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Two Heads Are Better Than One: The Magic Behind Collaborative Teams and A Design-Charrette Approach to Engineering

November 14, 2018

By John Gunst, Division Manager
Food & Beverage and Facilities, POWER Engineers, Inc.

By gathering subject matter experts who represent all aspects of a project into a room together, you can create space for dynamic conversation and brainstorming. This “design charrette” approach allows teams to discuss complex ideas and align design intent from the earliest phases of a project. It immediately sets a collaborative tone.

Design charrettes are all about collaboration
In its simplest sense, stripped of the complexities that we think of when we envision a line, a production system, is exactly that: a system. All the pieces must work together seamlessly. In the world of systems and machines, if you want things to work with each other well, you need to design them to do so. Seems simple enough. So, why is it that some systems don’t work together as they should? One common reason is that multiple teams are tasked with working on the same system; but often not at the same time, or even together.

As a packaging engineer, I have often been stymied by a client that wanted to use their local controls engineer or integrator to integrate their system. My group would work on the packaging layouts, equipment selection and sequence of operations. Months later, a separate controls engineer would then be tasked with writing the code that would make the system function. The controls resources would then be pulled in multiple directions by the plant for operational requirements and didn’t have time to work with the packaging engineer to understand the design.

Plan Your Teams Deliberately

In my experience, the solution to better collaboration is simple: engineer your teams to work together, just like you do your equipment. The best way to do this is to kick off the project as one team. Make sure the controls experts are in the room with the overall design team. Make sure the packaging engineers explain the unit operations and the desired system features to the controls team, as well as to the client’s operations teams. Give the controls group the opportunity to add input from the beginning, helping steer the project in the right direction early.

Use a Design-Charrette Approach

In the architectural world, these combined team meetings are called “design charrettes.” Charrettes deliver the value of multiple top engineers and programmers brainstorming together. They offer a way to gather hundreds of years of experience (or more!) into a single room with the sole purpose of adding value to our client’s project. By contrast, when teams operate independently, the most experience a client gets directed at their project at any given time is that of any single person.

One- to two-hour charrette-style discussions are the best way to push a project from acceptable to amazing. We work together at a white board, sketch out concepts and align how the system is meant to work – productively and in real-time. For example: the controls engineers might comment that they can control a difficult task with a simple electrical/controls system; they may tell us they cannot control what the packaging engineers believed was possible with the controls. Together, the team members refine the system toward a highly efficient and cost-effective solution. Each team learns what the other disciplines need, and they figure out how to deliver it. They combine their experience and efforts to design a better system. This starts the project off right: all team members are aligned and focused on delivering the value and an exceptional, functioning system to the client.

Treat Collaboration Like a Deliverable

When you put your next project team together, gather these critical groups, and have collaborative design charrettes and real conversations. Make sure you have a communications plan in place to generate constant checks and balances among the key contributors throughout the design, so they are ready to start up the system when it is time to get moving. I believe this is easiest if your design firm has all disciplines in-house. This allows them to work together regularly and allows you to reap the same collaborative benefits of a one-time design charrette throughout the entire lifespan of the project.

If you can’t use an integrated team, make the time to hold well-planned design charrettes and regular multidiscipline project coordination meetings. Make sure your team members come together with enough planning and coordination to allow them to be successful.

If you follow these recommendations, your startups will be better, faster, cheaper, and maintain vertical flight.

John Gunst PhotoAbout the Author:

John has spent his career working in the manufacturing industry for processes of all types. While his expertise extends from plant operations to engineering and integration, he has more than 25 years’ experience specializing in packaging lines. Over the course of his career, John has had the opportunity to be closely involved in dozens of production line designs and has developed numerous tools for improving engineering processes. Contact John for more information.