the quest for greater flexibility. Project engineers can achieve greater back-end agility in several ways.  Through the utilization of dynamic management tools (e.g. Kanban Board system, A_SEDM4 platform) can be achieved better allocation of resources, reshuffle priorities with regards to upcoming issues and potential engineering applications, while being able to implement world class KPI at individual and team level. Engineering teams should consider the adaptation of just-in-time design. This starts with a good enough engineering product and incrementally adds new features based on client feedback in a just-in-time fashion. Approaches such as agile development methodology and lean start-up, which teach companies how to fail fast, fail early, and fail cheaply, can enable such just-in-time design in large companies with big engineering teams.

Engineering delays and cost escalation in innovation projects often occur because engineering teams design products without considering supply chain capabilities. As a result, new products are often designed using components that are hard to find, too costly, or too complex to manufacture and maintain. These supply chain realities then send engineering teams back to the drawing board to redesign the original product, But by using supply chain visibility tools that reveal important procurement and manufacturing and maintenance requirements, engineering teams can design products that can be brought to market faster, better and cheaper, and serviced cost-effectively.