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Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods
9

Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

(OP)
Hello all,

I’m reaching out to see what others think about the position I am currently in and the back and forth I've experienced in my current position. Background info: I’ve been working as a mechanical design engineer in the turnkey automation manufacturing industry for my whole career at small companies, meaning I’ve become experienced in wearing all hats from quoting, conceptualizing, 3D design, drafting, and managing all steps of projects from initial concept to final installation, from PLC selection to designing all custom tooling that goes into a machine. I recently switched companies and since starting my current role, I’ve found myself running into frequent disagreements with my manager above me, note that the person who hired me is not my manager. I would benefit from getting others’ opinions here on the forums with experience in this area of engineering

The issue mainly lies with the lack of organization & consistency, and my design efforts taking 2x-3x longer than what I’ve been used to my entire career because of disagreements and what seems like indecision from my manager. I am the sole mechanical engineer (everyone else including manager have only been software developers) and was hired to take on projects in the same wheelhouse as what I’m used to (one-off industrial equipment). I’ve become very accustomed to what design processes make sense and save the most time, versus those that don’t. A few examples include how in my experience, I’ve found a design timeline for a custom one-off manufacturing machine should be based on getting the concept phase figured out initially with the customer (~5-10% of job design hours for demonstrating said concept, functions, major component selection), and then after which the design is created and detailed based on that concept with some internal feedback between colleagues along the way (~80% of design hours), after which a final design review is held with the customer and any suggestions or feedback from the customer gets implemented prior to fabrication (remaining ~5-10% of design hours).

However, I’ve found my manager will tend to begin a conversation with me about one or two things that could be changed in the design, after which it turns into a multi-hour conversation of “well maybe this would be better, actually what if we did this, it shouldn’t take you that long to switch out some parts, etc.” where the changes make a significant impact to the design I’ve developed thus far, requiring changing/deleting/overhauling a majority of parts at around the 70-80% point in the design, and even sometimes suggesting these changes after a final design review. These conversations did not bother me early in the design phase as I’m somewhat used to that type of workflow and it seems reasonable. However, a week before what was considered a “final design review” with the customer, it will be a conversation of changing a major function, which I try to describe is something that was agreed upon earlier in the design and is good enough, and how revising a major portion based on a different idea (a lot of times has been just as good, not substantially better or worse) does not outweigh the effort required to revise major areas of the design. This has caused serious delays in project timelines, and most of the suggestions that are being made like gunfire over a 3-4 hour conversation are at least something that, in my past experience of successful projects, would have been cleared up and decided upon in the kickoff meeting (to avoid tacking on many hours of constant iterations later on). There have also been times that my manager changes his mind and chooses to stick with the original idea after all of the hours of conversation. This leaves me with no time to produce quality work as per what I’m used to doing, and what makes me feel satisfied in my career.

When I try to express how making large changes last minute will drastically lengthen the timeline, and not to mention silently experiencing the stress of not being sure if my design choices will ever be good enough for my manager causing self-doubt and mentally rehearsing arguments on the drive home, the response is that is just how the design process is and everyone everywhere needs to be prepared to make large changes to make the final product perfect. Since I don’t have a lot of grey hair, but I do have a significant number of successful completed machine designs under my career belt, it’s making me question my sanity as my manager has many years over me, but from what I can interpret they are years of software development and integration, not having a say over both software and mechanical design. My argument is that this is not parametric product design where the design phase is 8 months and has constant iteration based on focus groups and the like. This is bottom up industrial equipment design, with the mechanical design being created from scratch by a single engineer in a 4-6 week period of time which is an entirely different arena, but the argument is that the difference is negligible and I’m told there is no difference. Am I going nuts for thinking there even is a difference?

