The impacts of early-stage design

May 26, 2017


The impacts of early-stage design

Early-stage design decisions have big impacts, especially those that involve layout, material choice, make-or-buy, initial subsystems definition, and...

Early-stage design decisions have big impacts, especially those that involve layout, material choice, make-or-buy, initial subsystems definition, and production methods. These choices form the framework for the rest of the project, and so have a direct impact on costs, successes, and potential problems. Software tools that support better early stage design decisions offer big ROI potential.

Big-ticket items can have huge impact, such as new automobile models, aircraft, ships, and petro-chemical plants. These projects have, for decades, had specific phases for early-stage design work with names like preliminary design, concept development, front-end engineering, and initial design. And generally, the teams involved have specialized software to help guide choice of the key parameters.

Away from big-ticket projects, software to guide early-stage design has been less visible. Many teams use detail design tools, plus spreadsheets. Component and material suppliers often invest to get involved at this stage; if they can get their products selected at the early design stage, they’ll almost certainly achieve better margins than will be needed to win a sales battle later. So these companies find ways to make it easy for engineers to select their products early in the project.

[Figure 1 | From concept to volume manufacture.]

Now, growth of systems engineering and new simulation and analysis capabilities are driving more capability into the hands of early stage developers. The broad principle is the same across the spectrum, from high-cost one-offs such as buildings, ships, and process plants, all the way to low-cost, high-volume products such as disposable razors and even toothpicks (wood or plastic? individually wrapped or multipacks? 50 or 60 mm?). Early decisions, viewed in the context of the project, tend to be big decisions. These decisions establish the framework for future work, and are expensive to change. Yet in most cases, a relatively low share of the total project development resource is allocated to making these decisions.

This is why, when viewed from the stratosphere, product development still tends to look like a one-way process, in which multiple design studies are used to guide choices between alternatives, one of which is chosen for development, like in the figure.

It’s not a one-way street

Move in from the stratosphere, and of course the process is far from one-way. Agile methods enable development engineers across the whole lifecycle to try relevant ideas in every sprint. Also, systems engineering is helping multi-technology product development teams divide tasks across mechanical, electrical, fluids, and software. This partitioning enables concurrent work on multiple subsystems.

What’s different about early stage work? There’s uncertainty, and setting up the context and environment needed for the new design can be time consuming and can feel like overhead. The definition available for all the current design ideas is very limited, so it can be difficult to evaluate those ideas. Some ideas may turn out to be requirements, and the early stage designer has to seek out all the implications.


The ability to perform analysis and simulation based on limited inputs used to be confined to big-ticket projects and special cases where someone built a useful spreadsheet. Now, there are tools relevant to every product development team. Some help convert broad brush into more detail. Some enable more evaluation of broad-brush definitions.

Tools, what tools?

There are many types of tools; some apply across a broad range of product types, while some are more industry or technology focused. To give a taste of what’s available, I’ve listed eight tool types with an example of each. These range from engineering calculations to sketch capabilities to topology optimization.

  1. Engineering calculations (PTC Mathcad)
  2. Construction project definition (Autodesk Infraworks 360)
  3. Sketch (Siemens Catchbook)
  4. Materials (Granta MI)
  5. Systems Engineering (Siemens LMS Imagine.Lab Embedded Software Designer)
  6. Systems Configuration (Vention Industrial Design)
  7. Topology Optimization (Dassault Systemes)
  8. Generative Design. (Autodesk)

Is this a trend?

Several trends in the market are converging to help better serve early stage design. It would be hard to say that market demand for early stage design tools was the factor driving these trends, which include:

  • Democratization. Software vendors always seek new users. Early-stage designers include senior people with a range of responsibilities, so they’ll never be full time users of any system. Easy, discoverable, intuitive UIs make tools accessible to these people.
  • New simulation/analysis. The fact that simulation and analysis originally was something that happened downstream has been a barrier. The combination of easier modeling and integrated analysis lets early stage designers run simulations earlier in the project, trying and testing ideas, using agile methods to refine requirements and then try new ideas.
  • Growth of systems engineering. Fifty years ago, SE happened in most aerospace projects, many military projects, and some automotive projects. It developed a reputation for being a documentation heavy, bureaucratic approach. Even 20 years ago, tools were largely requirements management, except in software development, where structured analysis, and modeling was well established, and tools could be linked to code generation and test. Now, systems engineering tools are relevant for multi-technology products across most industries, and can be key to managing complexity.

What’s next?

Strong take up of tools in early stage design will make it hard to recruit design engineers into an environment without these tools. These hard-to-recruit engineers will have become used to projects in which early stage decisions are almost always good decisions. For them, an environment where it’s not unusual to discover big problems late in a project will feel like a backwards career move.

The role of component and material suppliers also looks set to grow. Every potential supplier wants to be present and influence the choices made during early-stage design. Online catalogs and sales configurators were the starting point, but now design tools from suppliers, often low cost or even free, offer much more. Of course, designers have to accept that the best functions only work when applied to the parts of the design based on products from that supplier.

Peter Thorne is the director for research analysis at consulting company Cambashi. He focuses on addressing the business needs of engineering and manufacturing organizations through information and communications technology. Thorne has 30 years of experience, holding development, marketing and management positions for both user and vendor organizations. He has a master’s degree in Natural Sciences and Computer Science from Cambridge University.


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Peter Thorne, Cambashi Ltd.