Losing the skills of experienced, trained engineers has always challenged OEMs. The situation has been complicated in recent times by the many manufacturers across a multitude of industries faced with a growing number of tenured employees moving into retirement.
It’s made even more challenging because teams across those various industries are increasingly being tasked with balancing these expertise losses with shorter timeframes for projects and tighter resources.
Manufacturers are charged with reducing product spending while maintaining and growing market share: But they must do so without sacrificing quality.
Without trained engineers, overengineering is a potential problem, which means higher cost of design and the resulting drop in sales. At the same time, underengineering and purchase of lower-priced, lower-quality parts is also a potential problem that can raise the cost of maintenance and repair down the road, eventually serving as an even greater cost drain.
Still, there are practical ways to address the loss of long-term, hands-on engineering expertise. Here are some tips:
Online or app-based configuration and selection tools: Tools found online and through applications can provide easy access to must-have information for new engineers. For example, configurators are an easy way to access in-depth product information. They can narrow down and help in selecting the best specifications for a specific product.
Calculation tools are another valuable resource, particularly when sizing specific components. Engineers can fill in knowledge gaps by using tools that easily drag-and-drop into place edits of a product’s specifications or they can design circuits such as pneumatic circuits. In fact, the best of these tools are quite simple, often requiring little engineering experience to use.
Another excellent resource is online cross-referencing tools. These are valuable because they allow less-experienced team members to find the right replacement parts for legacy equipment for which they have no experience.
Online resource materials: Online configuration and selection tools aren’t the only web-based resources engineers can use to boost their knowledge base. Many suppliers and outsourcing partners offer resources that can help a team stay up to date on solutions, technologies and trends. Some include:
- White papers or e-books on topics such as deep-dive expertise and insights
- Frequently Asked Question pages that cover helpful answers to common engineering questions
- Case studies that show real-world examples of problem-solving
- Top tip articles like this one that have specific targeted information
Training: Training is the ideal solution when events are occurring slowly enough to adapt. For example, companies can begin to train students through internships or provide training to new engineers as soon as they’re hired. In-house, hands-on workshops are an ideal way to give less-experienced engineers the time and space to learn the skills and expertise they’ll need in the field. On-demand training tools are also a good way to connect newer team members with the learning they need to ramp up their skills.
The most effective training is a blended approach: before face-to-face training, engineers can take online courses or live virtual courses that encourage an initial transfer of information and create a benchmark for engineers that prepares them for instructor-led courses.
Outsource to a partner vendor: Whether a project requires a singular solution such as a single cabinet or a broader-based solution for an entire greenfield site, there are many levels at which an outsourcing partner can provide value in filling the engineering knowledge gap. A company that already has deep levels of expertise and a track record of success on complex projects can design for a specific application more effectively than an engineer just starting his or her career. Plus, a partnership can allow in-house engineers to provide more value by focusing their time on the areas in which they already have expertise.
A qualified outsourced partner can also help in-house engineers make sense of the influx of data that comes with smart technology. By working with a company able to help the team understand data and how to leverage it into insight, companies can benefit from higher quality and more cost efficiency.
When choosing a full partner, seek an established company with products, services and expertise for the specific industry and application. A company with thorough industry expertise already in place will understand critical factors such as the application and compliance requirements, operating environment and required operational life, the electrical and mechanical characteristics and more.
In addition to the savings that comes from tapping experienced engineering experience, a vendor partner also can help with anticipating costs beyond components and labor, which are often overlooked on complex systems. The partnership can save overall costs by consolidating purchases, shipments and invoices.
Some companies choose to subcontract only a portion of the project, which can still reduce costs incurred by less-experienced engineers. Predesigned and preassembled components can help decrease spending on subassemblies and components that would otherwise stretch an in-house team beyond their comfort zone. Relying on predesign or preassembly cuts the time and cost of a new engineer spending many hours researching the best match for a specific requirement.
Application support teams: Whether it’s the Industrial Internet of Things, functional safety issues or proportional technology, the learning curve for technologies that are new to an engineer can add time and money to any project. Hiring an application support team provides the advantage of trained engineers ready to get started on solving complex challenges. Their support will allow in-house engineers to learn while eliminating common pitfalls before they turn into challenges that increase costs and extend timelines.
Choosing an outside application support team requires looking at the strengths and weaknesses of the internal team. For example, does the internal team and the application require a support partner that could provide a complete engineering solution for all or just some of the design? Another consideration is whether a partner might be required to make physical visits to provide hands-on support and problem-solving or whether they might just use conference calls or virtual communication channels to connect with the more-experienced engineers of the external partner.
WHICH IS BEST?
Ultimately, the right solution—or combination of solutions—will depend on numerous factors, from the rate at which the internal team is losing tenured engineers to the scope and timeline of upcoming projects. Another consideration is what capabilities the company already has. For instance, those without the resources to develop or provide training for new engineers might choose a completely outsourced solution that offers a faster return on investment. Overall, understanding the capabilities and specific needs of the company can aid in making the choice that fits best with the internal team’s engineers, application and bottom line.