Additionally, in past designs I understand how much of a butterfly effect design choices make. This is why I try to get 70-90% of each “area” or subassembly completed before saying that area is pretty much done and shouldn’t be changed unless there is a critical flaw discovered, because of the fact that one thing drives how the next will behave, and so on and so forth. I’ve been told that that needs to wait until detailing is done which to me it is very hard to distinguish between detailing and the entire process as-is because of the fact that, for example, a simple counterbored hole depth could drive a change in a part’s thickness, changing the cost effectiveness of an original idea for a group of parts or the footprint of a subassembly, so on and so forth (I hope I’m getting this point across). This is why I argue that decisions need to be made and stuck with unless there is a critical reason for them to be changed later on, because the entire design is comprised of a fractal of decisions. This is actually the exact mentality that I have learned through my own trial and error, as well as input from the older and wiser engineers and folks in the manufacturing equipment industry. Does anyone have honest input on my situation?

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Prepare a resume. It's the only way out. If possible, find out what happened to your predecessor to see if they had any coping strategy.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

I spent some time working for a CEO (two levels above me) who had some mining engineering degree and no years of experience doing any engineering roles. And yet, he worked in sales/management of various technical companies before coming to us. He was permanently set on the notion that he understood engineering, yet he only knew keywords and every idea he every related was nonsense. He never learned to think and problem-solve like an engineer, but he always thought he did. This rift ultimately sent me out of management among other issues. Anyway your easy options are to leave, or stay and plan to outlast him. Your riskier option (but highest payoff perhaps) is to try and change the dynamic.

Do you have numbers? So when your mgr wants to make a late change for marginal value, can you keep track of the hours required to fully integrate that change? Then take your hourly rate and with a deft touch, mention how much that would cost the company or how far you might get ahead on the next project in your schedule. Even if you aren't judged by hours spent, start collecting that data now. Track all design changes, where they originated, why they were chosen, and how many hours it took. Compare the hours that don't involve your manager's changes against your estimates and make sure that is how your competence is judged. (Hello, annual review)

Or can you get into freezing portions or key elements of the design? In my world, if a customer's seen a portion of an engineered solution, I can't change it without risking some blowback. So while I generally don't disclose too much too early, you have two competing customers here and to manage the internal customer you might tell him the real customer has already agreed to do it 'this way'.

I think part of the issue is software guys come from a world where they regularly scrap and re-write code. Where mechanical engineers might build a prototype and make revisions to it to reach a final design, software coders scrap their prototype and write it again. In the software world, customers accept constant change but in the mechanical world, they do not. In the one-off custom machinery world, change is more risky because we don't get to self-test the outcome as easily as software. Another idea: is there a senior software developer than gets along well with your manager who has ideas on how to get through to him? Can you adopt some sensible dev buzzwords that will convey the reality of things in your mechanical world?

I've also dealt with technical people who are extremely compulsive and basic things like productivity and other peoples comfort will never outweigh their desire to say the things they want to say or say things that make them feel useful or intelligent. The up-side to those people is that their comfort is equally unimportant to them, so there's usually a 'hard stop' you can pull to end the conversation that they will accept. This would be more complex if it's your manager but still something to consider and I'm sure your senior colleagues have some tips if this is the case.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

I've only ever done this with one manager (because it was the only thing short of leaving that would work), but it can - at least initially - be a substantial career risk. If you are the one holding the initial "concept review / proposal" with the end user, have this particular manager sit in on the discussion. Document and detail design considerations that are agreed upon - BY ALL PARTIES. This means that if the manager did not bring it up in the first place, there is no "change" vote later on. In addition (as mentioned by geesaman: regardless whether the manager gets the picture, start collecting data on time/cost to make specific modifications - same as you would for any end user change notice. Then, when a late change is introduced you're armed with the hard data on how that (negatively) impacts the timeline and - perhaps more important to the manager - the BOTTOM line. Also track whether the "late change" adversely impacts safety or reliability, if you possibly can. Warranties and lawsuits are anathema to management, I believe.

Maybe next time there is a decision to make sweeping changes to the coding on a project, have the coders tell management that it means a whole new set of chips, memory, and mechanical design of the "container" - as well as reprogramming - because everything was specified by the user to be firmware (instead of software).

Converting energy to motion for more than half a century

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

This statement is just stupid: everyone everywhere needs to be prepared to make large changes to make the final product perfect. As a wise mgr told us years ago "Perfect / Better is the enemy of Good Enough"; he also said "At some point its time to shoot the engineers and just build the airplane". Try what Gr8blu suggested, but in parallel update your resume and start looking for other jobs. Or just tell your mgr, "NO. Its too late in the program to be making this type of changes".

