Engineers are accustomed to collaborating with multidisciplinary teams while working with physical prototypes. In the age of COVID-19, that is often impossible. This article delves into how some engineers have learned to work together virtually—while developing new skills that will help them when they return to their labs.
At the start of2020—a period he now refers to as “a lifetime ago”—University of Wisconsin’s Peter Adamczyk was excited by the progress he and his students were making on new projects. Project teams at his biomechatronics lab were close to building prototypes of an advanced prosthetic foot and a robot that “walked” on thick spokes radiating from a hub.
“These different design teams were at the point where I was about to say, ‘Good job. Go build it,’” Adamczyk said. “Normally, that means sending them to the building next door to create a prototype.”
Then the SARS-COV-2 virus started to spread.
The university closed its doors in March. Laboratories and buildings on campus were locked and students were sent home. Work ground to a halt.
“It’s a challenge to produce anything—or test what a prototype can do—without access to the lab,” Adamczyk said.
Around the same time, 1,000 miles south of Madison, engineers at Texas Medical Center’s world-renowned Center for Design Innovation (CDI) in Houston, also found themselves subject to a citywide stay-at-home order.
The lockdown posed a huge challenge for the team, since the organization’s physical workspace—a 25,000-square-foot maker space packed with equipment—was designed for the kind in-person collaboration and quick builds that foster the organization’s tried-and-true “fail fast” innovation techniques, said Matt Kuhn, a project leader with the lab.
“I work with an incredible team of engineers. We are always bouncing ideas off one another. Having the ability to do that, as well as to just hop into the lab to build and test out a new concept, means the speed at which we can ideate and test new ideas is incredible,” Kuhn said. “When all this happened, we weren’t sure how that would translate to working from home.”
In the age of COVID-19, mechanical and other engineers who were accustomed to collaborating in multidisciplinary teams while working with physical prototypes now find themselves working remotely, often with nothing more than a curious mind and a laptop computer.
But they are discovering creative new ways to continue working on new designs and products while they shelter in place—and developing skills that may help them to better foster innovation once they return to their workplaces when this crisis ends.
ADAPTATION AND INNOVATION
At first, Jonah Myerberg, chief technology officer of Desktop Metal, a Burlington, Mass.-based company that designs 3D metal printers, thought that not being able to work with his team was a great concern.
“We spent so much time in the lab working together, running experiments, testing ideas, and brainstorming how to improve designs,” he said. “At the beginning, I just couldn’t see being able to do a lot of that kind of work while quarantined. But there are a lot of tools out there that can help you find ways to collaborate and even build things. You just have to be open to trying them.”
Certainly, mechanical engineers across the globe are now being asked to ramp up on a variety of different online collaboration and video conferencing platforms as they work from home. Adamczyk said that he and his students are not only doing a lot of CAD work from afar, but are also relying on a variety of different online tools to continue design collaborations. As they started working this way, he found it has changed where his engineers focus their efforts.
“One of the biggest challenges is trying to figure out ways to give appropriate feedback on a design,” he said. “A lot of my students took home some kind of prototype and are working on it at home. They try to convey its performance to me by video or performance recordings. We are essentially trying to find a substitute for physical objects that we can convey in cyberspace.”
That’s not easy, Adamczyk said, but there is an upside. “It has given us an opportunity to refocus on different aspects of design, like refactoring the control program or adding some new functions. These are things we probably wouldn’t have gotten to if we were racing ahead on the physical design.”
CDI’s Kuhn agreed, and said his team has taken a step back and taken time to “nurture” things that may have fallen by the wayside in their rush to prototype.
“Maybe it’s cleaning up CAD models or refining those little things we didn’t think we had time for before,” he said. “Maybe it’s time to look at documentation. Maybe it’s checking in with other engineers about how they solved a certain problem. Having this time at home has shifted my approach to innovation. Instead of rushing to create a prototype, I’m now spending more time taking a research perspective, and looking at different ways we might approach a particular design.”
Other engineers, like Kuhn’s colleague, Megan Greenwood, a senior research and design engineer at CDI, are looking for ways to build physical prototypes outside the lab. She had been working on new technologies to reduce the complications that sometimes come with a cardiac procedure called catheter ablation, used by surgeons to destroy faulty electrical pathways that cause fast or irregular heartbeats.
The complexity of the problem and the lack of CDI’s many development capabilities made working at home a challenge. To continue her work, Greenwood created a makeshift garage prototyping lab, complete with a workbench made of medium-density fiberboard on top of an ironing board, along with power drills and “just about every hand tool you can imagine,” she said.
“I can’t machine a part on a CNC mill or cut something on the laser cutter,” she said. “But there’s still a lot of value in making something tangible, so you can put your hands on it and think through the design that way. Even a really basic prototype made up of household items is better than nothing.”
