The Intern Diaries — Part I

Christopher Metzger is a Mechanical Engineering student at the University of Notre Dame interning with Glassboard

When I think of product development, a Silicon Valley startup developing a great new high-tech product comes to mind. The truth is that it is much more varied than that. Product development occurs in both large and small companies and industries having different development times, costs and complexity. A large company like Ford may have multiple design teams and spend billions on a coordinated roll-out of a new car, with specialized groups for product design and mass production. In a smaller company with limited resources, the design team and production team may be the same group, or at least have overlapping members.

Prior to coming and working at Glassboard this summer, I had a superficial level understanding of what a product development firm such as Glassboard did, how they went about it, and who they worked with. I suspected they would be tasked with developing small parts for a larger system, and if they did whole project design, it would be on a very small scale. I came in expecting that the design would be heavily focused on quick iterations where a prototype was more of a rough proof-of-concept than an actual product. I also expected that there were different levels of involvement from the client, depending on their technical expertise and desire to be involved in the details.

Start prototyping with the end in mind

In reality, at the design firm level of development, prototyping has a huge influence on the end product. While I expected the process to be more focused on the design of the component, the desire for shorter design timelines and reduced iterations force the design firm to implement production features in the first prototypes. There is less of a prototype/production delineation and more of an ongoing transformation along the way. Products are refined by iterating and learning from well thought out prototypes and keeping production in mind.

Visual representations of physical products are a great tool for communicating product intent early on in a project. This is a smart storage locker designed solely by the author

Have a process, but be flexible

I learned that the product development process is much more complex than I first realized. For one thing, the development process is very malleable. I thought that the process would be fairly standard with minor tweaks based on clients and budget. However, I noticed in practice it is centered around the specific client, and needs to be constrained and adjusted to fit the needs of both the client and the product. This means that timelines, budgets, design decisions, and production plans need to be open and flexible to change.

The development process and response to changes a large company uses are far different from that of a small company or an entrepreneur. While a large company may have many resources to throw at a development problem, the entrepreneurial small company, by its very nature, will be forced to adjust and find an efficient solution. The development process cannot be too rigid to not be able to adjust to new important information. Product needs can change at the flip of a switch, and both the design team and the client need to be ready to respond.

Products are built with other products

Another aspect that surprised me was how new products are developed and built from other products. I imagined that new product development would start with a clean sheet, but I quickly learned that this is not always an effective means of design. It is significantly easier to adapt your design around existing sub-components and develop your product with their integration in mind. This not only increases robustness (using pre-tested parts) but also lowers cost significantly (leveraging volume). A significant part of my time has been spent sourcing and testing compatibility of inexpensive, off-the-shelf items for integration into a much larger project.

Communication is key

This concept of integration extends to the workplace as well. Group collaboration between the different engineering groups and project management is critical. Communication is the key that binds a project together. It can be difficult when mechanical, electrical and software components of the project have different goals and work scope. A good project manager can see the overall product goal and communicate from a common ground to assess tradeoffs and mitigate concerns from all sides. By doing this the project can be more robust and efficient and not just the conglomeration of multiple different parts of a project that may not meld together perfectly.

I got to see a team that works together effectively and how this leads to an efficient use of time and creates an effective final product. Communicating detailed product interfaces through integrated programs such as Solidworks and Autodesk Inventor can make or break a project. I saw this first hand while working with my fellow intern on a multiprogramming board and enclosure. He focused on the PCB board design and I built a snap fit box with the integrated board in a CAD drawing. Without this integration, the project would have been significantly harder. Being able to quickly transfer and share this information digital format is key to creating a successful project.

Using digital tools such as Altium and Solidworks allowed the author to integrate and collaborate with other team members on projects

I came in not knowing essentially anything about the production side of product development. My largest learnings were about sourcing materials at higher volumes and coordinating the flow of parts which takes a lot of work and can be very complicated. Finding the right components and the right assembly facilities, all with the right timelines is essential. Having a plan and the end goal in mind at the beginning of the project helps immensely.

My experience with product development at Glassboard has been enriching, fascinating, and fun. I got exposure to all aspects of a products development cycle, something unique to a small product development team atmosphere. Starting with just an idea and making it a reality can be daunting, but can also be an interesting and fun process. Everyone can contribute in design and building at this level, even interns. This is one of the benefits of this scale of engineering. The mechanical, electrical and software engineers can talk with each other and interface their designs more seamlessly, working with clients to create a better product. It is an extremely collaborative and rewarding environment, and one that allows for the best product to come out at the end.

Christopher Metzger is a Mechanical Engineering intern at Glassboard, a hardware focused product development company.