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Ooh, I missed that the first time around "that is just how the design process is and everyone everywhere needs to be prepared to make large changes to make the final product perfect" are the words of someone who is incompetent to lead in a business providing customized equipment.

'Perfect' is to be judged by the customer and includes not just the product itself, but the cost, lead time, and quality. Perfect from the sole perspective of design is highly imperfect to customers and owners. Anyone who thinks customers give you money based on the perfection of the final product itself, is fully wrong.

There are a few places where 'perfect' is a reasonable goal, such as safety aspects, but they are quite narrow.

Yeah I'd lean hard on resume preparation. If the organization doesn't understand your manager's bizarre lack of engineering common sense, and the cost accounting practices won't make the real cost of your manager's sloppy perfectionism clear, it's a sign that the company culture is devoid of business sense and customer focus. Company culture doesn't change, and so I would leave.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

"He was permanently set on the notion that he understood engineering, yet he only knew keywords and every idea he every related was nonsense." a sad but oft repeated state of affairs ...

"Hoffen wir mal, dass alles gut geht !"
General Paulus, Nov 1942, outside Stalingrad after the launch of Operation Uranus.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

the other management cliché is "don't let perfect be the enemy of good enough". That's why we have performance specs ... if it meets the spec it's good enough. If the customer wants more then change the spec. If it's about costs, sure there's often some way to do anything cheaper ... what's the cost to change ?

"Hoffen wir mal, dass alles gut geht !"
General Paulus, Nov 1942, outside Stalingrad after the launch of Operation Uranus.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

rb, speaking of sad state of affairs, you will like this: certification was something he was unaware of when he launched the startup in 2017. “When we started Vertical Aerospace, we didn’t know about certification, we thought we will be flying in a few years,”

https://www.aerotime.aero/articles/we-thought-wed-...

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

again a sad and oft repeated opinion. see also the thread about certifying electric power systems for planes. Then think about the issues of H2 power (nothing will happen this decade). but let's not hijack this thread. I think the first reply was about right !

"Hoffen wir mal, dass alles gut geht !"
General Paulus, Nov 1942, outside Stalingrad after the launch of Operation Uranus.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

back to the OP, corralling mgmt is a difficult exercise (almost as difficult as designing something is in the first place !).

It is an unfortunate fact of life (well, my life experience in any case) that every time someone new walks into the room, they ask a new question and 1/2 the time your response is a head slap.

There are always design (and manufacturing) options and changes are usually not trivial. So if he directs a bunch of changes and says "that won't take long" come back with "no, I think it'll take a lot of time to do these changes ... but these ones are straight forward". And when he comes back with "well, in my day these were easy" you may reply "yes, then we were drawing things, but today we're in a model based design (because it decreases costs downstream) and changing models is more difficult."

GL, see the first reply.

there is a whole lot going on here. what's your design experience ? how does your boss respect your experience/abilities ? Is he trying (failing) to be a mentor ?
does he have a tonne of experience ? are his charges (as irksome as they may be) good ones ? is he saying "the spec doesn't understand the real world as I know it to be, and if you blindly follow it the result won't work because they haven't accounted for this factor." ? is he just a PITA ? are you "dagwood" to his "dithers" ?

"Hoffen wir mal, dass alles gut geht !"
General Paulus, Nov 1942, outside Stalingrad after the launch of Operation Uranus.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

A couple anecdotes come to mind:
1. Some companies are simply horribly managed, nobody cares from the top-down bc they generate profit and improvement would require both effort and accountability. If this is the case then I would recommend either accepting the lack of professionalism or applying elsewhere.
2. Much as I hate to say it, some managers simply play control games. If the company is well-managed and process-oriented otherwise then I would be suspicious of the indecisive manager's motivations. I had one that constantly played every game imaginable and when staff eventually called him out he'd play no-win games until they quit or were fired. The final game with me was reminiscent of the OP, he kept delaying approval of insignificant design elements then blaming me for a critical solo project being behind schedule - I'd have to show him a dozen possibilities in CAD for every hose routing, bolt pattern, and other piddly garbage before he'd bless my work for release. If you suspect games are being played then I would recommend resigning asap as I did bc when you're fired management controls the narrative.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Chiming in to say my experience has resulted in the same.

