Is there manure in your air mover?

I was talking recently with Tommy Mello from our Consulting Services Group. He often takes on consulting work for existing customers who actually own CFdesign but are understaffed and struggling at the end of a hot project.

The software is meant to be used sporadically. CFdesign is built from the ground up to be a part of your job… not your whole job. Still, like any software, you need to use it with some regularity in order to maintain the chops to pop in for that quick job. Certainly not every day, but I’d say at least once every 2-3 months.

Tommy occasionally asks these over-worked engineers if they had a crack at the simulation themselves first. In many cases, they have not.

I asked why he thought that happened, and he had an interesting insight:

In most cases, it’s not because the engineers are overworked. It’s more a result of the company not actually injecting upfront CAE as a standard part of the development process. This much I’ve always known and preached. But, Tommy had a really important level of detail to add:

“It’s not just that management hasn’t demanded upfront CAE be used after the investment. It’s that no one is ever given the responsibility to produce results with it until the manure hits the air mover. At that point, the engineers are using the upfront CAE tool for design verification rather than design direction. They are attempting to get a single perfect answer from a single simulation based on a full-blown manufacturing-ready model. They are trying to paint a masterpiece in 5 minutes with very little art experience or training.”

After a single experience like that, the engineer quickly starts to think of the tool as complicated and requiring specialization. In fact, the problem they are trying to solve with the tool is complicated and requires specialization to get a perfect answer on the first try.

The most successful engineers sit down and sketch up the main idea as simply as possible and run “back of the envelope” style simulations to compare apples-to-apples trend effects. They do that fast, sometimes banging out solutions for 5-10 design iterations in a day. And, they do it at the beginning of the project.

Most managers are also over-worked and over-stressed. They aren’t thinking about potential problems in the future at the beginning of a project. So, since there is no squeaky wheel, they don’t demand this kind of upfront simulation. Often, they don’t even think about it. They don’t remember their upfront CAE tool until a performance failure near the end of the project. Then, suddenly they remember the tool and ask that it be used to avert disaster.

What comes next is a brutal cycle. The engineers struggle with the software because they are trying to run before ever walking. The idea of “reactive” use gets re-emphasized. If the users are unsuccessful, they tend to blame the tool. That negativity pushes them away from wanting to use it and build their skills in the future. Finally, no one uses the tool unless there is a raging fire to put out. And, even then, they don’t have much confidence in this extinguisher.

After the fire is out and they are off to the next project, that bad taste remains. The engineers are even less likely to crack the software for some simple, pro-active simulations that could prevent another raging fire near the end of this project. And their managers feel about the same way. The cycle continues.

It takes a very ballsy manager to stop this bleeding. You’ve got to make pro-active, simple, upfront simulation a deliverable at the beginning of every project. It’s probably not necessary to the success of every single project… but if your goal is to create an upfront simulation core competence in your team, you need to make it a priority every time.

Photo by: ToastyKen