This is also a great time to outsource prototypes, Desktop Metal’s Myerberg added. There are plenty of outfits that can build something from a CAD design and ship it to the customer directly. His team at Desktop Metal, for example, recently launched a website that prints 3D metal components for mission-critical COVID-19 applications. The parts are free, as long as the application passes a careful vetting process.
“There are some highly integrated design teams out there who are meeting on Zoom or Slack every day, organizing different pieces of the puzzle, and then need to figure out how to get those pieces together into a build,” he said. “We opened up our doors, saying we will print things for companies who are working on ventilators or other projects that are essential to the medical needs of the pandemic. We want to help people create solutions that will really make a difference.”
BUILDING A BUSINESS
The next question, however, is how to launch solutions that have been created. As COVID-19 started to spread, many engineers were in the process of trying to spin completed designs into a viable business model, a complex process that also requires innovation and creativity. Device testing, as well as transfer of engineered systems from design to manufacture and assembly workflows, also require the kind of time and resources that have been limited by the spread of the virus.
Sinead Miller, CEO and co-founder of PATH EX, a startup currently developing an extracorporeal blood cleansing device that can selectively remove pathogens from circulating blood, said she and her colleagues have been significantly impacted by the pandemic.
As a resident of J Labs, a biomedical device incubator located next door to CDI in Houston, she relies on the center’s expansive maker space as well as the facility’s labs to do the kind of prototyping and testing required to refine their product.
“We had a pretty big study going on to test our therapeutic device and that has been put on hold,” she said. “We’re taking this time to submit grants for more funding, prepare our regulatory packages, and do other things that might have been on the back burner. We are trying to really take advantage of having this time to think about the bigger picture—and work on the business side of things. Too often, it’s hard to keep that part of things moving as fast as the technology development.”
As someone who recently got his own company off the ground, Myerberg imagines the pandemic will also change the way new engineering businesses will be stood up in the future. He recounted how much time, after finishing design and development, he and his colleagues spent talking to potential investors to get to where they are now.
“Most deals happen in person,” he said. “Even with web presentations and telephone calls, we had investors who bought in and were willing to give us money but still wanted us to fly across the country for an hour-long meeting to shake their hand and seal the deal. There’s something about that face time that helps you know who your partners are— and helps those partners get to know you, too.”
He said that’s one thing that will likely change in the face of the virus—and engineers who are looking to move out of the lab and into the C-suite will have to find creative new ways to make their startup pitches.
“This is an opportunity to get away from ‘the way things have always been done’ and come up with something better,” he said. “Engineers will need to solve their own problems, innovate in their own way, and, in doing so, get the power and funding they need to get their designs to a place where they can actually be manufactured and put into use.”
TIPS FROM THE TRENCHES
Are there lessons from the lockdown that may help continue foster innovation once stay-at-home restrictions are lifted and engineers can return to the lab? Kuhn said he has appreciated the ability to communicate with engineers outside CDI. “It has facilitated a lot of great conversations that have helped how I’m thinking about design,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have done that kind of branching out and networking without this.”
Adamczyk said he did not fully appreciate the value of online collaboration tools before the pandemic—and said he believes their use will not only make collaborative projects easier across the lab but also across institutions.
“If you use an online whiteboard or note-taking platform while you are discussing something with your team remotely, those thoughts don’t disappear into someone’s notebook. There’s a record you can go back to in the future,” he said. “Also, now that everyone is using these tools, you can really look outside your lab for expertise to find the right person for the right job as you are working on projects. I think it will help to facilitate cross-country and international projects.”
Still, Adamczyk has learned that where this is a will, there is a way. He is working with other engineers at the University of Wisconsin on replacement filters for air purifying respirators, a type of personal protective equipment desperately needed by healthcare personnel. He and his colleagues have found ways to work on these projects despite the current social distancing rules and building closures at the university.
“As we adapt filters from other uses for this technology, we need to work in some of the physical facilities,” he said. “We’ve developed a very interesting workflow where someone in one office prints out the part, then drops it in another office where someone will later come and scan it, so people who may be working from home can then work on designing a different part. The person who puts it all together will receive all of these pieces at a different facility to assemble and test it. It’s strange and a bit convoluted. But we’ve managed to come up with a process that allows us to do this work with none of us being in the same place.”
Myerberg said he is confident that the pandemic and the demands it makes of engineers both personally and professionally will fuel engineering ingenuity in ways we cannot yet imagine. In fact, the old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention,” has never felt more apt.
“You never know where innovation is going to come from—or who it is going to come from,” he said. “But, as engineers, we’re used to working within certain constraints. We always find a way to figure it out. There’s no reason why we can’t figure it out in this situation, too.”