Many people think they know better than the designer, and it takes a bunch of time to properly explain why you made certain design choices. When the other person fails to fully grasp and appreciate all the constraints that resulted in the concept, they tend to start spitballing. Many non-designers struggle with the ego aspect of this equation. They simply cannot or will not accept that you have done a good job balancing all the inputs and the design is good enough.

I've found the only solution is to document. Get them to acknowledge the time it takes for you to deal with the suggestion, either to prove why it's not better or to implement it. Count those hours and show the bill. Do the math, and show why your way was better or at least good enough. If the project is supposed to take 6 weeks, and you wasted a week on trying to see if the manager's idea might improve system efficiency 2%... is that worth it? Probably not, if the customer already said they were okay with the original calculated efficiency.

I've found responding to these ideas with a blunt estimate of required time to investigate the feasibility and impact of the proposed change tends to encourage back tracking. It's a lot harder to justify random design exercises when there's a price tag dangling off it explicitly.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Personally into brevity. Could not really read the entire initial post, which seems to indicate (to me) that the OP might have a communication style that leads to lengthy discussions. Boss man might not be wrong all the time, either. Compromise and intermediate-stage reviews might be beneficial.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Any successful custom design firm will not accept a project without a "design freeze" date. They inform their customers AND THEIR OWN UPPER MANAGEMENT that design changes after that date are simply not accepted without an accompanying change in completion schedule and/or budget. This agreement is clearly explained at the beginning of project talks. Establishment of the design freeze date is a primary goal of the project planning process. That planning process is not considered to be complete without an establishment of that date and a confirmed understanding of its meaning by all parties involved.

The young man I sat beside on a plane yesterday is an executive with an advertising agency. He knew nothing about engineering, but when he mentioned the concept of "scope creep" I knew EXACTLY what he was talking about!

Understand it and succeed, or ignore it and die. As simple as that.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

(OP)
Thank you all for the insight as I must say I am surprised to hear the majority of perspectives agreeing with my own.

I will include that what is quite ironic, is that the coworker in question is very aware of scope creep and how it can affect things. So I wonder what it is that makes every little element in a design worth changing to said person. I am still trying to understand their point of view, but as some on here have said, it could just be mind games or rather them not wanting to "lose control" so to speak. Being in this position has physically and mentally worn me down greatly. It may just be worth having to move on and start applying elsewhere, which is unfortunate as the benefits are unmatched in this position.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

2
Sounds like your manager is just BAD as a manager, and possibly GREAT as a design engineer; what's missing in the equation is a STRONG program manager who can say, "Pencils down" and "Perfect is the enemy of GOOD ENOUGH."

Design creep is something I often equate to the "Costco Effect;" every little design change costs little on their own, but like going into Costco and walking out with a $400 charge, going "Huh, wot happened?" forty items at roughly $10/ea is $400, and 40 tiny design changes roll up into a big bill at the end.

TTFN (ta ta for now)
I can do absolutely anything. I'm an expert! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKorP55Aqvg
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RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

What makes it worthwhile is they don't have to expend any effort in working through their suggestions and they don't see that your effort has any cost to them.

Look at what happens to most people with unlimited influence and subject to zero consequences. Even if they have a bad idea, you are on the hook and will be blamed for not meeting their expectations. You may have managed so far, but there is a bus with your name on it and you will be under it if anything ever goes poorly.

The reason for my earlier advice is that your manager's boss is happy with this situation. If they had even a shred of concern for how their part of the company was functioning they would have stopped by to ask you how things were going.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

(OP)
To reply to @3DDave's response (unsure how to reply directly on here), the boss does in fact have concern for the company's functioning and well being. Unfortunately, when I had brought this up previously, either I understated the importance of the issue or the boss trusts the manager over me as it felt like the takeaway was that they want to make sure the customer is happy in the end. Keep in mind this company is undergoing what appears to be growing pains, so it is hard to tell if this could be temporary or not.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Sigh, well in my experience, software people are very bad at project management.

So, what happens re schedule when the boss changes everything at the last minute? Are you expected to work massive overtime to meet original schedule? Or do they tell the customer it will be delivered late?

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

I didn't say the top boss was unconcerned about the company. He is unconcerned about you. As long as you deliver he will remain unconcerned about you. If your manager destroys you, he and the top boss will blame you for failing in their explanations to customers about why you are no longer there.

But maybe you did understate it. Go tell the top boss your manager is killing you and the product isn't better, cheaper, sooner, for it. See what happens.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

oh dear, 3DDave has been around for a while ! and gained a lot of depressing experience. sigh

"Hoffen wir mal, dass alles gut geht !"
General Paulus, Nov 1942, outside Stalingrad after the launch of Operation Uranus.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Going over your bosses head to your bosses boss is a losing proposition. Move on, or act interested in their BS - brainwash yourself for fun and profit!

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

It's just a litmus test of upper management. If the only thing management cares about is reporting structure, then they certainly don't trust or care about the employees. That's why I mentioned that the top boss hadn't bothered to have a skip level talk to ensure that what the intermediate manager was saying was true or complete, particularly as the manager in question isn't even in the same technical field, so it's not as if some newbie is unhappy with a more experienced manager - it's the reverse and clear the manager already distrusts his employee.

One thing that did come to mind is that this manager possibly has a very good friend he wanted to be hired for the job and the OP was hired instead by someone else. So the manager is getting tips from that good friend to torpedo the OP. I've seen this and it is similarly corrosive.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

I've also seen cases where management doesn't think an employee is good for a particular role, but for whatever reason (usually risk of a protected class lawsuit) they are afraid to straight up fire them. So they have the manager purposely drive the employee crazy / make the employee look to be a poor performer. Best case for them, the employee up and leaves. Worst case, they have built a "case" that the employee has not been "meeting expectations".

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

(OP)
I could see how it could be assumed as constructive dismissal though I do truly believe the owner's intents are genuine, as it seems he does not have much experience in the industry but has been very generous with all accommodations and salary negotiation considering the small size of the company. He had initially expressed his trust that I would bring great value having singled me out for the position. Now I wonder how to professionally explain this situation to the boss in the case of resigning without burning a bridge by singling anyone out (namely the manager).

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

I generally start difficult discussions by stating the potential problem that I see and asking if others agree that its legitimately a problem. In some instances I've been surprised to learn that my "problem" was really just a bad assumption, miscommunication, etc, and that there was no problem to solve. Ultimately tho, if your company/dept/team can't agree that a specific problem exists then they'll never agree on a solution. If they do agree that the problem exists, then you can focus on facts to develop a solution.

Apologies if I missed it but what is the actual problem? Are you personally being reprimanded for missing deadlines, or are you simply assuming that the boss will? Or is the issue that you're working significant overtime due to last minute changes? Or....? Each of these has a different set of possible solutions.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

DDG - I (we) don’t fully understand the issue. Your general frustration at late changes is understandable. But what is the resulting effect? Do you have to work massive OT? Do schedules slide? (and if so, who explains the revised schedule to the customer?)

What would happen if you just told your manager “no, its too late to make those type of changes, and besides there is no benefit to the customer?” and just carry on with finishing the design and conducting the final design review?

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

Well, we all hear the story from you, so we're biased by your opinion and your explanation. But you say this position has physically and mentally worn you down so at the very minimum it's time to have a talk about this with your boss or manager and explain your viewpoint. That's the minimum, other option is to start looking for another job. In my country another option would be to have your GP write you sick leave and use the time too look for another job, but I'm not from the US so I don't know if that's an option.

RE: Mechanical Design of industrial equipment - disagreements on design timelines and methods

I am with SWC here. It's time to learn the art of saying NO.

NO, I am not doing this redesign unless you (manager) can prove to me why it is absolutely essential. (Parts won't fit together, there is a documented failure to meet documented design requirements, etc.)

NO, I am not working unpaid overtime.

NO, this is not going to meet the original schedule. Or budget.

NO, this other project that is waiting in the wings is not starting until this one is done. One or the other but not both. You pick. (And get this in writing.) Now do you really insist on this redesign?

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